Archive for the ‘News’ Category

Call the sitter: Parents resort to online services out of economic necessity

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Public daycare center closed for the day

Public daycare center closed for the day

A few weeks ago news outlets were all over a story about the death of an infant who had been placed in the care of a young freelance babysitter. The media was quick to blame the mother, at least by implication, since she had found the man through an Internet portal site that matched people who needed babysitters with people who provided such services. Many of these providers seem to be unlicensed, but babysitting as a job description is relatively new to Japan.

What seemed unusual in this case — though it’s actually quite common — is that the two boys the mother left with the man were watched at the man’s apartment in Saitama Prefecture, rather than at the woman’s residence in Yokohama, which is normally the way babysitting works. In the woman’s defense, some media pointed out that she had used the man as a babysitter previously and didn’t trust him, but because he used a different name this time she wasn’t aware she was leaving her children in his care.

However irresponsible the woman was in this situation, the fact is that there is an increasing number of parents who rely on such services. The Internet portal site that the woman used has 10,000 registered users and 6,000 registered sitters. The paucity of daycare services in Japan is a well-covered issue, and some parents can’t wait for the government or the private sector to rectify the situation, especially if they have infants and toddlers, which conventional daycare centers don’t usually accept anyway.

CONTINUE READING about childcare portal sites →

Government’s new scheme to bolster social security is still hopeless

Monday, March 10th, 2014

This document was sent out several years ago after the government discovered that it had lost the pension payment records of 50 million people. The document would be used to help locate those records. The program was expensive, but very few people responded.

This document was sent out several years ago after the government discovered that it had lost the pension payment records of 50 million people. The document would be used to help locate those records. The program was expensive, but very few people responded.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has announced that starting in April it will “take action” to increase the “collection rate” of national pension premiums, specifically those for kokumin nenkin, the obligatory pension plan for the self-employed and those who otherwise don’t belong to the company-supported kosei nenkin pension system. According to Tokyo Shimbun the idea is to send warning letters to individuals whose incomes are more than ¥4 million and who haven’t contributed for at least 13 consecutive months.

Presumably, the next step will be for the ministry to start siezing assets. The initial criteria would target approximately 140,000 pension scofflaws. Eventually, however, they will go after everyone who hasn’t paid, and since it is estimated that close to 3 million people who should be paying into the system haven’t been for at least 24 months, the job seems daunting if not impossible.

There are many reasons for this delinquency, but the main one has to do with the system itself. Basic pensions apply not only to the self-employed, but anyone who is employed part-time or on a contract basis, meaning their employers don’t pay into the kosei nenkin system. It also includes the unemployed, because according to the law every adult who lives in Japan must belong to the system, whether they work or not. And the premiums are the same, regardless of income or lack thereof: right now ¥15,250 a month (it goes up gradually every year).

The ministry assumes that about 90,000 people who should be “members” are not, and that number is probably higher, but in any case, excluding those who are exempt from paying (very poor, disabled, etc.), the rate of payment into the kokumin nenkin fund was only 59 percent as of 2012, and that portion continues to decline.

In a 2011 government survey, the number one demographic of delinquents was the unemployed, which is easy to understand. However, 28 percent of delinquent payers had part-time jobs, and they said they didn’t make enough to pay. Moreover, 22 percent of the so-called deadbeats were self-employed or working in their families’ businesses. Overall, 74 percent of those who said they couldn’t pay gave their reason as “can’t afford the premiums.” The percentage is increasing because the number of non-regular employees is also increasing.

But the government says that 10.5 percent of households whose income exceeds ¥10 million have also failed to pay their fair share, and it’s these people they are citing first. After that, 17 percent of households with incomes of between ¥5 and ¥10 million are delinquent. Both of these seemingly solvent income brackets say in surveys that they, too, cannot afford the premiums due to “financial difficulties,” but there is also a considerable number who refuse to pay simply because they “don’t trust the system.”

The pension system’s fairness has always been a point of contention. As it stands, if a person pays his fair share for 40 years, the maximum monthly payment he receives at 65 will be ¥66,000, which is not enough to live off of. The main concept behind kokumin nenkin when it was first devised was that the self-employed would still have income from their businesses or the sale of their businesses when they retired. Not only is that not necessarily true, but the bulk of basic pension members are non-regular employees who have nothing else to fall back on when they retire, unless they’ve saved and invested, which is unlikely.

