Archive for the ‘Lifestyle’ Category

Local government attempts to make citizens rat on welfare recipients

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

A goal of the resurgent Liberal Democratic Party is to reduce public welfare expenditures over the next three years by cutting handouts to the tune of ¥67 billion, or about 10 percent. The targets of these cuts are households who receive more money in welfare than do “lower income” households who don’t, the purpose being to bring the monthly payments made to non-working poor families down to or below the monthly earnings of working poor families. Thus the public assistance payment for a family of four would drop from an average of ¥220,000 to ¥200,000.

They call it gambling: Pachinko enthusiasts waiting for their loot

They call it gambling: Pachinko enthusiasts waiting for their loot

As to what this family would have to give up, one category ripe for reduction is “recreation” (goraku), which includes everything from TV sets and PCs to books and magazines. However, according to a 2010 government survey, welfare recipients only spent 6.4 percent of their money on recreation, and due to the LDP’s prime bugbear, deflation, they are spending less in this area all the time, so the keepers of the treasury will have to find other places to cut.

One public figure, however, feels that the goraku category hasn’t been scrutinized enough. The city assembly of Ono, Hyogo Prefecture, passed a law that went into effect April 1 prohibiting people who receive public assistance from the city to use that money for gambling. The law also compels city residents to report any instance of gambling by welfare recipients to the police. Given the timing of the implementation and the nature of the law, some people may wonder if it’s a joke, but Mayor Tsutomu Horai, who wrote it, is quite passionate about the matter, which is why the media have covered it so closely.

Ono currently pays out ¥290 million in welfare annually to 120 households. The population of the city is 50,000. The new law states that anyone who observes a welfare recipient spending “too much money” on gambling has a responsibility to report it to the authorities. The model seems to be local versions of child abuse prevention laws, which state that anyone who believes a child is the victim of violence or neglect must report the abuse to police.

The bill first became publicly known in February, before it was approved, and the city received some 7,000 “opinions” from all over Japan, 70 percent of which were positive. As Horai told the weekly magazine Aera at the time, “Let’s say your friend asks to borrow money because of some trouble, and then later you see him playing pachinko. Naturally, you’re going to be annoyed.”

The problem, as he saw it, was that most people don’t care about public money, and so he wants to change that perception. There is no penalty if a person sees a welfare recipient gambling and does not report it, probably because that would be impossible to prove. Horai certainly understands this, but claims that 90 percent of the city’s residents, including welfare recipients themselves, support the law and so most of his job is already done.

The Hyogo Prefecture Bar Association has come out against the law, saying that its purpose of involving average citizens in the monitoring of welfare recipients’ behavior will result in greater “discrimination of and bias toward” the latter. In fact, Ono’s finances are healthier than most local government’s. Its treasury actually reports a surplus balance of ¥8.5 billion, and the mayor himself has said that the aim of the law is not to reduce the welfare budget. If anything, he hopes the law will also alert people who may qualify for assistance to apply for it.

As it stands, the central government provides three-fourths of a typical handout with the remainder handled by municipalities. About 1.7 percent of the national population receives welfare, while the portion in Ono is only 0.3 percent. However, both statistics are on the rise — the number of recipients in Ono increased by 64 percent over the last five years — and is certainly a reflection of the economic situation in general, but Horai thinks that it has to do with a more relaxed attitude toward government handouts. He told Aera that he first thought of devising the bill when he was at city hall and overheard several people who were waiting on line for their welfare packets. One asked another, “Where are you going to play pachinko later?”

Horai focuses on pachinko, which, legally speaking, isn’t gambling. Players can only earn money by trading the excess balls they win for premiums in the pachinko parlors and then “selling” those premiums at specially established booths outside the premises. Though no one is fooled that this isn’t betting in practice, it’s gambling by legal loophole. What’s more, the off-site payment booths are regulated by the National Police Agency, so why doesn’t pachinko qualify as legal recreation, which is considered acceptable for welfare recipients? And why doesn’t Horai induce citizens to narc on welfare recipients who, say, buy lottery tickets?

