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Will rice cookers save the Japanese home electronics industry?

July 14th, 2014 by

Pricey rice: High function rice cookers on display at a discount electronics store

Pricey rice: High function rice cookers on display at a discount electronics store

It’s been well documented that the Chinese are considered the saviors of the Japanese tourist trade, but there’s more to the story than just tour numbers and hotel bookings. An article in the July 10 Asahi Shimbun described an odd and recurring dilemma at Kansai International Airport. Chinese tourists are buying Japanese-made rice cookers at the airport’s souvenir shops in large numbers. Since the purchases are made after the travelers have gone through immigration processing, they don’t have to pay duty, but at that point they’ve already checked their luggage, and the rice cookers in their boxes won’t fit into overhead bins in airplane cabins.

Some of the rice cookers will fit if they’re removed from the boxes, but people on these flights are buying more and more of the home appliances so in some cases there is no room for any of them, which means flight attendants have to assist in having these patrons check the items so that they can put them in the cargo hold, and as a result more and more flights back to China are being delayed.

Rice cookers became a very popular item among Chinese tourists in 2010, when visa rules were relaxed to allow travelers who weren’t members of organized tours to come to Japan freely. One of the clerks in the Osaka airport souvenir store told Asahi that he once saw a Chinese tourist buy six of the devices at one time. One Chinese businessman who comes to Japan on a regular basis says he’s always getting requests from acquaintances to buy rice cookers for them. This souvenir store, in fact, sells an average of 10 cookers a day, most of them high-end models, which can cost as much as ¥90,000.

Last April, during cherry blossom viewing season, the store sold an average of 20 a day. A representative of Yodobashi Camera Multimedia Umeda in Osaka told the paper that whenever Chinese tour groups visit the discount electronics store they usually buy more rice cookers than they have members. Yodobashi has a duty-free system for tourists, but actually most Chinese prefer buying their rice cookers in the airport, since the price isn’t any different and they don’t have to lug the things around with them prior to departure. But there is the problem of carry-on.

Why rice cookers? There are few appliances that reflect Japan’s so-called Galapagos design mindset as thoroughly as rice cookers. They basically do one thing: Cook Japanese rice in a way that only Japanese people prefer. The rest of the world doesn’t eat much sticky, white, short-grained rice unless it’s combined with sauce or other prepared foods, and that includes the rest of Asia. Even China, from which Japan first imported rice-growing techniques, isn’t big on rice as a separate dish. It prefers long-grain rice, which is always prepared with something else in mind, and while it is considered a staple, at mealtime it isn’t as important as other dishes. In the northern part of China, many people don’t eat rice at all, since they grow more wheat there due to the colder climate.

But as more and more Chinese tourists have come to Japan, they have discovered the unique joys of sticky white rice.  As incomes rise in China, people are broadening their food choices, and one of those choices is short-grain rice. If it’s Japanese grown, it’s even better, despite the high price. And the best way to prepare it is with a Japanese-made rice cooker.

According to the Japan Electrical Manufacturers Association, more rice cookers are manufactured in China than in any other country in the world, but the vast majority are inexpensive models with few features. The first Japanese rice cooker was made by Toshiba in the mid-1950s, and since then they have become extremely sophisticated. Some even include porcelain containers and functions that allow the user to make rice that tasted as if it were made the old-fashioned way, in a kamado, the traditional, charcoal burning Japanese stove. Now, apparently, Japanese manufacturers are incorporating functions that will appeal to Chinese users, such as the ability to cook long-grain rice and different kinds of porridge.

In its own peculiar way, the Japanese rice cooker has done more to extend a specific Japanese sensibility than any electronic device since the Walkman. As any Japanese person over a certain age will tell you, the preparation of rice is the most important culinary consideration with regard to the Japanese menu. Cooking rice the proper way is difficult and time-consuming. You have to wash the rice throroughly until the runoff water is utterly transparent. Then the rice has to sit in that water for a certain length of time. The pot used for cooking rice, a kama, is only used for rice. First the rice in the water is boiled and the flame reduced — which, before gas stoves, meant removing pieces of charcoal from the kamado. And the person doing the cooking has to stay and monitor the flame for at least 15 minutes.

Consequently, the rice cooker was a huge boon for housewives. It not only freed up their time so that they could cook other dishes simultaneously, it freed up cooking space. Most Japanese kitchens with natural gas have only two burners. When makers added timing devices, rice cooking became exponentially easier because it cut the time needed for preparation, especially in the morning when housewives had to prepare breakfast and lunchboxes. Reheated cold rice is normally not acceptable. That’s why the next development was the “jar,” a special device for storing already made rice to keep it warm for later in the day without drying out. When the rice cookers themselves incorporated jar functions, the appliance had become perfect.

