Archive for the ‘Food & drink’ Category

A modest proposal for alleviating the endangerment of Japanese eels

Sunday, July 27th, 2014

Fish fans: People waiting in line at a popular eel restaurant near Minami Senju Station in Tokyo

Fish fans: People waiting in line at a popular eel restaurant near Minami Senju Station in Tokyo

This year, doyo no ushi no hi, the “day of the ox,” falls on July 29 in accordance with the old Chinese calendar. Counterintuitively, Japanese people don’t celebrate the day by eating beef but rather eel, because, supposedly, eel, or unagi, helps maintain a person’s stamina during the hottest days of summer. But it should be noted that the custom of eating eel is commercial in origin. According to legend, the tradition started in the 18th century in Hino, Western Tokyo, where nobody ate eel because the fish was a kind of local deity. An inventor named Hiraga Gennai came up with a publicity campaign to get people to eat unagi on doyo no ushi no hi because both ushi and unagi start with the “u” sound. The campaign worked, and now everybody eats unagi on doyo no ushi no hi. Well, maybe not everybody, but enough to drive Japanese eel to the brink of extinction.

Japanese eel for consumption are caught in the wild as fry and transported to eel farms throughout Asia. Eel is now on the International Union for Conservation of Nature‘s endangered red list, and so the environment ministry made the same designation on its list of at-risk species. However, this information has been tempered somewhat lately by media reports saying that the eel catch was higher this past year, thus driving the price of imported eel, mainly from China and Taiwan, down considerably. Consequently, eel dishes on the 29th may be cheaper in some places than they were last year.

Unagi fans will see this as good news, but it isn’t. The reason eel is on the endangered list is that Japanese people catch and eat too much of the fish, which wasn’t the case before the mid-1980s, when eel was considered something of a delicacy eaten only on special occasions. In other words, the cheaper the eel, the more likely eel stocks will be decimated.

Japan not only is the major consumer of Japanese eel, it is by far the major consumer of all eel: 70 percent of eel caught in the world is eaten by Japanese people. The speed at which Japan consumes eel has outpaced the species’ ability to reproduce itself. Japan first started buying eel overseas in 1980, mainly in Europe, but wild eel has been protected there since 2009 when it was declared endangered by the European Union.

Japan is trying to import more eel from Southeast Asia. Right now Japan itself produces 20,000 tons of unagi a year on farms, about half the amount at its peak in the late 90s. In 2000, Japan imported 130,000 tons from China and Taiwan. That amount dwindled to 32,000 tons by 2013, and yet eel prices in restaurants are still cheaper than they were in the 1980s. Why? Because so many restaurants serve eel. Before the bubble era, eel was only consumed in specialty restaurants and rarely at home. Now, even fast food chains serve eel; or, at least they do on doyo no ushi no hi.

And that may be where the problem lies. Last year, Osaka Gas conducted a survey asking consumers if they plan to eat unagi on ushi no hi, and 30 percent said they would. The biggest portion, 57 percent, said they hadn’t decided. Among those who said they definitely would not eat eel, one-third explained that eel was too expensive, another third said they don’t really like eel, and the rest said they’d eat it some other day. (A mere 2.6 percent said they wouldn’t eat eel because it’s endangered.)

While 30 percent doesn’t sound like a large portion, we’re talking about one day out of the year, a day when even people who don’t eat eel regularly feel the desire to eat eel, because the media makes a big deal out of it. The problem is that there are no statistics about eel consumption in Japan, only eel production, but we can assume that everything produced and imported is eaten here, since Japan doesn’t export eel. And as Minako Saito points out in her Tokyo Shimbun column, eel isn’t a hugely popular delicacy like fatty tuna (toro), it’s simply a “seasonal dish,” so if you divorce eel eating from doyo no ushi no hi, you may substantially be able to decrease the amount of eel that is consumed, because, according to government statistics, a relatively huge portion of eel is consumed on doyo no ushi no hi.

Like beef cattle, eel became the victim of an affluent society that thought everyone, and not just its well-off members, should have the right to eat it whenever they wanted. As we now know, the worldwide taste for beef has led to major environmental collapse, and Japan’s taste for eel has driven the species to the edge of extinction; except that Japan doesn’t really have a huge taste for unagi. It’s mostly PR-driven, so if you stop the PR and allow consumption to drop to a more rational level, the price will go up and unagi stocks should grow.

Will rice cookers save the Japanese home electronics industry?

