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Japan’s growing labor shortage threatens the nation’s ubiquitous convenience stores, whose business model relies on an army of part-timers packing bento lunch boxes, manning cash registers and delivering goods 24/7.

The big three “combini” operators 7-Eleven, FamilyMart and Lawson, which have expanded through Japan’s long slump, are scrambling to ease the pressure on franchisees by offering a mix of financial aid and labor-saving automation.

But their earnings outlook is the bleakest in years.

Lawson Inc projects its first drop in profit in 15 years this fiscal year, and 7-Eleven Japan, part of Seven & i Holdings, forecasts a meager 0.2% increase.

Japan has around 55,000 convenience stores nationwide – roughly one for every 2,300 people – and each store needs around 20 part-timers to run it.

Some shop owners struggling to fill shifts find themselves working some nights as well as during the day.

“The labor situation is starting to get health-hazardous,” said one store owner who asked not to be identified.

Restaurant chain Royal Host and McDonald’s Japan have begun moving away from 24-hour operations, but so far convenience chains aren’t reducing hours or cutting store numbers.

Indeed, all three of the major chains plan to expand. They fear that if they cut back they will lose market share and dent a reputation for catering to customers’ needs at any time.

“We are part of the social infrastructure,” said Koji Takayanagi, president of FamilyMart UNY Holdings,. “We have a mission we must fulfill.”

DWINDLING POOL

As Japan’s population shrinks, its workforce has declined to 77.2 million in 2015 from a peak of 87.2 million in 1995. By 2065, it’s expected to drop to just 45.2 million.

The decline has hit labor-intensive sectors such as delivery services, restaurant chains and retailers especially hard.

The worker crunch started last year, said a Lawson franchisee in Tokyo. Foreigners, many of them university students, are taking up some of the slack, but he predicts the shortages will continue “indefinitely.”

Part-time wages, meanwhile, have increased, and some convenience stores have to pay more overtime to fill shifts.

“Labour costs are rising precipitously,” Ryuichi Isaka, president of Seven & i Holdings, told a recent earnings briefing.

To ease the burden on store owners, who bear payroll costs, 7-Eleven said it would, for the first time, cut royalty fees it charges franchisees – a measure that will cost the company around 160 billion yen ($1.47 billion) a year.

“We want to turn this into an opportunity to boost store owners’ management drive, and attract new owners,” Isaka said.

SAVING THE DAY?

The industry hopes technology can overcome the shortfall.

7-Eleven, with 19,423 stores and 390,000 part-timers in Japan, is bringing labor-saving dishwashers to all stores this year, while Lawson is issuing tablet computers to help store management, and installing automatic change counting machines.

The industry also plans to introduce RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags that can track individual items from warehouse to store – hoping this may usher in an era of low-cost distribution networks and unmanned cash registers.

With the government pledging to help roll out the technology by 2025, 7-Eleven estimates RFID tags, which it will trial around August, could save 8 billion yen ($73 million) annually in labor costs.

The increased investment in technology is partly to blame for Lawson’s forecast profit decline.

“Rather than simply focusing on increasing profits, we are critically looking at what shape Lawson should take,” said company president Sadanobu Takemasu. “By making the necessary investments we will reap the rewards.”

The labor-intensive business model is not just in the stores. It extends to a vast network of third-party suppliers and truck crews making deliveries around the clock.

The convenience store industry was built when there were plentiful workers, says Takayuki Suzuki, analyst at Primo Research Japan. But now it “must rationally look again at its excessive and unnecessary services.”

https://japantoday.com/category/business/Labor-shortage-a-stress-test-for-Japan’s-convenience-stores

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Japan will prepare to send troops to the Korean peninsula to protect its nationals there if a crisis requires their evacuation, its defence chief reportedly said Tuesday.

The remarks by Defence Minister Tomomi Inada came as fears grow over North Korea, which is believed to be on the verge of a sixth nuclear test and has threatened to launch missile tests “every week”.

But her statement in parliament reported by Jiji Press and public broadcaster NHK is likely to be controversial in South Korea.

There memories of Japan’s brutal colonial occupation from 1910-1945 have hindered relations and the possibility of Japanese troops on its soil would likely cause anger.

