Archive for the ‘Lifestyle’ 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.

The new National Stadium will have to rock you

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

The show must go on: Attendees of a sayonara event at the National Stadium snap photos of an air show held on June 6.

The show must go on: Attendees of a sayonara event at the National Stadium snap photos of an air show held on June 4. KYODO

The old National Olympic Stadium in Tokyo closed down at the end of May with a big sendoff: two days of star-packed concerts in front of a capacity crowd. As everyone knows, the venue is being torn down to make way for an even bigger structure for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, an endeavor that continues to court controversy due to its projected size and cost, not to mention what it will likely do to the neighborhood around it.

Originally, the estimate for the new stadium was ¥300 billion, but mysteriously this figure was decreased to ¥169 billion just prior to the final bid. According to Professor Tomoyuki Suzuki, who was in charge of preparing Tokyo’s unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Games, construction costs for public facilities always end up rising over time, but neither the 2020 Tokyo bid organization nor the Japan Olympic Committee has ever explained that bit of conventional wisdom to the public. He told Tokyo Shimbun last April that the estimate was simply based on a number “that was most likely to be accepted.”

There is also the question of what to do with the stadium after the Olympics. The JOC is predicting that it will show a surplus of ¥400 million a year, but as Suzuki points out, this projection is based on the premise that the stadium will host 12 major pop concerts a year, and that, he believes, is impossible, unless the stadium foregoes sporting events, which is what it’s being built for in the first place.

The main problem with using stadiums for concerts, especially stadiums that hold field events like soccer, is that the playing surfaces are used for seating, which has a tendency to destroy the grass. Suzuki cites Ajinomoto Stadium in Western Tokyo, which is the home field of the FC Tokyo soccer team. In 2008, the stadium operators rented the facility to a promoter who held a rock concert attended by almost 80,000 people. Despite FC Tokyo’s protests, the concert went ahead, and afterwards the stadium had to spend “tens of millions of yen” to change the grass on the entire field in time for an FC Tokyo match.

CONTINUE READING about stadium rock to come →

Golden Week activity influenced more by logistics than by economics

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

Too late to stop now: Travel brochures for Okinawa and Hokkaido

Too late to stop now: Travel brochures for Okinawa and Hokkaido

This year’s Golden Week holiday isn’t as golden as it normally is owing to the way the national holidays that make it possible fall in relation to the days of the week. Showa no hi (the Showa Emperor’s birthday) was on a Tuesday and Constitution Day on a Saturday, so there was enough time between them for people to work, which means they didn’t get those days off. That left a measly 4-day weekend to get all the things people usually do during Golden Week done — like visit their home towns — and the truncated time period meant more highway congestion in a shorter time span, which the media treats with such predictable urgency every year that it has become something of cultural touchstone. In any case, all that gasoline wasted in 45-km traffic jams and constant stops at expressway service areas doesn’t make up economically for the money lost during the reduced holiday.

The Japan Travel Bureau declared that the Golden Week holiday started on April 25 and ended May 6, despite the fact that, for the first half of that period, schools weren’t closed the whole time so it wasn’t a bona fide “break” for families with children, regardless of whether or not dad had to work.

According to a JTB survey of 1,200 people who presumably already knew what they were going to spend over the holiday, the amount expended per person for those who planned to travel domestically was ¥34,400, or 4.2 percent less than last year. For overseas travelers the amount was ¥249,500, which represents an increase of 8.1 percent. The peak days for domestic departures were May 3-4, and for foreign departures May 2-3, thus proving that the first half of the holiday was virtually meaningless. This concentration of recreation into such a short period will likely spawn even more post-GW stories than usual on the spike in attendant divorces and job resignations.

CONTINUE READING about Golden Week 2014 →

Some local governments think health checkups save money, and some don’t

Saturday, April 5th, 2014

Preemptive stride: If you do have metabolic syndrome you can guess what the doctor will tell you to do

Preemptive stride: If you do have metabolic syndrome you can guess what the doctor will tell you to do

Though there’s a minority opinion to the contrary, conventional wisdom says that regular health checkups are the only way to prevent the development of major illnesses, so, logically, they should also help reduce healthcare costs in the long run. This is the concept behind tokutei kenko kensa, or “special health checkups,” that were started six years ago by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. The main target is metabolic syndrome, the inevitable gain in fat that accompanies midddle age and which, unchecked, is thought to be the gateway to many so-called lifestyle diseases, like diabetes.

