Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Retailers and restaurants get slippery with unagi prices

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

July 22 is doyo no ushi no hi — day of the ox.” It is not a holiday to mark the cultural contributions of bovine, but rather a reminder that there are 18 more days until a seasonal change, during which falls the day of the ox — one of the signs of the Chinese zodiac. Traditionally in Japan people eat grilled eel (unagi), on this day, because it is believed that eel strengthens physical stamina during the hottest days of summer. But this year foodies and purveyors of unagi are faced with a problem, since eel in the wild is becoming increasingly scarce and may soon end up on a list of endangered species. The fisheries agency reports that the amount of eel fry bought by wholesalers in Japan this year has averaged 25 percent less than last year.

Yield to eel: Banners promoting unadon outside Sukiya

Yield to eel: Banners promoting unadon outside Sukiya

So it was definitely surprising when Daiei, one of Japan’s major supermarket chains, announced on July 11 that it would be selling packaged unagi kabayaki (grilled eel) in its stores for 20 percent less than last summer’s price on July 13-15 and July 20-22. According to Asahi Shimbun the price of unagi fry is now as much as 6.5 times what it was in 2009.

In most retail outlets, the price of prepared grilled eel is 26 percent higher than it was last summer. Usually, unagi that goes on sale in July is bought by Daiei in bulk sometime after January of the same year. It is then processed and frozen by a contractor. However, anticipating the rise in prices Daiei bought its unagi last fall and asked its contractor to carry out processing and freezing “when it had the time to do so,” thus saving money. Also, Daiei usually buys unagi for lunch boxes and unagi for packaged sushi separately, but this year they bought unagi for both at the same time in bulk, saving even more money.

But the real reason they can charge less is because they want to. Daiei admits that it will lose money during these two three-day periods by selling unagi kabayaki for 20 percent less. The supermarket is using unagi as a loss leader, a means of getting customers into its stores, where they will buy other things. And it seems to be working. Daiei started accepting pre-orders last month. Another market chain, Seiyu, announced that despite increases in wholesale prices, it will sell domestic unagi kabayaki at the same price as last summer: ¥1,470 for 140 grams. Seiyu expects sales to be 10 percent higher than last year.

Restaurants, on the other hand, seem to have no choice but to raise prices, but the amount of increase depends on the type of eatery. Asahi says that Tokyo ryotei — upscale, reservation-only restaurants — have increased unagi dishes by about ¥400 since last year, and famous restaurants that specialize in unagi have raised prices by as much as ¥1,000 per dish.

However, chain restaurants are trying to keep the increase to a minimum. Many sushi chains that usually charge ¥100 per plate serve unaju (grilled eel over rice) in the summertime, though usually only for takeout. One of these chains, Kura Sushi, is advertising unadon (eel over rice in a bowl) for only ¥598. That’s pretty cheap compared to gyudon (beef bowl) chains, which also do good business with unadon in the summer. Sukiya, the biggest gyudon chain, is selling unadon for ¥780, while Yoshinoya has increased its eel bowl ¥30 since last summer to ¥680. In 2010 it was only ¥500. Both Sukiya and Yoshinoya buy their unagi from China, but insist that they supervise the raising and harvest themselves, without relying on middlemen, to ensure quality.

Summer travel biz shows signs of recovery

Friday, July 12th, 2013

So close, and so far away

So close, and so far away

According to statistics released by Japan Travel Bureau on July 3, overseas travel this summer is projected to be up by 5.8 percent from last year, though continued sour relations with China and South Korea have seen fewer Japanese travelers this year to those two destinations. Another important consideration that doesn’t seem to have had a bad effect is the higher value of the dollar and other currencies against the yen. In terms of numbers, 2.6 million have reservations to travel overseas between July 15 and Aug. 31. The main bright spot is Europe, which will see a 15 percent boost in Japanese visitors as opposed to 2012. Also, Southeast Asia seems to be maintaining its popularity as a vacation spot. The average amount of money being spent per person on foreign travel this summer is ¥243,000, which is ¥11,800 more than was spent in 2012.