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Pricey rice: High function rice cookers on display at a discount electronics store

Pricey rice: High function rice cookers on display at a discount electronics store

It’s been well documented that the Chinese are considered the saviors of the Japanese tourist trade, but there’s more to the story than just tour numbers and hotel bookings. An article in the July 10 Asahi Shimbun described an odd and recurring dilemma at Kansai International Airport. Chinese tourists are buying Japanese-made rice cookers at the airport’s souvenir shops in large numbers. Since the purchases are made after the travelers have gone through immigration processing, they don’t have to pay duty, but at that point they’ve already checked their luggage, and the rice cookers in their boxes won’t fit into overhead bins in airplane cabins.

Some of the rice cookers will fit if they’re removed from the boxes, but people on these flights are buying more and more of the home appliances so in some cases there is no room for any of them, which means flight attendants have to assist in having these patrons check the items so that they can put them in the cargo hold, and as a result more and more flights back to China are being delayed.

Rice cookers became a very popular item among Chinese tourists in 2010, when visa rules were relaxed to allow travelers who weren’t members of organized tours to come to Japan freely. One of the clerks in the Osaka airport souvenir store told Asahi that he once saw a Chinese tourist buy six of the devices at one time. One Chinese businessman who comes to Japan on a regular basis says he’s always getting requests from acquaintances to buy rice cookers for them. This souvenir store, in fact, sells an average of 10 cookers a day, most of them high-end models, which can cost as much as ¥90,000.

Last April, during cherry blossom viewing season, the store sold an average of 20 a day. A representative of Yodobashi Camera Multimedia Umeda in Osaka told the paper that whenever Chinese tour groups visit the discount electronics store they usually buy more rice cookers than they have members. Yodobashi has a duty-free system for tourists, but actually most Chinese prefer buying their rice cookers in the airport, since the price isn’t any different and they don’t have to lug the things around with them prior to departure. But there is the problem of carry-on.

Why rice cookers? There are few appliances that reflect Japan’s so-called Galapagos design mindset as thoroughly as rice cookers. They basically do one thing: Cook Japanese rice in a way that only Japanese people prefer. The rest of the world doesn’t eat much sticky, white, short-grained rice unless it’s combined with sauce or other prepared foods, and that includes the rest of Asia. Even China, from which Japan first imported rice-growing techniques, isn’t big on rice as a separate dish. It prefers long-grain rice, which is always prepared with something else in mind, and while it is considered a staple, at mealtime it isn’t as important as other dishes. In the northern part of China, many people don’t eat rice at all, since they grow more wheat there due to the colder climate.

But as more and more Chinese tourists have come to Japan, they have discovered the unique joys of sticky white rice.  As incomes rise in China, people are broadening their food choices, and one of those choices is short-grain rice. If it’s Japanese grown, it’s even better, despite the high price. And the best way to prepare it is with a Japanese-made rice cooker.

According to the Japan Electrical Manufacturers Association, more rice cookers are manufactured in China than in any other country in the world, but the vast majority are inexpensive models with few features. The first Japanese rice cooker was made by Toshiba in the mid-1950s, and since then they have become extremely sophisticated. Some even include porcelain containers and functions that allow the user to make rice that tasted as if it were made the old-fashioned way, in a kamado, the traditional, charcoal burning Japanese stove. Now, apparently, Japanese manufacturers are incorporating functions that will appeal to Chinese users, such as the ability to cook long-grain rice and different kinds of porridge.

In its own peculiar way, the Japanese rice cooker has done more to extend a specific Japanese sensibility than any electronic device since the Walkman. As any Japanese person over a certain age will tell you, the preparation of rice is the most important culinary consideration with regard to the Japanese menu. Cooking rice the proper way is difficult and time-consuming. You have to wash the rice throroughly until the runoff water is utterly transparent. Then the rice has to sit in that water for a certain length of time. The pot used for cooking rice, a kama, is only used for rice. First the rice in the water is boiled and the flame reduced — which, before gas stoves, meant removing pieces of charcoal from the kamado. And the person doing the cooking has to stay and monitor the flame for at least 15 minutes.

Consequently, the rice cooker was a huge boon for housewives. It not only freed up their time so that they could cook other dishes simultaneously, it freed up cooking space. Most Japanese kitchens with natural gas have only two burners. When makers added timing devices, rice cooking became exponentially easier because it cut the time needed for preparation, especially in the morning when housewives had to prepare breakfast and lunchboxes. Reheated cold rice is normally not acceptable. That’s why the next development was the “jar,” a special device for storing already made rice to keep it warm for later in the day without drying out. When the rice cookers themselves incorporated jar functions, the appliance had become perfect.