Actually, he has an answer to those questions. “People say pachinko is merely entertainment,” he told Aera. “But they don’t understand reality. People who spend too much on pachinko are addicts.” In truth, he wants welfare recipients who play “too much” pachinko to seek medical help, which they can do easily since, as welfare recipients, their medical insurance is free. Horai’s system may not make much sense, but he wants you to know his heart is in the right place.

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.

You can’t take it with you: Horse gambler’s system stymied by tax law

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

People in Japan who win prizes through the lottery (takarakuji) do not have to pay taxes on their gains, even if they win hundreds of millions of yen. However, people who win money betting on horses or other racing sports are required to report those earnings on their income tax returns. Why the distinction? Is it a difference in approach? Though both are forms of gambling, which is strictly circumscribed, lotteries are purely matters of chance, while betting on the ponies can involve calculation and experience. Only the tiniest fraction of the population could make a “living” from the former, by essentially winning a jackpot once, while there is a small but dogged subculture whose members at least like to think they can profit continually at the track.

Poster commemorating Japan Racing Association’s 150th anniversary

One person recently found out just how limited such a livelihood can be. A 39-year-old salaryman, whom the media hasn’t named, was recently indicted in Osaka for tax evasion. The man’s lawyer has told the press that he makes ¥8 million a year at an unspecified job. He is married and has one child with another on the way.

In 2006 he started spending enormous amounts of money on horse racing based on the belief that he could make a profit over time. Using software that “predicts winners,” he would analyze the statistics for individual horses and then bet on multiple contestants in individual races through the internet. He would not bet on races with horses making their debut since there wasn’t enough data available, but almost anything else was acceptable.

The point was to bet as much as possible on as many “favorable” horses as he could, including combination tickets. He lost most races, but he made enough on winning bets to pool that money and then use it for the next series of races. This sort of continuous overkill methodology meant that in the long run his winnings grew exponentially. During the three-year period from 2007 to 2009, he bought ¥2.87 billion worth of tickets and received winnings of ¥3 billion, thus making a net profit of ¥140 million.

However, he didn’t report these earnings on his tax return and eventually was audited by the Osaka branch of the National Tax Bureau. The amount they cited him for was not the ¥140 million he netted, but rather ¥2.9 billion — the ¥3 billion he grossed minus an expenditure of ¥100 million. Thus his tax bill for the three years is a whopping ¥570 million, and with the added penalty it comes to a total of ¥690 million.

Continue reading about tax on revenue from gambling →

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 →

Fast-food joints hail relaxed rules for U.S. beef, signal end of the world

Saturday, September 15th, 2012

Earlier this month a panel of experts recommended to the health ministry that it relax standards restricting imports of beef from the United States, Canada, France and the Netherlands for animals that are more than 20 months old. The panel suggests that cattle up to 30 months old be allowed for import and sale in Japan.

Get it while it’s cheap: Yoshinoya outlet in Roppongi, Tokyo

The restrictions were implemented in 2005 after BSE, or “mad cow disease,” was discovered in some livestock in the U.S. in 2003. Between 2003 and 2005 beef imports from the U.S. were banned. When the restriction went into effect, the U.S. objected, saying there was no conclusive proof that the age of the animal has anything to do with whether or not it can get BSE, and in any case, the incidence of the disease was extremely small and statistically insignificant. The government panel seems to have agreed with this opinion by saying that the age of the cow has no relationship “to people’s health.” They will give their official evaluation to the health ministry some time this fall, and the regulations should be relaxed by early next year.

