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Supermarkets finally get serious about shopping bags

November 21st, 2013 by

A few weeks ago we were waiting at a checkout counter in an Aeon supermarket and placed in the basket one of those laminated cards that say you don’t need a shopping bag. When our turn came the cashier gave us a funny look and asked us if we really needed a bag for one item. We then read the card, which said that you should put it in your basket if you want a shopping bag.

Card saying bags cost ¥2 each

Card saying bags cost ¥2 each

We made a false assumption because we don’t usually shop at Aeon. The supermarket we normally patronize asks you to indicate if you don’t want a bag, and they’ll knock ¥2 off the total if you do. Apparently, that practice is now giving way to the opposite tactic: You have to tell the cashier if you want a bag, in which case they will charge you for it.

Aeon, Japan’s biggest supermarket chain, started this practice way back in 2007, and as of Nov. 1 every outlet follows the policy, which is ¥5 for an extra large bag and ¥3 for a large bag. Even Aeon’s discount food chain, MaxValu, has adopted the charge-for-bags policy. For that matter, so has every other major supermarket chain. Ito Yokado charges ¥2 per bag, Uny ¥5, Seiyu ¥2 for a medium and ¥3 for a large, and Daiei ¥3 to ¥5, depending on the size.

According to Sankei Shimbun, Aeon donates all the money it collects for bags to various environmental causes, while Uny donates half the money it collects. Saving the environment is what bag reduction is all about, though the government stresses it from a different angle than you might think. A study sponsored by the Environmental Ministry looked at the shopping bag problem in terms of resources. One bag requires 18.3 ml of oil and Japan uses 30.5 billion shopping bags a year, which is the equivalent of more than 600,000 kiloliters of oil.

The study also calculates that 967 shopping bags are given away every second in Japan, or the equivalent of 8.82 two-liter PET bottles of oil. The study says that shopping bags waste precious resources, which is of course a relevant situation in resource-starved Japan, though in most other countries the plastic bag problem is associated with pollution.

The main reason bags aren’t considered a waste problem in Japan is that they are routinely incinerated here. In America plastics generally are not burned, which is why the campaign against shopping bags is older, since most end up as landfill. Then again, more European countries are starting to burn plastic refuse, but they are also more strict about shopping bags. In Ireland, for example, a shopping bag will cost you ¥15, which is why there are almost none in Ireland any more.

Card saying no bags and it's ¥2 off your purchase

Card saying no bags and it’s ¥2 off your purchase

Refuse officials in Japan say there is no problem with burning plastic. Dioxin emissions are almost non-existent because Japanese incinerators use very high temperatures, an assertion some environmentalists are skeptical of. But in any case, people still use shopping bags and plastic bags mandated by local governments to dispose of household waste, and the real problem with incineration isn’t plastic but organic waste and kitchen scraps, which tend to be wet and thus require a lot more heat to burn up.

So while the bags themselves may not be a problem, what they contain is. San Francisco realized this and went beyond limiting plastic bags, requiring residents to dispose of organic waste in composting boxes, and it’s been a success.

So while every reduction helps, environmentalists belief that only limiting shopping bag usage isn’t enough. One person on the Internet (scroll down to commenter qqme9839) calculated that in 2009 burning garbage accounted for only 3 percent of all CO2 emissions. And since plastic constituted 45 percent of the garbage being burned, it created only 1.35 percent of the CO2 that was emitted that year. And since production of shopping bags in 2009 accounted for 0.55 percent of all discarded plastic by weight, that means plastic bags’ contribution to CO2 was 0.075 percent. Reducing people’s reliance on shopping bags is a good thing, but it’s not the only thing.

Where’s the beef? Japanese taste buds dictate processing methods

November 13th, 2013 by

Something to chew on: Packages of fat-injected processed beef in a supermarket

Something to chew on: Packages of fat-injected processed beef in a supermarket

Thanks to the hotel restaurant menu scandal, even food retailers’ product descriptions have come under scrutiny. Internet mall Rakuten received the biggest black eye, though it appears to have been for a genuine mistake and not because of a planned deception. To celebrate its baseball team’s Japan Series victory, Rakuten held a bargain sale that marked some prices down as much as 77 percent, but in several cases the markdowns were carried out so sloppily that a whole digit was lost. For instance, an A5-grade, 550-gram “steak set” that normally sells for ¥18,400 was marked down to ¥1,000, which is a lot more than 77 percent.