But only perfect to Japanese people. Most everyone else in the world didn’t eat rice this way, but apparently the Chinese are catching on. It’s too much to hope that their sudden affection for Japanese style rice will single-handedly save Japan’s home electronics industry — not to mention Japanese agriculture — but you never know. Look what the Walkman wrought.

Won’t get fooled again? Fans and their money are soon parted

Friday, June 13th, 2014

Mayu Watanabe, center, a member of Japan’s all-girl pop idol group AKB48 members, shows off the winner's gown after taking the No. 1 spot of the AKB48's General Election 2014 in Tokyo, Saturday, June 7, 2014.

Hail the new queen: Mayu Watanabe, a member of Japan’s all-girl pop idol group AKB48 members, shows off the winner’s cape after taking the No. 1 spot of the AKB48′s General Election 2014 in Tokyo, on, June 7.

Several weeks ago we wrote an article about the female idol collective AKB48 and later received a message from a friend who told us he was in Tokyo’s Akihabara district, which the group calls home. He was in a shop that sells various used goods and reported that there were hundreds of “used” copies of AKB’s latest single on sale for only ¥100 each, even though the single had just been released.

The reason for the surplus was AKB’s famous premium system: if you buy a CD you get the chance to meet the young women in the group or, in this case, a chance to vote in one of AKB’s popularity contests, which are called “general elections.” The most recent of these, No. 6, was held June 7, where Mayu Watanabe received the most votes. “Tickets” that allowed fans to cast votes in that election were included in the group’s newest single, “Labrador Retriever.” The more singles you buy, the more opportunities you have to vote, which explains all the used CDs. The fans only need one copy of the song, but they bought multiple copies so that they could stuff the ballot box with votes for their favorite members.

Each voting ticket is printed with a special URL and a unique serial number. The holder of the ticket goes online, logs on to the election website, and casts one ballot by registering the serial number. After voting, that serial number cannot be used again.

An enterprising blogger on the site Gadget Tsushin decided to use the available data to figure out how much money the AKB organization made from this election. First, he checked the top vote-getters, starting at the top with Watanabe (159,854 votes), proceeding to second place with a girl named Sashihara (141,954) and one down to 80th place in the poll. He added up all the votes received by these 80 members and the sum was 2,277,635, which, by the way, was more votes than those cast the same day in the Nakano Ward mayor’s election.

CONTINUE READING about fan devotion →

Labor shortage cutting across all industries

Friday, May 9th, 2014

A recent report in the Mainichi Shimbun says that Japan’s number one gyudon (beef bowl) chain has seen its business suffer due to lack of workers. Sukiya’s policy is 24-hour service, but in many areas the company can’t find part-timers who are willing to come in during the wee hours. The company has shortened operating hours at about 250 outlets, and a few have even been closed altogether due to the labor shortage. The Mainichi reporter talked to some former Sukiya part-timers who said when they worked the midnight shift they often ended up all by themselves, meaning they had to do everything — cook, wait on customers, clean up, etc. — alone. Besides being nerve-wracking, the job wasn’t worth the wage that Sukiya was paying, so they quit.

Sukiya in Tokyo

Sukiya in Tokyo

Sukiya isn’t the only restaurant company that’s having this problem. Watami, the popular izakaya (drinking establishment) chain that has been called by some a burakku kigyo (a “black company” that exploits its workers), has announced it will close about 60 outlets by the end of the year, which represents 10 percent of all their stores, though the company characterizes this move as being more about rationalization. More personnel will be employed at the remaining outlets in order “to improve the work environment.”

There’s a certain self-relexive irony at work here since the success of chain restaurants in the past 10 years or so was built on a greater reliance on part-time workers, for whom companies don’t have to provide benefits and whose hours and wages can be managed more flexibly. Invariably, the point is to save money so that the chain can be more competitive in terms of prices, but with the labor shortage expanding into other industries, part-timers don’t have to work for restaurants, which notoriously don’t pay well and usually involve evening and night work.

Consequently, to keep the part-timers it wants, restaurant chains are having to increase wage offers in want ads, a move that runs counter to the part-time strategy.

