Archive for the ‘Travel & Transportation’ Category

Auto sales driven by gas mileage

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Fit to be drived

Fit to be drived

Last week Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Japan would participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks, a prospect that worries American car makers since the trade agreement could remove any remaining tariffs from Japanese cars sold in the U.S., thus making them cheaper and even more attractive to American consumers. Apparently, carmakers in the U.S. don’t think the agreement will sufficiently remove what they deem barriers to American car sales in Japan. The fact that these barriers, which include, in the words of Reuters, “discriminatory taxes, onerous and costly certification procedures for foreign cars and [an] unwillingness by Japanese auto dealers to sell foreign cars,” have not prevented certain European automakers from doing well in Japan may, in fact, indicate that the problem is American products rather than Japanese protectionism. For instance, the U.S. claims that Japan’s preferential tax treatment for kei (light) cars — smaller automobiles whose engine displacement is 660cc — is a trade barrier, but since America doesn’t make kei cars it’s difficult to understand what it’s a barrier to. Kei cars account for about 30 percent of the Japanese car market, which means people like them, and the main reason they like them is their superior gas mileage.

It’s also the main reason for the popularity of hybrids. On March 3, the land ministry announced its most recent findings for the best gas mileage among cars sold in Japan. Toyota’s hybrid Aqua came out in first place with 35.4 km per liter (in JC08 mode). In second place was the first hybrid car sold in Japan, Toyota’s Prius with 32.6km/l. In third place was Toyota’s high-end hybrid Lexus at 30.4km/l, and fourth was Honda’s hybrid Insight. The highest non-hybrid on the list was the Mitsubishi Mirage, which gets 27.2km/l.

Aqua is also the best-selling model in Japan right now. In February, 24,526 Aquas were sold nationwide, with Prius in second place with 23,473. After that, it was Nissan’s Note with 16,497 followed by Honda’s Fit. However, overall kei cars still outsell regular cars and hybrids in terms of units, probably because in addition to good gas mileage they cost less to purchase. Suzuki’s Alto and Mazda’s Carol tied for first among kei cars in terms of fuel efficiency with 30.2km/l. American carmakers will probably not be happy to learn that the government has required all cars sold in Japan to meet stricter efficiency standards by 2015 in accordance with the revised Energy Conservation Law. As it stands, however, a fair number of domestic models already meet these standards.

Of course, the gas mileage figures offered by the government and the automakers themselves should be used purely for comparative purposes. One would probably have to drive straight on an expressway on perfectly balanced tires going downhill with the wind at one’s back to achieve 35km/l in an Aqua, but last week we decided to try one out for a day trip to Gunma. We picked up the car in Iwatsuki, Saitama Prefecture, at a branch of Toyota Rental & Leasing. The fee was ¥7,000 for the day, including the use of a car navigation system, plus ¥1,000 for insurance.

We drove about 250 km and ended up spending ¥1,372 for gasoline, which worked out to about 9 liters or a little less than 25km/l. That’s much less than the advertised rate, but better than we expected considering that more than a third of the drive was spent on surface roads rather than expressways. But we didn’t use the air conditioner, either. And when we checked several websites dedicated to jissai nenpi, or fuel efficiency under real driving conditions, the average gas mileage for the Aqua is around 21.5km/l.

For comparison’s sake, in January we rented Nissan’s compact (but not kei) March from Nikoniko rentals for ¥4,000 a day with insurance included but no car navigation system. We drove 140 km, none on expressways, and ended up using 8.37 liters, which means gas mileage was 17.9km/l (advertised: 24; real: 20). The advantage of the hybrid is obvious, and will likely become more so when Honda comes out with a new version of its hybrid Fit in August. The company is already boasting that gas mileage will exceed 36, thus topping Aqua. And it will be cheaper, too.

Gas station business losing to reality

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Tanks for the memories

According to the Petroleum Association of Japan, the demand for gasoline continues to decrease owing to the popularity of hybrids and mini-cars, the greater fuel efficiency of automobiles in general, and a trend that sees more and more young people foregoing the pleasures of motoring. In 1999, 250 million kiloliters of gasoline were sold in Japan. In 2011 the amount was about 200 million. Consequently, the country doesn’t need as many gas stations. There were 60,000 in 1994, only 38,000 in 2011.