But only perfect to Japanese people. Most everyone else in the world didn’t eat rice this way, but apparently the Chinese are catching on. It’s too much to hope that their sudden affection for Japanese style rice will single-handedly save Japan’s home electronics industry — not to mention Japanese agriculture — but you never know. Look what the Walkman wrought.

What the government doesn’t pay in pensions it will have to make up for with welfare

July 7th, 2014 by

One of the biggest fiscal issues — if not the biggest fiscal issue — facing the government is the expected steep increase in the number of seniors who will require welfare benefits after retirement. Everyone assumes that the various national pension systems by themselves are not enough to sustain a minimum standard of living for the people who receive them, and so they will need additional income, either in terms of savings, returns from investments or wages.

Back to work?

Back to work?

In a recent survey conducted by the prime minister’s office and whose target respondents were people between the ages of 35 and 64, nearly 70 percent said that they are not now, nor do they think they will be, financially prepared for retirement. The government, anticipating this reality, several years ago passed a law to ensure that people who wish to work after their designated retirement age will be able to do so, though, as is often the case with socially-minded legislation, there is no compulsion toward employers to make this happen or any penalties if they don’t. It’s up to the employee and the employer working together.

In any case, when asked if they want to work after “retirement,” 31.4 percent of the respondents said they would after the age of 65, and 20.9 percent said they would want to do so after the age of 70. That means more than 52 percent want to work after the age of 60, which is still the standard retirement age at most companies. When asked why they want to work, 77 percent said “to make a living.”

As far as people who are trying to save money for their old age, only 1.6 percent admitted to having “more than enough,” with 21.7 percent saying they have saved or expect to have saved “the minimum necessary.” Of those who answered that they haven’t saved enough, half admit that their savings is “almost nothing,” with 74 percent in the 35-39 age bracket saying their savings is “insufficient,” which probably means nothing so far.

But perception of what they need is also an important consideration. In a survey conducted in June of 2013, the Ministry of Internal Affairs found that the average household whose head is between 60 and 69 spent ¥259,695 a month. This amount dropped to ¥196,500 for households whose head was over 70. According to another survey conducted by the Central Council for Financial Services Information, respondents who are currently working believe, on average, that a retired person needs ¥260,000 a month to live off of.

The government organ, Japan Pension Service, says that the monthly pension income of a retired “model household” is ¥230,000 a month, which comes down to ¥100,000 for a husband who was enrolled in the company sponsored koseinenkin system, ¥65,000 for the same husband’s basic pension (kiso nenkin), and his wife’s own basic pension of ¥65,000. The model assumes that the husband and his employer paid into both pension systems for a full 40 years, and since the dependent wife, as the spouse of a full-time regular employee, is categorized as a “number 3″ national pension subscriber, she is assumed to have paid her fair share, even though, in reality, she paid nothing.

This model household, however, represents a minority. Many other households have heads who are non-regular workers or who were not consistent in terms of payment schedules over the years. And there are other factors that can reduce what a household can expect. The JPS survey found in July 2013 that the average retired household of a former regular employee who paid into the koseinenkin system was ¥215,780. The monthly benefit for people who paid into the basic pension system for a full forty years is now ¥65,541 a month, but the average payout is ¥49,947. Households whose heads are between 60 and 69 said on average that their pension income was 44,000 less than what they needed.

This latter point is important because payments for the basic pension don’t start until age 65 for both spouses, so even for a model household, that means if the breadwinner retires at 60, their pension income is only ¥100,000 for five years. That means they would need another ¥160,000 to reach the level that most people now think you need when you retire. So for those five years, the couple will be short about ¥9 million in total.

In addition, the government is trying to extend the starting age for koseinenkin payments. Right now it starts at 61, but eventually the government wants it to start at 65, or even later, so that limit will rise gradually in the future, further reducing the pension amounts that people receive if they retire at 60. That’s why the government is trying to encourage employers to retain employees even after their mandatory retirement age. According to Asahi Shimbun, employees who are retained after retirement are essentially let go and then rehired at one-fourth to one-third their former salaries. There is nothing in the new law that guarantees a minimum wage for these workers.

