Archive for the ‘Lifestyle’ Category

More convenience stores adopting restaurant functions, and vice versa

Monday, January 19th, 2015

Drink 'em if you got 'em: Counter area in a new Family Mart being built in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture

Drink ‘em if you got ‘em: Counter area in a new Family Mart being built in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture

Ministop, the fifth largest convenience store chain in Japan with 2,200 outlets nationwide, was the first of its ilk to provide counters, tables and chairs for patrons who preferred to consume their purchases on the premises. Because of relatively lax tax laws in Japan, they could do it without having to charge more. This service was originally devised as a gimmick that would differentiate Ministop from other chains, and for years no other CS chain felt that it needed to do the same thing.

Last summer, Ministop, which belongs to the Aeon retail conglomerate, expanded on this idea with an offshoot called Cisca, an abbreviation for “city small cafe.” It’s basically a more attractively appointed convenient store centered around the sit-down space. So far, only one Cisca has opened, in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, and according to Asahi Shimbun the target is women who work in the area. The selection is more limited than what you would find in a regular Ministop, with the focus on high quality deli items and beverages, including fresh coffee and alcoholic drinks.

The “eating corner” seats only 17, but what really distinguishes Cisca from other Ministops is that eating-in is encouraged with free use of utensils. You can buy a bottle of wine for ¥700, for instance, and drink it right there, because they will provide you with wine glasses. Each seat also has its own electrical outlet. According to Ministop’s publicity department, since the store opened it’s been almost continually full.

Cisca is part of a trend taking place in both the retail and restaurant trades toward a more practical and less expensive view of dining out. Half of the new outlets opened by CS giant Family Mart since the beginning of 2013 also have sit-down counters and tables.

CONTINUE READING about convenience-store meal corners →

Cheap smokes finally going up in price

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

Lower class: the 3 most inexpensive cigarette brands

Lower class: the 3 most inexpensive cigarette brands

At the end of last year the ruling coalition studied some tax revisions for 2015 and decided to review the one for tobacco. The review mainly affects three brands, which remain cheap five years after cigarette taxes were increased considerably. These three brands — Wakaba, Echo and Golden Bat — are classified as “third-class tobacco,” which meant that their tax was half the portion levied on other cigarette brands. Apparently, the government wants to make the tax on these three brands equal to that for other brands.

The reason for the tobacco tax in the first place had nothing to do with health and everything to do with the notion that only well-off people smoked, which is the same rationale that governed the tax on alcohol. This was back in the middle 19th century. The government originally owned the tobacco monopoly and still has a hefty share of the stock in the nominally private Japan Tobacco, so the tax has always had a political dimension.

During the Meiji Era, when Japan suddenly decided it had to compete with the rest of the world, the authorities needed revenue fast, and tobacco was an easy way to get it. With the rise of the military and more involvement in foreign wars, the government supplied soldiers with free cigarettes in order to cultivate the tobacco market. Thus cigarettes became a classless commodity whose sales were spurred by its addictive nature.

CONTINUE READING about cheap cigarettes →

Cosmetics market shifts up in age

Monday, December 8th, 2014

Poster for Shiseido makeup outside discount drug retailer Matsumoto Kiyoshi

Poster for Shiseido makeup outside discount drug retailer Matsumoto Kiyoshi

You can tell how important an industry is to the media by how many news outlets cover the same story in the same way. What happened was a company put out a press release that everyone feels obligated to cover since the company is a major advertiser.

Last week everyone mentioned that cosmetics maker Kao will be coming out with a new line of eye shadow targeting older women under its Aube brand. Makeup specially formulated for older consumers isn’t a new thing, but what makes Aube Couture Bright Up Eyes of more than just passing interest is that its main appeal is the application rather than the wearing. When older eyelids become flaccid, it’s more difficult to put on eye shadow evenly, so Kao came up with a special foundation that makes it easier for the customer to apply the shadow on top of it. In addition, the case comes with a special 2X magnifying mirror for older eyesights.