The disappearance of gas stations will likely accelerate this year due to a revision to the Fire Prevention Law. Several years ago it was discovered that gasoline reservoirs — the tanks buried under gas stations to store fuel — were leaking at an alarming rate, so the government enacted a law to address the problem. If the tank is 40 years old or older, the owner of the gas station must replace it or repair it. If he doesn’t, his license to pump gas could be revoked. Either operation requires excavation and the use of heavy machinery, and costs between ¥1.5 and ¥2.5 million. Many gas stations, in fact, have at least three tanks underground: one for gasoline, one for diesel, and one for kerosene. Each would have to be replaced once it turns 40. The revision went into effect in February 2011, and all gas stations with tanks older than 40 years had two years to comply. At the same time, the government introduced a subsidy that would provide two-thirds of the cost of the replacement-repair if the application is made by the end of January 2013. According to an industry group survey cited in Tokyo Shimbun, as of the end of September only 30 percent of tanks that needed to be changed actually had been. Of the other respondents, 7.5 percent said they are considering closing their businesses due to the revision. Others said they will wait until the last minute to apply for the subsidy. An industry representative told the Tokyo Shimbun that the older the tank the older the gas station owner, so it is likely they will simply decide to retire if no one in the family wants to take over the business. Perhaps in light of these findings, the government has already decided to extend the subsidy period.

It may not make much of a difference. The projection for gasoline demand in 2020 is only 130 million kiloliters. The main problem with lack of demand is that it affects different regions differently. The loss of gas stations in major cities and densely populated suburban regions won’t cause major problems, but in outlying rural areas, where there is little public transportation and people rely on automobiles to get around, it could cause an increase in so-called gas refugees.

Among Japan’s prefectures, Yamaguchi pays the most for gasoline a year per household — ¥80,000 — while Osaka pays the least, about ¥14,000. If a gas station in Osaka closes, not many people will notice, but if one in Yamaguchi shuts down, the people who relied on it will have to drive even farther to fill up, thus consuming more gasoline just to buy gasoline.

As a side note, the development of electric cars doesn’t seem to be much of a factor in these projections. The magainze Toyo Keizai reports that despite government subsidies, the Nissan Leaf, which first went on sale in Nov. 2010, isn’t selling as well as expected (and Toyota, which just regained its position as No. 1 carmaker in the world, has cancelled its plans to make an electric).

As of last November, Nissan had sold 43,000 Leafs worldwide, including 19,000 in Japan and 17,000 in the U.S. Since manufacturing capacity is 50,000 cars a year, the model is only fulfilling 43 percent of its potential. Experts say the problem is still driving distance. Even with new improvements in battery storage and efficiency, a full charge for a Leaf will only get you 250 km, while the average compact with a full tank could get you up to 800 km.

The relative savings in gasoline costs enjoyed by the electric car driver doesn’t seem to be a major consideration for consumers at the moment. However, this may change as more gas stations disappear, since electric chargers can be installed anywhere without any expensive requirements: dealerships, service areas, even convenience stores.

Cleaning ‘angels’ reinforce positive image of Japanese workers

Friday, January 4th, 2013

Cleaning crew (in pink) waiting with the hordes at Tokyo Station for the train to arrive (photos: Jason Jenkins)

If, like thousands of others, you took the shinkansen (super express) during the recent New Year’s holiday break, when you arrived at a line terminal you likely saw uniformed cleaning crews waiting at attention for the train to stop. They would have bowed as you left the car and then scurried on board to clean it up before the passengers waiting on the platform were allowed to board. During this time of year, in particular, express trains are packed 24/7, and keeping arrivals and departures on time is the number one priority. These cleaners, on average, have only seven minutes to make the cars spic-and-span, and their methodical efficiency in getting that job done has made them heroes in the media, the newest symbols of Japan’s storied work ethic.