And with boomer retirement increasing through to the middle of the next decade, it’s assumed that senior welfare rolls will just keep increasing as well. In 2011, 46.4 percent of the 2 million people on welfare were over 65. The majority of these people are seniors who only receive basic pensions and have no other income or property. The only bright spot is that many boomers already own their homes, so at least they won’t end up on the streets.

Japan tourism still suffers from a credit card gap

June 30th, 2014 by

So close, and yet so far: Shimosa Manzaki Station on the JR Narita Line

So close, and yet so far: Shimosa Manzaki Station on the JR Narita Line

In a letter to the editor published in the June 23 Tokyo Shimbun, the writer relates an anecdote about two American women who while waiting at Narita Airport for a connecting flight to the states after arriving in transit from a vacation in Southeast Asia, decided to kill time by taking in a local onsen (hot spring bath). After checking the Internet with whatever mobile devices they had with them, they found that the nearest one was at Shimosa Manzaki station, one stop away from the Narita city terminal on the JR Narita Line. Since they weren’t going to be in Japan long they didn’t bother getting yen, and were able to buy JR train tickets with their credit cards. They could also use their cards at the onsen itself.

However, when they went back to Shimosa Manzaki station to make the return trip to the airport after their bath they discovered that their credit cards were no good. Neither the ticket vending machine in the station nor the employee selling tickets at the window would accept them. The letter writer happened to be at the station at the time and understood English. She was kind enough to buy them tickets so that they could get back in time to catch their flight.

This incident highlights a major gap in the government’s plan to increase foreign tourism in Japan. Last year, for the first time ever, the number of foreign visitors exceeded 10 million, thus encouraging the Japan National Tourism Organization to aim for 20 million by 2020, the year Tokyo will host the summer Olympic Games. Significantly, 80 percent of the tourists who came to Japan last year were individual travelers, meaning they didn’t come as members of organized tours. Individual travelers book their own accommodations and arrange their own transportation with the idea of playing things by ear and enjoying their travels at their own pace.

Credit and debit cards make it easier since they allow for more flexibility than cash or travelers checks, which have to be purchased through foreign exchange outlets. As we’ve mentioned before, most Japanese bank ATMs don’t accept foreign credit cards, but even more vexing for individual tourists is that many Japanese businesses, including some who cater to tourists and especially those outside the large metropolitan areas don’t accept credit cards.

Hotels tend to be OK, but as the two American women who visited Shimosa Manzaki found out, a lot of transportation outlets aren’t. As far as JR goes, larger stations in the cities accept credit cards, but most others don’t. If you’re buying a shinkansen ticket, it’s usually OK to use a credit card, even with the special vending machines, but the Midori Kenbaiki, the special vending machines for long-distance travel, are complicated to use even for Japanese and don’t have English instructions.

Foreign tourists can buy Pasmo and Suica prepaid IC cards just like Japanese residents do, and they certainly make life easier, but both cards require a ¥500 deposit that may put some tourists off. Both cards can also be tied in with credit cards so that they recharge automatically when their value drops to almost nothing, but that option is not available to tourists. Mitsubishi Research has found that almost 90 percent of the travelers it surveyed from Taiwan, South Korea and the U.S. buy some sort of transportation pass, be it the JR rail pass or one-day Metro tickets, so obviously it is the sort of service that’s appreciated. But while these same people express a high level of satisfaction for the transportation service that’s offered, they also find it difficult to make sense of the network.

Specifically, they have difficulty figuring out how to get to specific destinations and how to buy tickets, especially from vending machines, even when English explanations are available. Moreover, while they appreciate the various passes on offer, they don’t often know which one is best for their needs. In Tokyo, should they buy one-day passes for both subway lines or just one?

The research arm of Mitsubishi UFJ found that 88 percent of foreign tourists use guidebooks, maps, smart phone apps or some combination of the three, but they would like to be able to do everything using their mobile devices. Some businesses have already said they plan to increase the number of free wi-fi hot spots by 2020, which is a good start. But making it easier to use credit cards more flexibly would also be a big incentive for visitors since it would save them time, trouble and maybe even money.

Does an increase in summer bonuses mean a healthier economy?

June 21st, 2014 by

It’s that time of year again, the season when employers, both public and private, hand out their summer bonuses. In recent years the recession has kept the amounts down despite the fact that regular employees tend to consider them as an integral part of their annual salaries. In fact, society in general thinks that, as proven by the practice of incorporating bonuses into repayment schedules for home loans. Technically, however, bonuses are literally bonuses: Employers are not obliged to pay them, and actually use them as a kind of safety valve to adjust personnel expenditures twice a year.