Shiseido also announced a brand new line of 33 items for older women called Prior that will come out Jan. 21 and is centered on a cream that gives the skin a glossy tone which “medicates” wrinkles and age spots as a way of “reducing” them. It’s another way of saying that the cream covers them up. It also obviates the need for foundation, thus making it “easy to use.” Also, Prior’s eye shadow comes in a box with instructions in large type and photos to make it easier for consumers to understand how to apply it. CONTINUE READING about new markets for cosmetic makers

Casino tax study exposes pachinko to greater scrutiny

Monday, September 8th, 2014

Where's the money? Pachinko patrons at an off-site exchange booth

Where’s the money? Pachinko patrons at an off-site exchange booth

In line with plans to make casino gambling legal in Japan, the government needs to come up with some sort of scheme to tax gambling receipts, but even before they do that they have to address another problematic potential revenue source: pachinko. As it stands, pachinko winnings are not taxed and pro-casino forces are thinking of implementing a 1 percent levy on those winnings, so they went to the National Police Agency and asked for figures to see what kind of tax revenues they could expect. An NPA representative told them, seemingly with a straight face, that they don’t keep such statistics since there are no winnings.

Classic pachinko is like pinball in that the player earns points by being able to send balls into certain holes, which gives him more balls to play with. In gambling terms, a player wins when he ends up with more balls than what he started with. However, pachinko parlors cannot reimburse the player for the balls he wins. Instead they give him tokushu keihin (special premiums) — ball point pens, lighter flints, etc. — in exchange for balls. Then, he can take those premiums to an off-site, unaffiliated shop that buys them with cash. The shop then sells the premiums back to a wholesaler, which, in turn, redistributes tham back to pachinko parlors.

This “three-shop exchange system” (santen kokan hoshiki) bypasses anti-gambling laws because the venue where the customer plays the game does not offer cash rewards. Everyone understands this system and how it works, but the police representative told the group of lawmakers that they don’t have figures because “we don’t know anything about places” where pachinko players exchange prizes for money.

According to the Asahi Shimbun, the lawmakers were “disgusted” with this ingenuous display of “tatemae” (official principle). The group, established last February, believes a 1 percent tax on pachinko winnings would generate ¥200 billion a year in revenues for the government, which is important since the present administration has decided to reduce the amount of corporate tax it collects and has to make up the shortfall somehow. Consequently, according to the Asahi, these lawmakers have to “destroy” the illusion that people don’t exchange pachinko balls for cash, which means they have to publicize the three-shop system and explain it for what it is, which is gambling by indirection.

The system was devised in Osaka in the 1960s. At the time, players exchanged the premiums they won for cash directly from organized crime members. Later, the police forced underworld elements out of the business and entrusted the exchange system to local chapters of the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association, which consists of people who lost heads-of-household and other loved ones on the front lines in World War II.

It was a form of public welfare, and at this point the NPA acknowledged, albeit tacitly, that pachinko exchanges weren’t strictly illegal any more. Eventually, they set up their own bureaucratic organization, the Pachinko Gyokai Dantai (Pachinko Industry Group), and staffed it with retired NPA officials to administer the exchange system. Some media have said that profits from the system go into the police pension fund and other NPA-related schemes. In any case, the police have never allowed anyone outside this organization to have anything to do with the system.

CONTINUE READING about gambling in Japan →

Prep schools succumbing to more than economic reality

Monday, September 1st, 2014

In recent weeks the yobiko Yoyogi Seminar announced that it would be closing 20 of its 27 schools nationwide by March of next year. The reason is clear and has been for years: enrollment is dropping with no bottom in sight.