At least one book has been written about these train cleaners, CNN produced a special report on them and dozens of magazine articles have covered them in detail. A recent issue of Shukan Post concentrated on one of the companies, Techno Heart Tessei, which is a subsidiary of JR East. Right at the beginning of the article, the Post offers the opinion that these workers provide a positive example for any business in Japan. It then goes on to describe in detail the “shinkansen gekijo,” (bullet train theater): how the cleaners, both men and women, accomplish their “miraculous” task, which is methodical and reducible to the second. There is one cleaner per non-reserved car, two or three per reserved car.

Overhead racks are checked on the initial round while seats are reset to their original orientation and underfoot trash is quickly swept to the middle aisle. On the return round, window ledges, blinds and panes as well as folding tables are wiped; headrest covers are replaced if dirty. Then someone comes through with a broom to collect the trash. Separate staff handles toilets. All operations are checked by the supervising cleaner and cleared. Usually, these teams complete their jobs with more than a minute to spare. On the average, they clean 20 trains a shift.

Continue reading about train-cleaning "angels" →

Theme parks make a comeback thanks to grandma and grandpa

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Ho-hum. Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea recorded another record season. Between April and September, Japan’s favorite theme parks were visited by 13.25 million people, a 23 percent increase over the same period last year, which is understandable given that “self-restraint” was the order of business in summer 2011 after the earthquake and tsunami. Still, that’s an impressive increase under any circumstances since it translates as an operating income of ¥39 billion — double last year’s — and a net profit of ¥25.5 billion — triple last year’s.

Yumiko Yamashita! You are the 100 millionth visitor to Universal Studios Japan!

But TDL isn’t the only theme park that did well this summer. According to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, attendance at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka was up 19.5 percent during the same period, Tokyo’s Toshimaen amusement park saw an 18.7 percent rise, Yomiuri Land in western Tokyo 30 percent, Nagashima Spa Land in Mie Prefecture 3 percent, Fujikyu Highland in Shizuoka Prefecture 4 percent, and even the Dutch theme park Huis Ten Bosch in Kyushu, which almost went bankrupt before being bought by travel agent H.I.S., enjoyed an 11 percent year-on-year boost in attendance from Jan. to June.

Could all this healthy leisure spending be explained by a post-disaster recovery bump, as theorized by Sankei Shimbun? A recent segment of the TBS noon-time wide show “Hiruobi” looked into the matter and found that there’s something else involved, namely a confluence of demographics that has resulted in wider-open wallets. The program sent a reporter to Universal Studios to cover the 100 millionth admission and found that a good portion of park attendance was made up of families of three generations, with the youngest layer comprised of very young children and the oldest of grandparents who are recently retired but still relatively young and, more importantly, have a lot of savings they’re only too happy to spend on their grandkids. “My grandma buys me anything I want,” said one little girl without shame.

Continue reading about theme-park repeaters →

Clarifying the economic damage of the Senkakus row

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

Prepare for descent.

Japanese conservatives contend that people should not get “emotional” about the economic consequences of the current row with China over the Senkaku islands, implying that some things are more important than money. But what exactly are the economic consequences given that since 2009 China has been Japan’s biggest trading partner?

According to the Finance Ministry, one-fifth of total Japanese exports in 2010 went to China, while the same portion was 7.7 percent in 2001. A Reuters analysis shows that Japan would suffer mightily if trade stopped, citing an annual loss of ¥12 trillion if exports went down to zero for only one month. Under such conditions, automobile companies would be the main loser. They’d lose ¥144 billion. Bank of America estimates that 25 percent of all Nissan’s profits are derived in China, 21 percent for Toyota and 16 for Honda.

Moreover, Japanese companies directly invested ¥1 trillion in China in 2011, 60 percent more than what they spent in 2009. China’s Bureau of Statistics says that as of the end of 2010 there were 22,307 joint Japan-China ventures operating in China comprising 3 million workers and accounting for 16 percent of all the country’s foreign-related companies.

Still, the sector that tends to get the most media attention in Japan is tourism, since visitors from China spend more here than visitors from any other country. According to the Asahi Shimbun, China’s state tourism agency, which controls some 5,500 travel agencies all over the country, has stopped selling tours to Japan for the time being. Cancellations of reservations already made amount to about 500 million yuan, or ¥6.2 billion.