Josei Jishin lists 35 of the  top 55 major corporations in terms of size of summer bonus for 35-year-old regular employees

Josei Jishin lists 55 major corporations in terms of size of summer bonus for 35-year-old regular employees

This summer the news sounds good. Bonuses are, on average, higher than they were last year, by about 8.8 percent, according to a survey of 74 companies carried out by Keidanren, Japan’s biggest business lobby. The average bonus for a 35-year-old regular worker will be ¥1.5 million, while that for a manager in his 40s or 50s is above ¥3 million. It’s the highest year-on-year increase on record.

According to Josei Jishin magazine, the biggest bonuses are being given out by trading companies, which makes sense. Trading companies, who do all their business overseas, enjoyed a huge windfall after the government’s monetary easing policy forced down the value of the yen.

Export-oriented manufacturers also did well for the same reason. Toyota’s average summer bonus for a 35-year-old employee is ¥1.23 million, though that sounds sort of stingy considering that the company saw a 73 percent rise in profits. Securities companies, which also benefited from Abenomics, were high on the list (Daiwa Shoken ¥1.35 million), but their employees’ compensations tend to be based more on personal accomplishments rather than corporate achievement, which is the classic definition of a bonus.

In 13th place on the Josei Jishin list is NTT DoCoMo, at ¥935,000, the highest company to record a drop in average bonus pay compared to last year. In fact, only two companies on the list of 55 companies announced a decrease.

What’s notable about the list is that all the companies are big. Smaller firms, it should be noted, aren’t doing as well in the recovery, and while average bonuses have gone up, the actual number of bonuses given out has gone down, from 38.6 million in 2013 to a projected 37.4 million this year.

Economist Hiroko Ogiwara pointed out to the magazine that while automobile makers did really well, their suppliers barely kept up and so didn’t give out much in the way of bonuses. NTT didn’t do as well as last year because it has no export-related business. And domestic companies that rely on imports, like processed food manufacturers, have suffered due to higher costs for ingredients. Moreover, the labor shortage in the retail and service industries pushed up personnel costs. Sukiya, the largest gyudon (beef bowl) chain in Japan, could only afford an average ¥350,000 to its regular employees (meaning not to restaurant staff). Power companies also were cheap with bonuses because of their continuing reliance on imported fuel. Kyushu Power’s average was only ¥300,000.

CONTINUE READING about summer bonuses →

Won’t get fooled again? Fans and their money are soon parted

June 13th, 2014 by

Mayu Watanabe, center, a member of Japan’s all-girl pop idol group AKB48 members, shows off the winner's gown after taking the No. 1 spot of the AKB48's General Election 2014 in Tokyo, Saturday, June 7, 2014.

Hail the new queen: Mayu Watanabe, a member of Japan’s all-girl pop idol group AKB48 members, shows off the winner’s cape after taking the No. 1 spot of the AKB48′s General Election 2014 in Tokyo, on, June 7.

Several weeks ago we wrote an article about the female idol collective AKB48 and later received a message from a friend who told us he was in Tokyo’s Akihabara district, which the group calls home. He was in a shop that sells various used goods and reported that there were hundreds of “used” copies of AKB’s latest single on sale for only ¥100 each, even though the single had just been released.

The reason for the surplus was AKB’s famous premium system: if you buy a CD you get the chance to meet the young women in the group or, in this case, a chance to vote in one of AKB’s popularity contests, which are called “general elections.” The most recent of these, No. 6, was held June 7, where Mayu Watanabe received the most votes. “Tickets” that allowed fans to cast votes in that election were included in the group’s newest single, “Labrador Retriever.” The more singles you buy, the more opportunities you have to vote, which explains all the used CDs. The fans only need one copy of the song, but they bought multiple copies so that they could stuff the ballot box with votes for their favorite members.

Each voting ticket is printed with a special URL and a unique serial number. The holder of the ticket goes online, logs on to the election website, and casts one ballot by registering the serial number. After voting, that serial number cannot be used again.

An enterprising blogger on the site Gadget Tsushin decided to use the available data to figure out how much money the AKB organization made from this election. First, he checked the top vote-getters, starting at the top with Watanabe (159,854 votes), proceeding to second place with a girl named Sashihara (141,954) and one down to 80th place in the poll. He added up all the votes received by these 80 members and the sum was 2,277,635, which, by the way, was more votes than those cast the same day in the Nakano Ward mayor’s election.

CONTINUE READING about fan devotion →

The new National Stadium will have to rock you

June 8th, 2014 by

The show must go on: Attendees of a sayonara event at the National Stadium snap photos of an air show held on June 6.