CONTINUE READING about labor shortages →

Australian EPA: Let them eat beef (but not cheese)

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Stuck in the middle: Australian cheese competing in the dairy case with New Zealand and Switzerland

Stuck in the middle: Australia cheese competing in the dairy case with New Zealand and Switzerland

Though its participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership seems to be dead in the water for the time being, last week Japan signed an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with Australia that could revive Japan’s TPP hopes, but before we get to who lost and who won in the Australian deal, let’s talk about cheese.

Personally, we were looking forward to some sort or tariff reduction on Aussie cheese, not because we prefer Aussie cheese over other kinds, but because all so-called natural cheese — meaning not processed — is expensive in Japan owing to the dairy farmers lobby and their demand for high tariffs on imported milk products.

Japan is close to an EPA with the European Union, but the cheese tariff will likely remain. The Australian EPA only addresses natural cheese that is exported to Japan for purposes of being blended with other ingredients to make processed cheese. The tariff on such cheeses will be reduced from 40 to 0 percent over time, but the tariff on natural cheese that is sold to the public in stores will remain at 29.8 percent, so no cheap cheddar right away.

CONTINUE READING about Japan's EPA with Australia →

Tax structure encourages getting wasted

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Zero's not in it: Selection of Suntory chuhai at discount store

Zero’s not in it: Selection of Suntory chuhai at discount store

There’s no end to speculation as to how the consumption tax increase in April will affect the country, socially as well as economically. Last week, Tokyo Shimbun published a conversation between a college professor and one of its reporters about the effect on beer prices and, in turn, beer consumption, which last year declined for the ninth year in a row.

When the reporter asks the professor about this effect the professor feigns amazement that the reporter, who specializes in tax matters, didn’t know that “42 percent of the price you pay for your beer is already tax.” He goes on to explain that the beer tax is a holdover from the 19th century, when beer was considered a luxury item. Since then it’s become much more the drink of common people thanks to improved and cheaper refrigeration, but the government liked the revenues too much and maintained the tax structure for beer. To the professor’s thinking, the tax should be pegged to alcoholic content, and since beer’s is relatively low the tax should also be lower than it is for other alcoholic beverages.

It’s easy to get people to pay the tax since it isn’t indicated on the package or even at the place of sale, unlike the consumption tax. For the sake of reference, when you buy a 350-ml can of beer you pay ¥77 in tax. If you bought the same volume of whiskey you’d pay ¥129 in tax; shochu ¥70, nihonshu ¥42 and wine ¥28.

Basically, that means the consumption tax is levied on a tax, since the consumption tax is determined by the price that the wholesaler and retailer pays for the product, which, by the time they receive it, already includes the alcohol tax that is levied at the manufacturing stage. “When the government said they’d increase the consumption tax, people got angry,” says the professor. “But no one says anything about the alcohol tax, because people don’t notice it.” The reporter thinks that a “tax on a tax” violates the principle of taxation. The professor doesn’t disagree, and adds that beer accounts for half the revenues brought in by the alcohol tax. Because beer makers are large companies with responsible accounting practices, it’s easy for the Finance Ministry to collect the tax. The reporter says, “Why don’t manufacturers get angry?”

Actually, that’s why they started making the “beer-like” happoshu in the late ’90s. Because the ingredients used in happoshu are different from those that define beer for tax purposes, the beer tax doesn’t apply, and so makers could sell it at a much lower price. The government, of course, didn’t like that and eventually raised the tax rate for happoshu, too, though not as high as it is for beer (¥46 for a 350-ml can). Makers came back again with dai-san (third type) beverages, which use fermented soybeans for flavor instead of hops, and that got around the happoshu tax (¥28 for 350-ml). But while these new, cheaper brews outsold “real” beer handily, sales for all three beverages have still decreased over time, due to the shrinking population and a younger generation of consumers who don’t drink as much as their parents did.

In that regard, beer makers don’t see much of an impact of the consumption tax hike on beer and beer-like beverage sales; or, at least, they don’t see any point in trying to offset the hike. But they are modifying their lines of canned drinks that contain shochu, colloquially called chuhai. As the price of chuhai goes up thanks to the consumption tax, they are increasing the alcohol content. In fact, many companies have already added more alcohol to their chuhai products.

Kirin Beer increased its Hyoketsu Strong from 8 percent to 9 percent alcohol, and in April it will boost its Hon-shibori Lime chuhai drink from 6 to 8 percent.

