Hot Pulse

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.

Lower egg prices bad for producers, worse for chickens

October 7th, 2013 by

Which came first?

Which came first?

Over the summer the retail price of eggs has increased anywhere from 20 to 50 percent, which is a significant change for consumers but also for people who are pushing Abenomics and its focus on reigniting inflation, since eggs have for years been seemingly been impervious to price changes. At the beginning of May, it cost about the same to buy a package of 10 eggs as it cost to buy a package of ten eggs thirty years ago. As the prime buka no yutosei (best “student” among product prices), it’s one of those constants people took for granted.

However, the sudden increase was not entirely due to serendipity or natural market forces. In fact, the price hike was engineered in a bid to maintain market stability. In 2011 the agriculture ministry implemented a subsidy to control the price of eggs. Because a sudden drop in price can have an immediate harmful effect on egg producers’ bottom lines and potentially damage the industry as a whole, the ministry automatically provides funds when the wholesale price goes below ¥159 per kilogram. These funds are used to cull egg-laying chickens in order to reduce supply and put pressure on demand, thus pushing the price back up.

According to Tokyo Shimbun, in May the price dropped below the designated line and the subsidy kicked in. Producers receive ¥150-¥200 for every chicken they kill, and the ministry estimates that from mid-May until mid-July, when the subsidy was available, about 5 million birds were culled. Not all were thrown away. Many were processed and sold as meat, for which the producers can earn an additional ¥20-¥50 per bird, an aspect that makes the system even more popular among producers since it rationalizes the process of replacing chickens.

Usually, a hen becomes productive — meaning it starts laying eggs — 150 days after birth, and remains productive for about 500 days. The dropping off point for production can vary greatly from one bird to the next, so whenever the subsidy is in effect egg producers get rid of those older chickens that are borderline productive since it is monetarily advantageous to do so under the system. Egg production is a relatively easy farming method since it is all about volume. In the past ten years the average number of chickens kept by each producer has increased from about 33,000 to more than 50,000, thus indicating the loss of small-scale farmers and the dominance of corporate egg producers.

Of course, when it’s all about volume it’s also all about controlling inventory, which is bad for chickens. Besides the horrendous factory conditions that egg-laying hens have to endure, their fate is also subject to capricious market forces, not to mention natural ones.

This summer was one of the hottest on record, and a lot of chickens died from heat stroke, so even after the subsidy system was lifted in July, the number of producing hens continued to decrease, sending the price of eggs to its highest levels ever. Moreover, one condition for receiving subsidies is that the producer not replace culled chickens for at least 60 days. According to JA, its Zenno Tamago brand, often used as the index for egg prices, was up by as much as ¥55 per kg on Sept. 27 compared to the same date in 2012. (For reference one LL-size egg is 70-76 grams, and one kg now costs about ¥225.) But chickens grow fast, so the price is expected to drop to its normal level by December’s Christmas cake season.

Where there’s a will: Attitudes toward inheritance change

October 2nd, 2013 by

Who'll be the next in line?

Who’ll be the next in line?

About a million people die every year in Japan, and 10 percent of them leave wills (yuigonsho). That’s a smaller portion than in the English-speaking West — the BBC says about a third of British adults have wills and USA Today reports 59 percent of American baby boomers have written them — but it’s still larger than other Asian countries (about 1 percent in South Korea) and the number is growing every year.

Legal experts advocate wills as the only effective means of properly disposing of one’s assets after death, but in Japan they’ve traditionally been seen as disruptive. Japanese law outlines methods of inheritance and even stipulates shares for specific family relationships. But family ties have been strained in recent decades owing to shifting social demographics and economic trends. A recent article in the Asahi Shimbun reports that more and more people are dying without any clear beneficiaries. In 2012, ¥37.5 billion left behind by people who died was taken by the government because the deceased had no family willing to claim the body and the person’s property. According to the Supreme Court, this amount is three times what it was a decade ago.

When a person dies without spouses or children, or when those heirs have forfeited their right to the deceased’s assets, the proper court appoints an administrator to dispose of the estate. If the deceased had debts, the administrator repays them out of the available assets. If the deceased had a caregiver, the administrator may offer the person part of those assets. But for the most part the unclaimed money and proceeds from property goes to the central government.