Inada, a noted hawk who supports a bigger role for Japan’s military, said that the country would be ready to mobilise its troops if Japanese needed to be evacuated “but have difficulties in leaving via private means of transportation”.

Inada said such a dispatch of troops is allowed under Japanese law, which also requires the consent of the related country.

Japan’s constitution renounces the right to wage war and the country’s military is limited to self defence in the strictest sense.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, however, is pushing to expand the military’s role and legislation was passed in 2015 that could see troops engage in overseas combat for the first time since the end of World War II.

Inada’s comments came as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Japan after visiting South Korea, the first leg of his Asian tour, and observed the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.

Pence met Abe on Tuesday, reiterating Washington’s commitment to their decades-old alliance.

 

https://japantoday.com/category/politics/japan-could-rescue-nationals-in-korean-crisis-defence-chief?comment-order=oldest

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The government is preparing to submit a special bill to the Diet as early as May 19 to enable Emperor Akihito to abdicate, aiming to have it passed by the end of the current parliamentary session through June 18, sources close to the matter said Monday.

The bill is expected to call for one-off legislation applying only to the present emperor, reflecting an agreement reached last month by Diet members and the final proposals a government advisory panel is scheduled to compile on Friday.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government will outline the bill later this month and present it to political parties in the Diet to hear their views, before it seeks approval at a Cabinet meeting, according to the sources.

In accepting the parliament’s proposals in March, Abe expressed willingness to enact the legislation, saying, “I solemnly accept it and will immediately get to work on crafting the bill.”

The government plans to allow the 83-year-old emperor to abdicate on the day the law enters into force, within three years after it is promulgated, the sources said. Crown Prince Naruhito, 57, will succeed to the Chrysanthemum throne.

As the Japanese Constitution stipulates the emperor’s status derives from “the will of the people,” the Diet is seeking to realize the wishes of the emperor to retire on a unanimous vote or a vote close to it.

The government is expected to compile the draft bill after Japan’s Golden Week holidays end in early May and share it with political parties and groups in the Diet.

It is rare for the government to present the contents of a bill to opposition parties in advance, mirroring the government’s aim to have the bill passed in a smooth manner by forming a prior consensus.

The Imperial House Law that sets out rules for imperial affairs currently only allows succession following the death of an emperor.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has been mulling the legal changes following the emperor’s rare video message last summer indicating his desire to step down due to his advanced age.

© KYODO

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TOKYO —

The Japanese government is planning to hold a ceremony for Emperor Akihito’s envisioned abdication in December 2018, in what would be the nation’s first such ceremony in around 200 years, government sources said Wednesday.

The last time Japan held a ceremony for an emperor’s abdication was 1817, when Emperor Kokaku relinquished the Chrysanthemum throne. The government will consider how to materialize the plan by studying documents describing ceremonial manners for abdications in the past.

The abdication ceremony is planned to be held aside from a series of enthronement ceremonies for Crown Prince Naruhito. It may be treated as a state act that requires Diet approval for conducting, the sources said.

Of Japan’s 125 emperors, including the sitting 83-year-old, 58 have so far abdicated. But Japanese legislation currently only allows posthumous abdication.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is now mulling legal changes to enable Emperor Akihito to hand over the throne to Crown Prince Naruhito, 57, following the emperor’s rare video message last summer indicating his desire to step down due to his advanced age.

While the timing of the abdication has not been formally decided, the government is considering December 2018, apparently having in mind the emperor’s 85th birthday on Dec. 23 that year.

The Heisei era, which designates the reign of the sitting emperor, is expected to last till the end of that year, and a new era under his first son, Crown Prince Naruhito, will begin on the first day of 2019, according to the sources.

Japan’s “gengo” era name remains in use, with calendars and official documents often designating years by era name, with or without reference to the Gregorian date. By avoiding a new era to start in the middle of a year, the government is trying to avoid creating complications to people’s lives by the era name change.

The first Japanese emperor who abdicated is believed to be Emperor Kogyoku, who handed over the throne to Emperor Kotoku during Taika no Kaishin political reform that put the imperial house in control of Japan in the 7th century.

