Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Restaurant chain retains No. 1 position in sales . . . and robberies

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

Hit me: One of two Sukiyas near Kamiyacho Station in Tokyo

Last month, many news outlets reported an attempted robbery of the Asaka, Saitama Prefecture branch of the gyudon (beef bowl) chain Sukiya. Though such crimes are still rare in Japan when compared to other countries, this one received a lot of attention because of what the stickup man said as he brandished a knife at the counter person: “Maido onajimi no Sukiya . . . ,” which basically means he comes to Sukiya often, though it isn’t entirely clear if he meant as a customer or as a thief.

Sukiya is the number one gyudon chain in Japan, owing mainly to the fact that it’s got the most branches: about 1,500 nationwide. The next biggest chain, Yoshinoya, operates about 1,200, with Matsuya a distant third with 800. But if Sukiya has an edge over Yoshinoya in terms of sales, in terms of robberies it’s miles ahead. According to the National Police Agency, between January and August, Sukiya branches were the victims of 90 percent of the robberies perpetrated against gyudon restaurants. That’s an impressive portion, though it should also be pointed out that, altogether, there were only 57 robberies of gyudon restaurants nationwide during this period. Robbery, as a matter of fact, has been on the decrease in recent years, though the targeting of gyudon restaurants has risen.

According to an article in the Tokyo Shimbun, there are a variety of reasons for the increase. The main one is that almost all robberies of commercial businesses take place late at night, and over the past decade most gyudon restaurant chains have extended their business hours and are now open round the clock. A lot of other 24-hour food service businesses use vending machines to collect money; and convenience stores, which are also open all the time, have less cash on the premises thanks to the widespread use of e-money, debit cards and prepaid cards. Two thieves who were caught in August after robbing a Sukiya in Tokyo of ¥200,000 told police they had gotten the idea from discussion groups on the Internet. Apparently, would-be robbers often trade intelligence on good places to hit, and because Sukiya is so well-known and there’s a branch on practically every corner, it’s seen as an easy target.

In any case, the Asaka thief wasn’t a particularly good one. The counter person, a part-timer, managed to hit the alarm button and the police captured the robber shortly after he left. Since most Sukiya branches already have alarm systems installed, the police have suggested they, pardon the pun, beef up their late-night staff, though that would obviously defeat the whole purpose of a chain like Sukiya, which charges rock-bottom prices. It’s why they’re number one, even if in surveys real gyudon fans much prefer Yoshinoya.

Heal me: Spirituality businesses redefining “religion”

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Notes from the other side: Newspaper ad for books on spirituality

Earlier this week, Toru Saito, the leader of a yugen-gaisha (limited company) called Shinsekai (World of Gods), was arrested by the Kanagawa Prefectural Police for swindling five customers out of more than ¥13 million. Shinsekai is a so-called spirituality business (reikan shoho) that runs a chain of “salons” where people who are suffering physically or mentally can be “healed,” mainly through prayer fees or the purchase of spiritually charged objects like “power stones.” A group of lawyers representing former patrons of Shinsekai have likened the company’s business model to that of a pyramid scheme. People who come in for a consultation are charged huge sums in an ongoing manner to be cured, and when they can’t pay they are then compelled to bring in friends and acquaintances, thus creating a cycle. The salons themselves grow from this cycle and, according to the lawyers group, have to fulfill quotas assigned by Shinsekai executives. A local newspaper reports that the company, which some media are calling a “cult,” collected ¥17.5 billion from 2001 to 2007. Between 30 and 50 percent of the money went to the leadership group, with Saito, the founder, receiving a cool ¥1.5 billion.

Nice work if you can get it, and a lot of people obviously are trying. Since the Aum Shinrikyo scandal in the mid-90s, the idea of religion has been tainted in Japan, and a lot of money-making spiritual concerns that once would use the word religion if for no other reason than to qualify for tax-exampt status now shun it, prefering the term “healing” to describe the benefits of what they have to offer. Superstar fortune tellers and “aura readers” like Hiroyuki Ehara and Kazuko Hosoki epitomize this post-Aum spirituality trend, which focuses on the subject’s relationship with his or her ancestors, thus tapping into cultural beliefs associated with tenets of Buddhism and Shintoism. These two faith systems, especially Shintoism, have a close relationship with money, which represents the spiritual investment in whatever sort of outcome the subject wants to bring about. If you want a prayer to bless your house or make sure your son passes a university test, the more you pay the stronger the entreaty, though in the Western sense of “faith” it sounds more like superstition.

Continue reading about the spirituality business →

Discount strategies: Every dog, and man, has his day

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

The prevailing wisdom in Japan is that women are the arbiters of consumer culture. Traditionally, men were thought — or thought themselves — to be above the petty considerations of how to spend money. But the lingering recession and its negative effects on the employment situation have changed everything. Young men are no longer automatically expected to pay for dates, if, in fact, they ever actually go on dates. Even salaried male employees are openly anxious about their pocket money, counting every last yen and budgeting their output. It’s not just their wives’ or girlfriends’ jobs any more.