The idea is that local governments would provide checkups to insured residents between the ages of 40 and 74 with national insurance, which, in principle, doesn’t cover regular general health checkups since Japan’s public health system is designed to treat existing problems. If the special checkups uncover unhealthy situations, then the individuals are advised with regard to better diets or exercise regimens, or even pharmaceutical assistance, so as to head off costly treatment down the road, like, for instance, dialysis, which can cost on average ¥5 million a year, most of which ends up being paid for by the government, both local and central.

CONTINUE READING about health checkups →

Special K: Mini-cars come of age in a maxi-world

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

Thinking inside the box: Honda's N-WGN

Thinking inside the box: Honda’s N-WGN

The nationwide used car dealer, Gulliver, recently set up a new venture called Gulliver Minicle, which deals only in kei-jidosha, often referred to as minicars in English, though here we like to call them K-cars, which make up a separate class of automobile. The engine displacement can’t be more than 660cc, and they were developed in the ’60s and ’70s for people with limited incomes.

When K-cars first appeared the engines were as small as 360cc, and have always been a point of contention for the U.S. automobile industry, which describes them as a “non-tariff trade barrier” because taxes for K-cars have been much less than they are for regular cars and thus are deemed as being unfair competition for infamously larger American cars — though it should be noted that U.S. automakers have tried to sell compacts in Japan.

K-cars have always had one glaring drawback. Because the engine is so small, they have to be light, and that means they are less safe. Consequently, families don’t buy them; or, at least, they didn’t until recently.

Gulliver’s launch of a retail entity that only sells used K-cars shows that there must be a viable market, since K-cars are already cheap and Japanese people aren’t big used car buyers. So far there is only one Minicle, in Morioka, and it has about 50 cars on display divided into three sizes: S, M and L, like apparel.

According to an article about the store in the Asahi Shimbun, there really isn’t much difference in the sizes, but the designations appeal to women, who are now the main target demographic for K-cars. There is even a play space in the store where kids can relax while mom is shopping for new wheels.

Gulliver is already planning Minicle stores in Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kyushu and the San’in region, and by 2018 expects to have about a dozen throughout Japan, mainly in the vicinity of regional capitals and not so much in the big three metropolitan areas.

In December, the Japan Light Motor Vehicle and Motorcycle Association estimated that 2.1 million K-cars would be sold in Japan during 2013, a new record. In contrast, sales of all other cars amounted to about 3 million. So while sales of minicars increased by 4.8 percent over 2012, sales of other cars decreased by 5.3 percent.

As a portion of all car sales, Ks increased by 2.4 points to 39.3 percent. The only other automotive sector that showed more growth was foreign (read: German) cars, whose sales increased by 9 percent, also a record. And in terms of production by Japanese automakers, 40 percent are now K-cars.

The obvious reason for the popularity of minicars is their price, but they’ve always been cheap. It’s their reason for existing in the first place. Some say that people bought them last year because the K-car tax is set to be eliminated sometime this year, but a more likely reason is increased safety and functionality.

More than a year ago, Daihatsu started selling a new version of its Move model that uses sensors to automatically reduce speed when it gets too close to the car in front of it. Though it’s offered as an option at ¥50,000, more than 80 percent of the buyers order it. In succession, similar options were added by Suzuki to its popular Wagon R model, for ¥42,000, and by Honda to its N-WGN model.

A Honda representative told Asahi that since 64 percent of K-car drivers are women, this option was incorporated specifically to attract them. A good portion of K-cars are bought as second cars, for shopping and shlepping the kids around. In the past, these women bought compact cars, but they’re switching over to Ks.

Nissan and Daihatsu have upped the ante by also offering windshields that cut ultraviolet rays, something else women demand. In addition, K-cars now have much roomier interiors than in the past and larger cargo areas. In truth, there isn’t much difference, performance-wise, between a K and a standard compact.

Which is why the U.S. is even angrier than before, because that makes the so-called trade barrier even higher to scale. Due to regulations and consumer sentiment, K cars aren’t marketable in America, and the Big 3 automakers aren’t going to manufacture them only for one market, but that could be changing. India seems ravenous for K-cars and Suzuki is quickly setting up factories and joint ventures on the sub-continent.

Some experts say that the U.S. Trade Representative’s gripe about Ks is actually a means of keeping pressure on other sectors, generating leverage to open Japan’s agriculture and insurance markets more, for example. Also, it gives the American government an excuse to maintain its own tariff to protect the U.S. truck market from low-priced Japanese imports.

McDonald’s smells the coffee: Limited expectations are here to stay

Friday, December 27th, 2013

Fill 'er up: Customer using self-service coffee maker at 7-11.

Fill ‘er up: Customer using self-service coffee maker at 7-11.