The sale price was supposed to be ¥10,000, but somehow one of the zeroes didn’t make the transition. Rakuten received lots of complaints and had to apologize again (having already suffered the same mistake over boxes of cream puffs) and fork out refunds, but anyone who knows anything about Japanese beef prices should have realized that ¥1,000 for Tosa-bred wagyu (Japanese beef) had to be an error.

Increased scrutiny, in fact, has revealed that many indications for beef, whether sold in restaurants or in stores, while not being technically deceptive are less then forthcoming. Aera reports that one Hokkaido beef wholesaler has been cited for misrepresenting its wares, calling some of its items “beef” when it should be labeled “processed beef” (kako-niku).

The closer attention to wording was probably fallout from the menu scandal, in which Osaka’s Shin-Hankyu Hotel was found to be at fault for listing processed beef as “beef steak,” which it is not. The Kintetsu Hotel restaurant, awarded a star by Michelin, sells processed beef as wagyu steak for a whopping ¥6,300. Even Takashimaya department store’s “beef filets” were found to be processed. A steak or filet is a cut of meat that has not been changed in any way, but many meat sellers take cheaper cuts of beef and inject them with fat to give them the marbled effect that Japanese people prefer.

In the West, the adjective “lean,” which implies less fat, is considered a positive attribute for beef, but wagyu is characteristically streaked with fat, which means it has a richer flavor and is more tender. Generally speaking, the beef that Americans, Australians and Europeans eat is considered by Japanese to be tough and difficult to chew. Thanks to improvements in feed grains in the early 90s, American producers developed softer beef for the Japanese market, which is why so many fast food chains prefer using cheaper USA beef.

Most Australia beef sold in Japan has been processed, meaning that fat has been added. Some store cuts that look like steak may even have been “molded” (seikei). Different pieces of meat are “glued” together to make what looks like a steak and then injected with fat. A friend of ours who once had a job promoting “Aussie Beef” in Japan said the joke among his Australian colleagues was that “Japanese really don’t like the taste of beef,” since to Australians real beef is chewy and has no fat.

It should be noted that the reason beef is chewy is because the cattle is more muscular, in other words healthier than cattle that has more fat. Australian cattle are typically raised on the range where they eat grass, while in Japan and America the cows are penned up and fed grain (and lots of antibiotics to fight the infections that such a diet gives rise to). Also, range-raised beef is not as susceptible to BSE (mad cow disease).

Restaurants and retailers are required by law to indicate that their meat is processed, but the print tends to be tiny and obscure. This could cause problems, however, since ingredients used to process the fat can include dairy and soy products, which many people are allergic to. Parents of at-risk children know to look for the fine print, but restaurants are supposed to ask customers if they have any food allergies when people call on the phone for takeout. If the person says yes, then “real” beef will be substituted for the usual processed kind.

In stores, however, it’s quite easy to determine which meat is real and which is processed without having to squint. Just look at the price. According to Asahi Shimbun, one kilogram of unprocessed grade A3 (highest: A5) Japanese sirloin is at least ¥5,000 per kilogram, whereas one kilogram of processed sirloin is between ¥1,400 and ¥2,000. Seikei cuts of meat are only ¥700-¥800 per kg. What’s interesting is that while fat-injection has been a common practice since the early 1980s, it was always thought of mainly as an economic measure. The purpose was to make beef affordable on an everyday level, but the Asahi reports that many restaurants now say that their customers prefer the taste of cheaper processed beef to more expensive genuine cuts of beef, even when that genuine beef is sufficiently marbled.

Collecting organizations try to give credit where it’s due, don’t always succeed

November 7th, 2013 by

In a recent series on credit information reporting, the Asahi Shimbun explained the plight of a young Kanto woman who had applied for a credit card last March. The card she was interested in offered discounts at selected stores and could be used as an IC card for public transportation. It also had an attractive point system. Almost all her work colleagues had the card and since her financial particulars were the same as theirs she didn’t think she’d be turned down, but she was and the rejection confused her. She had one other credit card, which she had always paid on time. When she called the credit company that refused her they said they couldn’t give her the reason for the rejection.

