Archive for the ‘News’ Category

Collecting organizations try to give credit where it’s due, don’t always succeed

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

In a recent series on credit information reporting, the Asahi Shimbun explained the plight of a young Kanto woman who had applied for a credit card last March. The card she was interested in offered discounts at selected stores and could be used as an IC card for public transportation. It also had an attractive point system. Almost all her work colleagues had the card and since her financial particulars were the same as theirs she didn’t think she’d be turned down, but she was and the rejection confused her. She had one other credit card, which she had always paid on time. When she called the credit company that refused her they said they couldn’t give her the reason for the rejection.

A gift campaign notice that comes with a monthly credit card statement

A gift campaign notice that comes with a monthly credit card statement

Then she received a letter from Softbank Mobile, her cell phone service carrier, which said that due to a mistake her payments had been reported to a credit information (CI) company as being delinquent. The period of her false delinquency, she realized, fell during the same time that she applied for the credit card. In the letter Softbank said that it had corrected the mistake with the CI company, and when she applied for the card again after a while, she was approved, but when she tried to find out why they had changed their mind the company again said they couldn’t tell her.

Such situations are not uncommon, but since credit card companies are not obliged to give reasons for rejecting or accepting customers, most applicants have no idea that these problems even exist until it’s too late.

In Softbank’s case, the carrier was actually alerted to the “mistake” last March when customers pointed it out to them. The company investigated the claim and found that between December 2012 and March 2013, about 63,000 customers were reported to credit information companies as having been late with their payments, even though they hadn’t been. The reason for the mistake was fairly complex, and common enough for such a reporting system. All of the affected customers, including the woman profiled by the Asahi, had purchased their terminal devices — meaning their cell phones — through a revolving credit plan. Moreover, they accumulated points over time that could be redeemed as credit through the revolving payment system.

Softbank reported all this information to the relevant CI collecting company, but because of a computer programming redesign that took place late last year the settings that translated points into credit did not work correctly, so people who had paid for their cell phones through points were incorrectly flagged as being delinquent as far back as 2009.

When a financial institution screens someone to determine if the person is credit-worthy, they use CI from various sources: the Credit Information Center (CIC), which mostly works with credit card companies and revolving payment plans; the Japan Credit Information Reference Center Corporation (JICC), whose members are consumer loan outfits; and the Japanese Bankers Association, which collects information related to bank loans. When someone applies for a credit card or a loan the institution requests credit history information from the relevant organization. All lenders and retailers who offer revolving payment plans are obliged by law to report credit histories of customers to one of these CI organizations.

CI includes personal data, such as name, address, birthdate and nature of the transaction; as well as “payment information,” including payment trends and the balance of the account. As long as the customer pays on time, no information is recorded, but when the customer misses a payment the CI collecting company receives a notice of there being an “unpaid situation.” If that situation continues for 3 months straight, the payment situation is reported as being “irregular,” which means the customer is placed on a blacklist.

Being on a blacklist does not necessarily mean that the person will lose his or her credit card or be denied a loan. The financial institutions who request this information for screening purposes can interpret it however they want, but generally if an irregularity is persistent the person’s credit history will be tarnished. Information about irregularities stay in the customer’s credit history for five years, even if the loan or credit bill has been paid off. However, if the irregularity is the result of a mistake on the part of either the company reporting the credit information or the company collecting it, then it is immediately removed from the record.

The problem is that often such mistakes don’t come to light, and while credit reporting companies and lending institutions or credit card companies are not obligated to reveal reasons for rejections to applicants, the credit collection companies are. For instance, if you have a question about your credit card history you can call CIC and, for a fee (¥500-¥1,000), they will give it to you. It’s the same for the other two organizations, depending on where you have borrowed money. An expert in the Asahi article recommends that anyone planning to take out a large loan check beforehand with CI collecting organizations to find out whether or not there may be problems.

The Asahi also reports that an increasing number of young people are showing up on blacklists due to their phone bills. CI, it should be noted, has nothing to do with paying utility bills, a matter that is strictly between the utility and the customer. In the case of cell phones, CI is only reported on people who have bought their phones through revolving payment systems, which are usually attached to phone bills.

The problem here is that many young people forget that they are paying back money loaned to them for their phones. They think that they are paying their phone bill, so if they’re late with a payment they simply have to pay a small penalty. They don’t realize that their credit history is being damaged in the process. In many cases, in fact, it is their parents’ credit history that’s being damaged, since some parents cosign for their kids’s cell phones. It gives them more reason to monitor their cell phone usage.