Also, everyone in Japan must also pay into the national health insurance plan, which for most people takes priority since anyone can get sick at any time, but you only retire when you get old. Then there are people with some money who have bought life insurance annuity plans that give them some income when they retire. They may not see the point in paying double for a pension, so they don’t bother paying nenkin.

But the most discouraging aspect of the system is that in order to receive even the minimum payment at retirement, which is less than ¥30,000 a month, you have to pay into the system for at least 25 years. Regardless of one’s mathematical skills, it doesn’t take much calculating to understand that paying ¥15,000 a month for 25 years for a pension that will be so low one will have to apply for supplemental welfare (which is increasingly the case) is not worth it.

What’s particularly maddening about the government’s refusal to acknowledge reality is that it continues to throw money at the problem. Tokyo Shimbun estimates that for every ¥100 that the ministry will collect with its new hardline policy starting in April, it will spend ¥90. In real terms, the ministry has budgeted ¥5.3 billion for “forced collections.” Also, according to the law, it can only make delinquents pay up to two years retroactively, and if the individual has been delinquent for much longer than that the individual may wonder, “What’s the point?,” since he can only receive a pension if he’s paid for a full 25 years.

There is no sense to the system, especially when you consider that the Democratic Party of Japan wanted to change it to something more rational, and made the Liberal Democratic Party promise to revise the system when it gave up the reins of government in December 2012. Since then the LDP has done nothing, because it believes that any change would be unfair to the people who have paid into the system properly all along. Famous last words.

For young women sex industry offers safety net the government doesn’t

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

A sign teases sexual services.

A sign teases sexual services.

One of the pillars of Abenomics is getting more women to join the workforce, but since last fall, when a young woman in Osaka was found in her apartment starved to death, the media has been reporting dire statistics about poverty among women. According to government statistics, one-third of females who are productively employable and living alone make less than ¥1.14 million a year, which demarcates the government’s poverty line.

The peak year of employment in Japan was 1997, when 38.92 million men had jobs and 26.65 million women. In 2012, the number of male workers had dropped to 36 million, while that of females had declined less, to 26.5 million. In 2012, women made up 42.3 percent of the workforce, a three percentage point increase since 1980. However, the stability of that work seems to be going in the opposite direction. The number of non-regular and part-time workers is on the increase, but the number of women in this group is disproportionately larger: 57.5 percent for females to 22.1 percent for males. Without regular employment and the opportunity for periodic pay raises, these women invariably fall into a cycle of poverty from which they can never escape. The situation for single mothers is even worse: 80 percent of those who work fall below the poverty line, even with government assistance factored in.

NHK’s evening in-depth news program, “Closeup Gendai,” has aired a series of reports on poor young women. One program broadcast in late January profiled several. There was a teenage girl working at a convenience store to support her sick mother and three siblings while taking a high school equivalency course that she hopes will lead to a night school program that will earn her a license to teach nursery school, but the program will cost her ¥80,000 a month, which means she’ll have to take out a loan that will be paid back when — and if — she gets a job. There’s a woman from Aomori Prefecture who worked three jobs but still couldn’t make enough to support herself since the minimum wage in the prefecture is only ¥650, so she came to Tokyo, where the minimum wage is higher, but so are living expenses.

Experts interviewed by NHK point out that women have traditionally taken low-paying service jobs because they weren’t expected to stay on, eventually marrying and having children. But now young women don’t have as many marriage prospects due to lower incomes for marriageable men. More of them have to support themselves, but there are only these low-paying service jobs which aren’t enough to live off of. The cycle of poverty is already in gear, because these women’s parents are themselves poor, which is why they no longer live with them. When a reporter asks one woman if she hopes to have children one day, she looks at him as if he were crazy. She can’t even feed herself. How could she feed a child?

But there are women trying to do just that. One 28-year-old single mother in Hiroshima is raising a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. She makes ¥100,000 a month and receives a child allowance of ¥40,000 from the government. She herself grew up in a poor family and had to start working when she graduated from junior high school.

