Archive for the ‘Taxes & Welfare’ Category

Pusses galore: Cats dominate the pet industry

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

Free at last: Stray female cat after undergoing spaying and about to be released

Free at last: Stray female cat after undergoing spaying and about to be released

Feb. 22 was Cat Day in Japan, because “two-two” in Japanese can be uttered using an approximation of a sound that cats make. It’s a typical pseudo-event, invented by the pet food industry, which is doing quite well by cats. In fact, it’s doing better by cats than by dogs if you’re talking about growth.

According to the Japan Pet Food Association, about 10.9 million dogs and 9.7 million cats are kept as pets in Japan. The pet-related market, including medical care, is worth about ¥1.4 trillion, but while the parity between the two species as animal companions is about equal, sales of respective food products is increasing more for cats than it is for dogs.

Dog food sales peaked in 2004 at a little more than 490,000 tons and has been gradually dropping ever since. Cat food sales in 2005 was much less, about 271,000 tons, but cats tend to be smaller and thus need less food, and at any rate, sales have been steadily increasing in the meantime. In 2014, the association says that a household with at least one dog spends on average ¥2,884 a month on dog food, while a household with at least one cat spends ¥2,996.

The slight difference can be explained by a number of factors: people with cats are more likely to have more than one animal than do dog owners, and dogs eat anything. Cats’ famous finicky tastes means that cat owners will likely buy more food to make sure their pets don’t get tired of the same thing.

Another economic related difference between cats and dogs is in their trafficking. According to the Yaseisha Pet Data Yearbook, in 2006, dogs accounted for 55.8 percent of pet shop sales (¥76.2 billion) while cats only accounted for 8.2 percent (¥11.2 billion). This wide gap is easy to explain. People who want dogs are more likely to buy them since they want pedigrees, while cat lovers are less particular about breeds and can easily pick up strays or get kittens from neighbors and shelters.

More to the point, the development of a pet culture in Japan has given rise to a concurrent awareness of the sanctity of non-human lives, an awareness that, taken to its natural ends, would not countenance the trafficking of pets, because when they are sold they are at the mercy of commercial prerogatives.

Only puppies and kittens are marketable as commodities, so once a pet-for-sale reaches a certain age it has to be “disposed of.” This realization means that, in all probability, the selling of dogs and cats for profit will someday be outlawed, or, at least, phased out in some way.

The manifestation of this pet-oriented sensibility is incumbent in the satsu shobun zero movement, which has become more prominent in the public sector. On Feb. 12, 60 national lawmakers representing all political parties formed a bipartisan group that “aims” to reduce the number of dogs and cats put down at public facilities to zero by 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics takes place. Kanagawa Prefecture already accomplished this aim with regard to dogs in 2013 thanks to the help of volunteers.

The prefecture’s next goal is no killings of cats, though the relevant authorities admit it’s more difficult since many cat owners still let their pets roam outside and don’t get them neutered, thinking it’s somehow cruel. Female cats can have two litters in a single year so the problem of stray cats killing birds and bothering neighbors will never go away, and so neither will the problem of having to somehow deal with unwanted cats.

Consequently, a lot of local governments also subsidize spaying and neutering of cats. According to Tokyo Shimbun, 30 percent throughout Japan have already implemented policies that address the stray cat issue. After successfully reducing the number of dogs put down in facilities by two-thirds over a five-year period, Kochi Prefecture set aside ¥4.9 million to spay female cats — ¥6,000 for a house pet, ¥10,000 for a stray.

The higher amount for an alley cat can be seen as encouraging to the TNR movement, wherein people trap stray cats, have them neutered, and then release them back in their familiar environment. Of course, some local governments don’t like this idea at all. Kyoto has proposed an ordinance making it illegal to feed stray cats, because people who don’t like cats somehow think that feeding them increases their numbers, but if you want to control the stray cat population TNR is a much more effective means.

Though not as effective as just catching and killing them outright, which is still the norm. In 2013, 128,135 dogs and cats were put down in public facilities, of which 99,566 were cats and 59,387 kittens. One of the hallmarks of the satsu shobun zero movement is finding new homes for abandoned pets. Of the 60,811 dogs brought to facilities in 2013, 15,129 were returned to their owners, since they were lost dogs, and 16,950 found new homes through adoption services.