Net scalpers set off discussion of true fandom in terms of economics

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Can’t buy me love: What does Sir Paul think about the ticket prices to his Japan concerts? (photo MPL Communications Ltd.)

Several Japanese media have commented recently on how expensive tickets are on various Internet auction sites for the upcoming Paul McCartney shows. Sir Paul’s six-show Japan tour, including three Tokyo Dome concerts, slated for the middle of November sold out almost immediately after they went on sale in September. The highest face price for a ticket is ¥16,500, but tickets on the Yahoo auction site are going for as high as ¥400,000. What’s especially unnerving to some people is that these high prices have not been arrived at through the usual bidding process. The seller is simply setting a very high price and people are paying it.

This realization has led to calls for regulation of ticket prices on auction sites. According to one journalist writing in the Asahi Shimbun, who also happens to be a big McCartney fan (he didn’t get picked in the initial ticket lottery), if Net auctions are not regulated then only rich people will be able to buy tickets to the most popular concerts, thus squeezing out “true fans” of the artists who are performing. The journalist says that it’s obvious these expensive net tickets are being sold by dafuya (scalpers).

Many local governments have laws that limit the activities of scalpers who hang around venues selling secondhand tickets, though these are usually associated with public nuisance regulations (meiwaku jorei). The journalist says there should be laws limiting what scalpers can charge on the Internet. He also points out that scalping runs counter to the purposes of selling tickets over the net, a service he says was designed for people who bought tickets legitimately but for some reason can’t attend the show and need to find someone else who will buy the tickets. It is not for the purpose of making a profit.

Some promoters have come out in favor of cracking down on net scalpers. Rockin’ On, the magazine that sponsors and puts on Rock In Japan, the country’s biggest summer music festival, says that net auctions have become a problem for them, since the festival sells out fairly quickly and the audience is typically young, meaning they don’t have the money to pay the kind of prices net scalpers demand. Like the journalist, Rockin’ On’s president, veteran music critic Yoichi Shibuya, told Asahi that tickets for the festival should go to “people who really want to go” but end up in the hands of people “who can be called scalpers.” Shibuya says that Yahoo is shirking its responsibility by inadvertently helping scalpers fleece young music lovers.

However, a professor of economics at prestigious Waseda University told the paper that complaints about net scalpers ignore one vital component, namely, the market. Who is to say that the person who shells out 400,000 yen for a ticket to the McCartney show is any less a fan of the ex-Beatle than someone who claims to be but can’t afford that price? If the scalpers can get that much money for a single ticket, it means that the face prices of the tickets were too low to begin with.

In essence, tickets that are sold on the net will fetch their “natural” market price, whereas prices set by the promoters and venues can be artificially low, depending on the artist. What the professor seems to be saying is that net prices measure a true fan’s desire: even if the price of the ticket is higher than you can reasonably pay, if you really want to see that show, you’ll pay it. The real problem, he says, is that if tickets were actually sold this way, it would reflect badly on the artist, especially rock artists who tend to have the image of being heroes for the average person.

Say goodbye to plentiful, affordable shrimp

Friday, October 25th, 2013

Squeezed out: Shrimp tempura in a supermarket

Squeezed out: Shrimp tempura in a supermarket

Last week the national fast food chain Tenya, which specializes in tempura dishes, announced that it was discontinuing two of its most popular menu items effective Oct. 20: jotendon (¥580) and ebiten soba or udon (¥790). Both dishes feature prawns deep fried in batter — the former offers two big prawns on top of a bowl of rice, and the latter one big prawn in a bowl of either soba or udon noodles. The reason for the move is the skyrocketing price of shrimp. As a concession, Tenya will continue serving tendon (¥500), which only features one fried prawn on a bowl of rice, and introduce ebi oika tendon (¥590) — one prawn and one slab of squid on rice.

Tenya’s parent company, Royal Holdings, said in a statement that the Southeast Asian shrimp farms from which it buys its prawns have been hit with a disease called early mortality syndrome (EMS) that has decimated stocks, the result being that prices have doubled. The EMS plague affects shrimp prices all over the world, especially in the U.S., which consumes more shrimp than any other country. Since most shrimp farms are, almost by definition, ecologically destructive, the spread of disease is hardly surprising, and it isn’t certain if the industry will be able to recover.