But according to one program in the series there is an area of hope for such women: the sex industry (fuzokuten). Massage parlors and escort services offer not only dormitories for staff, but also daycare if the workers have young children. Want ads indicating such benefits are common, but the NHK director could only find one company that would agree to coverage. The camera shows the manager of the business talking on the phone, telling a customer that the fee is “¥19,000 for 90 minutes, if you don’t state a preference for a worker.” At this company, 40 percent of the fee goes to the company and the rest is kept by the worker. The manager says they get a lot of applicants, especially from single mothers because of the daycare. Though some businesses run their own daycare, most contract with outside services. The dorm is also a big draw, though the manager points out that “sometimes there are more staff than there are available rooms.”

One of the employees interviewed by NHK says she is 21 and has an 18-month-old daughter. She had to start working right after the girl was born, but there are no daycare facilities that accept infants. She had no choice but to work here, and in six months she has managed to save ¥700,000. She makes ¥300,000 a month. “When I’m 25 I’ll probably have to quit, and my parents don’t know I work here,” she tells the director, but by that time she hopes to have a lot of money saved. Another interviewee is in her 30s, also a single mother. She is here to look for a job. She once worked in the sex industry but quit when she got another job. Then she fell ill and applied for welfare, but was told it would take two months to check her background and than another month to process her application. She can’t wait three months.

During the seven days that NHK covered the business, it hired 15 new employees. Though the information reported on the program is sobering, several Internet commentators have pointed out that these conditions have always been the norm in the sex industry, but it’s only now that people are paying attention because of the economic situation.

 

Image via furibond

Regional bank hits on novel way to attract business

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Banner advertising housing loans outside branch of Keiyo Bank in Inzai

Banner advertising housing loans outside branch of Keiyo Bank in Inzai

Lottery winners who hit the jackpot are always good news stories, but the anonymous lucky individual who was the subject of reports in all major media on Feb. 3 represented a different angle on the topic. Instead of being announced by the authorities who administer the Year-end Jumbo Takarakuji lottery, the ¥700 million prize was publicized by a regional financial institution, Chiba Prefecture’s Keiyo Bank. That’s because the winner of the jackpot didn’t actually have the winning ticket in his or her possession. The bank was holding it for safe keeping.

With interests rates on time deposits being so low for so long, banks, especially smaller regional ones, have a tough time convincing people to become customers and usually resort to special premiums or deals. Keiyo’s is to offer lottery tickets as incentives to open savings accounts. For every one million yen deposited in a three-year teiki yokin (time deposit account), the depositor receives five lottery tickets per year for various drawings. Keiyo, however, only supplies the customer with the number of the ticket, not the ticket itself, which it holds on to. When the drawing is carried out the customer checks the number against the winners and if there’s a match the customer contacts the bank, which then gives the customer the ticket for him or her to cash in.

In this most recent case, the drawing was conducted in early January and the bank, knowing that one of its customers had won, waited for the customer to call. The person didn’t.   After a month, the bank finally called the individual with the happy news.

What’s most interesting about the story is that it isn’t the first time a Keiyo customer has hit it big. The bank has been offering the lottery incentive since March 2007, and in the intervening years there have been 34 ¥1 million winners, two ¥5 million winners and one ¥100 million winner. These numbers give the impression that Keiyo customers have a higher probability of winning, but according to a lottery expert interviewed by Tokyo Shimbun it’s difficult to figure the odds since the bank has never released the total number of tickets it has bought for customers over the years, but likely it isn’t that much because Keiyo is, after all, a regional bank with a limited reach.

As a reference, interest on a three-year time deposit is 0.03 percent, which means for the first year of a ¥1 million account the customer earns ¥300. That amount would buy one ¥300 lottery ticket before the government deducts its 20.315 percent tax on interest.

Side note: In December we wrote about the Post Office lottery for New Years cards. In case you still have them lying around and didn’t check the winning numbers here they are: If the last five digits on any of the cards you received are, in order, 9-7-0-8-5 then you win ¥10,000. If the last four digits are 2-3-4-4, you win a prize of some sort of regional product. And if the last two digits are either 7-2 or 7-4, you win a sheet of postage stamps. You have until six months after the Jan. 22 announcement date to claim your prizes.

When will they learn: Old folks still falling for swindlers

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Bank flyer from Chiba police warning about telephone swindlers.

Bank flyer from Chiba police warning about telephone swindlers.

On Jan. 23, the Chiba prefectural police announced that in 2013 there 724 reported cases of telephone swindling targeting older people, a phenomenon that is still referred to as ore-ore sagi (literally, “it’s me, it’s me” swindles) though the modus operandi of the perpetrators have changed since it first became topical some years ago.

