Posts Tagged ‘Japan earthquake’

Politicians hope you don’t notice when their pay goes back to normal

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Nice work if you can get it

Six months is a long time, and considering all that has happened since the March 11 earthquake, the past half-year may seem even longer. So it wouldn’t be surprising if a lot of people have forgotten that the Diet passed a law shortly after the disaster to cut their own salaries by 30 percent for a period of six months. This gesture was on top of then Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s forfeiture of his own special prime minister’s allowance, not to mention the 10 percent additional cut in salary for all members of the cabinet as a budget countermeasure, which has been in force since the Yukio Hatayama administration.

Next month things go back to normal, and maybe the lawmakers are hoping the electorate has forgotten, but at least one person, Kenji Eda of Your Party (Minna no To), is determined that people will remember. On Sept. 27, during the budget deliberation talks, he asked Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda whether or not he would forfeit his prime minister’s allowance, just as Kan did, for the sake of reconstruction. Noda, of course, is expected to ask for a long-delayed increase in the consumption tax as a means to fund reconstruction, which, over the next decade, is estimated to cost ¥11 trillion. As it turns out, while Noda as a Diet lawmaker has had his salary cut 30 percent like everyone else, it seems he’s been receiving his prime minister’s allowance, calculated on a daily basis, in full since he took over from Kan. Noda answered that the cabinet would continue with the 10 percent cut but said nothing about his own pay.

This is notable in that one of the items in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s manifesto was a 20 percent cut in all personnel costs, covering pay and expenses of all government employees, politicians and civil servants alike. Had the DPJ actually carried through with that promise, they could easily come up with the ¥11 trillion needed for reconstruction. Of course, at the time the manifesto was made the savings were envisioned to pay off Japan’s debt, so by itself the 20 percent personnel expense cut isn’t enough.

Continue reading about politicians' pay cuts →

Eat a potato chip and send a kid to college

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

They care

Besides manufacturing stuff, what do condiment maker Kagome, snacks producer Calbee and pharmaceutical company Rohto have in common? Not much, but in any case the three firms have joined forces to establish a foundation called Michinoku Mirai (Northern Region Future) to provide funds for young people who were orphaned by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami to pay for university or post-secondary vocational school. According to the Health Welfare and Labor Ministry, about 1,500 youngsters aged 18 or less lost both parents in the disaster, and starting in March 2012, those who graduate from high school and wish to continue their education can apply for up to ¥3 million a year from the fund to pay for anything related to that education, including entry fees, tuition and supplies.

The three companies estimate that the fund will need about ¥200 million a year, and each one will start by contributing ¥30 million for the first year, with the remainder coming from solicited contributions. They will continue supplying the fund with money for 20 years, at which point children who were orphaned as infants by the disaster will have graduated from high school. The reason the fund was created is that there is no public support in Japan for the continuing education of orphans. When orphans reach the age of 18, they are on their own. Foster care ends at 18, and since in Japan there is very little in the way of what in the West are called scholarships — meaning education grants — orphans almost never attend university. The exception is the long-standing, specialized private foundation Ashinaga Ikueikai, which provides educational support to orphans all their lives, from elementary to graduate school.

Will K-cars save the domestic automotive industry?

Monday, September 26th, 2011

Mira, Mira in the lot...

Two weeks ago, on the same day that it didn’t cover the huge anti-nuclear power demonstration in Tokyo, NHK’s 7 o’clock news bulletin had a feature about Daihatsu’s new small car, the Mira e:s (pronounced “ease”). Initially, we saw the report as further proof of the public broadcaster’s retreat from its traditional aversion to anything smacking of commercial promotion; but in the days since then we’ve come to realize that the announcement was newsworthy as more than just a financial story.