That’s a serious problem for Japan, where shrimp, or ebi, has a special place in the national cuisine. Before the 1980s, tendon using prawns was considered an extravagant dish for the average Japanese person, and it remains one of the most popular meals to this day, beloved by all classes of people. Tendon is by far the most popular item on Tenya’s menu, with the now discontinued jotendon in fourth place, according to a recent report on TV Asahi. Moreover, the kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi) chain Sushiro has also announced that it will be suspending sales of many dishes that use shrimp due to the “worldwide shortage.” Family restaurants and convenience stores will also cut back on the number of products they sell that feature ebi.

The shortage has given rise to rumors that some Japanese restaurants and food makers have been using crayfish (zarigani) as a substitute for shrimp without telling customers. There are sushi restaurants in the U.S. that serve crayfish openly, but most Japanese people find the fresh water crustacean unappetizing. The American species of crayfish was brought to Japan by the U.S. military during the postwar occupation as a protein supplement, and now can be commonly found in rivers and streams. Japanese tend to be streotyped as able to eat almost anything but they’ve never taken to crayfish, which in the U.S. is normally eaten in the South.

It’s the kind of rumor that some restaurants would take seriously. Coincidentally or not, the Hankyu Hanshin Hotel group recently announced that it would provide refunds to anyone who purchased any of 47 dishes in its restaurants between 2006 and February of this year.

Apparently, the ingredients in these dishes weren’t as expensive as the restaurants claimed they were. Among the mislabeled dishes was shiba ebi, a high quality breed of domestic shrimp that costs ¥2,500 per kg wholesale. The restaurants were actually using a much cheaper breed, which only costs ¥1,400 per kg. The hotel group calculates that 78,775 people purchased these dishes during the time period cited. It has put aside ¥110 million for refunds, which begs the question: Do all those people still have their receipts?

Blood on the tracks: Who pays for deadly railway accidents?

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Don't look now

Don’t look now

One of Japan’s enduring urban legends is that railway companies demand compensation from families of people who commit suicide by throwing themselves in front of trains. Because the media doesn’t report such matters it isn’t easy to verify, but according to the Chunichi Shimbun railways “in principle” send bills to families of people who die in railroad “accidents” if the railroad is not at fault and the accident causes a delay that costs the railway money. The articles don’t say anything specific about suicides, however.

The subject of the piece is a case that was recently decided in Nagoya District Court. JR Tokai sued the family of a 91-year-old man from Obu City, Aichi Prefecture, who was hit by a train and killed while walking along the tracks of the Tokaido line in December 2007. JR Tokai was demanding ¥7.2 million from the family for losses incurred due to delays caused by the accident, which affected 27,000 passengers and 34 trains, forcing the railroad to provide alternate transportation, such as buses, to inconvenienced customers.

In court, JR Tokai’s lawyers said the company sent a bill to the family of the man “as it usually does in such matters,” but the family never responded, so they filed a lawsuit and in the end the judge awarded JR the full amount it asked for. The family will appeal.

At issue was the responsibility of the family in the actions of the old man, who suffered from dementia. Six years ago local welfare officials determined that the man required 24-hour supervision. The family placed him in an institution several days a week, but on the remaining days he was at home with his 85-year-old wife, who can mostly fend for herself. In addition, the man’s eldest son, who lives in Yokohama, set up a care system for his father that included his wife regularly traveling to Obu to help out. On the day the accident happened he was alone with his wife, who dozed off, and he wandered out of the house and to the nearest station where he somehow ended up on the tracks.

Chunichi says there is no precedent for a railway company suing over an accident caused by a person with dementia, and the lawyer for the family said that the case could have serious repercussions for families with elderly members who have serious cognitive disabilities, since it means they could be liable for all sorts of incidents, and not just those involving trains.

In court the family said that JR Tokai should bear some of the responsibility since it didn’t prevent the man from getting on the tracks after he entered the station (presumably without a ticket, which raises another question). JR countered by saying it had “fulfilled all our legal obligations” with regard to track safety, and the judge agreed, adding that it was the responsibility of the family to monitor and supervise the actions of the old man.

But if families are monetarily liable for actions carried out by members who are senile, can they also be liable for members who are suicides? So far there doesn’t seem to be a court precedent for such a situation. It seems to depend on the circumstances, suicide or not.