For the big vacation week of Oct. 1, there were at least 10,000 cancellations. China said it originally expected to sell some 45,000 individual tour packages to Japan for that week. On the other hand the agency said that the number of Chinese tourists who visited South Korea during the big vacation week was 125,000, a new record. They spent the equivalent of ¥190 billion, according to South Korea’s retailers association. Department stores and duty-free shops, in particular, did booming business.

Japanese companies lose less with cancellations of Japanese tourists going to China, but the cancellations do have an effect on Japanese airlines and tour packagers. Various media have reported that there were around 52,000 seat cancellations on flights between Japan and China as of September 24, with 37,000 on ANA and 15,000 on JAL. Many of these cancellations were Japanese business travelers, who tend to pay premium prices for tickets.

Japanese tour companies suffered, too. China and South Korea are always two of the top three destinations in terms of number of Japanese tourists, and Sankei Shimbun reports there has been a 30-45 percent decrease in the number of tours to these two countries in the second half of the year compared to the same period last year. This negative effect spreads to other sectors, since tourist companies are also not bothering to advertise. They say it would just be a waste of money.

Summertime blues: no place to go or no money to spend?

Friday, August 10th, 2012

Last week, the research department of Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance released the results of its annual summer vacation survey. For the second year in a row, projected spending for summer vacation dropped from the previous year’s spending. On average, households say they plan to spend ¥82,974 this year, down from ¥84,848 last year. It is not the lowest amount on record, however. In 2008, households said they would spend ¥76,955, but that was the year after the subprime crisis and the Lehman Brothers “shock.” The next year, spending recovered but has been declining ever since.

What the roads won’t look like in the middle of August.

Yasuda hasn’t analyzed these findings, so it’s not entirely clear if the reason for the decline is lack of disposable income due to the ongoing recession or fear of spending any money because of an uncertain future. However, the amount of spending jumps considerably when children aren’t involved. Households consisting only of couples said they would spend on average ¥100,191, which is much more than it was last year. A relatively large number of couples say they will be traveling overseas.

In any case, the majority of all respondents said they would stick close to home this summer, 62 percent, to be precise. It’s the seventh year in a row that “staying at home” topped the list of answers to the question, “What do you plan to do?” Other answers (respondents can tick more than one) included “return to my home town” (39.4 percent), travel domestically (37.4 percent), and visit theme parks, public pools, camping sites, etc. Among the reasons given for staying at home this year, the most common was “to recover my strength,” followed by “it costs too much to travel.”

It’s unfortunate that Yasuda didn’t get even more detailed in this line of inquiry. For example, of the people who said they would visit their home towns, 52 percent also said they would get there by automobile. Considering the monumental “u-turn rush” traffic jams that occur during the specified holiday period, it might have been interesting to find out how many people decided not to go home because of traffic jams and crowded trains. It’s easy to blame apathy about summer vacation on economics, but logistics has a lot to do with it, too, especially when they’re qualified by financial considerations. These things all go together.

Boomer boom: Businesses tapping consumption where they can find it

Friday, July 20th, 2012

It’s 10 a.m. Do you know where your grandmother is?

In July, the Bank of Japan released the results of its quarterly tankan survey of business sentiment for April-June. The most notable, and hardly surprising, result was the drop in confidence among major manufacturers. Less was said about the fact that domestic demand and individual consumption appear to be stabilizing. The numbers get even more encouraging when you look at specific industries.

In the tankan, an index of “0″ means no change in sentiment, with minus numbers indicating a loss of confidence and positive numbers a gain in confidence. The index for hotels and restaurants was +3, the first positive rise in five years, and a substantial one. Even more impressive was the index for “individual services,” such as travel agents, a category launched in 2004. The most recent tankan showed an index of +25. These numbers are at once heartening and baffling. Average income did not rise during the same period, which means consumption shouldn’t have risen, so why the increase in confidence?

The report’s authors credit these hopeful signs to people over 60, and smaller businesses’ resourcefulness in tapping this demographic. A recent article in Tokyo Shimbun profiled an izakaya (drinking establishment) chain called Hokkaido, which has an outlet in Kokubunji, Tokyo, that offers a special hiru enkai (daytime party) plan: If each member of a party orders at least ¥3,500 in dishes, then the party can drink as much as they like without paying extra.

Continue reading about senior citizen consumers →

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