Yoyogi Seminar in Tsudanuma, Chiba Prefecture, which is one of the branches scheduled to close

Yoyogi Seminar in Tsudanuma, Chiba Prefecture, one of the branches scheduled to close

The term “yobiko” is sometimes translated as “cram school” and sometimes as “prep school,” and so they tend to be mixed up with juku, another education-related term translated as “cram school.” Practically speaking there is no real difference, since both forms of enterprise prepare students to take entrance tests for higher institutions of learning. But juku tend to be associated with elementary school and junior high school students, while yobiko are more often attended by high school students who want to get into name universities.

Just as often they are used by high school graduates who are doing the same. Since these grads are not attending a for-credit school at the time, they are referred to as ronin, the word that described masterless samurai in the past. And in a sense it is the loss of ronin that made Yoyogi Seminar realize its future was in jeopardy. This past spring, according to the education ministry, 80,000 ronin took college entrance tests. In 1994, the number was 280,000.

The obvious reason for the loss of ronin is that the so-called “narrow gate” for entering universities has widened over the years. As the birthrate continues to remain low the number of available students has dwindled, and at the same time the number of universities has actually increased, from 552 20 years ago to 781 as of the beginning of this year. Schools, especially those lower on the prestige scale, are desperate for paying students and thus have eased requirements for admission. Some don’t even require tests any more, but accept recommendations or school performance records. And without the entrance testing system most yobiko have no reason to exist.

CONTINUE READING about cram schools and ronin →

European winemakers fret over competition from Chile

Monday, August 25th, 2014

The competition: Wines from Australia, Chile and France with retail prices below ¥1,000

The competition: Wines from Australia, Chile and France with retail prices below ¥1,000

During the first half of the year, sales of wine from Chile exceeded those of wines from Italy, thus making Chilean wine the second most popular imported wine in Japan, and apparently, Chile is now gaining rapidly on No. 1, France. The main reason is the Chile-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement signed in September 2007, after which the tariff on Chilean wine started to decrease gradually from the standard duty on foreign wines of either 15 percent of import price or ¥125 per liter. Right now the tariff rate for Chilean wines is 5.8 percent, and it will be zero in April 2019.

According to a Jiji Press report, the further the tariff drops, the more sales increase. More significantly, the amount of wine being imported has gone up. In 2007, when the EPA went into effect, Japan imported 10,517 kiloliters. But 2013, the volume was 36,435 kiloliters, which is an average annual growth rate of 20 percent. For the first half of this year alone, 17,349 kl entered Japan, and since the end of the year is the big season for wine, it’s clear that this year’s volume will exceed last year’s. And note that France exported 19,093 kl to Japan in the first six months of 2014.

Nevertheless, importers have told Jiji that the EPA isn’t as big an influence as it seems. One wine industry association said that Chile’s product is more suited to Japanese tastes, whatever that means. But the fact is that other wine-making countries and regions are paying close attention to the Japanese market and may be worried about Chile’s ascendance. For one thing, while sales of alcoholic beverages in general have been on the decline, the consumption of wine has been going up. At present, the average Japanese person consumes a little less than three bottles a year. Consequently, Japan signed another EPA with Australia in July. According to the terms of the agreement, the tariff on Australian wine will disappear in seven years, which is faster than the rate reduction with Chile.

So Europe is especially anxious to get its own EPA hammered out, since it’s losing ground to these New World winemakers. Wine and cheese are two of the main products under discussion.

It may already be too late. According to a report in the Hokkaido Shimbun, Hokkaido Prefecture’s most prominent convenient store chain, Seico Mart, has seen a 10 percent increase in the sale of Chilean wines over the past year, or one-fourth of the chain’s entire wine sales revenue. That’s even more than French wines. The newspaper narrows the appeal down better than Jiji, saying that Japanese people prefer the slightly sweeter flavor of Chilean wine. But the real reason is the price. The bestselling wine in the chain is a Chilean wine that goes for ¥480.

A common retail belief when it comes to selling wine to people who aren’t connoisseurs in Japan is that ¥1,000 tends to be the limit, and Chilean wine is consistently below that ceiling.

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.

CONTINUE READING about the unagi shortage →

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