Archive for the ‘Services’ Category

Don’t throw those boring New Years cards away!

Monday, December 16th, 2013

Betting on the horse: Japan Post presents its New Years postcard selection on its home page.

Betting on the horse: Japan Post presents its New Years postcard selection on its home page.

As promised two posts ago, we’re now going to explain the prizes attached to New Years cards. We pointed out in that article that the custom of sending nengajo (New Years greetings) or nenga-hagaki (New Years postcards) has been declining in recent years, a development that concerns JP because it’s always derived a good part of its revenue from the custom. Last year, JP sold 3.27 billion cards, which sounds like a lot, but represents a 20 percent drop since sales peaked in 1999.

Many years ago they started a lottery contest. Each card has a number printed on it, and sometime in the middle of January, JP conducts a drawing for winning numbers. However, the people who buy the cards and send them are not the same people who receive them and thus have the chance to win prizes, so the lottery incentive for buying cards escapes us, unless you assume that the more cards you send the more you are likely to receive, but that sort of cause-and-effect logic wouldn’t actually kick in until the following year, right?

According to NHK, the idea of combining nengajo with a lottery started in 1949, when the price of a postcard was ¥2 yen. In the years right after the war, the exchange of nenga-hagaki took on special meaning, since it was a good way to inform friends and relatives that you were still alive and where you were. The lottery, which is called otoshidama, the term for New Years gifts of cash given to children, made it even more appealing, because so many people had nothing at the time, so the prizes were for the most part practical: sewing machines, skeins of wool, bolts of fabric. As Japanese society became more affluent, the prizes became more aspirational: TV sets and other high-end home appliances, or coupons for international or domestic travel.

In the Jan. 6, 2010 issue of the weekly magazine Bunshun there is an article about the prizes. That year the grand prize was a 32-inch high-definition flat screen TV. The article goes on to explain the keihin hyoji-ho, or “incentive indication law,” which states that a company which offers prizes as an incentive to boost sales cannot offer prizes whose value is more than 20 times the price of the merchandise or service that is sold, so, theoretically, if a postcard costs ¥50, then the most you could win is something worth ¥1,000. But, in fact, JP got a special dispensation, since a different law was passed specifically for nengajo, and that law says you can offer prices worth up to 5,000 times the price of the lottery ticket.

Another condition of the special law is that if the card is received by a company rather than an individual, and that card is a winner, the person who claims the prize must present proof that he or she is an employee of the company. Another condition is that the prizes must be claimed within six months of the drawing (it’s up to one year for conventional Takarakuji lotteries, which are sold as lottery tickets so the incentive law doesn’t apply).

However, there’s another difference between Takarakuji and nengajo lotteries that’s more fundamental to this discussion. Takarakuji publicizes the rate of winning numbers that are claimed, but JP doesn’t. Bunshun interviewed an expert who conjectures that Takarakuji prizes are cash, while JP prizes are goods. If all the cash available for prizes isn’t won in a given year, Takarakuji just keeps the money and adds it to next year’s jackpot, but what can JP do with unclaimed goods? People aren’t going to be interested in last year’s model TV, and the lesser prizes, like travel coupons, usually come with a time period in which they have to be redeemed. Another prize is sheets of stamps, which are deemed legal tender, but for some reason they are destroyed if not won in the lottery.

The impression one gets from the article is that a fair number of nengajo prizes are not claimed every year, mainly because people don’t really care, and one reason they don’t care is that it’s inconvenient. In order to check the numbers, the receiver has to read the right newspaper on the right day or go to the nearest post office, and most people can’t be bothered. Now, of course, JP publicizes the winning numbers on the Internet, but even that may not be enough, so this year instead of prizes, JP is offering cash, thus making it more like otoshidama.

It’s not a lot of cash, though. The top prize is only ¥10,000. The incentive is that the odds are more in the public’s favor. In the past, when the top prize was an expensive appliance, the odds of winning were one in a million. But this year there are 33,936 first prize winning cards, which means the odds of getting one is one in 100,000. There are also 339,365 furusato prizes (“home town” prizes, meaning products associated with specific regions in Japan), so the odds of winning one of those is one in 10,000. And the other prize is, again, sheets of stamps. The odds of winning those is one in fifty.

JP will announce the winning numbers on Jan. 19.

For customers of Japan’s biggest bank, it’s about to become harder to avoid fees

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Mickey Mouse club: passbook and Direct card for MUFG account holders

Mickey Mouse club: passbook and Direct card for MUFG account holders

Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ Bank (MUFG) is Japan’s largest bank in terms of number of branches, but there are none within the borders of the city where we live, which is only an hour by train from Nihonbashi, Tokyo. Since all of our freelance work is paid through the MUFG account we set up in the Aoyama branch years ago, this could be a problem, but MUFG offers online banking services and there are plenty of convenience stores with ATMs within walking distance of our apartment in case we need cash.

