Terrie's Take: Are Fukushima Veges Safe? Filipino Nurses? Money exchange? J-Startup Crowdfunding?

Terrie's Take - AkihabaraNews.com

Terrie’s Take is a selection of Japan-centric news collected and collated by long-time resident and media business professional Terrie Lloyd. AkihabaraNews is pleased to present Terrie’s learned perspective; we all could use another take on the news - here’s Terrie’s:

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Terrie’s Take on June 9, 2014

Feature:

  • Is it Safe to Eat Fukushima Veges Again?

Briefs:

  • Are more Filipina maids needed?
  • Casino legislation to be debated next week
  • Only now will child porn possession become illegal
  • Yen forecast to weaken to 115 to US dollar
  • Crowdfunding for shares to start in Japan next year?

Is it Safe to Eat Fukushima Veges Again?
Those of us living in Japan with kids have since the March 12th, 2011 explosion of the Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 nuclear reactor, been feeling uneasy about the safety of our food supply. Reading back through issues of Terrie's Take in 2011, you can see frequent mentions about radiation levels, where to buy safe vegetables online, and avoiding Honshu-based milk that may have been contaminated by deliberate mixing by major dairy suppliers. It was all very worrying.

The problems at Fukushima are still not resolved, and although we are now more than half way through the transfer of the spent fuel rods at building 4, this is not really a meaningful milestone, in that this reactor was already shut down before the earthquake and tsunami occurred. Instead, the real problems are with the other 3 reactors, which melted down, exploded, continue to hemorrhage radiation on a daily basis, and which may take decades if not hundreds of years to bring under control.

So is our food supply still at risk?

Last week, significantly, the Singapore government announced that with a few exceptions, the restrictions on food being imported from Japan are being lifted. The Singaporeans appear to be making a scientifically based decision that we think gives a qualified green light to Fukushima produce. Basically they are saying that fruit, vegetables, dairy products, meat, eggs and green tea products from the previously affected regions of Chiba, Ibaraki, Gunma, Kanagawa, Saitama, Shizuoka, Tochigi, and Tokyo are now safe and don't need pre-export testing. You'll note that Fukushima is not on this 100% safe list, yet, but seems to be in a "slightly less safe" category on its own. The announcement wasn't clear how Fukushima was being demarcated, other than the indication that the total ban on Fukushima products is being lifted.

What was clear, though, is the produce types and sources still on the pre-testing and banned lists. Seafood and forest products sourced from Ibaraki, Tochigi, and Gunma will still need pre-export testing. Seafood, agricultural products, and forest-related products from the Fukushima control zones and some other areas will be banned completely.

We think this is a fair assessment of what is safe and what is not, and recommend that you modify your shopping accordingly. In particular, we'd still stay well away from any seafood caught in and around Fukushima.

One thing that the 3/11 disaster has done, is to accelerate public awareness of food security and safety. Japan's concerns include food continuity (e.g., supply interruptions caused by natural disasters and global warming), food contamination such as pesticides in products from China, GMO products from the USA, local radiation and contamination problems, and the lack of interest by young people in farming.

Of these issues, the government appears to be taking care of the farmer decline by moving towards legislation that will allow corporations to own farm land. This may take a few years, but given that the average age of farmers is now 70 and there are only 420,000 full-time farmers left, it's only a matter of time before reality overtakes politics.

More sensationalized is the threat of bad food coming from China. For the average Japanese, Chinese food represents at least three levels of threat: i) Direct contamination that causes immediate sickness. There were at least 222 food safety violations in FY2012 involving food from China, topped off by a toxic rice scare. ii) Low-level accumulative contamination, caused by things like heavy metals being absorbed by the plants and animals being grown in China. We don't see much media coverage about this and people tolerate Chinese food that might have these problems, but the awareness is still there. iii) Continuity of supply. The fact that the Chinese are showing muscle over their dealings with Japan vis-a-vis the Senkaku islands, the expectation is that just as the supply of rare earths to Japanese manufacturers was squeezed off in the last confrontation, more basic commodities such as food supplies are also at risk. This is a very real consideration, given that Japan imported US$13.2bn of food from China, second only after the US$13.5bn it imports from the USA.

These factors, plus the fact that it's simply cheaper, have meant that the construction of vegetable factories in Japan is on the rise. There are currently at least 150 hydroponic vege factories in Japan, more than anywhere else, and the volume of output from these operations is not only phenomenal, it is done in a controlled environment isolated from the environmental and political factors affecting the nation. So it is no wonder that there is so much investment interest.

The world's largest vegetable factory running on artificial lighting is owned by Kyoto-based Spread Company, and is 25,200 sq. m. in size. It produces 730 tons of lettuce annually, or about 20,000 heads of lettuce a day -- every day, even in winter. The factory was built in 2007 at a cost of JPY2bn, and by 2008 was producing 1,000 heads of lettuce a day. Obviously they have made big strides in efficiency since then. The owner is now planning another four factories of similar size.