In addition, 76.2 million people have domestic travel plans this summer that involve more than one night away from home, which is the highest number since 2000. Even better, the average amount of money spent per person for these trips is ¥35,010, or ¥1,280 more than last summer. Several circumstances are credited with pushing up these numbers: the 30th anniversary of Tokyo Disney Resort; renovations to Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture and Izumo Shrine in Shimane Prefecture; and Mount Fuji’s recent listing as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site and the intense media coverage that preceded it.

Continue reading about the recovery of tourism in Japan →

Japan still paying for war sins through international copyrights

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

A recent feature in the Tokyo Shimbun looked into a conundrum that few people know about. Fifty-two years after his death, Ernest Hemingway remains one of the most popular novelists on the planet. Translated into dozens of languages, his books continue to sell well. Whether those works are now in the public domain depends on each individual country’s copyright laws. In Japan, the copyright for written works is protected for 50 years after an author’s death, but if you look at Hemingway’s individual novels there’s something strange. “The Old Man and the Sea,” which was published in 1952, is now a public domain work in Japan, but “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” published in 1940, is not, and it won’t be until 2022.

Get thee to a library: Cover of Japanese translation of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”

The reason for this discrepancy is a term included in the San Francisco Peace Treaty that officially ended the Pacific War when it was signed in 1951. This term in Japanese is called senji kasan, which in the body of the treaty is explained as a “wartime add-on to the protection period” of a particular work’s copyright. In other words, during the war, Japanese users of copyrighted works from the 15 countries aligned with the Allied cause did not pay fees and royalties to those copyright holders, so the period of that non-payment, from the declaration of war in 1941 to the signing of the San Francisco treaty, was added on to the regular copyright protection period in order to collect fees “retroactively.” Moreover, this add-on period was calculated in days, since each of the fifteen countries concluded the treaty at different times. For instance, Lebanon didn’t sign until Jan. 17, 1954, which means the add-on was 4,413 days.

What’s unique about senji kasan is that it only applies to Japan. The other two Axis powers, Germany and Italy, were not obligated to implement the add-on. Actually, Italy was supposed to have been obligated, albeit for only five years, but the country’s government negotiated with each of the Allied countries and eventually had the protection extension cancelled in 1993 when the European Union was being formed. France also had a similar extension condition domestically, since for much of the war it was occupied by the Nazis, but it expired a long time ago. According to Tokyo Shimbun, copyright experts tend to agree that the SF treaty extension is discriminatory and is merely a lingering remnant of the Allies’ will to punish Japan. But the war ended in 1945. Isn’t it about time the extension was rescinded?

As it turns out, the problem is not really the countries who benefit from this extension. According to one expert interviewed in the article, the problem is that the Japanese government “accepted the extension as punishment, a term of surrender,” and thus feels an obligation to pay, even now. None of the Japanese administrations that have been in power for the past 50 years even bothered to address the issue. It is simply a matter of laziness. If Japan wanted to get rid of the extension it would be relatively easy but time-consuming, since it would entail negotiations with each of the fifteen countries that signed the treaty. Some have said that the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership talks provides a perfect venue for discussing the matter.

Then again, there are some powerful parties in Japan who benefit from the extension, such as the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers, which collects the royalties for foreign copyright holders. (more…)

Cleaning ‘angels’ reinforce positive image of Japanese workers

Friday, January 4th, 2013

Cleaning crew (in pink) waiting with the hordes at Tokyo Station for the train to arrive (photos: Jason Jenkins)

If, like thousands of others, you took the shinkansen (super express) during the recent New Year’s holiday break, when you arrived at a line terminal you likely saw uniformed cleaning crews waiting at attention for the train to stop. They would have bowed as you left the car and then scurried on board to clean it up before the passengers waiting on the platform were allowed to board. During this time of year, in particular, express trains are packed 24/7, and keeping arrivals and departures on time is the number one priority. These cleaners, on average, have only seven minutes to make the cars spic-and-span, and their methodical efficiency in getting that job done has made them heroes in the media, the newest symbols of Japan’s storied work ethic.