Japan started holding ceremonies for emperors’ abdication during the 8th century at the latest, and ceremonial practices were carried on to the latest abdication ceremony for Emperor Kokaku 200 years ago, according to the sources.

In such ceremonies, an agent reads out an emperor’s words explaining reasons for his abdication with a retiring emperor attending.

The likely location for the abdication ceremony of Emperor Akihito is the Imperial Palace. The timing of the event will be either before or after Kenji-to-Shokei-no-Gi, a ceremony to hand down traditional properties, such as the sacred sword and jewels, to the new emperor, the sources said.

After the handing of properties ceremony, which marks the completion of the throne ascending procedures, the new emperor is to hold the Choken-no-Gi first audience ceremony to meet with the heads of the government-legislative, administrative and judicial systems.

The government is planning to hold those ceremonies by the end of 2018, and an enthronement ceremony, called Sokui-no-Rei, that formally announces the new emperor’s accession sometime in 2019.

In the case of the previous imperial succession following the death of Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, on Jan 7, 1989, the handing of properties ceremony was held on the same day and the first audience ceremony was held two days after, while the enthronement ceremony was held on Nov 12, 1990.

© KYODO

https://www.japantoday.com/category/politics/view/emperors-abdication-ceremony-likely-to-be-held-in-dec-2018

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TOKYO —

The government approved Tuesday the bid by Osaka Prefecture to host the 2025 World Exposition.

The western Japanese city will be pitted against Paris, while Russia is also seen as moving to announce its candidacy to host the world’s fair. Osaka previously hosted the expo in 1970, an event that symbolized Japan’s rapid economic growth after World War II along with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The host will be decided through a vote by member countries of the expo’s governing body, the Bureau International des Expositions, at its general meeting in November 2018.

Osaka Gov Ichiro Matsui will file the candidacy as early as April 24 at the BIE headquarters in Paris. Sadayuki Sakakibara, the chief of the Japan Business Federation, heads the bidding committee and will accompany Matsui.

Osaka has proposed to hold the event on the artificial island of Yumeshima over a period of 185 days between May and November 2025, with estimates that it could benefit the economy by 1.9 trillion yen ($17 billion), while 28 million to 30 million people are expected to visit the fair

“It will bring significant economic impact to our country,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference after the Cabinet approved Osaka’s bid.

The 1970 Osaka Expo was visited by around 64 million people. Japan also hosted the expo in 2005 in Aichi Prefecture.

Construction costs for the latest attempt are estimated at 125 billion yen. The central government, the Osaka prefectural and municipal governments as well as the private sector will each shoulder a third of the expenses.

Japan is planning to push its bid at the BIE’s general meetings to be held in June and November. It will also have a similar opportunity when the body visits Osaka for inspection in early 2018 at the earliest.

© KYODO

https://www.japantoday.com/category/politics/view/govt-approves-osakas-bid-to-host-2025-world-expo

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https://www.japantoday.com/category/politics/view/abe-brushes-off-fears-of-threats-to-civil-rights-by-conspiracy-bill

TOKYO —

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday dismissed opposition parties’ concerns that a contentious bill that would punish the planning of certain crimes, ostensibly as a counterterrorism measure, could threaten civil rights.

“It is completely unnecessary to be concerned that (the bill will lead to) investigative bodies watching the public’s movements,” he said during the first day of formal debate on the bill in the House of Representatives.

The government says the bill revamps three previous “conspiracy bills” that flopped amid concerns they could lead to human rights abuses including the arbitrary persecution of civic groups.

The ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner Komeito are aiming to get the bill through the lower house by the end of this month so it can be enacted into law during the current Diet session, set to end in June.

But opposition parties argue the updated version of the bill remains dangerous and have vowed to fight it tooth and nail.

Abe said in Thursday’s Diet session that the new bill is “a plan that can dispel the worries and concerns that have previously been indicated, by making it clearer that ordinary people won’t be subject to punishment.”

“In the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, it’s the duty of the host country to expend every effort in tackling terrorism,” he said.

Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda said the necessary legislation is being introduced “in light of the internationalization and organization of crime in recent years.”

