Archive for the ‘Travel & Transportation’ Category

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 →

Budget airline determined to give passengers their money’s worth

Monday, June 18th, 2012

As more and more airlines struggle with fluctuating fuel costs, labor disputes and competition that puts downward pressure on fares, they cut wherever they can, and for passengers the clearest sign of this trend is the loss of services once considered standard. It started with charging for drinks and meals on shorter flights, then charging for a second checked bag or even the first. Ireland’s premier budget carrier Ryanair has taken these cost-cutting measures to almost laughable extremes.

Skymark home page

Japanese carriers have always had the highest reputation for service, which is one of the reasons Japanese fliers remained faithful for so long and paid extra for those services. The JAL bankruptcy proved that this was no longer the case, and in recent years Japanese airlines have had to genuinely compete with others for customers, even Japanese customers. Now budget Japanese carriers have softened service, and some think that one of the pioneers, Skymark, has gone too far.

Earlier this month the media covered the airline’s “service concept,” which, in practical terms, doesn’t really make a huge difference in a passenger’s in-flight experience. However, the way it was presented seemed geared to offend. According to the Asahi Shimbun’s reports, the “instructions,” printed on B5-size pieces of paper and inserted in seat pockets on aircraft starting May 18, state that flight attendants are not obligated to “help passengers stow luggage on board the aircraft,” meaning that passengers are totally responsible for their own bags. More to the point, the instructions also state that attendants and other staff do not have to “use the polite language that airlines conventionally use.” And except for the company-issued polo shirts and windbreakers, staff can dress or make up any way they want.

After the media made a big deal of the service concept, Skymark announced that it did not constitute any sort of change but was a “clarification” of policies already in effect. The transportation ministry was mainly concerned with the “tone” of the clarification, which seemed to be a “challenge to” rather than a “violation of” existing regulations. In particular, the ministry was concerned that Skymark’s refusal to “accept complaints” from passengers on matters that “don’t directly affect customers” might cause problems.

Continue reading about budget airlines in Japan →

Play money: Forgotten fate of foreign currency

Monday, June 4th, 2012

Stuff old people bring back from abroad

The magazine Travel Journal recently reported the results of a survey carried out by the Ministry of Internal Affairs among 7,829 travelers after the recent Golden Week holiday. The ministry asked people who had changed yen into foreign currencies how much of that money was left over in cash after they returned to Japan. The average amount of foreign cash remaining among those who responded was the equivalent of ¥38,871. Somehow, the ministry extrapolated this figure to reach the conclusion that, nationwide, there is about ¥1.3 trillion worth of foreign currencies sitting around in people’s dresser drawers or stuck in the back of wardrobes, which is a lot of money.

The survey also found out that the average Japanese traveler going overseas exchanges ¥71,940 on each trip, and spends about 70 percent of that money. The average amount of cash that is stolen from a Japanese robbery victim overseas is ¥65,730 per incident. In 12 percent of the cases, more than ¥100,000 in equivalent cash is stolen from Japanese victims. In 1 percent of these cases the amount is over ¥1 million.

For better or worse, Japanese tourists are famous in foreign countries for carrying a lot of cash, presumably because in Japan merchants still prefer transactions in cash and Japan is a relatively safe country for doing so. It’s one reason why Japanese tourists spend so much in airports. They feel the need to get rid of their foreign cash, even if it’s spent on things they don’t need. Japan Travel also comments that older Japanese people, who tend to travel in tour groups, rarely think about the exchange rate, and especially now with the yen so high may end up exchanging more yen than they really need.

Since this forgotten foreign currency in homes is likely worth less that it was when the exchange was originally made, people may not be so enthusiastic about trading it in for yen, at least not right away. Still, the government must surely be wondering how it can get its hands on it. Travel Journal says the Ministry of Internal Affairs is thinking of launching a “donation” campaign for the money. We can imagine the catch copy: “You can’t spend it here, so why not give it to us?”

How high is up: Tokyo Skytree boosts economy for some

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

There’s a Japanese proverb that goes something like: Smoke and stupidity always rise to the highest places. It’s a useful saying when talking about the media frenzy regarding the Tokyo Skytree, which opened to the public May 22. Though it’s not our mission to ponder the psychology of why people like to go to the top of very tall structures and look down on everyone else, whatever the attraction, it hardly justifies the redundantly blanket media coverage of the new broadcast tower in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward. Of course, the Tobu Railway group, which owns and operates the tower, couldn’t have asked for better publicity. The number of visitors has so far exceeded its own estimates by 50 percent. No one has bothered to calculate the equivalent value in advertising that this free PR represents but it must