Originally, swindlers pretended to be members of the intended victim’s family and feigned some sort of trouble that required large sums of money to rectify, in which case the target was instructed to transfer the money to a specific bank account. Some media also call this crime furikomi sagi (bank transfer swindling).

Despite lots of publicity regarding this type of crime, swindlers are getting bolder. In 90 percent of the cases reported in Chiba, the swindler or an agent went to the home of the victim and either picked up the cash directly or, even more amazingly, picked up the victim’s ATM card and then withdrew the money himself.

Obviously, these persons weren’t impersonating a relative, which is why the media have yet to come up with a new memorable term. In many cases the swindler pretends to be a government official offering a tax refund or something similar and then acquires the card to carry out the transaction.

In others the swindler pretends to be a securities person with a can’t-miss deal that will make the person lots of money, and while this an old scam, what’s new about it is that the scammer actually shows up to collect the cash for the investment in person. Another new wrinkle in the swindle is using convenience store ATMs, since banks have become wise to the fraud and have installed security cameras and other devices to catch swindlers in the act.

Though the number of cases hasn’t increased appreciably the amount of money swindled has: ¥460 million, a new record for Chiba. That averages out to about ¥3.2 million per successful swindle. In 78 cases, the amount swindled was over ¥10 million. Nationwide the trend is the same.

As of the end of October the amounts swindled totalled ¥38.3 billion and analysts predicted the damage might go as high as ¥42 billion for the year. The total amount in 2012 was ¥38 billion. On the relative plus side Chiba police made 129 arrests of swindlers.

The police are understandably frustrated by the fact that their PR efforts have’t really had any effect, and have told the elderly public just to “not answer the phone,” which is possible to do since everyone has voice mail, even old folks. They advise to listen to the messages and then decide in a cool manner whether or not the caller is legitimate, which sounds like sensible advice, but then avoiding such scams in the past didn’t sound that difficult either, but apparently it was.

Use it or lose it: Workers want companies to pay for paid vacations

Monday, January 20th, 2014

No rest for the weary

No rest for the weary

Last fall, the labor ministry inspected 5,111 companies they suspected might be burakku kigyo, or “black companies,” meaning enterprises that violate labor standards, usually with regard to working hours. The ministry found that more than 80 percent were, in fact, guilty of some kind of misdemeanor in their treatment of employees, with 44 percent violating overtime rules and 24 percent not paying extra wages for overtime work at all. All the major media reported the investigation but, as is always the case with such revelations, no companies were identified.

Tokyo Shimbun, however, did interpolate the findings in an interesting way by offering a useful tip to young job-seekers: A good criterion for determining whether or not a company treated its employees fairly was the way it handled paid vacations. As it stands, Japan, among all the major industrial economies in the world, has the lowest rate of workers taking paid vacations — on average only 47 percent of full-time regular employees.

In France, Germany and the U.K., almost 100 percent of full-time workers take paid leave, probably because it is legally mandated. In the U.S., where there is no law guaranteeing paid vacations, the rate is between 70 and 80 percent. The usual reason for Japan’s low showing in this regard is the structure of the workplace, where employees are expected to take full responsibility for their positions, meaning that when they take time off they have to ask other employees to cover their tasks, thus giving those employees extra work.

This can cause bad feelings among co-workers, which is why in Japan everybody takes vacations at the same time. In other countries, tasks tend to be shared within departments or sections, so if one person takes off his job can be covered by several people.

Nevertheless, Japan does have rules governing vacation time. After six months on the job, a new employee, whether full-time or part-time, must be allowed 10 days of paid vacation if he or she has worked at least 80 percent of all his employer’s business days during those six months. Then, for every subsequent year the employee remains at the company, he or she gains one extra paid day off. The labor ministry survey found that the average white collar worker takes 8.6 days of paid leave a year. In addition, a survey by Rengo, the Japan Trade Union Federation, found that 23 percent of workers took no vacation at all, while another 24 percent took up to only 2 days.

According to an article published last November by the weekly magazine Shukan Post, with pressure mounting from the government to increase salaries in line with the Liberal Democratic Party’s economic recovery plan, some companies are looking at paid vacations as a means of meeting these goals, by paying employees extra for the time they don’t take off.