Cats were less lucky: 115,273 were brought to facilities, with 305 returned to owners and 16,023 going to new homes. The rest were destroyed. Some local governments who have a zero-killing policy get around the problem by just not accepting abandoned animals, which is hardly a solution because in all likelihood the person who wants to bring a cat into a facility will just let it go in a local park. For the most part, a cat is abandoned because its owner’s living situation has changed and he or she can no longer keep the cat.

Government commitment is essential for reducing the number of unwanted cats, either by funding facilities that prioritize adoption or subsidizing spay-neuter operations. As it stands, the Environmental Ministry has set aside ¥100 million for pet-related matters. That means local governments have to come up with more money themselves, or pet-related NPOs have to rely on donations from concerned pet-lovers. Some people have suggested a tax on pet food that would pay for shelters and operations.

Supporters of the TNR movement point to Tokyo Chiyoda Ward as a success story. The local government pays up to ¥17,000 for male cat neutering and up to ¥20,000 for female cat spay operations. Moreover, they will pay ¥25,000 for cat abortions. Consequently, there have been no cats put down in the ward for the past several years.

Where’s the milk? School lunches no longer sacred cows

Monday, January 26th, 2015

Screen shot of February lunch menus for an elementary school in Gifu Prefecture

The February lunch menu for an elementary school in Gifu Prefecture

Last Saturday was the start of Gakko Kyushoku Shukan (School Lunch Week), an annual celebration of the meals that public elementary and junior high school students in Japan enjoy every day by force of law.

School lunches have been a point of pride for Japan’s education institutions, a means of integrating lifelong health maintenance into the standard curriculum. On another level, mandatory school lunches, as the late writer Kuniko Mukoda once famously pointed out, was the basis for the widespread idea that all Japanese belonged to the “middle class.”

Several years ago, the government said it wanted to reinforce “food education,” though it hardly seems necessary since the school lunch program already does that, and very effectively. According to law, all public school children below high school must buy lunch, and those who cannot afford it receive subsidies from the authorities. Each school will have its own nutritionist to make sure the children receive properly balanced meals. In terms of cost, the ingredients for the meals will be paid for by the students, meaning their parents, while labor, maintenance and other related expenses are taken care of by local governments with help from the central government.

This latter element has lately been challenged as more local governments look for ways to cut their budgets. Last summer, Sanjo, a city in Niigata Prefecture, “experimentally” stopped serving milk with lunches at 30 public schools. The ostensible reason, according to the mayor, was that parents complained that milk doesn’t fit in with the Japanese cuisine the schools served.

CONTINUE READING about school lunches →

Cheap smokes finally going up in price

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

Lower class: the 3 most inexpensive cigarette brands

Lower class: the 3 most inexpensive cigarette brands

At the end of last year the ruling coalition studied some tax revisions for 2015 and decided to review the one for tobacco. The review mainly affects three brands, which remain cheap five years after cigarette taxes were increased considerably. These three brands — Wakaba, Echo and Golden Bat — are classified as “third-class tobacco,” which meant that their tax was half the portion levied on other cigarette brands. Apparently, the government wants to make the tax on these three brands equal to that for other brands.

The reason for the tobacco tax in the first place had nothing to do with health and everything to do with the notion that only well-off people smoked, which is the same rationale that governed the tax on alcohol. This was back in the middle 19th century. The government originally owned the tobacco monopoly and still has a hefty share of the stock in the nominally private Japan Tobacco, so the tax has always had a political dimension.

During the Meiji Era, when Japan suddenly decided it had to compete with the rest of the world, the authorities needed revenue fast, and tobacco was an easy way to get it. With the rise of the military and more involvement in foreign wars, the government supplied soldiers with free cigarettes in order to cultivate the tobacco market. Thus cigarettes became a classless commodity whose sales were spurred by its addictive nature.

CONTINUE READING about cheap cigarettes →

Show me the money: Who paid for what in the Lower House election

Monday, January 5th, 2015

Posters for LDP candidate still standing (and lying) in a Chiba field a month after the election

Posters for LDP candidate still standing (and lying) in a Chiba field a month after the election

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the Lower House in November and called a general election, some people complained about the cost. Why should taxpayers foot the bill for an election that was more or less being carried out on a whim?