A gift campaign notice that comes with a monthly credit card statement

A gift campaign notice that comes with a monthly credit card statement

Then she received a letter from Softbank Mobile, her cell phone service carrier, which said that due to a mistake her payments had been reported to a credit information (CI) company as being delinquent. The period of her false delinquency, she realized, fell during the same time that she applied for the credit card. In the letter Softbank said that it had corrected the mistake with the CI company, and when she applied for the card again after a while, she was approved, but when she tried to find out why they had changed their mind the company again said they couldn’t tell her.

Such situations are not uncommon, but since credit card companies are not obliged to give reasons for rejecting or accepting customers, most applicants have no idea that these problems even exist until it’s too late.

In Softbank’s case, the carrier was actually alerted to the “mistake” last March when customers pointed it out to them. The company investigated the claim and found that between December 2012 and March 2013, about 63,000 customers were reported to credit information companies as having been late with their payments, even though they hadn’t been. The reason for the mistake was fairly complex, and common enough for such a reporting system. All of the affected customers, including the woman profiled by the Asahi, had purchased their terminal devices — meaning their cell phones — through a revolving credit plan. Moreover, they accumulated points over time that could be redeemed as credit through the revolving payment system.

Softbank reported all this information to the relevant CI collecting company, but because of a computer programming redesign that took place late last year the settings that translated points into credit did not work correctly, so people who had paid for their cell phones through points were incorrectly flagged as being delinquent as far back as 2009.

When a financial institution screens someone to determine if the person is credit-worthy, they use CI from various sources: the Credit Information Center (CIC), which mostly works with credit card companies and revolving payment plans; the Japan Credit Information Reference Center Corporation (JICC), whose members are consumer loan outfits; and the Japanese Bankers Association, which collects information related to bank loans. When someone applies for a credit card or a loan the institution requests credit history information from the relevant organization. All lenders and retailers who offer revolving payment plans are obliged by law to report credit histories of customers to one of these CI organizations.

CI includes personal data, such as name, address, birthdate and nature of the transaction; as well as “payment information,” including payment trends and the balance of the account. As long as the customer pays on time, no information is recorded, but when the customer misses a payment the CI collecting company receives a notice of there being an “unpaid situation.” If that situation continues for 3 months straight, the payment situation is reported as being “irregular,” which means the customer is placed on a blacklist.

Being on a blacklist does not necessarily mean that the person will lose his or her credit card or be denied a loan. The financial institutions who request this information for screening purposes can interpret it however they want, but generally if an irregularity is persistent the person’s credit history will be tarnished. Information about irregularities stay in the customer’s credit history for five years, even if the loan or credit bill has been paid off. However, if the irregularity is the result of a mistake on the part of either the company reporting the credit information or the company collecting it, then it is immediately removed from the record.

The problem is that often such mistakes don’t come to light, and while credit reporting companies and lending institutions or credit card companies are not obligated to reveal reasons for rejections to applicants, the credit collection companies are. For instance, if you have a question about your credit card history you can call CIC and, for a fee (¥500-¥1,000), they will give it to you. It’s the same for the other two organizations, depending on where you have borrowed money. An expert in the Asahi article recommends that anyone planning to take out a large loan check beforehand with CI collecting organizations to find out whether or not there may be problems.

The Asahi also reports that an increasing number of young people are showing up on blacklists due to their phone bills. CI, it should be noted, has nothing to do with paying utility bills, a matter that is strictly between the utility and the customer. In the case of cell phones, CI is only reported on people who have bought their phones through revolving payment systems, which are usually attached to phone bills.

The problem here is that many young people forget that they are paying back money loaned to them for their phones. They think that they are paying their phone bill, so if they’re late with a payment they simply have to pay a small penalty. They don’t realize that their credit history is being damaged in the process. In many cases, in fact, it is their parents’ credit history that’s being damaged, since some parents cosign for their kids’s cell phones. It gives them more reason to monitor their cell phone usage.