Opposition lawmakers are planning to hone in on Kaneda in forthcoming deliberations. They have been asking him to explain the bill for some time, and each time he has answered that he will explain once the bill is compiled.

The charge of conspiracy has been reworded as “planning terrorism and similar acts” in the latest bill, which would amend the law on organized crime.

The bill restricts the application of the planning charge to “organized criminal groups,” whereas previous scrapped versions applied to the broader “groups.”

The proposed charge would apply to groups of two or more people found to have planned one of the 277 listed offenses, with at least one of them having made specific preparations such as procuring supplies or funds or checking out a location.

The government says the move is necessary to protect the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo from terrorism, and has stressed that the punishments it would introduce would not be applicable to “ordinary citizens.”

But government officials have also said civic groups that initially carry out activities with no criminal element could subsequently fall foul of the proposed law if they undergo a transformation in character.

Opponents argue the surveillance required to detect such a change would in itself compromise human rights.

The main opposition Democratic Party and three smaller allied parties argue the tweaks to the updated bill are not sufficient to dispel concerns that it could grant investigative bodies arbitrary search powers.

The opponents also say the list of 277 applicable offenses is too extensive. It was pared down from an initial list of 676 crimes following pressure from within the ruling coalition.

The bill was brought to a plenary session of the lower house after the chairman of its steering committee, a lawmaker with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s LDP, exercised his discretion to set the debate schedule.

The Democratic Party held the first meeting of its own taskforce on the bill on Thursday morning. The party’s Diet affairs chief, Kazunori Yamanoi, said it “must raise a great national uproar” over the bill.

Democratic Party leader Renho questioned in a party meeting on Thursday why the ruling parties have prioritized passing the conspiracy bill over a bill to toughen penalties for sex offenses.

© KYODO

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TOKYO —

Public support for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has not been significantly shaken by the scandal over alleged influence-peddling in a cut-price land deal, even though a vast majority of respondents to a new Kyodo News poll remain doubtful about his version of events.

The approval rating for his cabinet slipped only to 52.4%, down just 3.3 percentage points from a survey on March 11-12, according to the nationwide telephone survey conducted Saturday and Sunday.

Yet 82.5% of respondents said the government has not done enough to dispel doubts concerning the sale of government land at a huge discount for construction of a school in Osaka, or allegations that Abe donated money to the school operator, the results released Sunday showed.

The disapproval rate for Abe’s cabinet stood at 32.5%.

Only 10.7% believe the government has provided convincing explanations, while 62.6% were “not convinced” with Abe’s denial of any involvement by himself or his wife Akie in the controversial land deal. Just 28.7% said they were convinced neither had any involvement.

Abe on Friday again dismissed accusations that he had donated 1 million yen to nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen, after Yasunori Kagoike, its head, repeated the accusation while testifying as a sworn witness in parliament the previous day.

The poll found that 58.7% said they cannot understand the explanation given by Abe, while 30.2% said otherwise.

On whether Akie should testify as a sworn witness in parliament, 52% said the first lady should, against 42.8% who said that was unnecessary.

On other key issues, 38.8% said they support the bill to punish people convicted of planning to carry out serious crimes, up 5.8 points after the cabinet approved the bill last week. Some 40% said they are opposed to the bill, which is similar to legislation which twice before failed to secure passage.

As for whether to allow the Japanese emperor to abdicate, as discussed by a government panel, 57.4% said they support revising the Imperial House Law to permanently allow emperors to relinquish the throne, while 34.6% are in favor of enacting legislation allowing only Japan’s current monarch, Emperor Akihito, to abdicate.

Asked about a proposal recently compiled as a Diet consensus and calling on the government to prepare such one-off legislation, 56.2% said they are in favor, while 34.9% are opposed.

By party, Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party remained dominant with 42.4% backing it, down just 1.4 points from the previous survey.

The support rating for the main opposition Democratic Party stood at 8.8%, and for Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, at 3.8%.

The survey covered 1,460 randomly selected households with eligible voters nationwide, with valid responses collected from 1,018 people.

 

https://www.japantoday.com/category/politics/view/abes-popularity-intact-but-handling-of-land-scandal-questioned-poll

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