Japan · Privacy

A Poor Man’s Faust

As a single man in my late twenties living in the frantic Tokyo metropolis, I am not particularly inclined to cook (nor particularly adept at it, for that matter), so the services provided by fast food chains and convenience stores are invaluable to me.

Now, don’t get me wrong: despite what celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain might lead you to believe, it amounts to hyperbole to claim that the egg salad found in convenience stores elicits anything resembling “layer after layer” of gustatory nirvana. More realistically, one should expect slightly doughy Danishes and sinewy processed meat-based lunchboxes drenched in salt and artificial preservatives.

I don’t expect anything different. After all convenience stores – like all retailers – are run with the explicit purpose of generating profits, even if to achieve this they have to cut corners here and there.

Such is the covenant one enters with when making a purchase at these stores, namely that the customer agrees to put up with somewhat questionable product quality and borderline fraudulent business practices (e.g., making negligible changes to the existing lineup and repackaging these as “new and improved” products) in exchange for convenient access to the products we elect not to buy elsewhere, due to the co-morbid afflictions of physical and mental exhaustion and a crushing sense of apathy.

Still, and despite the steep mark up, Japanese convenience stores offer products that are somewhat more nutritious compared their European (read gas station assortment of Doritos and Snickers’ candy bars) and American counterparts.

What I take umbrage to, however, is their constant attempt to shove their points reward program down my throat. I find this offensive because it’s a) unsolicited (I once got handed three cards at the same store in the period of less than a week!) and b) because it displays a sense of smugness on the part of the company; a conceited certainty that I would prostitute myself into revealing my name, home address, and spending habits for a measly 1% point rebate on the amount spent at Family Mart stores.

With the level of granularity you’re required to provide to qualify for one of these, you have to wonder to what further depths of depravity these companies will sink to next. Perhaps they’ll start inquiring about regularity of bowl movements? Or number of sexual partners? The possibilities are truly endless!

As if being asked to fork over such bits personally identifiable information wasn’t enough of an invasion of privacy, this particular card (the so called “T-Card”) can be used to track purchases not only at Family Mart stores, but across a whole spectrum of restaurants, video rental places, and even pharmacies! This allows the company to build a complete profile of the individual; from menu preferences at the casual dining chain Gusto to medicines bought Welcia Holdings drugstores – all down to the Geo-locational level!

It is not my contention that this information is being used for nefarious purposes. I do, however object in principle to the idea of allowing any corporation to aggregate so much data on so many people. The potential for abuse – either on the part of the company itself by turning to the dark side and selling consumer information to the highest bidder, or by third parties gaining access to consumer records through an unauthorized data breach – is considerable and not in proportion to the benefits offered to the public (the above mentioned 1% point rebate).

Yet despite all the above, the Culture Convenience Club (CCC), the company responsible for issuing the T-Card, announced (in Japanese) last month that its membership had reached 60 million unique users – close to half the country’s population – in 2016. This represents an increase from 20 million in early 2007, and 40 million in mid-2012.

This is the very definition of selling oneself short: we have become so inured to the idea of having every single datum, every single statistic about our lives traded on the open market, that we long longer think twice before signing up for a loyalty program or any such promotions, almost regardless of the actual monetary advantages of doing so.

What can we do, then, to protect ourselves? Old fashioned as it might sound, the easiest and by far most effective solution is simply not to enroll in any point rewards program to begin with and, to take it one step further, to pay in cash whenever possible. This piece of advice is particularly easy to follow in Japan, which unlike the United States, remains a predominantly cash-based society. In fact, according to MasterCard, for the year of 2013, only 14% of all payment transactions were conducted using non-cash methods, as opposed to 45% in the US, 52% in the UK and 57% in Canada.

In summation, let’s not sell ourselves short. If they want my personal information, they’re going to have to offer me a way better deal.


Shinzo Abe’s Demographic ‘Bonus’

One week ago today, Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda announced a shift from quantitative purchases of Government bonds towards an effort to control the yield curve.

Market response was subdued, with the prevailing sentiment being one of skepticism when it comes to the ability of the BOJ to control the curve across all maturities. JBG 10Y resumed their downward slide, as yields – having briefly touched  negative 0.1% yesterday – drifted away from the BOJ’s target of zero percent, highlighting the institution’s – and by proxy, the Government’s – loss of credibility.

To be sure, Central Bank market theatrics are always a spectacle to behold, but on the day Mr. Kuroda unveiled QQEWYCC, premier Abe delivered a show of his own in front of a crowd of finance professionals in New York.

In a chilling chimerical mix of macho bravado and ivory tower disconnect from the real world, Mr. Abe painted Japan’s demographic crisis as a blessing in disguise. In the father of Abenomics’ own words:

“Japan may be aging. Japan may be losing its population. But these are incentives for us. Why? Because we will continue to be motivated to grow our productivity” […] “Japan’s demography, paradoxically is not an onus, but a bonus”

If it rhymes it must be true, right? Wrong, and the Prime Minister knows it. In fact, it is utterly farcical to claim that Japan’s aging demographic structure does not put a tremendous strain on GDP, the NHS and Social Security. If anything, the BOJ’s policy of NIRP has served only to exacerbate things, with the Government Pension Investment Fund posting losses of over $50 billion last fiscal year.

Mr. Abe also referred his cabinet’s policy of relaxing visa requirements for highly qualified professionals in fields such as IT, robotics and engineering, in an effort to attract foreign talent.

The idea itself isn’t without merit, as it could – at least in theory – help offset Japan’s brain drain. It all depends on execution, though, because with Tokyo University not even ranking first in Asia for 2016, and an archaic corporate structure that hinders career advancement, Mr. Abe has a rough sales pitch to make.

Ultimately, though, the number of people with advanced degrees in science and technology only account for an infinitesimal fraction of the population. The government could potentially succeed in attracting thousands of PhD-yielding savants, and the economic impact would still be somewhat negligible.

Formalized knowledge in the form of an advanced degree isn’t necessary to operate in every day society. Taxi drivers, farmers and restaurant owners – who are the backbone of the economy – run their businesses using simple, time-tested heuristics and have been generally successful at it.

It should be apparent to anyone outside the ivory tower of academia or the technocratic circles of government that the crux of a successful immigration policy – and I’m going on a limb here and assume that, contrary to all evidence, extensive immigration positively impacts the aggregate wealth of the host country – should lie, not on pandering to the intellectual elites, but on improving the working conditions of Filipino nurses or factory workers from neighboring China.

A modicum of modesty might help too, for the first step towards the solution to any problem – even one so mind-boggling complex as the demographic crisis facing Europe and Japan – is admitting that it exists in the first place.