Net scalpers set off discussion of true fandom in terms of economics

October 30th, 2013 by

Can’t buy me love: What does Sir Paul think about the ticket prices to his Japan concerts? (photo MPL Communications Ltd.)

Several Japanese media have commented recently on how expensive tickets are on various Internet auction sites for the upcoming Paul McCartney shows. Sir Paul’s six-show Japan tour, including three Tokyo Dome concerts, slated for the middle of November sold out almost immediately after they went on sale in September. The highest face price for a ticket is ¥16,500, but tickets on the Yahoo auction site are going for as high as ¥400,000. What’s especially unnerving to some people is that these high prices have not been arrived at through the usual bidding process. The seller is simply setting a very high price and people are paying it.

This realization has led to calls for regulation of ticket prices on auction sites. According to one journalist writing in the Asahi Shimbun, who also happens to be a big McCartney fan (he didn’t get picked in the initial ticket lottery), if Net auctions are not regulated then only rich people will be able to buy tickets to the most popular concerts, thus squeezing out “true fans” of the artists who are performing. The journalist says that it’s obvious these expensive net tickets are being sold by dafuya (scalpers).

Many local governments have laws that limit the activities of scalpers who hang around venues selling secondhand tickets, though these are usually associated with public nuisance regulations (meiwaku jorei). The journalist says there should be laws limiting what scalpers can charge on the Internet. He also points out that scalping runs counter to the purposes of selling tickets over the net, a service he says was designed for people who bought tickets legitimately but for some reason can’t attend the show and need to find someone else who will buy the tickets. It is not for the purpose of making a profit.

Some promoters have come out in favor of cracking down on net scalpers. Rockin’ On, the magazine that sponsors and puts on Rock In Japan, the country’s biggest summer music festival, says that net auctions have become a problem for them, since the festival sells out fairly quickly and the audience is typically young, meaning they don’t have the money to pay the kind of prices net scalpers demand. Like the journalist, Rockin’ On’s president, veteran music critic Yoichi Shibuya, told Asahi that tickets for the festival should go to “people who really want to go” but end up in the hands of people “who can be called scalpers.” Shibuya says that Yahoo is shirking its responsibility by inadvertently helping scalpers fleece young music lovers.

However, a professor of economics at prestigious Waseda University told the paper that complaints about net scalpers ignore one vital component, namely, the market. Who is to say that the person who shells out 400,000 yen for a ticket to the McCartney show is any less a fan of the ex-Beatle than someone who claims to be but can’t afford that price? If the scalpers can get that much money for a single ticket, it means that the face prices of the tickets were too low to begin with.

In essence, tickets that are sold on the net will fetch their “natural” market price, whereas prices set by the promoters and venues can be artificially low, depending on the artist. What the professor seems to be saying is that net prices measure a true fan’s desire: even if the price of the ticket is higher than you can reasonably pay, if you really want to see that show, you’ll pay it. The real problem, he says, is that if tickets were actually sold this way, it would reflect badly on the artist, especially rock artists who tend to have the image of being heroes for the average person.

Say goodbye to plentiful, affordable shrimp

October 25th, 2013 by

Squeezed out: Shrimp tempura in a supermarket

Squeezed out: Shrimp tempura in a supermarket

Last week the national fast food chain Tenya, which specializes in tempura dishes, announced that it was discontinuing two of its most popular menu items effective Oct. 20: jotendon (¥580) and ebiten soba or udon (¥790). Both dishes feature prawns deep fried in batter — the former offers two big prawns on top of a bowl of rice, and the latter one big prawn in a bowl of either soba or udon noodles. The reason for the move is the skyrocketing price of shrimp. As a concession, Tenya will continue serving tendon (¥500), which only features one fried prawn on a bowl of rice, and introduce ebi oika tendon (¥590) — one prawn and one slab of squid on rice.

Tenya’s parent company, Royal Holdings, said in a statement that the Southeast Asian shrimp farms from which it buys its prawns have been hit with a disease called early mortality syndrome (EMS) that has decimated stocks, the result being that prices have doubled. The EMS plague affects shrimp prices all over the world, especially in the U.S., which consumes more shrimp than any other country. Since most shrimp farms are, almost by definition, ecologically destructive, the spread of disease is hardly surprising, and it isn’t certain if the industry will be able to recover.