Asahi Beer is already advertising its new Karakuchi Shochu Highball, which is 8 percent, in a bid to persuade normal fans of high balls — whiskey and soda — to switch to shochu and soda. That’s a full 5 percentage points higher than Asahi’s other chuhai, Slat, and both beverages will be sold for the same price. (Note: Slat is aimed at young women and the word suggests slimness, though an English speaker may be forgiven for thinking the name an unfortunate choice for such a target group.)

Suntory’s chuhai product, -196 Degrees C Strong, which enjoyed a 22 percent share of the chuhai market in 2012 thanks to its already hefty alcohol content, will be strengthened from 8 to 9 percent. The company told Asahi Shimbun that it expects sales to grow by 8 percent.

The target is middle-aged and elderly men, the main demographic for alcoholic beverages anyway. Makers think they will be attracted to the cost effectiveness, according to the Asahi, which means they can “get drunk more easily” for the same amount of money. In many countries, tax on alcohol is referred to as a “sin tax,” since it has a double-edged purpose: raising revenues on a product or service that may be harmful to society, on the one hand, and on the other checking consumption of the harmful product or service by making it more expensive.

This latter purpose doesn’t seem to apply in Japan, where alcohol companies have figured out a way to use the tax structure to their advantage. There’s no sin in that.

Part-timers skewing employment statistics

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

Take this job and...: Want ads targeting part-timers for specific shifts at a Chiba Prefecture supermarket

Take this job and…: Want ads targeting part-timers for specific shifts at a Chiba Prefecture supermarket

When the government determines the success of Abenomics it has to take into consideration wage inflation, not just price inflation, since real growth can’t be sustained without both. Nevertheless, all wage inflation isn’t created equal.

A recent article in the Asahi Shimbun cited results of a regular survey conducted by Recruit Jobs, an employment-related research institute. In the major metropolitan areas of Japan the average wage offered to part-time food service workers in want ads in November was ¥930, which is 1.3 percent higher than the average amount offered in November 2012. More significantly, this year-on-year increase has been continuing for 25 consecutive months, the longest stretch of increases since the institute started tracking such numbers in 2007.

The standard wage in the restaurant industry is relatively low to begin with, and right now there is a shortage of help nationwide, so Recruit says employers are being forced to offer more money. One example cited by Asahi is a new mall that just opened in Makuhari, Chiba Prefecture, which contains a number of eating establishments, most of which belong to chain operations. Starting wages at these restaurants is between ¥1,200 and ¥1,300 an hour, which is even higher than they are in Tokyo. According to an official at Four Seeds, a company that owns several restaurant chains, more large retail facilities, such as shopping malls, are being built in an around major metropolitan areas, so there is greater demand for food service workers.

However, these numbers are misleading in terms of indicating whether or not the economy as a whole is on the mend. For one thing, the labor ministry says that just because part-time wages in major cities are going up, it doesn’t mean they’re rising for the rest of Japan.

The ministry found that in October, the average monthly take-home for “short-hour part-timers” was ¥94,634, which is 0.4 percent lower than it was in October 2012, and marked five straight months of year-on-year declines. And if the average pay for a part-timer in this industry in 2010 was set at 100, then the salary this year is 98.7.

Despite the fact that the national minimum wage was raised recently, average part-time income is dropping, mainly because companies are hiring more people to work short hours. For instance, the coffee shop chain Pronto targets housewives (which they call “mistresses”) in their 30s and 40s with the promise that they don’t have to work weekends and holidays. In addition, they can take off up to nine full weeks, without pay, of course, in a given six-month period. These women don’t work more than 20 hours a week, and the company likes it because under these conditions they can easily find women willing to work for low pay at short notice.

This trend is also prevalent in the supermarket industry, where employers pay housewives slightly more to work in the morning and the evenings since most housewives prefer only working in the afternoon when they don’t have household responsibilities.

In Tokyo, many food service companies offer higher wages only for peak demand periods to fill short-term staffing shortages. Other times they offer less money. The turnover is high, but this strategy allows the companies more options in controlling personnel costs on a month-to-month basis.

The point is that these workers supposedly want to work shorter hours, and the more people there are working shorter hours for slightly more pay, the more the statistics will reflect higher wages overall, but in truth the pay is just being distributed among more people, meaning per capita wages aren’t going up at all.

Of course, food services is traditionally considered an entry-level or temporary job, not a career track job, but as manufacturing continues to shift overseas, it is an industry that will become more vital as an employer. It’s not quite at the stage that it is in the U.S., where many fast food workers have to support families on what they make, but it might be getting there.

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