Archive for the ‘Travel & Transportation’ Category

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.

Auto thefts in Japan record first rise in a decade

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Sitting pretty: Hiace with steering wheel lock

In 2011, 24,928 cars were stolen in Japan, an increase of 1,153 vehicles compared to 2010. This was the first time the number of thefts had gone up since 2001 when 63,275 cars were stolen. Obviously, things have gotten a lot better since then, owing mainly to the standardization of electronic ignition systems, which make it more difficult for thieves to start a car and drive it away.

The General Insurance Association of Japan reports that the model stolen the most — based on statistics from November — is Toyota’s large van, Hiace, which isn’t to say it was the model most targeted by thieves. Hiace does not have electronic ignition as a standard feature, thus making it relatively easier to hot wire. Its popularity among regular ignition cars, though, is well-known by insurers, who say that Hiaces have three things going for them in terms of resellability: They are very durable, they are easy to find parts for, and they are very popular overseas. They’re the Kalashnikovs of the automotive world.

The GIA doesn’t reveal how much its members shelled out in claims for stolen cars. Collision insurance for one’s own car is optional in Japan, and the customer can decide the level of coverage. The same is true of optional auto theft insurance. Since mandatory liability insurance runs car owners around ¥50,000 a year regardless of how old the car is, many people just don’t buy optional auto insurance.

Continue reading about auto theft in Japan →

Electric cars aren’t just for driving any more

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Nissan charged up about giving back to the community.

Late last month, Nissan announced that starting in April its new electric car, the Leaf, would be used as an emergency power supply for a new office-condominium high-rise in Shinjuku managed by Sumitomo Real Estate. In the event of a disaster that resulted in a power failure, Leaf cars could be connected to the building’s electrical system through outlets specially installed for recharging electric vehicles and then the cars’ stored power could be used to supply electricity to the building for up to 42 hours for emergency services such as recharging cell phones and illumination. As a side note, the building also has a special hall that can be converted into a shelter for people in Tokyo who cannot return home during a disaster.

Though this is just a corollary benefit of the Leaf, Nissan’s announcement stresses the idea that electric vehicles could offer a wider range of purposes than just mobility. A number of new housing communities that are being developed with “smart grid” technologies have homes with EV charging stations. As with the Sumitomo building, these stations not only provide electricity for charging the battery of an EV, they also accept electricity from an EV that can be used in the home.

Such news is being stressed as more carmakers enter the EV field. Mercedes Benz Japan said it will start selling its own electric car, Smart, as early as August due to consumer demand. It will be the first foreign EV sold in Japan. At the moment the price hasn’t been determined, but an executive with the company has said it will be competitive with domestic EVs. The Leaf’s sticker price is about ¥4 million, but with the restart of the government’s eco car subsidy, a consumer could take it home for about ¥3 million. The Mitsubishi EV, the MiEV, is even cheaper. After subtracting the subsidy it would cost a little less than ¥2 million.

In related news, Panasonic has said it will start selling a rechargeable storage battery system (chikuden) for the home starting next week. The battery specifically takes advantage of home solar systems, and is mainly being promoted as a stopgap measure for power outages. The problem with solar systems is that they only work when the sun is shining and without a storage device any excess power goes to waste if it isn’t fed back into the grid. This battery can store solar power for the night, for a rainy day, or for blackouts. The battery is a lithium ion type, measuring 45 cm by 15.6 cm by 60 cm. Its capacity is 4.65kW per hour. When fully charged it can supply a house of average size with normal power for two days. The main drawback is the cost, which is ¥2,110,500. It’s cheaper to buy a MiEV.

Can financial incentives put a brake on senior driving?

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Two weeks ago a lawyer in Chiba was cited for leaving the scene of an accident. He had hit a pedestrian with his car but later told police he didn’t notice anything odd at the time the accident occurred. The police believe him because he’s 81. The victim was also “over 60.” This may be a pattern we have to get used to. According to the transport ministry, more than 6,000 traffic accidents a year involve a driver confusing the brake for the accelerator. Though the ministry doesn’t break this particular statistic down into age groups, it does report that in 2010 there were 0.5 traffic accidents per 10,000 drivers between the ages of 25 and 54, and 3.3 accidents per 10,000 drivers over the age of 75. In the same year 106,000 of the 724,000 traffic accidents were caused by drivers over 65, while 50.4 percent of the people who died in traffic accidents were over 65, both new records.

Caution, geezer on board: ochiba (fallen leaf) car decal identifying elderly driver, now replaced with a more ambiguous design

Consequently, a number of local governments have been trying to convince elderly residents to surrender their drivers licenses, and have turned to financial incentives to do so. Ichihara city in Chiba Prefecture will launch a program in February wherein “old people” (no actual age is designated) who voluntarily give up their licenses will receive in return an identification card that allows them a 10 percent discount with 17 taxi companies operating in the city. Normally, municipalities offer discounts for bus rides, which may not sound like much of a trade-in considering that, traditionally, many local governments actually subsidized public transportation for elderly riders, in many cases giving then free passes. That time-honored practice started disappearing as the percentage of elderly, especially in rural areas, steeply increased over the past two decades. Local governments just couldn’t afford to pay for all those fares.

But driving could become even more dangerous as the baby boom generation enters its twilight years. Among previous generations, the driving population was mostly limited to men, but among boomers there are just as many women behind the wheel, which means there will soon be a sudden steep increase in the number of elderly drivers. In addition, insurance companies want to increase premiums for older drivers. Many of these people consider their drivers licenses more than a necessity, so local police departments issue unten keireki shomeisho, or “certificates of driving history,” a form of ID that looks just like a drivers license but isn’t. The psychological effectiveness is questionable, but in any case it is this card that can be used for discounts when using taxis or public transportation. To make the card more attractive, local merchants in Shizuoka Prefecture have agreed to offer discounts to anyone who produces one (rather than a bona fide drivers license). Last year in Kagawa Prefecture, 976 people gave up their licenses, a threefold increase over the previous year owning to a new discount service provided by the local taxi union and a special low-priced IC bus card especially for older patrons.

A university professor who specializes in “traffic sociology” told Nishi Nihon Shimbun that local government’s face a very real problem of guaranteeing old people mobility in the future. If public transportation isn’t available and affordable, then the elderly are going to drive as long as they possibly can, a possibility some carmakers are trying to take advantage of. It’s basically up to friends and relatives, and not just the local authorities, to convince them to give it up “without hurting their pride.” Economic incentives may be a good way to convince them, but first bus and train lines have to be substantialized and taxi service increased.

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