For instance, recently a 40-year-old woman was killed trying to help an old man who stumbled trying to cross the tracks of the JR Yokohama Line. The old man survived, but there has been no report that JR East is demanding he pay up, maybe because the media reports on the heroism of the woman drowned it out or made the company think twice about possible negative publicity if it made such a demand in this case.

Then again, earlier this week a 47-year-old man was killed while crossing the tracks of the Tobu Tojo Line in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward. Witnesses say he was walking and absorbed in his cell phone when he was hit and didn’t notice the train, though obviously he had enough presence of mind to go through the gates, which were down. Now that guy’s family will probably receive a bill.

Young women’s life preferences acknowledge workplace reality

Friday, September 27th, 2013

Preference or default?

Preference or default?

Social media has been buzzing about the results of a survey released this week by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. The survey was carried out last March among men and women, both single and married, between the ages of 15 and 39. The results that provoked the most discussion had to do with attitudes toward marriage, or, more precisely, a woman’s role in a marriage.

When asked if they want to be full-time homemakers, 34.2 percent of the female respondents said “yes” or “probably.” And while more women, 38.5 percent to be exact, said they didn’t want to be homemakers, the portion who said they did was apparently higher than people expected, especially now that the government is pushing an agenda to make it easier for women to join the workforce and contribute more directly to the economy.

Some people are saying that these results indicate a regressive attitude among women, but it’s impossible to say from the results that the women who want to be homemakers are being guided by some kind of cultural gender identification.

When men were asked in the survey if they wanted their wives to be homemakers, 19.3 percent said “yes” or “probably,” which implies that the other four-fifths want their wives to work. That’s because they know that a single income isn’t enough any more to support a household, especially one that does or will someday include children.

When the women were asked how much income they thought their husbands should make a month, 40.8 percent said ¥200,000-¥300,000, 24.8 percent said ¥300,000-¥400,000 and a mere 4.2 percent said “it doesn’t matter.” So much for marrying for love.

A more likely reason for this desire to stay at home is a perceived understanding of workplace norms, something the labor ministry didn’t ask about. In a different survey conducted by the Japan Management Association, young men (751) and women (249) already in the workforce were asked if they aspired to be leaders among their colleagues. Of the female respondents, 81 percent said they would rather be “supportive.”

One of the more pressing issues in Japan is the paucity of women managers, a situation that is blamed on implacable male dominance in the workplace. The association analyzes this result as meaning that women value their private lives over their careers. In other words, they don’t think they can raise children or have families if they are in leadership positions. And, in fact, this is still a widely held belief.

Aging boomers may prove to be just as tight with savings

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

Praying is free (but the incense will cost you)

Praying is free (but the incense will cost you)

The media has been all over the new figures related to seniors that were released by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications to coincide with Respect for the Aged Day. To recap, the number of Japanese people over 65 increased by 1.12 million from the previous year, which marks a 0.95 percent rise.

The big news is that this brings the total number of seniors to about 32 million, or one-fourth of the entire population. This was expected since the huge cohort of baby boomers — which in Japan refers only to people born during a brief period in the late 1940s — is now passing the 65-year mark, and the projection is that seniors will make up a third of the population by 2035. To break down these portions even further, 18 percent of the population is over 70, 12 percent over 75 and 7 percent over 80.

What hasn’t been discussed as widely is the economic ramifications of these developments. In 2012 there were 5.95 million people over 65 who were still in the work force, or 9.5 percent of all workers over the age of 15. The average amount of savings — whether bank accounts, annuities or securities — of households with more than one person where the householder is at least 65 is ¥22.57 million. The average savings of all households is ¥16.64 million. Also, 16 percent of over-65 households have savings of more than ¥40 million, while only 10 percent of all households have saved that much.

The hope has been that once they retire boomers will spend their savings more readily than did previous generations, but so far that doesn’t seem to be the case. The ministry’s statistics indicate that more money is being spent by seniors who are still working. Those who aren’t working, meaning they are on fixed incomes provided by government or company pensions, are spending much less.

In either case, working or not, the seniors are not touching their savings. They are only spending their income. In the parlance of economists, they are asset rich but cash poor. The average income of an over-65 household is ¥2.96 million (that of an average household in general is ¥5.8 million), but the median income of an over-65 household is ¥2.29 million, meaning the majority of these households are within the ¥1 to ¥3 million income range, and that’s what they are living on.