The show must go on: Attendees of a sayonara event at the National Stadium snap photos of an air show held on June 4. KYODO

The old National Olympic Stadium in Tokyo closed down at the end of May with a big sendoff: two days of star-packed concerts in front of a capacity crowd. As everyone knows, the venue is being torn down to make way for an even bigger structure for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, an endeavor that continues to court controversy due to its projected size and cost, not to mention what it will likely do to the neighborhood around it.

Originally, the estimate for the new stadium was ¥300 billion, but mysteriously this figure was decreased to ¥169 billion just prior to the final bid. According to Professor Tomoyuki Suzuki, who was in charge of preparing Tokyo’s unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Games, construction costs for public facilities always end up rising over time, but neither the 2020 Tokyo bid organization nor the Japan Olympic Committee has ever explained that bit of conventional wisdom to the public. He told Tokyo Shimbun last April that the estimate was simply based on a number “that was most likely to be accepted.”

There is also the question of what to do with the stadium after the Olympics. The JOC is predicting that it will show a surplus of ¥400 million a year, but as Suzuki points out, this projection is based on the premise that the stadium will host 12 major pop concerts a year, and that, he believes, is impossible, unless the stadium foregoes sporting events, which is what it’s being built for in the first place.

The main problem with using stadiums for concerts, especially stadiums that hold field events like soccer, is that the playing surfaces are used for seating, which has a tendency to destroy the grass. Suzuki cites Ajinomoto Stadium in Western Tokyo, which is the home field of the FC Tokyo soccer team. In 2008, the stadium operators rented the facility to a promoter who held a rock concert attended by almost 80,000 people. Despite FC Tokyo’s protests, the concert went ahead, and afterwards the stadium had to spend “tens of millions of yen” to change the grass on the entire field in time for an FC Tokyo match.

CONTINUE READING about stadium rock to come →

Diamonds are suddenly everybody’s best friend

May 31st, 2014 by

Several years ago the term “urban mining” took off. It referred to the discovery of precious metals that were “buried” in people’s homes in the form of personal possessions like jewelry and home electronics that they weren’t using. A lot of cell phones, for instance, use gold and other valuable materials in their circuits, and when the price of these substances was high, brokers would pay premium prices for them, no matter where they came from or what form they were in.

Komehyo outlet in Ginza, Tokyo

Komehyo outlet in Ginza, Tokyo

At the time, gems were not coveted so much, but that’s changed. Right now, the price of diamonds on the world market is about 30 percent higher than it was a year ago, according to a recent article in Chunichi Shimbun, thanks to a healthier world economy. Consequently, well-to-do people in Asia, North America and the Middle East are craving diamonds, and foreign buyers, particularly from the U.S., China, India and Dubai, are flocking to Japan because they think there are a lot of the rocks here “sleeping” in people’s closets and vanity cases.

The reason is simple. During the bubble period of the late ’80s, when the value of various assets was higher than it probably should have been, people with even a little money bought a lot of jewelry that they don’t wear any more. Many of these people probably have forgotten they even have diamonds.

Komehyo, the Nagoya-based retailer that specializes in recycling high-end merchandise such as designer accessories and expensive jewelry, is spearheading the drive to get Japanese people to dig into their tansu (wardrobes). As one of the company’s store managers told Chunichi, another reason foreign buyers are descending on Japan is that the diamonds are already cut, and used cut diamonds tend to be cheaper than new ones, though there really isn’t any difference in quality. Komehyo is hoping to sell used diamonds in bulk and is offering premium prices to anyone who wants to unload theirs. The chain has launched a Diamond Purchase Fair at all its 20 outlets throughout Japan.

In order to get a handle on the market, Komehyo conducted a survey among men and women over the age of 20. They found that, on average, respondents have each spent about ¥780,000 on “jewelry, watches, bags and brand goods” during their life so far.

Several years ago Tanaka Kikinzoku Kogyo, a dealer in gold and other precious metals, carried out its own survey and found that 80 percent of female respondents have jewelry they don’t wear any more, either because they no longer like the design, or lost one earring or just forgot about it. The company calculates that the average woman in this group has ¥40,000 worth of jewelry they never wear. Tanaka was interested in gold, however,

Based on its own findings, Komehyo estimates the average person possesses about ¥160,000 yen’s worth of jewelry and other valuables that they don’t use any more, which means there could be as much as ¥15 trillion worth of diamonds in people’s homes.

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