At least one book has been written about these train cleaners, CNN produced a special report on them and dozens of magazine articles have covered them in detail. A recent issue of Shukan Post concentrated on one of the companies, Techno Heart Tessei, which is a subsidiary of JR East. Right at the beginning of the article, the Post offers the opinion that these workers provide a positive example for any business in Japan. It then goes on to describe in detail the “shinkansen gekijo,” (bullet train theater): how the cleaners, both men and women, accomplish their “miraculous” task, which is methodical and reducible to the second. There is one cleaner per non-reserved car, two or three per reserved car.

Overhead racks are checked on the initial round while seats are reset to their original orientation and underfoot trash is quickly swept to the middle aisle. On the return round, window ledges, blinds and panes as well as folding tables are wiped; headrest covers are replaced if dirty. Then someone comes through with a broom to collect the trash. Separate staff handles toilets. All operations are checked by the supervising cleaner and cleared. Usually, these teams complete their jobs with more than a minute to spare. On the average, they clean 20 trains a shift.

Continue reading about train-cleaning "angels" →

Old technology a threat to publishers’ bottom lines

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

By the gross: cheap reads at Book Off

There was only one book published in Japan this past year that sold at least a million copies: TV personality Sawako Agawa‘s volume of essays, “Kiku Chikara: Kokoro Hiraku 35 no Hinto” (The Power of Listening: 35 Hints to Get People to Talk About Themselves), a relatively inexpensive paperback published by Bungeishunju. Though the media has been claiming for years that reading is on the decline, a single million-seller is still pretty low by Japanese publishing standards. Last year, for instance, there were ten, and two years ago five. According to the industry organ Shuppan News, the main reason is that there were no topical books for publicity departments to push effectively.

Publishers and wholesalers usually focus promotion on titles they think will sell easily, but this year couldn’t find anything they really thought would catch the public’s imagination. The conventional wisdom about million sellers is that a good portion of them are bought by people who aren’t devoted readers. Remember the phenomenal sales for Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84″? Many of the buyers were people who were caught up in the “event.” They wanted to own a copy — or several, as the case may be. Some probably didn’t even read it. Experts say this phenomenon no longer applies. Interests have become more compartmentalized, more diverse. People no longer automatically buy a book or record just because everyone else does.

According to a recent article in Tokyo Shimbun, book sales in general have dropped. The peak year was 1996, when 915 million books were sold for a total of ¥1 trillion in revenue. In 2011, the total number of books sold was 700 million and revenues were ¥819 billion. This year, the drop is expected to be even greater.

Now, before you ask about the sales breakdown between printed books and e-books, keep in mind that sales of e-books remain relatively low in Japan, owing to industry resistance that is just now breaking down. The drop in sales has less to do with technology and more to do with demographics. In fact, the number of people who read regularly hasn’t really changed despite the decline in population. That’s because the loss in general readership is being compensated for by older retired people who now have time to read. However, these people don’t really care about owning books. The real reason for the drop in sales is that they have rediscovered the library.

According to the Japan Library Association, there were 2,522 libraries throughout Japan in 1998. By April 2011, that number had increased to 3,210. Last year, library users borrowed 716 million books, CDs and DVDs, a new record, which is surprising given that local governments are hurting financially and library budgets are usually one of the first things they cut.

Obviously, some rationalization is going on, but at least one local government, Takeyo in Saga Prefecture, has come up with — no pun intended — a novel solution. The city hired the entertainment media rental and sales company Tsutaya to run its public library and has saved 10 percent of its normal operating expenses in the bargain. In return, Tsutaya opened a store next door as a kind of annex to the library, complete with a cafe.

A researcher interviewed by Tokyo Shimbun said that the recession definitely has something to do with the boost in library usage. It has also boosted the success of used book chain stores like Book Off. Sales of used books have been increasing every year. Naturally, this is bad news for publishers and, especially, new book stores despite the fact that prices for new books are fixed by the publishers and can’t be changed by resellers. These prices tend to be set artificially high by making the print larger than necessary and dividing texts into multiple volumes. But as much as the publishing industry has tried, it can’t do anything about the used book market.