That’s a serious problem for Japan, where shrimp, or ebi, has a special place in the national cuisine. Before the 1980s, tendon using prawns was considered an extravagant dish for the average Japanese person, and it remains one of the most popular meals to this day, beloved by all classes of people. Tendon is by far the most popular item on Tenya’s menu, with the now discontinued jotendon in fourth place, according to a recent report on TV Asahi. Moreover, the kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi) chain Sushiro has also announced that it will be suspending sales of many dishes that use shrimp due to the “worldwide shortage.” Family restaurants and convenience stores will also cut back on the number of products they sell that feature ebi.

The shortage has given rise to rumors that some Japanese restaurants and food makers have been using crayfish (zarigani) as a substitute for shrimp without telling customers. There are sushi restaurants in the U.S. that serve crayfish openly, but most Japanese people find the fresh water crustacean unappetizing. The American species of crayfish was brought to Japan by the U.S. military during the postwar occupation as a protein supplement, and now can be commonly found in rivers and streams. Japanese tend to be streotyped as able to eat almost anything but they’ve never taken to crayfish, which in the U.S. is normally eaten in the South.

It’s the kind of rumor that some restaurants would take seriously. Coincidentally or not, the Hankyu Hanshin Hotel group recently announced that it would provide refunds to anyone who purchased any of 47 dishes in its restaurants between 2006 and February of this year.

Apparently, the ingredients in these dishes weren’t as expensive as the restaurants claimed they were. Among the mislabeled dishes was shiba ebi, a high quality breed of domestic shrimp that costs ¥2,500 per kg wholesale. The restaurants were actually using a much cheaper breed, which only costs ¥1,400 per kg. The hotel group calculates that 78,775 people purchased these dishes during the time period cited. It has put aside ¥110 million for refunds, which begs the question: Do all those people still have their receipts?

Blood on the tracks: Who pays for deadly railway accidents?

October 18th, 2013 by

Don't look now

Don’t look now

One of Japan’s enduring urban legends is that railway companies demand compensation from families of people who commit suicide by throwing themselves in front of trains. Because the media doesn’t report such matters it isn’t easy to verify, but according to the Chunichi Shimbun railways “in principle” send bills to families of people who die in railroad “accidents” if the railroad is not at fault and the accident causes a delay that costs the railway money. The articles don’t say anything specific about suicides, however.

The subject of the piece is a case that was recently decided in Nagoya District Court. JR Tokai sued the family of a 91-year-old man from Obu City, Aichi Prefecture, who was hit by a train and killed while walking along the tracks of the Tokaido line in December 2007. JR Tokai was demanding ¥7.2 million from the family for losses incurred due to delays caused by the accident, which affected 27,000 passengers and 34 trains, forcing the railroad to provide alternate transportation, such as buses, to inconvenienced customers.

In court, JR Tokai’s lawyers said the company sent a bill to the family of the man “as it usually does in such matters,” but the family never responded, so they filed a lawsuit and in the end the judge awarded JR the full amount it asked for. The family will appeal.

At issue was the responsibility of the family in the actions of the old man, who suffered from dementia. Six years ago local welfare officials determined that the man required 24-hour supervision. The family placed him in an institution several days a week, but on the remaining days he was at home with his 85-year-old wife, who can mostly fend for herself. In addition, the man’s eldest son, who lives in Yokohama, set up a care system for his father that included his wife regularly traveling to Obu to help out. On the day the accident happened he was alone with his wife, who dozed off, and he wandered out of the house and to the nearest station where he somehow ended up on the tracks.

Chunichi says there is no precedent for a railway company suing over an accident caused by a person with dementia, and the lawyer for the family said that the case could have serious repercussions for families with elderly members who have serious cognitive disabilities, since it means they could be liable for all sorts of incidents, and not just those involving trains.