One Yokohama lawyer in the Asahi article talks about his experiences as an administrator, which starts with going to the home of a person who has just died and “cleaning up.” He says he often finds large amounts of cash hidden behind or inside furniture, and now conducts seminars where he tells middle aged and older people about the importance of wills, partly as a means of showing their gratitude to those who helped them in life, regardless of whether or not those people are relatives. When the reporter talks to people who attend the lawyer’s seminar, some admit to having no contact with family and one says he feels compelled to draw up a will because he’s afraid of what might happen to his legacy if it all goes to his irresponsible son.

People in the West who don’t write wills are usually intimidated by the cost of lawyers or just plain scared of thinking about death. In Japan, while speaking of death is still a taboo for most people, the scarcity of wills can mainly be attributed to ignorance. The lawyer in the Asahi article implies that the authorities don’t promote wills because they make money when people die without heirs.

A recent trend that has boosted the status of wills is “ending notes.” Popularized by a hit 2011 documentary about a dying man’s last days, ending notes are books that help people think about their deaths. They explain different processes and often have diary-like features so that readers can write down their thoughts about death and what they want in terms of late-term care, a funeral and the disposal of their remains.

Ending notes actually compel readers to think about their lives right now by making them face the inevitability of death, and so rather than push away such thoughts they force the reader to consider measures such as DNR (do not resuscitate) declarations and last wills and testaments. Ending notes have also been commercialized to a certain extent, and some non-profit groups now hold seminars on the subject of shukatsu (final activities). Funeral homes participate in ending note plans and some banks even have programs to help people think about what they want to do with their assets after they die. According to a survey of people over 60 conducted by Research Bank, 49 percent said they wanted to write ending notes.

But ending note diaries are not legal documents. A will needs to be notarized if it is to hold up in court. One reason wills were previously unpopular in Japan is that when they were contested by family members, courts often sided with the plaintiffs, but that isn’t necessarily the case any more. According to one will-writing website, 7,767 wills were notarized in 1966. The number in 2009 was 76,436. Moreover, in 1985, Japanese courts heard 2,661 inheritance-related lawsuits. That number increased to 9,800 by 2008, and in the same year family courts nationwide received 154,160 requests for advice with regard to inheritance problems. More than 70 percent of all legal disputes over inheritance involve assets of more than ¥50 million. Obviously, you can’t take it with you, but older Japanese are now wising up to the fact that they don’t have to let it pass on to people they can’t stand.

Young women’s life preferences acknowledge workplace reality

September 27th, 2013 by

Preference or default?

Preference or default?

Social media has been buzzing about the results of a survey released this week by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. The survey was carried out last March among men and women, both single and married, between the ages of 15 and 39. The results that provoked the most discussion had to do with attitudes toward marriage, or, more precisely, a woman’s role in a marriage.

When asked if they want to be full-time homemakers, 34.2 percent of the female respondents said “yes” or “probably.” And while more women, 38.5 percent to be exact, said they didn’t want to be homemakers, the portion who said they did was apparently higher than people expected, especially now that the government is pushing an agenda to make it easier for women to join the workforce and contribute more directly to the economy.

Some people are saying that these results indicate a regressive attitude among women, but it’s impossible to say from the results that the women who want to be homemakers are being guided by some kind of cultural gender identification.

When men were asked in the survey if they wanted their wives to be homemakers, 19.3 percent said “yes” or “probably,” which implies that the other four-fifths want their wives to work. That’s because they know that a single income isn’t enough any more to support a household, especially one that does or will someday include children.

When the women were asked how much income they thought their husbands should make a month, 40.8 percent said ¥200,000-¥300,000, 24.8 percent said ¥300,000-¥400,000 and a mere 4.2 percent said “it doesn’t matter.” So much for marrying for love.

A more likely reason for this desire to stay at home is a perceived understanding of workplace norms, something the labor ministry didn’t ask about. In a different survey conducted by the Japan Management Association, young men (751) and women (249) already in the workforce were asked if they aspired to be leaders among their colleagues. Of the female respondents, 81 percent said they would rather be “supportive.”

One of the more pressing issues in Japan is the paucity of women managers, a situation that is blamed on implacable male dominance in the workplace. The association analyzes this result as meaning that women value their private lives over their careers. In other words, they don’t think they can raise children or have families if they are in leadership positions. And, in fact, this is still a widely held belief.