The e:s is the latest model in the Mira K-car series. K-car, as in kei (light), are automobiles made specifically for the Japanese market. The name refers to the engine displacement, which is only 660 cubic centimeters. Consequently, the weight and size are smaller than standard automobiles, which is why many people believe them to be unsafe. Because K-cars are very small and have to be lightweight, they tend to crumple easily in accidents. But they are also low-priced and get high gasoline mileage. What makes the e:s noteworthy is its even lower price–¥795,000–and even higher gas mileage–30 kilometers per liter based on JCO8 mode testing methodology. That’s almost a 40 percent improvement in mileage over previous Mira models owing to e:s’s lighter body structure and smoother transmission function. As a result, Daihatsu is marketing it as the “third eco car” after the all-electric vehicle and the hybrid. For comparison, Toyota’s best-selling Prius hybrid gets 32. 6 km/l and Honda’s Fit hybrid 26km/l.

Daihatsu hopes to sell 10,000 e:s per month, which seems quite feasible since Daihatsu is already the number one maker of K-cars in Japan (but not K-trucks). The company unloaded 341,000 during the first eight months of the year, though one of the main reasons for the robust sales was the March 11 disaster. K-cars are particularly popular in rural areas, where automobiles are a necessity and many families own more than two. Because people use them every day and for every sort of task, economy is the main consideration. Not only do they use less fuel, but the excise/weight taxes and insurance are much cheaper (though they are subject to a special Light Motor Vehicle Tax), maintenance costs are lower and owners in rural areas usually aren’t required to offer proof of a parking space for K-cars at the time of registration. According to the Japan Mini Vehicles Association, 43 percent of the automobiles registered in the Tohoku region before the March 11 disaster were K-cars. In the prefectures that align along the Japan Sea, the portion of K-cars often tops 50 percent, and in Okinawa it’s 53 percent. Many automobiles were destroyed in the earthquake and tsunami, and the demand for used cars, used K-cars in particular, soared as a result. A friend of ours who lives in Osaka just sold her 10-year-old K-car to a broker for ¥50,000. Usually with a car that old the owner has to pay the broker to haul it away.

In fact, K-cars have kept Japan’s domestic automotive industry stable in the past year. After the end of the government’s eco point system, sales of regular cars dropped, but K-car sales have been steady all along. And since they use less parts they were less adversely affected by the supply shortage caused by the March 11 disaster. Even Toyota is coming out with a K-car. Japan’s number one automaker never entered the field mainly because it has a 51 percent controlling interest in Daihatsu. But the market is too good to pass up right now, and the future holds at least some promise. Women are more likely to buy K-cars, and unlike the current demographic of over-70 women, who don’t drive at all, boomer women all drive and will likely continue to do so well into old age. The sunnier outlook for Daihatsu is exemplified by the company’s ad campaign for e:s, which features Bruce Willis making fun of himself as a celebrity shill. Only a company with supreme confidence would dare draw attention to how they draw attention.

Disaster housing proves cash cow for general contractors

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

Temporary housing doesn't come cheaply (Kyodo photo)

An article in the Aug. 2 edition of the Asahi Shimbun reported that the average cost of constructing a temporary housing (kasetsu jutaku) unit in Miyagi Prefecture to shelter victims of the March 11 disaster has been ¥3.7 million, which is about 50 percent higher than the price stipulated in the revised Disaster Relief Law. Moreover, that figure does not include associated costs such as plumbing. When those costs are factored in the average price per unit skyrockets to more than ¥5 million. To put matters into perspective, many prefab housing manufacturers offer products, meaning full 3-bedroom homes, that you can have built for as little as ¥8.7 million.

The prefecture made deals with two associations soon after the quake and by June 22 had signed contracts to provide 17,510 units. One association consists of eleven companies that build prefabricated housing, while the other consists of 24 companies that “lease” prefab housing. The former companies would build houses from the ground up using all new materials, while the latter company would provide housing using materials “recycled” from other prefab constructions. The average size of each unit is 29.7 square meters. Obviously, the leasing companies’ units are cheaper, but they still ended up being more expensive than the legally stipulated price, which was ¥2.38 million per unit. In fact, the prefecture knew that when it accepted the bid from the association, which was ¥2.88 million per unit. As of mid-June, that price had risen to ¥3.45 million. But that’s nothing compared to the price of a fully constructed unit, which has climbed to as much as ¥5.1 million.