At present, this is against the law. In 1955, the practice of “buying” paid vacations was outlawed because, according to a professor interviewed by Post, Japan was just entering its high-growth period and there were labor shortages, so businesses could afford to buy workers’ vacations since consumer demand was so high. The government realized that workers could easily be exploited.

The Post suggests the government legally allow companies to buy vacation time since workers themselves have said they are willing to sell such time if they receive “the proper compensation.” Companies now can legally compensate for unused vacation time when an employee quits or retires, so changing the law wouldn’t be that difficult.

In any event, the magazine reports that many companies already buy vacation time under the table, though they often pay only the equivalent of the minimum wage. The magazine figures that since a 45-year-old university graduate makes on average ¥18,500 a day, he could demand ¥185,000 extra for not taking his mandatory 10-day vacation. That extra money would add about ¥15,000 more to his monthly pay, which by itself isn’t going to boost his pay enough to provide the stimulus the government wants, but it’s something.

Deflation Watch: New Year’s scorecard

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

Bottomless: Bargain bulk sale on diapers at discount store

Bottomless: Bargain bulk sale on diapers at discount store

In a chat with Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, the weekly magazine Aera asked him about the prospects of “Abenomics,” which Krugman has supported. He still supports it, but thinks that the consumption tax hike to 8 percent next April was a “bad decision” that may ruin all the good things that Abenomics could achieve. He recommends that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe either cancel the increase or postpone it.

It’s probably too late for that, which explains Abe’s recent desperate attempts to get Japan’s businesses to promise to boost salaries, none of which seem to be working. In a recent Kyodo News survey of 104 “key” companies, only 17 percent say they plan to increase pay in 2014, but none will carry out basic salary increases across the board, what’s known in Japanese business parlance as “base up.” The feeling is that they’ll increase wages for some workers, maybe through bigger bonuses, but such schemes don’t instill confidence in workers, and unless workers think they will be paid more in the future than they are now, they aren’t going to spend as freely, behavior that’s central to the success of Abenomics.

In the Kyodo survey 71 percent of businesses polled believe they will see growth in 2014, but if that growth isn’t translated into higher salaries, the game is off. Moreover, the good performance of the economy in 2013 was misleading. As web magazine Diamond Online points out, it was a minority of well-to-do Japanese who benefited from the stock market boom in the past year. Also, because people have anticipated the consumption tax hike next year, they rushed to buy houses. These two factors boost numbers, at least temporarily, but they don’t solve the underlying problem of deflation and lack of consumer sentiment in the population at large.

Much was made of the big profits enjoyed by large companies this year, but they represent a fairly small portion of the Japanese business community, only 0.3 percent of all registered companies. They made money through exports, meaning they benefited from the higher dollar. That’s all. Diamond says that 70 percent of the Japanese workforce is employed by small or medium-sized companies, who depend mainly on domestic consumption.

Diamond surveyed 200 workers about their winter bonuses. Seventy-eight said they received no bonus at all, while 98 said their bonus was less than ¥500,000. Only 38 replied that their bonus was larger than last year’s, while 40 said it was less. The remainder said there was no change. This contrasts greatly with the widely reported news that the average winter bonus of an employee of a large company was ¥806,000.

More significantly, when Diamond asked the people who did receive a bonus what they used it for, 61 percent said it went into their savings, while 24 percent said it would go for “necessary expenses” and 19 percent used it to help pay off loans. In other words, only 6 percent, at most, bought something with it.

The Mizuho Research Institute found that the average household, which earns ¥4 million-¥5 million a year, will spend ¥78,869 more in taxes in 2014 thanks to the consumption tax increase. The Cocomane website, which helps consumers save money with tips on reducing expenditures, did its own survey of 1,127 people, 80 percent of whom said they “economize” on a regular basis. Why are they always looking to save money? The number one reason is to “prepare” for future expenditures. The second most common reason was “loss of income,” and the third reason “not enough money saved.” As to the question “How do you save money?” the most frequent answer was the simplest: Just try not to spend it, followed by “not eating out” and “cutting back on utilities.”

But the most interesting responses were in relation to the consumption tax hike. Fifty-four percent of respondents said they have not made nor do they intend to make any “big purchases” before the increase goes into effect, and 62 percent of the people who are making big purchases say it has nothing to do with the increase. Essentially, most consumers either aren’t changing their already careful consumption habits in face of the tax increase, or they will try to spend less. Almost no one expects to spend more.

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