A Cabinet Office survey conducted in 2011 asked seniors what the purpose of their savings was. About 62 percent said it was for sudden illnesses and future care and 20 percent said it was for “maintaining existence” in case of an unexpected financial problem. Only 5 percent said they would spend it on leisure, and a mere 1.6 percent wanted to use it for travel. It should be noted that 90 percent of these respondents owned their own homes or did not pay rent, so housing, at least, was not a primary concern. However, given the cost of private nursing homes, which charge upwards of ¥20 million just to move in, it’s perfectly reasonable to think that seniors believe they have to save for those final years. Until that sort of anxiety is addressed, it will always be difficult to get seniors to part with their savings.

How economically effective are the Olympics?

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

Group effort: Poster promoting Tokyo's bid for the 2020 Olympics at a mall in Chiba Prefecture

Group effort: Poster promoting Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Olympics at a mall in Chiba Prefecture

The Asahi Shimbun recently reported that one of the reasons the Japanese government has been slow to tackle the water leak crisis at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant is that it doesn’t want to draw attention to the problem while Tokyo remains a candidate for the 2020 Olympic Games. Despite the fact that the Olympics are supposed to be hosted by cities not countries, Japan’s central government is counting on the games to boost its overall economy, and Asahi also reports that the decision, which will be determined on Sept. 7, will have a very strong bearing on whether or not the consumption tax increase will take place in April. If Tokyo is the winner, the tax will go ahead as planned.

The Japan Olympic Committee is predicting a long-term economic boost of ¥3 trillion if Tokyo gets the games. That’s a lot of money, but while it may offset the negative effects of the consumption tax increase temporarily it’s hardly enough to kick start the entire Japanese economy. In any case, how exactly would the Olympics bring about this financial miracle? After the games last year, the city of London and the U.K. government jointly announced that the event benefited the British economy by almost £10 billion (¥1.5 trillion). However, the BBC questioned just how much of this “impact” could be directly attributed to the Olympics. In addition, the Financial Times wondered about the government’s calculation that the Olympics would have a secondary effect on the British economy that would amount to between £28 billion and £41 billion (¥4.2 trillion-¥6.0 trillion) until the year 2020. A financial expert interviewed by the FT said he had no idea how the government arrived at this figure.

To get some idea of how this “economic effectiveness” (keizai koka) is calculated, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun evaluated the figures submitted by the Tokyo Bid Committee for the 2016 Olympic Games, which Tokyo lost to Rio (page 5). Included in the ¥2.94 trillion that was to be added to the Japanese economy by the games was ¥332 billion in the form of construction outlays, ¥175 billion to be spent by “guests,” ¥356 billion in sales of official merchandise and “related purchases” (like TV sets that people bought to watch the games), and ¥86 billion from tourists who would visit Tokyo before the games, presumably drawn to the city because of the Olympics though they would not actually attend them.

Moreover, the JOC predicted a “ripple effect” of ¥990 billion in related “demand” after the Olympics ended, and then a secondary effect of ¥650 billion from the higher salaries and added jobs that this ripple effect would engender. Except for the construction costs and revenues for restaurants and hotels during the actual two-week Olympic period, all these figures are speculative and based on phenonema that are difficult to measure. For instance, isn’t there a lot of overlap between the spending of tourists and the purchase of merchandise related to the Olympics?

The point is, when the media says that the 2020 Olympics will boost the Japanese economy by ¥3 billion people think that means ¥3 billion will be added to the economy, but actually most of that money is simply being redistributed. Tokyo, for instance, says it will spend ¥1 trillion on the 2020 Olympics, and according to the JOC the city has ¥400 billion “saved” in what it calls junbikin (preparation money), which is cash that the prefectural government has accumulated at a rate of ¥100 billion a year. However, it is all from taxes, which means that the money that goes to construction came from residents.

Moreover, the central government has pledged to cover any shortfall in operating expenses for the Olympics, so presumably that means it will provide the remaining ¥600 billion (or more), which also comes from tax money. Since most of the work that is created directly for the Olympic Games is done by volunteers, this money is not necessarily going to people in the form of employment and wages. The assumption, or at least the hope, is that Olympic money that goes to big corporations will eventually trickle down to people in the form of the aforementioned ripple and secondary effects, but, as the FT expert implied, there’s no way you can confirm this until it actually happens.

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