Archive for the ‘News’ Category

Political gift culture refuses to die

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Former Justice Minister Midori Matsushima faces the error of her campaigning ways in the Lower House on Oct. 15. | KYODO

Former Justice Minister Midori Matsushima faces the error of her campaigning ways in the Lower House on Oct. 15. | KYODO

With almost breathless speed, two of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s most recent cabinet appointments, trade minister Yuko Obuchi and justice minister Midori Matsushima, resigned after it was revealed they violated political funding laws. Matsushima’s downfall, which revolves around her free distribution of uchiwa (round fans) to voters, may have as much to do with political expediency as with breaking rules, but Obuchi’s use of funds earmarked for public use to purchase gifts and supplement recreational outings for supporters was clearly illegal.

Which isn’t to say it’s not common. As one anonymous veteran of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party — to which Obuchi belongs — told Tokyo Shimbun, the Gunma lawmaker’s problematic actions used to be a fairly normal practice in the Diet. Obuchi is accused of using her political funds, which come from taxpayers in the form of seito kofukin (political party subsidies), revenues from tickets sold for fund-raising get-togethers, and donations from individuals and groups, to supplement “theater tours” for her supporters. Obuchi’s supporters each paid ¥10,000-¥12,000 to go to Meiji-za in Tokyo to enjoy a day of stage performances. However, in her required political funds report there was an obvious discrepancy. Since 2007, the amount received from supporters for these excursions totaled ¥11.9 million, and it is deemed they cost more than ¥60 million to carry out, with the difference being ¥53.3 million that came from Obuchi’s funds.

The veteran says that such jaunts for supporters were normally arranged directly by the politician’s staff, but ever since the law became more thoroughly enforced, lawmakers have entrusted the job to travel agencies so as to divert the trail of money.

In her own defense, Obuchi professed that she didn’t know much about the tours, and while such naivete is perhaps understandable for someone still so relatively new to the game, it must be pointed out that she “inherited,” as it were, her father Keizo Obuchi‘s constituency when he died in 2000, and that included his political fund reserves of ¥120 million, not to mention the “sources” of that money, meaning Gunma individuals and groups who counted on him to see to their interests. It also means she took on his staff, who obviously should have known better.

But theater tickets to see some over-priced enka star isn’t the most of it. What really indicated Obuchi’s ignorance over her risky exposure to scandal was the use of political funds to purchase gifts, a lot of gifts. Former politician and current Keio University professor Yoshihiro Katayama expressed surprise to Tokyo Shimbun when he heard about the scandal. “Are they still doing that?” he asked wryly with regard to political gift-giving.

Though the media focus was on infant goods and accessories from a store owned by her brother-in-law, the funds report also includes mentions of cigars, gift coupons, exotic foods, an expensive stole and ¥685,000 worth of clothing by designer Jun Ashida. All these items were purchased at expensive Ginza department stores and earmarked as kosaihi (entertainment expenses), which is usually code for “gifts,” though, apparently, some of the items Obuchi bought for herself. If she offered these items as gifts to people within her constituency it would constitute a separate crime. When it is all added up over the years, the money spent on these items comes to more than ¥100 million, which apparently isn’t a big deal for Obuchi’s camp. In 2012 alone she took in ¥180 million.

Gift-giving is a common custom in Japan that comes with its own set of priorities. Usually, gifts are offered to superiors — bosses, teachers — in the hope that the recipient will do well by the giver in the future. It’s why people slip a surgeon a box of pastries with ¥100,000 tucked inside to make sure he does his best when he operates on the gift-giver. Japan’s election and political funding laws are very strict about such gifts, since by the very nature of the gesture the giver expects something in return.

As Tokyo Shimbun pointed out, the supporters who partook of the theater tours probably felt they deserved the gesture because of their support and certainly didn’t think there was anything wrong about it. But the fact is, there are even strict rules regarding compensation for campaign workers. A candidate can provide lunch only if it is prepackaged and each volunteer gets the exact same item as the next volunteer. And it all has to be written down.

That’s why Matsushima’s uchiwa were such a problem. She was essentially buying votes. But Obuchi’s use of gifts is baffling since she seemed to be giving them to friends and family, as well as to herself and her children. There didn’t seem to be any expectation of returned favors, so the only explanation is ignorance, which, to some people, is even worse than venality.

In any case, political funds are only supposed to be used for political activities, not personal fulfilment. A politician who doesn’t understand how to break the rules without getting caught isn’t a politician at all.

Foreign tourists expected to take up (some of) the slack in consumption

Monday, October 6th, 2014

Everyday low prices: Duty Free store at Narita Airport

Everyday low prices: Duty Free store at Narita Airport

According to a survey of 12,000 tourists in 2013 carried out by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Chinese spend more than any other group, which isn’t surprising. What is surprising is by how much they outspend other nationalities.

On average, a Chinese visitor spends ¥191,741 in Tokyo. The average spent by all foreign tourists in Tokyo is only ¥46,546, which means Chinese spend about three times as much.

After China, the most spent is by Singaporeans (¥135,377), and then Spaniards (¥129,558). Another notable aspect of Chinese spending is that the bulk is not spend on accommodations or dining, but rather on souvenirs, about ¥122,000. The most popular area for Chinese shoppers is Ginza, because that’s where all the luxury brand stores are.

The government wants them to spend even more, and is thus expanding the list of items that foreign tourists can buy without having to pay consumption tax. Previously, consumables like food, liquor and cosmetics were not exempt from CT when bought by foreign tourists at stores in Japan, but since Oct. 1 they are.