Skytree crowds on opening day (Satoko Kawasaki photo)

be in the billions of yen. And it’s paid off. As of last February, group reservations for tickets to the upper observation deck were booked until July 22, amounting to some 300,000 separate admissions. Because a number of people cancel on a daily basis, the operator of the 634-meter tower has decided to sell an additional 1,000 tickets a day to the lower observation deck (350 meters) between June 4 and July 10 at ¥2,500 a pop. The limit for daily admissions is 14,000, but after cancellations the number that have actually shown up is between 12,000 and 13,000. Altogether, 1.4 million
visitors have been in the tower, 85,000 of whom went to the upper observation deck (450 meters), which costs ¥3,500. Reservations must be made with a credit card (only those issued in Japan are acceptable), and there are no refunds. At those prices and those numbers, it should be no problem for Tobu to pay off its massive ¥400 billion construction cost in a matter or years rather than decades.

Tobu isn’t the only party counting on the Skytree to boost its financial situation. Tokyo Shimbun reports that the “economic impact” of the tower should also be felt nationwide to the tune of ¥174.6 billion and in the Tokyo metropolitan area by as much as ¥130 billion. Even more impressive, Sumida Ward expects ¥88 billion, and that’s just in income. Of the eight Tokyo districts where property values rose in 2011, two are in Sumida Ward near the Skytree. However, according to the Mainichi Shimbun there is some talk among Sumida residents of just how much they themselves will benefit in the balance. About 32 million people a year are projected to come to Tokyo Skytree Town and its retail complex Solamachi, which is considerable given that annual admissions to Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea total 25 million. But the surrounding area is more residential than commercial and while local merchants are trying to make the most of the tourist windfall, those who simply live there are wondering if the boost is worth all the trouble. How the influx compromises public safety

Bus driver salaries inversely proportional to risk involved

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Media crews across the street from Rikuentai offices in Chiba Prefecture

Shortly after he was elected mayor of Osaka earlier this year, Toru Hashimoto announced that one of his first acts in tackling the city’s deficit would be to cut municipal bus driver salaries by as much as 40 percent for a savings of ¥200 billion a year. The city employs 700 drivers whose average age is 50 and average annual pay is ¥7.39 million. Hashimoto wants to bring their salaries down to about the same level that bus drivers of private companies make in the region. According to the land ministry, the average pay of bus drivers in Osaka, whether they work for a private company or a public entity, is ¥4.6 million a year. Since Osaka municipal drivers belong to a union, it’s assumed Hashimoto has his work cut out for him, but likely he’ll make the change he wants gradually, by cutting pay grade increases for newer drivers.

Bus drivers are in the news now because of the accident on the Kanetsu Expressway in which seven passengers died during an overnight charter bus trip from Kanazawa to Tokyo. The driver fell asleep at the wheel and the bus crashed into an overpass wall. Though the driver was arrested for negligence, the accident has brought attention to the stress that long-distance bus drivers contend with every day. Driving a bus, especially in cramped Japan, is a risky occupation since the driver is responsible for passengers’ lives, but salaries don’t necessarily reflect that risk. Municipal bus drivers tend to make the most, but they almost never drive long monotonous distances that can cause drowsiness.

According to a blog that solicits readers about their salaries, municipal drivers and highway route drivers who work for major transportation companies make the most money, around ¥7 million, followed by route bus drivers who work for private companies. They make between ¥5.5 million and ¥6 million, or less depending on the region. The lowest pay is earned by charter tour bus drivers, like the one who had the accident on the Kanetsu. One 50-year-old who posted on the blog said he made ¥4.8 million a year, while a 29-year-old charter driver said he makes only ¥2.4 million.

Continue reading about bus driver salaries →

Outlet malls another American concept that may not work in Japan

Monday, April 16th, 2012

Can't get there from here: empty storefronts at Big Hop Garden Mall

This weekend marks the grand opening of Mitsui Outlet Park Kisarazu, a so-called outlet mall in the coastal city of Kisarazu in Chiba Prefecture. So far the mall has 171 stores, including 21 retailers that have never before participated in any Japanese outlet mall. Mitsui Fudosan, which developed and manages the facility, says it hopes to eventually have 250 stores in the mall. Its sales target for the first year is between ¥32 billion and ¥34 billion, which would make it the biggest money-maker of the 12 outlet malls the company operates.

Mitsui isn’t the only developer staking its future on the success of American-style suburban shopping complexes. In Japan there are now 39 outlet malls, which are characterized by stores that are directly owned and run by manufacturers. In principle, that means cutting out one or more middlemen and offering greater savings on name-brand goods. According to the most recent statistics we could find there are more than 1,600 “shopping malls” in Japan, though most of these are urban complexes that vary significantly in style and form from the classic American-style shopping mall.