Guys just wanna have fun: Shidax's Men's Day ad

The popular promotional scheme known as Ladies Days are implemented by retailers and service providers to lure women to their businesses. On certain days of the week, month or year, women receive discounts from hotels, movie theaters, restaurants, etc., as a means of getting more of them interested in what they offer. Such promotions were never offered to men, and not just because of male pride. Men, after all, are believed to run the world. As the advantaged gender, why should they get a break?

Well, a number of businesses think it’s about time men did get a break. Mainichi Shimbun recently reported on the trend for Men’s Days, mainly centered on eating establishments. The article talks about a Portuguese restaurant in Ginza where every Monday male patrons’ first glass of beer is free and only men get to order the pudding for dessert. The manager of the establishment, a man, told the paper, “There are lots of Ladies Days, and I thought that was strange.”

His response is sort of strange, too. We have more faith in the comment from a female manager of another restaurant with a Men’s Day special in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture. Her restaurant on designated days offers extra helping of pasta and rice to men for free, not to mention free side orders of soup. Why? Ninety percent of their patrons are women, and men normally eat more than women do, which means they potentially spend more. “We want repeat business.”

Continue readings about Men's Days →

Nadeshiko Japan obviously doesn’t do it for the money

Monday, July 18th, 2011

The victory of the Japanese women’s soccer team at the FIFA World Cup tournament in Germany smashed a lot of preconceptions, most of them having to do with Japan’s international sports profile. However, a more specific truism bit the dust Sunday afternoon in Frankfurt when Japan came out on top, and that’s the notion that the more money you spend on a sport, the better your chances. About 1.5 million girls and women play soccer in America in some sort of organized fashion. There’s a popular professional league. Women’s soccer is a huge business. In Japan, about 45,000 girls and women play soccer. The women’s semi-pro and pro leagues are barely solvent, and there are no organized teams in Japan for elementary school girls. In fact, one of the more interesting factoids to come out of the news about the victory is that many of the members of the Japan national team started playing soccer as children on boys teams.

As pointed out in an article in the tabloid Nikkan Gendai published before the championship victory, Nadeshiko Japan was winning in spite of their meager remuneration. Very few of the members have pro contracts. Two members, Aya Samejima and Karina Maruyama, earned the most at one time playing soccer, about ¥5 million a year each, but that’s because they originally played for the Tokyo Electric Power Co. team — in Fukushima, as a matter of fact — and were thus company employees. After the disaster of March 11, Tepco’s soccer team activities were suspended, but by that point Maruyama has already left. She went to the U.S. and played for while but ended up returning to play for JEF Chiba. Gendai says her salary there is “very small.” Samejima stayed with Tepco until March and then moved to the USA, where her salary was better, the equivalent of about ¥300,000 a month. Team captain Homare Sawa earned about ¥3.6 million a year playing for the Nihon TV team, which among women soccer players is considered “good.” NTV dissolved its team not long ago, and Sawa now “makes less” playing for a team in Kobe.

Continue reading about Nadeshiko Japan →

Okozukai vs. hesokuri: An alternate view of home economics

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

Imitation of wife: Some homemakers keep a lid on it

Late last month the media covered the results of an annual survey carried out by Shinsei Financial Co. that attempts to get a handle on the state of family finances. According to the one thousand respondents, the average amount of okozukai that wives give their salaryman husbands has declined for the fourth year in a row to ¥36,500 a month. It’s also the first time in seven years the monthly allowance dropped below ¥40,000. It’s now the lowest it’s been since 1982. For comparison’s sake, the highest amount recorded by the survey was ¥76,000 in 1990, just before the so-called bubble burst.

Okozukai is usually translated as “pocket money” or “allowance,” but the main point is that it is money “given” to someone by another person who, implicitly, controls it. In Japan, traditionally, the wife handles the finances even if the husband is the sole breadwinner. Consequently, it’s a fairly easy statistic to track and does a good job of illuminating the financial situation of the middle class. The husband spends his okozukai on himself, often on after-hours drinking with colleagues, and according to various analyses of the survey it seems that families are saving money by having the husbands spend less on lunch and said drinking. This trend explains the explosion of low-priced izakaya (drinking establishment) chains in recent years.

The survey also indicates that the custom of wife-controlled finances is changing in accordance with demographic shifts. Now, only about half of all Japanese household finances are controlled by the wife alone. In about 30 percent of the households, the finances are shared by a couple since both work full-time. This means that each spouse has his/her own bank account and, in most cases, they divide certain expenses between them, with one handling the house payments, the other the utilities, etc. And in the remaining 20 percent of homes the finances are controlled by the male householder, which tends to be the dominant situation in the West. However, there’s one important difference that the media never mentions with regard to household finances probably because it never occurs to Japanese reporters. In the West, regardless of who nominally controls the pocketbook, property is often held jointly by a married couple, meaning that bank accounts and property titles have two names. In Japan there is no such thing as a joint account.