But that’s going to change on Dec. 20, when MUFG’s new ATM policy goes into effect. For people who live near a branch of the bank, the changes are a good thing. At present, account holders can withdraw money from MUFG ATMs without having to pay a handling fee if they do so between 8:45 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. At all other times they have to pay an extra ¥105. Starting December 20, the time for free withdrawals is extended to 9 p.m., and that includes weekends and holidays, which will also be free from now on. The ¥105 fee is still in effect from 9 p.m. to 8:45 a.m.

Things are different, however, for convenience store ATMs. Presently, account holders for certain banks can use CS ATMs for free during the day on weekdays. For MUFG customers it’s the same as it is for bank AMTs — no fee between 8:45 a.m. and 6 p.m. But starting December 20, a ¥105 fee will be charged for withdrawals from CS ATMs between 8:45 and 6, and a ¥210 fee for withdrawals at other hours. So that means we can’t avoid paying a fee if we need cash quickly.

But there are ways to circumvent the fees if you’re an MUFG customer, it’s just that they’re not that easy to understand, so we’ll try to make it simple.

In principle, customers who have accounts called Super Futsu Yokin (Main Bank Plus) can withdraw cash from ATMs for free, though it depends on your “stage” and the type of ATM.

White stage: At the end of the month, if your account balance is at least ¥100,000 you can withdraw cash from an MUFG bank ATM for free any time, even in the middle of the night. This also applies to account holders who have an MUFG-issued credit card, in which case a minimum balance is not required. This no-fee condition is effective from the 20th of the following month until the 19th of the month after that.

Silver stage: At the end of the month, if your account balance is at least ¥300,000, or if you receive your salary in your account and your salary is at least ¥100,000 a month, then you can withdraw cash from bank ATMs anytime for free and up to three times during the following month from CS ATMs for free any time. Again, the month is counted as starting from the next 20th to the following 19th. Note that “salary” has to be transferred as such (kyūryō) and printed in your passbook.

Platinum stage: At the end of the month, if your account balance is at least ¥5 million, or if you have taken out a housing loan with MUFG and the balance is more than ¥5 million, there are no fees anywhere for anything. You can also make up to three money transfers (usually ¥315) in a month’s time for free.

One more catch: To qualify for any of these deals you have to register your account for MUFG Direct, which is MUFG’s internet banking service. Good luck.

Government tries to jolt EV sales with charging station subsidies

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

Newspaper ad promoting installation of recharging stations for EVs

Newspaper ad promoting installation of recharging stations for EVs

Norway boasts the highest per capita ownership of electric cars in the world, for a number of interrelated reasons, it seems. The tax on purchases of new cars, all of which are imported, can be more than 100 percent, depending on weight and fuel efficiency, but it’s almost zero for electric cars. The annual automobile tax is about a seventh of the tax burden for a gas-powered vehicle. This savings is apparently enough to offset the higher sticker price of electric cars. According to a friend of ours who is Norwegian, the American Tesla sells for 580,000 kroner, or ¥9.6 million, and there is a six-month waiting list. We asked our friend if there were enough high-speed charging stations in Norway, and he said there are about 4,000, which is not considered enough but he says most people are “satisfied” with charging their EVs at home, where it takes about 8 hours to top them off.

In addition to offering tax breaks, the government promotes EVs by subsidizing the installation of charging stations. EVs do not have to pay road tolls, and they can use lanes that are normally limited to buses and taxis. More significantly, despite the fact that Norway’s wealth is derived from oil, its gas prices are among the highest in the world, twice as much as they are in Japan. So while EVs are very expensive to buy , in the long run they are much more economical thanks to the government.

One of the reasons auto-related taxes are so high in Norway is that the country has no automotive industry to protect. Electric cars are manufactured in Japan and are relatively cheap, but much less popular. At last week’s Tokyo Motor Show, Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of Nissan, which makes the electric Leaf, admitted that EVs weren’t selling as well as expected and that the company’s sales goal of 1.5 million units by 2016 would not be reached.

According to Sankei Biz, EV sales in Japan have picked up slightly in recent months, and as of October 120,000 electric cars have been sold in Japan since they were introduced. About 87,000 of these were made by Nissan. Ghosn says the main reason the target won’t be met is “lack of infrastructure,” meaning lack of charging stations.