If the central point of Abenomics is to boost prices and thus wages and consumption — the old “raise all boats” metaphor — then to a certain extent the plan has succeeded over the last year. Consumers don’t seem to be fixated on cheap goods and services any more, though, to be honest, it’s difficult to tell if this willingness to spend more is a function of anticipation for April’s consumption tax hike. But for the time being there seems to be that old desire for high quality stuff, regardless of how much it costs; which isn’t to say consumers aren’t looking for cheap things, only that they aren’t making it a priority any more.

This paradox seems to have had a bad effect on the fortunes of a company that some once thought was invincible: McDonald’s. Since August, the fast food behemoth’s Japanese operation has had to lower its sales projection for fiscal 2013 twice. Profits are expected to be around ¥5 billion, or a whopping ¥6.7 billion lower than originally thought. Sales have decreased five months in row, with the number of customers dropping for 7 consecutive months. The company is telling the media that the reason is “no hit product” this year, thus making it sound like a PR failure, but according to Asahi Shimbun, and almost every other Japanese media that has reported the story, McDonalds’ poor showing seems to be more systemic, an indication of a sea change in consumer sentiment.

The company’s response has been to bring in new blood. Sarah Casanova, a Canadian, was appointed president of McDonald’s Japan last summer, and, again, it seems to be more a matter of an image makeover. The announced new strategy is to target women as a demographic, since it is younger females who have tended to resist McD’s charms the most during its two straight years of falling revenues. The plan reinforces “healthy menu” items, which to a company like McDonald’s means offering more things with chicken in them.

Though it doesn’t sound like much, it’s actually quite a turnaround. When the previous president, Eiko Harada, was appointed in 2004 his big move was pushing the so-called ¥100 Mac, the cheap hamburger that was always going to be McDonald’s mainstay, and it worked. For the next six years profits grew.

The next big coup was ¥100 coffee, which effectively challenged coffee shops and coffee chains like Starbucks. Then the company made over their restaurants with more attractive decor. These various gambits were predicated on boosting the brand, but actually it was the price and the speed of service that mattered to customers. People buy McDonald’s hamburgers not because of the taste or the atmosphere, but because they’re cheap, and the same went for the coffee, which was pretty good considering but not as good as Starbucks, for what it’s worth.

To make matters worse, McDonald’s raised prices in the past year, thinking that the economy justified the change, and in a way it did, but people don’t think that way about McDonald’s. They aren’t willing to pay more for fast food, no matter how well it’s presented or how nice the decor is.

In the era of Abenomics, that means any competition can eat into McDonald’s sales more easily. Just as McD stole customers away from Starbucks when it launched its ¥100 coffee, now convenience stores are taking business away from McD with their own cheap coffee. About a year ago 7-11 put self-service coffee machines, which grind beans and brew coffee while you wait, in 16,000 stores, and by September they had sold 200 million cups. It only costs ¥100, and other CS have followed suit, though Lawson’s coffee is a bit more expensive at ¥150.

The market has grown so much that the consumer report magazine Nikkei Trendy named convenience store coffee the #1 hitto shohin (hit merchandise) of the year. It should be noted that Japan is a formidable coffee market, number 4 in the world in terms of consumption — 50 percent more than green tea, in fact. Even sushi restaurants are now serving fresh coffee. More significantly, 7-11 reports that its new coffee service does not subtract from other in-store coffee-related sales, such as canned coffee or chilled pack coffees. It’s simply gravy.

But someone has to lose in this equation, and it seems to be McDonald’s, which has a lot to lose. After all, ¥260 billion, which is McD’s projected revenue this year, is still a great deal of money. The problem is that McD is associated with hamburgers, whose traction on the Japanese imagination has always been tentative. Older people don’t really eat them as much, and Japan, as everyone knows, is the fastest aging society in the world.

Also, the tendency to eat out is becoming weaker in Japan as the population ages. Restaurant sales have decreased by 20 percent since they peaked in 1997. The weekly magazine Gendai, in typical hyperbolic fashion, has predicted the end of McDonald’s in Japan after reporting that the company will have closed 160 outlets by the end of this fiscal year.

Rental video stores ponder their reason for existing

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

Many happy returns: Prepaid mailer for Rakuten DVDs

Many happy returns: Prepaid mailer for Rakuten DVDs

It’s coming up to that time of year again, the long post-Christmas New Years break when days not spent in the company of relatives you can’t stand are wiled away in front of the television airing programs you can’t stand even more. Traditionally, that makes it one of the biggest seasons for the rental video business; or, at least, it used to. The industry has been in a progressive slump since it peaked more than a decade ago.