You are where you eat: McDonald’s Japan sets prices by region

September 19th, 2013 by

According to retail marketing research firm Soft Brain Field, McDonald’s is overwhelmingly the most popular fast food in Japan, with 68 percent of survey respondents saying they patronize the American hamburger chain regularly. When asked which fast food they like the most, the answer for 33 percent is also McDonald’s, with Mos Burger second at 25 percent and Mister Donuts third at 17 percent. Forty-two percent of McDonald’s users patonize an outlet once a month, and 29 percent do so two or three times amonth, more often for lunch (43 percent) than dinner (29 percent).

Why do they prefer McDonald’s? The most common answer is that it’s inexpensive and they can order as little as possible, meaning they can go there when they’re not in the mood for a full meal.

High overhead: McDonald's Roppongi Hills

High overhead: McDonald’s Roppongi Hills

The main underlying attraction of fast food is predictability. People who patronize national or international chains know what to expect in terms of quality and, more significantly, price. They probably think that prices are uniform from one outlet to another. The British newsweekly The Economist exploits and reinforces this perception with its occasional Big Mac Index, which analyzes relative values of national currencies by comparing the prices of Big Macs in all countries using the assumption that the value of a Big Mac is uniform.

However, if you go to McDonald’s American home page, prices are not listed, and if you do a web search you find that prices seem to vary slightly from one state or city to another, though it isn’t clear for what reason. Some people seem to think it has to do with differences in wages or local taxes or the fact that some stores are franchises while others are corporate-owned, but according to a recent article in Forbes, production costs have no impact on McDonald’s pricing, only competition. McDonald’s sets prices according to what the company reasonably believes it can get for its products in a given market at a desirable volume.

McDonald’s Japan also does not list prices on its home page, but it is fairly well known that prices differ from one outlet to another. These prices are not set by the outlets themselves. They are set by the headquarters, and on Sept. 10 the company announced that it was expanding the range of prices on its menu as well as increasing prices by as much as ¥50 per item. Since last year, the company’s profits have been dropping and it has pinpointed outlets that McDonald’s believes “can absorb price increases” without undermining its loyal customer base.

McDonald’s Japan first set up regional price schedules in 2007 by dividing Japan into six zones. Under the new system there will be nine zone categories, but these zone categories are not necessarily prefecturally-based. Urban outlets within a prefecture will have higher prices than suburban or rural outlets. Realistically, this means there will be seven different prices for a Big Mac, depending on the zone, ranging from ¥310 to ¥390, up from four different prices ranging from ¥290 to ¥340.

The highest prices will, of course, be in Tokyo. There is one zone within central Tokyo, made up of 10 outlets, that boasts the highest prices in Japan, and the overall price scheme has been formulated to support urban outlets, which serve the largest cross-section of customers. Rents and other overhead in the centers of large cities are multiplicatively greater than they are in the boonies, though prices are not multiplicatively different. The largest gap in prices between zones is ¥80, up from ¥50 before the changeover. Unaffected will be the prices for promotional loss leaders, like the “¥100 Mac” and Chicken Crisps, not to mention certain meal sets. In a sense, the countryside is helping support city folks’ fast food habits.

According to the Asahi Shimbun, the strategy is simply to maximize profits and has nothing to do with regional wage demands, local taxes or cost-of-living conditions. The company tested the new pricing system last April in a select number of outlets and determined that the number of patrons did not change when prices went up slightly. Overall, about 40 percent of the menu items will be affected by the price changes.

McDonald’s predicts that the price increases will boost its profits by 1 percent, which doesn’t sound like much but with an outfit as huge as McDonald’s that should amount to billions of yen. In any case, the lower yen has increased the price of imported ingredients, particularly meat and potatoes.

Aging boomers may prove to be just as tight with savings

September 17th, 2013 by

Praying is free (but the incense will cost you)

Praying is free (but the incense will cost you)

The media has been all over the new figures related to seniors that were released by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications to coincide with Respect for the Aged Day. To recap, the number of Japanese people over 65 increased by 1.12 million from the previous year, which marks a 0.95 percent rise.

The big news is that this brings the total number of seniors to about 32 million, or one-fourth of the entire population. This was expected since the huge cohort of baby boomers — which in Japan refers only to people born during a brief period in the late 1940s — is now passing the 65-year mark, and the projection is that seniors will make up a third of the population by 2035. To break down these portions even further, 18 percent of the population is over 70, 12 percent over 75 and 7 percent over 80.