Continue reading about household finances in Japan →

Reported epidemic of elder shoplifting may not be what it seems

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

For the past several years the media has been reporting a marked increase in the incidence of shoplifiting among the elderly. Most recently, the Mainichi Shimbun ran an article focusing on the problem in Yamaguchi Prefecture, where the percentage of arrests of people over 65 for shoplifting has exceeded those for minor males. According to local police, in 2000 43.3 percent of shoplifting arrests were of boys between the ages of 14 and 19, while arrests of people over 65 accounted for only 20 percent. In 2005, the portions were equal: 28 percent each. Since then, the percentages for over-65s has fluctuated between 30 and 40, while for minors it’s been between 20 and 30.

Chiba Prefecture's anti-shoplifiting poster seems to be aimed at people who are influenced by cute mascots

The police blame the increase on “poverty and loneliness.” All of the older people they arrest say they are on fixed incomes and have already spent their monthly pension allotments when they are caught shoplifting. Some spend all their money on gambling because, according to the police, “gambling is the only social activity in their lives, since they have no relatives or friends.” In almost all cases, elderly people steal food and alcoholic beverages. One supermarket told the Mainichi that 80 percent of the people caught shoplifting on its premises are over 65. In the past, the manager would call “the guardians” of the perpetrators in order to be reimbursed, because most were minors, but they can’t do that with old people. “They usually have no one.”

Nationwide, this seems to be a trend. The National Police Agency reports that of the 104,827 shoplifiting arrests made in 2010, 27,362 were of persons over 65, 343 more than in 2009. Minors still accounted for more arrests, 28,371, but the number has been steadily declining over the past decade, while the number of older people being arrested has steadily increased.

Alarming? At least one blogger writes that, statistically speaking, it’s to be expected. Masamizu Kibashiri (an obvious pseudonym) points out that the fatalist tone of the reporting on elder shoplifting hides a salient and very apparent fact: The number of old people has risen sharply during the past decade while the number of minors has declined at almost the same rate. In the past 20 years, the over-65 population of Japan has jumped from 15 million to 27 million. Given this increase, the slighter rise in shoplifting arrests could actually be taken as being encouraging: Not as many older people are shoplifting as might be expected.

Kibashiri proposes a different statistical model for gauging the phenomenon: Number of elder arrests per 10,000 population of over-65s. Using that statistical model, he finds that the percentage of elder shoplifters has, in fact, risen significantly, from 2.8 in 1989 to 9.5 in 2009, with the largest jump coming around 2005. Obviously, there is a meaningful increase here, but the media needs to qualify its reporting of an “epidemic.”

Will the ‘morning-after pill’ make gynecologists obsolete?

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

In February, the health ministry approved the “emergency contraception” drug NorLevo, which was developed in France and is being distributed in Japan by the pharmaceutical company Sosei. It went on sale this week. Often called “the morning-after pill,” the drug was first marketed in 1999 and since then has been approved for sale in 50 countries. Sosei first applied for approval in 2001. The reason it took so long has something to do with Japan’s sclerotic drug testing system, but probably more to do with bureaucratic queasiness over the idea of women being able to prevent pregnancies unilaterally. After all, it took more than three decades to get the low-dosage birth control pill approved, and less than a year for Viagra to receive the go-ahead.

Preemptive: Condom vending machine

NorLevo should not be confused with the so-called abortion pill, RU486. Emergency contraception is supposed to be taken within 72 hours following intercourse to prevent conception, with a second pill taken 12 hours after the first one. The effectiveness is said to be more than 80 percent. It will be available by prescription (in some countries, like Canada, it can be bought over the counter), but users cannot use national health insurance to pay for it. The internet import price is anywhere between ¥2,500 and ¥6,600 for one dosage, meaning two pills. So far the domestic price hasn’t been made public, but it is probably in that range.

It’s expensive, but still much cheaper than an abortion, the vast majority of which are performed on married women. Young, unmarried women tend to have the baby and marry the father. The average cost of an abortion is around ¥100,000. The procedure is basically illegal in Japan but there’s a loophole that allows gynecologists to perform them on women who have “economic issues.” In 2009, about 220,000 were done, or one-fifth the number of live births that year. Because of the unavailability of the low-dosage birth control pill until recently and the paucity of sex education classes in public schools, abortion was for many years considered a form of birth control. So despite its high price, NorLevo could very likely cut the number of abortions significantly in the future, which is a good thing for women’s reproductive rights but not necessarily good news for the obstetrics-gynecology profession.

For a while now ob-gyns have had to contend with falling incomes due to the declining birthrate. Abortions became a larger part of their livelihoods. When abortion becomes less of an option for women, gynecologists will have less to do. Fewer medical students, thinking it not a lucrative field, will choose gynecology and obstetrics as a course of study.

In the past, emergency contraception in Japan was carried out with the mid-dose birth control pill, which was approved many years ago ostensibly to treat menstrual disorders though mostly they were used as de facto birth control pills. Taken right after intercourse, the mid-dose pill will prevent pregnancy, though its effectiveness is not as high as NorLevo’s and the side effects are more noticeable. The police also distributed the mid-dose pill to rape victims free of charge, though, obviously, that meant the victim had to come to the police and file a rape report. Such victims may have preferred going to a doctor, who would have kept the incident confidential. But then they’d have to pay for the full treatment.

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