Retailers and restaurateurs, especially fast food chains, are happy with the panel’s decision since it means they can start selling more U.S. beef, which is very popular among consumers here because of its higher fat content. More than 60 percent of the beef sold in supermarkets now is Australian, with 20 percent coming from the U.S. and the remainder from domestic producers. Though the American dollar is, for the moment at least, worth less in Japan than the Australian dollar, U.S. beef is more expensive than Australian beef due to the restrictions. In fact, the high yen is the only reason U.S. beef is at all affordable in Japan right now. By limiting U.S. beef to animals less than 21 months old, imports are seasonal and thus more expensive. Only about 20 percent of all cattle in the U.S. is slaughtered at less than 21 months, while 90 percent is less than 31 months. Consequently, almost all the animals slaughtered in the U.S. can be exported to Japan after the new year.

Continue reading about U.S. beef imorts →

Summertime blues: no place to go or no money to spend?

Friday, August 10th, 2012

Last week, the research department of Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance released the results of its annual summer vacation survey. For the second year in a row, projected spending for summer vacation dropped from the previous year’s spending. On average, households say they plan to spend ¥82,974 this year, down from ¥84,848 last year. It is not the lowest amount on record, however. In 2008, households said they would spend ¥76,955, but that was the year after the subprime crisis and the Lehman Brothers “shock.” The next year, spending recovered but has been declining ever since.

What the roads won’t look like in the middle of August.

Yasuda hasn’t analyzed these findings, so it’s not entirely clear if the reason for the decline is lack of disposable income due to the ongoing recession or fear of spending any money because of an uncertain future. However, the amount of spending jumps considerably when children aren’t involved. Households consisting only of couples said they would spend on average ¥100,191, which is much more than it was last year. A relatively large number of couples say they will be traveling overseas.

In any case, the majority of all respondents said they would stick close to home this summer, 62 percent, to be precise. It’s the seventh year in a row that “staying at home” topped the list of answers to the question, “What do you plan to do?” Other answers (respondents can tick more than one) included “return to my home town” (39.4 percent), travel domestically (37.4 percent), and visit theme parks, public pools, camping sites, etc. Among the reasons given for staying at home this year, the most common was “to recover my strength,” followed by “it costs too much to travel.”

It’s unfortunate that Yasuda didn’t get even more detailed in this line of inquiry. For example, of the people who said they would visit their home towns, 52 percent also said they would get there by automobile. Considering the monumental “u-turn rush” traffic jams that occur during the specified holiday period, it might have been interesting to find out how many people decided not to go home because of traffic jams and crowded trains. It’s easy to blame apathy about summer vacation on economics, but logistics has a lot to do with it, too, especially when they’re qualified by financial considerations. These things all go together.

Wag the dog: Pooch tax more than just a source of revenue

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

You talkin’ to me?: Sign asking apartment residents to clean up after their dogs

Like a lot of Japanese cities, Izumisano, in Osaka Prefecture, has a problem with dog doo. People aren’t properly cleaning up after their pets, and last year the city government passed an ordinance that would levy an immediate ¥1,000 fine on people who didn’t. The ordinance has gone into effect but there’s one problem: No staff to patrol and issue the summonses. So far not one fine has been levied much less collected. Obviously, the city needs to hire people to carry out the patrols, but like almost every other municipality in the country, Izumisano is short of funds, so the mayor proposed a tax on dog owners to pay for the patrol. The idea was met with overwhelming support from the citizens.

No one bothered to break this support down into people who own dogs and those who don’t, but according to the magazine Aera, these days almost any tax proposal is met with automatic opposition, even from those it doesn’t target. But everybody in Izuminosano thinks this tax is a good idea, including animal welfare groups, which would conceivably shoulder an extra financial burden if the tax is carried out unless it specifically excluded organizations such as private shelters. One such group told Aera that it’s important to enlighten people to the responsibility attendant on dog ownership, especially with regard to a dog’s impact on the environment and public sanitation. The group thinks that a dog tax would be a good way to raise such awareness, in addition to collecting money that can be used for animal welfare.

Continue reading about a proposed tax on dogs →

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