The complaint got lost in the post-election buzz, when other complaints became louder, but at least one person still wonders about all that money. In a new column in the Asahi Shimbun called “Re: Okotae Shimasu” (Re: Answering Questions), a reader mentions that she heard that the election cost ¥63 billion. What, she asks, was that money spent on?

It’s a good question, but one that’s difficult to answer since the government is still adding up all the receipts and won’t actually reveal the results until next fall, by which time the election will be a distant memory. However, the Asahi was able to give the reader some idea based on the last general election held in 2012, which cost ¥58.8 billion.

In addition, when a “snap election” is held, meaning a poll that doesn’t follow the normal election cycle, the money comes from an “emergency fund” (yobihi) that is kept in reserve for when something unexpected happens.

CONTINUE READING about the cost of elections →

Consumer stimulus is not the same as welfare, though the purpose is the same

Monday, December 29th, 2014

Screen shot from Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, city office home page informing residents that the deadline for the one-time welfare handout is Jan. 5.

Screen grab from Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, city office home page informing residents that the deadline for the one-time welfare handout is Jan. 5.

Last weekend the cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reemerged from its victory lap to approve an economic stimulus package worth ¥3.5 trillion whose purpose is to help rural areas cope with inflation brought on by last April’s consumption tax hike, not to mention the more recent drop in the yen’s value, which has made imported goods more expensive. Some of the money will go to local infrastructure projects, mainly in the area of disaster prevention, and a little less will go directly to consumers and companies.

This handout, however, shouldn’t be confused with the one that the government implemented last summer for poor people, though there will be overlap. In fact, some local governments, which administer the one-time welfare handouts (rinji kyufukin), are still looking for eligible people since many residents who aren’t on their welfare roles nevertheless are qualified to receive the money. So far, about 24 million have received the handout.

The only real difference between the welfare handout and the stimulus handout is the ostensible purpose: the former was designed to help low income people adjust to the CT hike, while the latter is a means of getting more money into the distribution system, but in the end the government wants the same thing: higher consumption, which is why the stimulus handout will likely be in the form of a coupon that can only be spent on goods and services. That isn’t necessary with low income people, who by necessity spend everything they get on goods and services.

CONTINUE READING about consumer stimulus →

Local governments finally getting around to public toilets

Monday, November 24th, 2014

Get down: Public rest room in a park in northern Chiba Prefecture

Get down: Public rest room in a park in northern Chiba Prefecture

Japan is a country of tradeoffs. Though there is an intentional paucity of public waste receptacles, there are plenty of free public restrooms, something that foreign tourists should note with appreciation. What they may not appreciate is the fact that most of the public facilities still feature squat-type toilets, which is certainly an irony since one of Japan’s most famous gifts to the world is the all-service commode, or “washlet,” which does practically everything but pull your drawers up.

We searched high and low for some kind of survey that revealed the portion of public toilets that are squat-type and couldn’t find any, so our claim that most public toilets, whether they be in parks, train stations or just along a street, feature squat type facilities is mainly due to observation.

But it’s obviously a situation that people are aware of. Chiba Prefecture recently announced that it set aside a supplemental budget in order to subsidize local governments and private entities who need to replace older Japanese style toilets under their management with Western style equipment before 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympics and it’s assumed lots of foreign tourists will come to the metropolitan area.

CONTINUE READING about public rest rooms

Are Japan’s public school teachers paid too much?

Monday, November 17th, 2014

Japanese teachers make more money than the world average, but they also work many more hours. (Photo by ajari CC by 2.0

Japanese teachers make more money than the world average, but they also work many more hours. (Photo by ajari CC by 2.0)

Last month the Ministry of Finance presented a policy recommendation based on studies made by an advisory group. Such recommendations are fairly common, but this one caught more than the usual amount of attention because of where it was directed.

The ministry thinks that the maximum class size for first year elementary school students should be increased from 35 to 40. In purely economic terms, such a change would result in a reduction of as many as 4,000 teachers, which would translate as ¥8.6 billion in savings for the central government alone. However, the ministry’s explanation for why the change should be implemented was not made in fiscal terms. It was made in educational terms.

Until the Democratic Party of Japan became the ruling party, maximum class size was 40, and the DPJ changed it to 35 in order to address the bullying problem. But the finance ministry says that bullying incidents have increased slightly since class sizes were reduced, so obviously it has had no effect.

CONTINUE READING about education budgets

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