In August, Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Mitsubishi announced that they would jointly build more recharging stations throughout Japan to promote electric vehicle sales, with the help of government subsidies, and last week the four automakers agreed on the details of “specific financial assistance” to parties who install charging stations.

Tokyo Shimbun reports that at present there are 1,900 quick charging stations in Japan and about 3,500 normal charging stations. The government will provide subsidies of up to ¥1.7 million to businesses that install quick recharging stations on their properties and ¥400,000 to businesses that install normal recharging stations. The government’s aim is to increase the number of quick stations by 4,000 and normal stations by 8,000, though no timeline has been given.

These subsidies are being offered through both the central government and local governments. Maintenance of the stations will also be subsidized for a limited time. If the business is a convenience store, it has to have parking for at least ten cars, and if it’s a gas station it has to be open 24 hours. Applications for the subsidy, however, will only be taken until February of next year.

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?

Where there’s a will: Attitudes toward inheritance change

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Who'll be the next in line?

Who’ll be the next in line?

About a million people die every year in Japan, and 10 percent of them leave wills (yuigonsho). That’s a smaller portion than in the English-speaking West — the BBC says about a third of British adults have wills and USA Today reports 59 percent of American baby boomers have written them — but it’s still larger than other Asian countries (about 1 percent in South Korea) and the number is growing every year.

Legal experts advocate wills as the only effective means of properly disposing of one’s assets after death, but in Japan they’ve traditionally been seen as disruptive. Japanese law outlines methods of inheritance and even stipulates shares for specific family relationships. But family ties have been strained in recent decades owing to shifting social demographics and economic trends. A recent article in the Asahi Shimbun reports that more and more people are dying without any clear beneficiaries. In 2012, ¥37.5 billion left behind by people who died was taken by the government because the deceased had no family willing to claim the body and the person’s property. According to the Supreme Court, this amount is three times what it was a decade ago.

When a person dies without spouses or children, or when those heirs have forfeited their right to the deceased’s assets, the proper court appoints an administrator to dispose of the estate. If the deceased had debts, the administrator repays them out of the available assets. If the deceased had a caregiver, the administrator may offer the person part of those assets. But for the most part the unclaimed money and proceeds from property goes to the central government.

One Yokohama lawyer in the Asahi article talks about his experiences as an administrator, which starts with going to the home of a person who has just died and “cleaning up.” He says he often finds large amounts of cash hidden behind or inside furniture, and now conducts seminars where he tells middle aged and older people about the importance of wills, partly as a means of showing their gratitude to those who helped them in life, regardless of whether or not those people are relatives. When the reporter talks to people who attend the lawyer’s seminar, some admit to having no contact with family and one says he feels compelled to draw up a will because he’s afraid of what might happen to his legacy if it all goes to his irresponsible son.

People in the West who don’t write wills are usually intimidated by the cost of lawyers or just plain scared of thinking about death. In Japan, while speaking of death is still a taboo for most people, the scarcity of wills can mainly be attributed to ignorance. The lawyer in the Asahi article implies that the authorities don’t promote wills because they make money when people die without heirs.

A recent trend that has boosted the status of wills is “ending notes.” Popularized by a hit 2011 documentary about a dying man’s last days, ending notes are books that help people think about their deaths. They explain different processes and often have diary-like features so that readers can write down their thoughts about death and what they want in terms of late-term care, a funeral and the disposal of their remains.

Ending notes actually compel readers to think about their lives right now by making them face the inevitability of death, and so rather than push away such thoughts they force the reader to consider measures such as DNR (do not resuscitate) declarations and last wills and testaments. Ending notes have also been commercialized to a certain extent, and some non-profit groups now hold seminars on the subject of shukatsu (final activities). Funeral homes participate in ending note plans and some banks even have programs to help people think about what they want to do with their assets after they die. According to a survey of people over 60 conducted by Research Bank, 49 percent said they wanted to write ending notes.

But ending note diaries are not legal documents. A will needs to be notarized if it is to hold up in court. One reason wills were previously unpopular in Japan is that when they were contested by family members, courts often sided with the plaintiffs, but that isn’t necessarily the case any more. According to one will-writing website, 7,767 wills were notarized in 1966. The number in 2009 was 76,436. Moreover, in 1985, Japanese courts heard 2,661 inheritance-related lawsuits. That number increased to 9,800 by 2008, and in the same year family courts nationwide received 154,160 requests for advice with regard to inheritance problems. More than 70 percent of all legal disputes over inheritance involve assets of more than ¥50 million. Obviously, you can’t take it with you, but older Japanese are now wising up to the fact that they don’t have to let it pass on to people they can’t stand.

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