Continue reading about temporary shelters →

Cheap labor market will have to make do without Chinese workers

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

As the media so loudly pointed out, a large number of foreign residents left Japan right after the earthquake of March 11, mainly due to fears of radiation from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi reactor. According to the Mainichi Shimbun, most have returned, or, at least, those who worked in nominally white collar jobs did. For instance, about 40 percent of the foreign language teachers at Berlitz went home, and since then 90 percent have returned.

So that's why a bowl of beef is so cheap

The situation is much different when it comes to low-wage laborers, particularly those from China. The foreign trainee program has been badly hit. Many people believe that the program, which is supposed to offer people from foreign countries the opportunity to learn skills in Japan, is more or less a front for trafficking cheap labor, and the agricultural and textile industries are heavily dependent on workers from Asia. The Asahi Shimbun reports that before the earthquake there were about 40,000 foreign trainees working at Japanese textile companies, 99 percent of whom were Chinese. Almost all of them went home and very few have returned.

An association in Dalian that processes potential trainees for work in Japan told the Asahi that before the earthquake there were five applicants for every potential job opening, but now there are none. Another association that helps Chinese pass the test to be accepted in the trainee program said that all 50 people who passed a test to work at a marine products processing plant in Chiba Prefecture have now changed their mind and are staying in China. In almost all these cases the Chinese trainees are quite young, which means the decision to leave Japan or not go in the first place was made by their parents. Since China still has a one-child policy, a parent may not want to risk the health of his or her only child.

Continue reading about the flight of cheap labor →

Disaster makes the heart grow fonder, but potential marriage partners still need cash

Friday, May 20th, 2011

Smile, you're married!

Since the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, there have been many heartwrenching stories in the news about people wanting to make more meaningful human connections, spurred by the realization that life is short. An article in the Asahi Shimbun reports that the clearest evidence of this change in societal attitude is a sharp rise in wedding-related goods and services. In the months of March and April, sales of engagement rings were 40 percent higher than they were for the same period last year; with sales of wedding rings 25 percent higher.

The marriage consulting and introduction service O-Net told the newspaper that “inquiries” into the company’s services rose 12 percent in April and 24 percent just from women in the Kanto region. There was also a 20 percent increase over last year in the number of people registered with the company who successfully tied the knot in March, and an 18 percent increase in April. A single woman in her 30s who newly registered with O-Net told the Asahi that she realized she wanted a life partner after she spent six hours walking home to an empty apartment on the night of March 11.

Continue reading about marriage in postquake Japan →

Post-disaster business opportunities attracting wrong kind of enterprises

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

There's a lot of work to be done in post-3/11 Tohoku and organized crime wants a piece of the action. (Satoko Kawasaki photo/The Japan Times)

Like ants to sugar, underworld organizations have been making their way to the towns and cities of the Tohoku region that were destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11. The cost of cleanup and reconstruction is estimated to be some ¥15 trillion, so there seems to be enough sugar to go around, but according to the Sankei Shimbun, the boryokudan (organized crime), or yakuza, seem determined to secure as big a share as they can.

Police in the area are reporting that since early April two “unknown” organizations have been making the rounds of five evacuation centers in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, handing out plain brown envelopes to evacuees. Each envelope contains ¥30,000 in cash. Local officials have cautioned individual representatives of these organizations, saying that their way of distributing the money is “unfair,” and that it would be better for them to give the officials the money so that it could be distributed more properly. This request was ignored in Ishinomaki. However, the same groups also delivered a pile of envelopes each containing ¥30,000 to the disaster headquarters of another city in Miyagi, Minami Sanriku, for distribution. Altogether, the “contributions” in the two cities total somewhere between ¥30 and ¥50 million.

Continue reading about yakuza in post-quake Tohoku →

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