“The nail that sticks up must be hammered down.”

(Japanese proverb)

     In Japanese society, where conformity is valued, there is only one group that refuses to go along with the rules. This is the proud group of yakuza, who unlike organized crime groups in other countries, don’t like keeping a low profile. In Japan there are 110,000 active members divided into 2,500 families.  By contrast, the United States has more than double the population of Japan but only 20,000 organized crime members total, and that number includes all criminal organizations, not just the Italian-American Mafia.

     The yakuza are quite powerful in Japan and have many political alliances, especially with right-wing groups. They also operate in the corporate world in Japan. It is well known that weddings and funerals of yakuza members are attended by politicians of high ranking and corporate bosses. The yakuza however, do not only operate in Japan. They have extended into America as well, in Hawaii of all places.

     Lots of people, especially Japanese people, head to Hawaii to relax and forget about the stresses of home. Playing in the surf, laying by the hotel pool, or enjoying a lomi-lomi massage, they have no idea that the other Japanese “tourist” sitting across from them at the bar just might be their local yakuza member. Although most of us see Hawaii as a vacation destination known for its lush flora and fauna, beautiful beaches, and the home of surfing, the yakuza see Hawaii not as a vacation destination, but as a perfect place to smuggle goods to and from Japan and America.

     Hawaii, as a midway point between Japan and America, is a perfect place for the yakuza to hide out, blend in easily with the other Asian tourists or residents. Its location also makes it the perfect place to smuggle guns from America to Japan and crystal methamphetamine from Japan to America. According to a publicized report of the National Police Agency of Japan, the yakuza, in 1988, grossed almost 10 billion U.S. dollars in revenue, one-third from crystal methamphetamine, known on the street as ‘ice.’ In fact, the yakuza control an estimated 90 percent of the 'ice' flow into Hawaii. They also work with local gangs to direct Asian tourists to gambling parlors and strip clubs and receive a commission for this.

     So if you happen to be on the back streets of Honolulu and are asked if you would like to enjoy some fun by a stranger, just say no. Politely.

Recently, we’ve been overwhelmed with news about the bad condition of economies all over the world. “Because of the economy”, has become an answer (or excuse) for everything. New words have even been created, like “recessionista”, which means someone who lives frugally as possible in a recession. Most countries, however, are taking steps to influence the economy by investing in infrastructure programs such as building roads and bridges or building new schools. Some countries are even giving out stimulus checks to their residents, in hopes that they will increase consumer spending.

Beginning from the end of March, each person residing in Japan (including foreigners who are registered with their ward office) will be receiving a stimulus check in the mail from 8,000 to 12,000 yen. This is a part of PM Aso’s highly criticized 5 trillion yen (51 billion dollar) stimulus plan, the bulk of which will be delivered to us by check. But will it really have as big of effect as the government hopes for?

When I received my $300 stimulus check back in early 2008 from my country’s government, I am ashamed to say that I put that money straight into my savings account. Only after feeling a little bit guilty for receiving money which was supposed to be used to stimulate the economy, i.e. retail therapy, I decided to spend $70 of it on an online CD store. When I asked Japanese people what they would do with their stimulus checks from the Japanese Government, most of them replied that they would save it or use it for other bills. No one said they would go out and buy a new pair of shoes. Or CDs.

When Japan had an economic slump in the 90’s, the government spent a lot of money on infrastructure programs. The thought was that by spending money on big construction projects, they would be able to create new jobs. However, the effect was small and many places are still riddled with debt from projects that just didn’t make any money.

So in order to not repeat past mistakes, this time the package consists of stimulus checks, tax cuts, highway toll reductions, and increased loans to small businesses. However, economists are skeptical that this will turn things around for Japan.

So, do your part for Japan. Go buy those new shoes. Or CDs. 

Recently, a real VP of Finance of a big, international company in Kansai told me that things are pretty serious right now for Japan’s economy, especially in the Kansai area. His company, Company X we will call it, was consistently bringing in a profit of 16 million dollars a month in previous years. The company’s revenue each month has been 36 million and taking away fixed costs of 20 million, they have been making a profit of 16 million, in other words, an 80% profit each month.Companies usually aim for at least a 30% profit so if a company is getting an 80% profit, it is very successful. However, from November, the profit of Company X dropped from 16 million a month to 10 million. December came and it dropped to 5 million. January came and it made no profit but just enough revenue to barely break even. February for Company X will probably result in a negative balance, meaning that the company is in “the red” and its operating costs are higher than its revenue. This company is doing what many companies in Japan and all over the world are doing, that is cutting costs and clipping coupons in order to save money wherever they can.

The first cost to be cut from companies nowadays is the entertainment budget. That’s right, the days of eating tenpanyaki and drinking expensive sake and the nights of visiting expensive hostess clubs in Kitashinchi are over. Another unfortunate thing that usually has to go is the company English lessons. Some companies spend a lot of money sending their employees to eikaiwas for private lessons and when the economy is down, learning English is usually one of the first things to go.

The next cost cutting strategy is to lay off the temporary and part-time workers and cut overtime. In Japan, the company has to prove its financial situation to the Ministry of Labor in order to lay off employees. However, many companies don’t like to do this because then it is public news that the company is having financial troubles. Therefore, trust in the company’s products goes down and they are likely to lose clients. So usually, unless it’s a dire situation, only the part-timers are cut. This is one way for company’s to reduce their variable costs. Variable costs include employees’ salaries, number of workers, materials and delivery costs, etc.

In a financial crunch, it’s best for companies to reduce their variable costs and focus more on fixed costs. Fixed costs are those that remain the same regardless of the company’s sales. Some examples are rent on an office building, insurance, etc. The 3rd thing that is cut from the budget is business trips. Hello Skype, web cams, email, and the good ole’ handheld telephone. Telephone and video conference meetings are more popular than ever with the financial crunch and the tightening of belts recently. As with Company X, they saved 2 million dollars a month just by cutting the costs listed above. So it seems that we could probably all take a page out of their book to get control over our money these days but it seems like no matter what we do, it’s going to affect someone.