The main beneficiary of this new regulation is department stores, which have been doing badly since the consumption tax went up in April. One of the reasons consumables weren’t exempt before was that there was no way to check if the items were consumed in Japan or overseas, and anything consumed in Japan should be subject to tax. But many Chinese buy food and liquor in Japan as souvenirs for relatives and friends.

The discount is given at the point of purchase, which means the store has to be registered to waive the consumption tax. They check the buyers passport to make sure he or she is not a Japanese national. Technically, the item can be checked at the airport to make sure it wasn’t consumed before leaving the country, but that sounds almost impossible to do.

At present foreign tourism is one of the only bright spots in terms of revenues. In August, spending by foreign tourists was 40 percent more than it was last August, and ¥4.7 billion of it was spent in department stores alone. These numbers will probably go up more now that the yen is dropping.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry estimates that the new duty-free rule will mean a loss of ¥9 billion in CT revenues for the year, but it will also mean a boost in sales of about ¥78 billion, which means it will make up for at least some of the domestic consumption that was lost after the tax increase was implemented.

The duty free system was established in the early 1950s, when less than 40,000 foreign tourists visited Japan in a year. Department stores have always been lobbying the government to expand the list of exempt items, even though administering the system is bothersome for retailers, as well as for tourists, who have to fill out forms. METI is thus thinking of streamlining the system even more by 2020, when the Olympics will be held. At present 5,777 stores belong to the duty-free system.

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 →

Local municipalities vie for your ‘hometown tax’

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Screen shot of web portal site for products being offered as gifts in exchange for "hometown tax" donations

Screen shot of web portal site for products being offered as gifts in exchange for “hometown tax” donations

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is already thinking about next year’s local government elections and in order to help their candidates is studying a possible increase in the maximum tax deduction afforded to people who contribute “hometown taxes” (furusato nozei), a system that was implemented in 2008 to help regional municipalities struggling with budget shortfalls.

Because an increasing portion of the population is concentrated in large metropolitan areas, local government tax bases are eroding. The hometown tax diverts some of the money people pay to big city governments to these smaller municipalities in the form of donations. In order to make the system attractive to taxpayers, the central government offered deductions not only for national income taxes, but also for local income taxes.

Taxpayers can donate funds to a local government that is different from the one where they live, and despite the name of the system it doesn’t have to be their hometown. It can be any locality. Say you live in Tokyo but you want to help out a town in Fukushima devastated in the disaster of 2011, something that many people have used the furusato nozei to do. If you donate 20,000 to that town in Fukushima through the hometown tax system you can get a deduction off your national tax bill this year, and since local income taxes are based on national income taxes, this deduction, as well as a separate deduction for charitable donations, is reflected in your local tax bill the following year, which will be lower that it would have been otherwise as a result. So for the ¥20,000 donation, the taxpayer ends up with an ¥18,000 tax savings (¥20,000 minus a ¥2,000 handling fee).

CONTINUE READING about hometown tax →

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 →

Does an increase in summer bonuses mean a healthier economy?

Saturday, June 21st, 2014

It’s that time of year again, the season when employers, both public and private, hand out their summer bonuses. In recent years the recession has kept the amounts down despite the fact that regular employees tend to consider them as an integral part of their annual salaries. In fact, society in general thinks that, as proven by the practice of incorporating bonuses into repayment schedules for home loans. Technically, however, bonuses are literally bonuses: Employers are not obliged to pay them, and actually use them as a kind of safety valve to adjust personnel expenditures twice a year.

Josei Jishin lists 35 of the  top 55 major corporations in terms of size of summer bonus for 35-year-old regular employees

Josei Jishin lists 55 major corporations in terms of size of summer bonus for 35-year-old regular employees

This summer the news sounds good. Bonuses are, on average, higher than they were last year, by about 8.8 percent, according to a survey of 74 companies carried out by Keidanren, Japan’s biggest business lobby. The average bonus for a 35-year-old regular worker will be ¥1.5 million, while that for a manager in his 40s or 50s is above ¥3 million. It’s the highest year-on-year increase on record.

According to Josei Jishin magazine, the biggest bonuses are being given out by trading companies, which makes sense. Trading companies, who do all their business overseas, enjoyed a huge windfall after the government’s monetary easing policy forced down the value of the yen.

Export-oriented manufacturers also did well for the same reason. Toyota’s average summer bonus for a 35-year-old employee is ¥1.23 million, though that sounds sort of stingy considering that the company saw a 73 percent rise in profits. Securities companies, which also benefited from Abenomics, were high on the list (Daiwa Shoken ¥1.35 million), but their employees’ compensations tend to be based more on personal accomplishments rather than corporate achievement, which is the classic definition of a bonus.

In 13th place on the Josei Jishin list is NTT DoCoMo, at ¥935,000, the highest company to record a drop in average bonus pay compared to last year. In fact, only two companies on the list of 55 companies announced a decrease.

What’s notable about the list is that all the companies are big. Smaller firms, it should be noted, aren’t doing as well in the recovery, and while average bonuses have gone up, the actual number of bonuses given out has gone down, from 38.6 million in 2013 to a projected 37.4 million this year.

Economist Hiroko Ogiwara pointed out to the magazine that while automobile makers did really well, their suppliers barely kept up and so didn’t give out much in the way of bonuses. NTT didn’t do as well as last year because it has no export-related business. And domestic companies that rely on imports, like processed food manufacturers, have suffered due to higher costs for ingredients. Moreover, the labor shortage in the retail and service industries pushed up personnel costs. Sukiya, the largest gyudon (beef bowl) chain in Japan, could only afford an average ¥350,000 to its regular employees (meaning not to restaurant staff). Power companies also were cheap with bonuses because of their continuing reliance on imported fuel. Kyushu Power’s average was only ¥300,000.

CONTINUE READING about summer bonuses →

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