Archive for the ‘News’ Category

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.

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.

Where’s the beef? Japanese taste buds dictate processing methods

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Something to chew on: Packages of fat-injected processed beef in a supermarket

Something to chew on: Packages of fat-injected processed beef in a supermarket

Thanks to the hotel restaurant menu scandal, even food retailers’ product descriptions have come under scrutiny. Internet mall Rakuten received the biggest black eye, though it appears to have been for a genuine mistake and not because of a planned deception. To celebrate its baseball team’s Japan Series victory, Rakuten held a bargain sale that marked some prices down as much as 77 percent, but in several cases the markdowns were carried out so sloppily that a whole digit was lost. For instance, an A5-grade, 550-gram “steak set” that normally sells for ¥18,400 was marked down to ¥1,000, which is a lot more than 77 percent.

The sale price was supposed to be ¥10,000, but somehow one of the zeroes didn’t make the transition. Rakuten received lots of complaints and had to apologize again (having already suffered the same mistake over boxes of cream puffs) and fork out refunds, but anyone who knows anything about Japanese beef prices should have realized that ¥1,000 for Tosa-bred wagyu (Japanese beef) had to be an error.

Increased scrutiny, in fact, has revealed that many indications for beef, whether sold in restaurants or in stores, while not being technically deceptive are less then forthcoming. Aera reports that one Hokkaido beef wholesaler has been cited for misrepresenting its wares, calling some of its items “beef” when it should be labeled “processed beef” (kako-niku).

The closer attention to wording was probably fallout from the menu scandal, in which Osaka’s Shin-Hankyu Hotel was found to be at fault for listing processed beef as “beef steak,” which it is not. The Kintetsu Hotel restaurant, awarded a star by Michelin, sells processed beef as wagyu steak for a whopping ¥6,300. Even Takashimaya department store’s “beef filets” were found to be processed. A steak or filet is a cut of meat that has not been changed in any way, but many meat sellers take cheaper cuts of beef and inject them with fat to give them the marbled effect that Japanese people prefer.

In the West, the adjective “lean,” which implies less fat, is considered a positive attribute for beef, but wagyu is characteristically streaked with fat, which means it has a richer flavor and is more tender. Generally speaking, the beef that Americans, Australians and Europeans eat is considered by Japanese to be tough and difficult to chew. Thanks to improvements in feed grains in the early 90s, American producers developed softer beef for the Japanese market, which is why so many fast food chains prefer using cheaper USA beef.

Most Australia beef sold in Japan has been processed, meaning that fat has been added. Some store cuts that look like steak may even have been “molded” (seikei). Different pieces of meat are “glued” together to make what looks like a steak and then injected with fat. A friend of ours who once had a job promoting “Aussie Beef” in Japan said the joke among his Australian colleagues was that “Japanese really don’t like the taste of beef,” since to Australians real beef is chewy and has no fat.

It should be noted that the reason beef is chewy is because the cattle is more muscular, in other words healthier than cattle that has more fat. Australian cattle are typically raised on the range where they eat grass, while in Japan and America the cows are penned up and fed grain (and lots of antibiotics to fight the infections that such a diet gives rise to). Also, range-raised beef is not as susceptible to BSE (mad cow disease).

Restaurants and retailers are required by law to indicate that their meat is processed, but the print tends to be tiny and obscure. This could cause problems, however, since ingredients used to process the fat can include dairy and soy products, which many people are allergic to. Parents of at-risk children know to look for the fine print, but restaurants are supposed to ask customers if they have any food allergies when people call on the phone for takeout. If the person says yes, then “real” beef will be substituted for the usual processed kind.

In stores, however, it’s quite easy to determine which meat is real and which is processed without having to squint. Just look at the price. According to Asahi Shimbun, one kilogram of unprocessed grade A3 (highest: A5) Japanese sirloin is at least ¥5,000 per kilogram, whereas one kilogram of processed sirloin is between ¥1,400 and ¥2,000. Seikei cuts of meat are only ¥700-¥800 per kg. What’s interesting is that while fat-injection has been a common practice since the early 1980s, it was always thought of mainly as an economic measure. The purpose was to make beef affordable on an everyday level, but the Asahi reports that many restaurants now say that their customers prefer the taste of cheaper processed beef to more expensive genuine cuts of beef, even when that genuine beef is sufficiently marbled.

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