Nevertheless, over the past decade or so, the number of shopping malls has increased in suburban areas as more traditional shopping arcades (shotengai) have declined in number or even vanished. The main features of these suburban shopping malls is one or two large “anchor” retailers, usually a department store and/or major supermarket chain, and, most significant for Japan, the fact that they aren’t located near train stations, where land is more expensive. That means they target motorists and feature the sort of enormous parking lots that are ubiquitous in the United States but which, until recently, were unheard of in Japan.

Outlet malls don’t always incorporate major department stores or supermarkets, but they do cater to people with cars. This aspect is particularly noteworthy in the case of the new mall in Kisarazu, which is the eastern terminus of the Aqua-Line bridge-and-tunnel route that connects Chiba’s Boso peninsula to Kanagawa Prefecture over Tokyo Bay. When this very expensive, 23-km highway was completed in 1997, one of its main purposes was to encourage visits to Kisarazu and the rest of Chiba by residents of Tokyo and Kanagawa, which includes the very large cities of Kawasaki and Yokohama.

That didn’t happen. Most of the traffic actually went the other way, if it went at all. When it opened, the toll was an intimidating ¥3,000 each way. As part of his election campaign platform, current governor Kensaku Morita promised to persuade the land ministry to reduce the toll, and now it’s only ¥800 one way (as a “test discount” that appears to be permanent), but still the tourists weren’t coming to Kisarazu. Instead, they went to the restaurant and retail complex built in the middle of the Aqua-Line. The Aqua-Line itself became the attraction, not the cities on either end of it.

Continue reading about shopping malls in Japan →

Experience counts for something in JR embezzling incident

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

JR ticket office

On March 16, JR West pressed charges against a 50-year-old employee who allegedly embezzled ¥86 million. The unnamed worker, who was hired by the railway company in 1980, when it was still part of Japan National Railways (JNR), worked in the ticket office of Akashi Station on the JR Sanyo Line. He has been accused of printing out fake teiki (commuter passes) for which he gave out equally fake refunds that ended up in his pocket. All in all, he carried out this fraud 659 times and supposedly spent the money on gambling and other “entertainment” activities. But what’s more interesting is that he didn’t do it alone. He apparently enlisted the assistance of seven other staff members who confessed that they felt pressured into going along with the scheme because of the accused’s seniority.

The suspect first started the racket when he was working at Asagiri Station on the same line. He would issue fake passes and then dispense refunds for the passes after the imaginary customers who purchased them reported they were defective. Since these passes are issued by vending machines, the salesperson keeps the supposedly defective pass and refunds the money, which the customer uses to buy a new one. Under such circumstances the salesperson has to write a report for the refund and then later someone has to verify the refund report with the returned pass, but somehow the employee figured out that no one ever actually did this. In fact, he probably could have continued the scam indefinitely if another employee in JR Nishi Nihon who worked on the Takarazuka Line hadn’t been caught doing the same thing, thus causing management to look a little closer at records to see if it wasn’t more widespread. Apparently it was. Even before they caught the Akashi embezzler, investigators discovered an employee at Osaka Station who had pilfered ¥32 million.

But none of the other embezzlers used underlings to help them bring in more cash. A JR executive told reporters that the seven accomplices were contract workers in their 20s, meaning their employment was not guaranteed. When questioned about why they agreed to participate in the scam, they said the accused, who was their supervisor, made it impossible to refuse. They knew it was wrong, but believed that if they didn’t obey his orders they’d lose their jobs. After five years they are given the opportunity to become regular employees, but if they don’t they aren’t rehired, since contract workers are limited to four rehirings. One of the seven stopped working for JR before the incident came to light.

After JNR went private in 1987 and the company was split into several regional railways, many older workers were laid off. Some sued and are still fighting to get their jobs back, but in any case JR West didn’t hire many new graduates in the subsequent decade, which means there is a wide age gap in the company’s ranks. At Akashi Station, for instance, eight of the 41 employees are in their late 40s and 50s, while the rest are in their 20s. Most of these younger employees are contract workers who have to renew their employment every year. The hourly wage is about ¥1,000 (following a three-month probation period during which they earn ¥890 an hour). JR didn’t reveal what the accused employee’s salary was, but according to Nenshu Lab, a wage research group, the average salary for a full-time JR West employee, regular or not, is ¥6.73 million. In 2005, however, the average salary was ¥7.24 million, which would seem to indicate that more contract workers have been hired as older workers retire.

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