In court the family said that JR Tokai should bear some of the responsibility since it didn’t prevent the man from getting on the tracks after he entered the station (presumably without a ticket, which raises another question). JR countered by saying it had “fulfilled all our legal obligations” with regard to track safety, and the judge agreed, adding that it was the responsibility of the family to monitor and supervise the actions of the old man.

But if families are monetarily liable for actions carried out by members who are senile, can they also be liable for members who are suicides? So far there doesn’t seem to be a court precedent for such a situation. It seems to depend on the circumstances, suicide or not.

For instance, recently a 40-year-old woman was killed trying to help an old man who stumbled trying to cross the tracks of the JR Yokohama Line. The old man survived, but there has been no report that JR East is demanding he pay up, maybe because the media reports on the heroism of the woman drowned it out or made the company think twice about possible negative publicity if it made such a demand in this case.

Then again, earlier this week a 47-year-old man was killed while crossing the tracks of the Tobu Tojo Line in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward. Witnesses say he was walking and absorbed in his cell phone when he was hit and didn’t notice the train, though obviously he had enough presence of mind to go through the gates, which were down. Now that guy’s family will probably receive a bill.

Government wondering how to tap burgeoning ebook market

October 12th, 2013 by

No waiting

No waiting

It’s official. The consumption tax goes up to 8 percent in April, and the government is anxious to plug any loopholes. The most bothersome one is for ebooks. Though domestically sold ebooks, meaning those distributed by Japanese vendors from physical addresses in Japan, are already taxed, those sold from overseas are not, and the tax bureau is wondering how to correct this problem, especially now that the price gap between an ebook purchased from a foreign-based agent and one purchased from a Japan-based seller will widen, thus setting up a disadvantage for the latter. Market research company Daiwa Soken reports that in 2012 the government missed out on ¥24.7 billion worth of tax revenues from the purchase of ebooks from abroad.

Legally, sales transactions that occur outside of Japan are not subject to consumption tax, and the place of the transaction is determined by the address of the seller. So if you go to Amazon.co.jp and look at various books, you’ll notice that those which are sold by Amazon Japan have consumption tax included in the price, while ebooks sold by Amazon Services International do not. What the government wants to do is change the law so that the place of the sales transaction is not the place of sale but rather the place of usage, a tactic that some American local governments have tried with regard to sales tax. But sales taxes are paid at the retail stage, while consumption taxes are incurred at every step of distribution, so a Japanese importer adds the tax after the item arrives in Japan.

If a customer in Japan buys the book directly from overseas, no tax is imposed, but when the law is changed customs could add it because the imposition location is the user’s address, not the seller’s. However, since ebooks, as well as music tracks and software, tend to be purchased over the net it’s more difficult to monitor, if not downright impossible.

According to Tokyo Shimbun, the Finance Ministry’s plan is to strike deals with tax agencies abroad so that the consumption tax is added on when sales are made. Overseas sales companies who do business in Japan would have to register with the Japanese tax bureau. For large-scale companies with widespread presence in Japan and sales units overseas, like Amazon and Rakuten, which in 2011 bought the Canadian ebook seller Kobo, that shouldn’t be a problem, but there are dozens if not hundreds of smaller content vendors who will fall through the cracks.

Already, some Japanese language ebook sellers and other net vendors have set up operations overseas to exploit this loophole, thus causing concern for domestic companies like Yahoo Japan, whose president compared such competition to a boxing match in which Japanese companies “have to fight opponents who are three weight classes above them.” Eight percent can make a big difference, especially since Japanese ebooks tend to be priced high anyway compared to ebooks in other countries.

In that regard, buyers of non-Japanese language books have an even greater advantage in Japan, since Japanese publishers still enjoy government-sanctioned fixed prices for all first-sale books and magazines, regardless of when they were printed. Japanese bookstores cannot set their own prices and industry distribution rules discourage remainders. With the rising popularity of ebooks in the West — 20 percent of all books now sold in the U.S. are electronic as opposed to 8 percent in Japan — print books have actually benefited since people can seek out remainders and used books through Internet sales agents, and usually they purchase them for less money than an ebook, even with shipping included. That’s not the case in Japan, except for used books. But if Japanese ebook sellers set up agencies abroad they can corner the market.

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