According to the Yano Financial Research Center, the market for used books in 2010 was ¥130 billion. Sales at Book Off alone amounted to ¥70 billion in 2010. Even if one keeps in mind that Book Off sells merchandise other than books, the retail giant obviously has a substantial share of the market. Their system is attractive to people who just like to read. You buy a used book for a few hundred yen, read it and then sell it back to Book Off for about ¥50. It’s especially attractive when it comes to best-sellers, for which there is usually a long waiting list at the local library. By their very nature of being best-sellers, there are usually a lot of them at Book Off, sometimes for as little as ¥100 plus tax.

For teachers, the business of education has become even more of a business

Friday, November 30th, 2012

Private high school students boarding a private high school bus

Private high school students boarding a private high school bus

The Asahi Shimbun and NHK recently ran features about the changing job situation for high school teachers, specifically those who work for private institutions. According to education ministry figures, there are about 90,000 teachers working at private high schools nationwide, a number that has stayed about the same since 2001.

About 34,000 of these teachers were considered “non-regular” in 2011, meaning they were either hired directly by the schools on a yearly contract basis or obtained through temporary human resources companies. That number represents 36.8 percent of all private high school teachers, whereas the portion of public school teachers who are non-regular is 19.7 percent.

Furthermore, since 2001, the number of regular teachers in private high schools has decreased by more than 4,000, mainly the result of attrition through retirement, while the number of non-regular teachers has increased by 2,800. During the same period, the number of students attending private high schools has dropped by about 15 percent, while the number of private high schools hasn’t changed.

Private high schools are under pressure to maintain enrollment just to stay solvent, and one of their main incentives to attract students is student-teacher ratios, the smaller the better. So even as the number of students declines, these schools have to maintain staff numbers, a situation that puts more strain on their budgets. They have to cut expenses wherever they can, and since 70 percent of a private school’s expenditures goes to personnel, teacher pay is the obvious target for rationalization.

Continue reading about non-regular teachers →

Theme parks make a comeback thanks to grandma and grandpa

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Ho-hum. Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea recorded another record season. Between April and September, Japan’s favorite theme parks were visited by 13.25 million people, a 23 percent increase over the same period last year, which is understandable given that “self-restraint” was the order of business in summer 2011 after the earthquake and tsunami. Still, that’s an impressive increase under any circumstances since it translates as an operating income of ¥39 billion — double last year’s — and a net profit of ¥25.5 billion — triple last year’s.

Yumiko Yamashita! You are the 100 millionth visitor to Universal Studios Japan!

But TDL isn’t the only theme park that did well this summer. According to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, attendance at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka was up 19.5 percent during the same period, Tokyo’s Toshimaen amusement park saw an 18.7 percent rise, Yomiuri Land in western Tokyo 30 percent, Nagashima Spa Land in Mie Prefecture 3 percent, Fujikyu Highland in Shizuoka Prefecture 4 percent, and even the Dutch theme park Huis Ten Bosch in Kyushu, which almost went bankrupt before being bought by travel agent H.I.S., enjoyed an 11 percent year-on-year boost in attendance from Jan. to June.

Could all this healthy leisure spending be explained by a post-disaster recovery bump, as theorized by Sankei Shimbun? A recent segment of the TBS noon-time wide show “Hiruobi” looked into the matter and found that there’s something else involved, namely a confluence of demographics that has resulted in wider-open wallets. The program sent a reporter to Universal Studios to cover the 100 millionth admission and found that a good portion of park attendance was made up of families of three generations, with the youngest layer comprised of very young children and the oldest of grandparents who are recently retired but still relatively young and, more importantly, have a lot of savings they’re only too happy to spend on their grandkids. “My grandma buys me anything I want,” said one little girl without shame.

Continue reading about theme-park repeaters →

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