What hasn’t been discussed as widely is the economic ramifications of these developments. In 2012 there were 5.95 million people over 65 who were still in the work force, or 9.5 percent of all workers over the age of 15. The average amount of savings — whether bank accounts, annuities or securities — of households with more than one person where the householder is at least 65 is ¥22.57 million. The average savings of all households is ¥16.64 million. Also, 16 percent of over-65 households have savings of more than ¥40 million, while only 10 percent of all households have saved that much.

The hope has been that once they retire boomers will spend their savings more readily than did previous generations, but so far that doesn’t seem to be the case. The ministry’s statistics indicate that more money is being spent by seniors who are still working. Those who aren’t working, meaning they are on fixed incomes provided by government or company pensions, are spending much less.

In either case, working or not, the seniors are not touching their savings. They are only spending their income. In the parlance of economists, they are asset rich but cash poor. The average income of an over-65 household is ¥2.96 million (that of an average household in general is ¥5.8 million), but the median income of an over-65 household is ¥2.29 million, meaning the majority of these households are within the ¥1 to ¥3 million income range, and that’s what they are living on.

A Cabinet Office survey conducted in 2011 asked seniors what the purpose of their savings was. About 62 percent said it was for sudden illnesses and future care and 20 percent said it was for “maintaining existence” in case of an unexpected financial problem. Only 5 percent said they would spend it on leisure, and a mere 1.6 percent wanted to use it for travel. It should be noted that 90 percent of these respondents owned their own homes or did not pay rent, so housing, at least, was not a primary concern. However, given the cost of private nursing homes, which charge upwards of ¥20 million just to move in, it’s perfectly reasonable to think that seniors believe they have to save for those final years. Until that sort of anxiety is addressed, it will always be difficult to get seniors to part with their savings.

Roomba rules with working moms

September 12th, 2013 by

There has recently been a discussion in the Japanese language media about an article that novelist and Nippon Foundation head Ayako Sono wrote for the magazine Shukan Gendai.

Roomba to move

Roomba to move

Sono, who will turn 82 next week, encouraged working women to quit their jobs after they gave birth, not so much because she believes a mother should devote all her attention to her children, but rather because it is “selfish” for working mothers to place such a burden on the companies they work for by demanding they hire them back at full pay after maternity leave. Women who make such a demand don’t understand reality, Sono says. She herself put up with being “poor” when she had her children, relying on her husband’s salary only, and thinks women today should do the same.

Regardless of Sono’s blinkered view of the reality of married life today, the amount of money that working mothers contribute to the Japanese economy is not chicken feed. It’s estimated to be about ¥6 trillion, according to a cover story in the business magazine Toyo Keizai. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications reports that the average disposable income of a double income household is more than ¥4 million a year, while that of a single-income household with a full-time homemaker is about ¥3.6 million.

Moreover, a research laboratory, Dentsu Soken, says that the “direct economic impact” of women who go back to work after giving birth is ¥3 trillion, and the secondary effect of this spending, in terms of added jobs and investment, is worth something like ¥6.4 trillion.

If these women weren’t working they wouldn’t be making that money and thus wouldn’t be spending it, and much of what they spend it on has to do with saving time, because they are so busy with both their jobs and their kids. This waamama (working mother) boom has resulted in brisk sales for three home electronics products that were originally aimed at narrower, higher-income niche targets: washing machines with built-in dryers, dishwashers and robot vacuum cleaners.

It’s the last of these, spearheaded by the American-made Roomba, that has really taken off, and the appeal to working mothers is clear. They simply turn it on and the machine cleans the room by itself, while the mother does other things, like go shopping or play with her children.

The Roomba was originally promoted for seniors, and the price is pretty steep, about ¥80,000, though some discount retailers may sell it for ¥70,000 or even less. The subsequent Japanese copies, made by Toshiba and Sharp, start lower, at about ¥50,000, and are becoming popular, too, but Roomba dominates, with 73 percent of the robot vacuum cleaner market, according to Seed Planning Research. Of course, the household could probably save even more money if the husband chipped in with the housework, but since Sono didn’t talk about that we won’t either.

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