According to industry group Japan Video Software Association, the number of stores in Japan peaked in 1990, when it stood at 13,529. In 2012 there were only 3,648, a drop of three-fourths. In terms of revenues the biggest year for rental videos was 2004, when the industry took in ¥258.4 billion. It has decreased by about ¥100 billion since then.

A recent article in the Mainichi Shimbun quoted a 41-year-old owner of a rental video store in Yokohama who said that he used to run two other shops but had to close both. There’s not enough demand for him to be able to afford all the new movies coming out on DVD or Blu-Ray, and it’s new titles that have driven rentals in the past. He remembers the days when he could charge ¥1,000 for a new movie for two days, but since then prices have dropped drastically, mainly due to competition from major national chains.

The main culprit, of course, is the march of technology. Though on-demand streaming and downloading isn’t as widespread in Japan as it is in the U.S., the big three mobile phone carriers have started offering movies that can be streamed on TV sets at home. The number of titles right now is only about 7,000, but even at ¥500 per title, it beats trudging down to the local rental store, if one actually exists within trudging distance.

The problem with on-demand is that accessing such services requires a certain level of computer literacy that tends to decline the older the customer is. This is always a problem for IT service companies but may be the last bastion of revenue for rental video stores. An editor from the industry magazine Video Insider Japan told Mainichi that the strategy from now on will be for video stores to target “customers in their 60s and 70s.”

But only the major chains can afford to do that, apparently. Between them, Tsutaya and GEO account for 70 percent of all the rental video stores in Japan, and because they can afford to buy as many new titles as they want, they price smaller stores out of business. Tsutaya, however, is a franchise operation, and individual owners may find it harder to compete against GEO outlets, which are company owned. Since Tsutaya franchise owners can set their own prices, some are being forced to match GEO’s in order to compete, while others are keeping prices higher. It all depends on location. Also, Tsutaya has made exclusive deals with some distributors that give them a distinct advantage. For a time, they were the only company that had permission to rent out “The Amazing Spider-Man.”

However, in order to attract this older cohort that is now the main demographic for rental videos, chain stores have to go to them rather than the other way around. Both Tsutaya and GEO offer plans wherein customers pay a set monthly fee for a certain number of disks that are delivered directly to their homes. This system has been available for about 10 years, and the only real innovative change has been the addition of so-called spot rentals, meaning members can order videos a la carte without having to sign up for a plan. Right now, GEO is offering some titles for as low as ¥80, with Tsutaya offering ¥100 (both for limited times). What’s interesting about spot rentals is that, depending on which videos you rent and how many, they can be cheaper than monthly plans.

GEO has three monthly plans. The standard plan is ¥945 for four DVDs. After that there’s an 8-disc plan for a little less than ¥2,000, and a 16-disc plan for a bit less than ¥4,000. When you sign up for a plan you get the first month free, but the real difference is in the delivery fee. Whether your order is a spot rental or part of a monthly plan, the fee is ¥300 for up to seven discs at a time. The fee is ¥500 for orders of 8-16 disks. Regardless of the size of the order, the time limit is 10 days from the day the customer receives the disks. As with all such home delivery systems, the company includes a prepaid envelope for returning the discs. However, it’s important to note that GEO does not charge a late fee for people who belong to monthly plans. Late fees for spot rentals are ¥157 a day.

But GEO and Tsutaya now have to contend with an upstart: Rakuten. The Internet mall’s inventory isn’t as deep or wide as the other two companies, but its spot rental system is in many ways cheaper and more amenable to the way most people rent videos. Rakuten also charges ¥300 for delivery fee, but you can only request up to two discs per order. After that the delivery fee increases in increments of ¥200. In that regard, GEO would seem to have the advantage, but actually not. Brand new titles are priced the same as GEO’s, around ¥300, but older titles are usually priced at around ¥50. And titles that are more than, say, two years old can be as cheap as ¥10 or even ¥5.

Like GEO, the time limit for a Rakuten spot rental is 10 days, but if you see two discs over the course of two days you return the discs and can immediately order two more. They usually arrive within a day of placing the order. For sure, the delivery fee for GEO is cheaper, but if you took full advantage of the fee and ordered 7 discs, you’d still have to watch all of them in less than 10 days, and even at ¥80 per disc, they aren’t as cheap as Rakuten’s.

Rakuten’s system is especially rational if you want to watch full seasons of TV series. Last month we watched the second season of “Homeland,” which, because it’s relatively new, cost ¥280 per disc, with two episodes per DVD. But we also went through the first two seasons of “Mad Men,” which were only ¥5-¥10 per disc, also with 2-3 episodes per disc. And they always had the DVDs we wanted in stock. It beats trudging down to the rental video store.

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