There is a good article about Spread in the Toronto Star, here:
http://on.thestar.com/1kVH10l

The economics are sufficiently good that the nation's major corporations are getting in on the act. This last week, Mitsui Fudosan announced it opened the second largest factory in Japan, which will produce about 5,000 vegetable items daily, every day of the year. The company spent just JPY600m building the facility, which has a floor space of 1,300 sq. m. They managed to cram more into the smaller footprint by growing the plants on ten cultivation layers, versus Spread's four layers. The facility is expected to produce about JPY300m in annual sales -- a good model for other operators considering entering the market.

Are more Filipina maids needed?
It seems to have become a truism for the government that Japanese women will return to the workforce if only there were more caretakers around to help them look after their kids. Maybe this is true, or maybe Japanese women prefer to focus on their kids during the critical early years of development, but either way it looks like the foreign maid trend is coming to a theater near us. The Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, chaired by PM Abe no less, says that it reckons that at least 2.2m Japanese women would return to work if they had caretakers for their kids or elderly parents. The planned influx will happen in Tokyo and some of the other five special economic zones (SEZ) first, then probably catch on from there. ***Ed: Actually, this SEZ situation could open up a can of worms for Immigration. For example once a foreign maid has a work visa, the constitution says that she has the right to seek work freely elsewhere. So will the new visa rules forbid her from working outside the SEZ? I.e., outside of Tokyo? If so, this might be a human rights violation...** (Source: TT commentary from japantimes.co.jp, Jun 05, 2014)

Casino legislation to be debated next week
An LDP politician has indicated that a bill to legalize casinos in Japan will be debated this coming week. Early reports are that the bill will have a difficult time getting passed this session even though apparently up to 200 politicians are for casinos. ***Ed: We've been following the pro-casino camp ever since the last big opportunity for Japan's first casino approval happened over 15 years ago. What is clear is that the conservative majority is still really concerned about the negative aspects of casinos and this group still wields a lot of power. Yes, there is a gradual change in attitude and the scales are moving slowly but surely towards legalization. But while a bill will eventually be approved, after all the casino industry is expected to deliver up to JPY2trn of new tax income to the government every year (based on Macao numbers), nonetheless, for this year at least we believe the conservatives will prevail.** (Source: TT commentary from reuters.com, Jun 03, 2013)

Only now will child porn possession become illegal
It's hard to understand the motivations of those dealing in child porn, but even harder to understand why the government has been so slow to ban its possession -- art or not, some things are just not compatible with modern society (stoning adulterers and betting on lethal animal fighting would be others). The new ban will go into effect in 2015, and the punishment for possession will be imprisonment of up to one year or fines of up to JPY1m. ***Ed: The local argument has long been that porn is art and should be allowed under the freedom of expression. But it is pretty clear by now that making it legal to own child porn establishes demand for this genre and thus causes children somewhere to be abused to create it. In fact, it is this very point that was the basis for Japan deciding to keep manga and anime out of the ban -- because no child suffered in their production. There is a kind of logic there, we guess.** (Source: TT commentary from scmp.com, Jun 04, 2014)

Yen forecast to weaken to 115 to US dollar
Foreign bankers in Tokyo are forecasting that the yen is likely to weaken to between JPY107 - JPY115 to the US dollar by the end of this year. The consensus among the experts is that the Bank of Japan is unlikely to do further major easing before the end of this year, and instead will allow actions such as the PM's arm-twisting of the General Pension Investment Fund of Japan (GPIF), the world's largest pension fund, to start buying more bonds and stocks both in Japan and abroad. ***Ed: The expectation is that the GPIF alone will put over JPY20trn into Japanese stocks and foreign securities, all on its own moving the yen down by 10%. We're not convinced this will actually happen, and instead think that the markets will realize the GPIF, as big as it is, is still just a drop in the bucket in terms of international flows. We also don't think the maneuvering the GPIF into diversifying into a riskier portfolio qualifies the move as a proper "third arrow" for Abe. What is needed is real reform, not more issue-dodging.** (Source: TT commentary from bloomberg.com, Jun 04, 2014)

Crowdfunding for shares to start in Japan next year?
One thing that might turn the SME market around and cause the collective growth of small firms and therefore an increase in meaningful employment, is making more early stage venture funding available to start-ups. It looks like the Japanese government may move on this more quickly than expected, with the Financial Services Agency (FSA) apparently getting ready to revise the rules on venture funding as soon as April 2015. 60% of the world's crowdfunding occurs in the USA, and last year (2013) the amount of money raised globally was around US$5.1bn. ***Ed: Just a note that the crowdfunding being planned for Japan next year isn't the mere donation of money to pet projects. Instead, the public will be able to buy small lots of actual company shares. It will be interesting to see how this will be organized, since looking after hundreds or thousands of JPY10,000 shareholders would be a nightmare under today's financial rules.** (Source: TT commentary from asia.nikkei.com, Jun 03, 2014)

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That was Terrie's Take.

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