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Update on Japan
Three years after the coronavirus arrived in the country, Japan is considering revising its recommendation that people wear masks indoors, a government source said Saturday.
The policy change, which would recommend that only people with symptoms wear masks indoors, has been floated as the government discusses downgrading COVID-19’s classification to the same level as seasonal influenza.
In its anti-coronavirus measures that were revised last May, the government said that masks don’t need to be worn outdoors as long as people are not talking, although many people continue to don masks despite the change.
The guidelines said people were still advised to wear masks when indoors, except in cases where social distancing of 2 meters or more is secured and where there is virtually no conversation.
According to the source, the government is considering relaxing guidelines on indoor face coverings, as it believes that when COVID-19 is downgraded to a Class 5 disease under infectious disease legislation from the current Class 2, anti-infection measures should also be on par with those taken for Class 5 pathogens.
Class 2 diseases are subject to extensive measures and the classification gives authorities the power to limit the movement of infected individuals and their close contacts.
The policy change on mask-wearing rules may come as early as this spring in tandem with the downgrading of the classification, the source said. Calls have been mounting from some lawmakers, including those within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, to review the government policy on masks.
But infectious disease experts and doctors remain cautious about a radical relaxing of mask-wearing rules, saying it is better to put them on in crowded places or when a person is suspected of having the coronavirus.
Some also say that ending masking recommendations in Japan quickly, as the United States and European countries have done, could lead to an increase in COVID-19 deaths, given the country’s large elderly population.
According to the health ministry, the fatality rate among COVID-19 patients age 80 or over fell to 1.69% in July and August 2022, when Japan was hit by the seventh wave, from 7.92% in July-October 2021, when the delta variant raged across the country.
“With omicron becoming the dominant strain, experts share the view that the infectiousness of the coronavirus has reached its peak,” Takaji Wakita, head of a health ministry task force on COVID-19, has said.
However, he warned that future variants could evade immunity, although they will unlikely be more infectious than existing strains.
“We can’t rule out the possibility that new variants that are completely different (from the existing strains) in terms of transmissibility and pathogenicity will appear,” Wakita said.
The Tokyo Metropolitan government plans to make child care services free for all second-born children living in the capital starting October 2023, as part of an effort to address the rapidly falling birthrate in Japan.
The measure will be applicable for those aged zero to two years without setting conditions, such as being within a certain household income bracket, as the local government aims to provide an incentive for families to have more than one child.
The Tokyo government will also provide subsidies for healthy women wishing to freeze their eggs for future pregnancies, on the condition that they participate in a study looking into their age and motives for doing so.
Tokyo’s latest decision to make child care services free will serve as a supplement to a similar central government program that sets eligibility requirements, such as being at a particular income level, for households to become eligible for subsidies.
With around 50,000 children set to be eligible under Tokyo’s new plan, the metropolitan government will set aside 11 billion yen for the initial fiscal 2023 budget starting April.
“It should essentially be a state project, but there is not a moment to waste,” said Tokyo Gov Yuriko Koike. “We will implement bold measures with the resolve to stop the falling birthrate, starting from Tokyo.”
The move comes after the metropolitan government announced a plan last week to provide families in the capital with a monthly allowance of around 5,000 yen per child aged through 18 regardless of household income level.
As the government plans to additionally book 126 billion yen for the allowance program, its budget for child care-related measures will total 1.6 trillion yen for the next fiscal year, up some 200 billion yen from the current year.
Expenses for egg-freezing, which will also cover financial aid for companies that put a paid leave system in place, will amount to 170 million yen. The government already subsidizes egg-freezing costs for cancer patients.
The number of babies born in Japan in 2022 is likely to have fallen below 800,000 for the first time since the government started compiling statistics on births in 1899, dropping to a record low for the seventh straight year.
Uniqlo operator Fast Retailing will increase annual pay for full-time employees in Japan by up to around 40% in March, closer to the clothier’s wages in markets like Europe and the U.S., so it can deploy talent more flexibly worldwide.
The plan affects around 8,400 people, both at Fast Retailing headquarters and at the company’s stores. Starting monthly salaries will increase to 300,000 yen (€2154), from 255,000 yen currently. Salaries for new store managers, who typically have been at the company for a year or two, will rise to 390,000 yen from 290,000 yen.
Fast Retailing raised starting pay in 2020 for certain full-time workers. But this will be the Japanese company’s first blanket hike since adopting its current compensation scheme over two decades ago.The retailer also increased hourly wages for part-timers by an average of around 20% in September.
Fast Retailing assigns employees to one of around 20 pay grades depending on their ability, achievements, ambitions and other factors. As part of the upcoming change, the company will set a base pay for each category, scrapping additional benefits currently granted to Japanese employees based on their title and location. Overall, the changes are expected to increase the fashion retailer’s labor costs in Japan by around 15%.
Fast Retailing hopes to send more employees trained in Japan overseas — and vice versa — by standardizing pay worldwide, and by bringing wages in Japan closer to international standards.
The retailer focused on markets beyond Japan as it grew into the world’s third-largest clothing company. Uniqlo’s global operations were responsible for half of group revenue and made more in operating profit than the brand’s domestic counterpart for the fiscal year ended August.
Fast Retailing’s move could encourage more Japanese companies to follow suit as they pursue global talent.
Average pay at 3,213 publicly traded businesses in Japan totaled 6.05 million yen in fiscal 2021, Tokyo Shoko Research found. Only 110 companies averaged 9 million yen or more.
The average Fast Retailing employee in Japan earns 9.59 million yen a year, making the company one of the country’s highest-paying retailers. But the figure remains low compared with pay at trading houses and foreign-owned companies, or with businesses overseas.
Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has urged Japan’s business sector to lift pay by more than the inflation rate during annual labor negotiations this spring. The Japanese Trade Union Confederation, the country’s top labor organization known as Rengo, is aiming for a roughly 5% hike.
Japanese companies are turning to digital visualization of recycling information to nudge people to reduce plastic waste.
Textile manufacturer Teijin teamed up with other entities to create a mechanism to collect unusable fishing nets from ports to be recycled into serving trays and other items.
The trays carry QR codes. When scanned by smartphones, they show which ports the recycled nets came from and the ratio of materials comprising the products. A Teijin official says he hopes the system will raise people’s awareness of recycling.
Chemical firm Asahi Kasei partnered with other companies to invent a system that people can use to track the process of recycling after they discard plastic bottles into designated collection boxes.
Users can follow the process through their smartphone app until the bottles are reproduced as plastic pellets. They can also see a digital character in the shape of a tree stump grow in the app.
The character is meant to let consumers feel how much they have contributed to environmental protection. The companies are aiming to put the app into practical use in several years.
The government is seeking to achieve the goal of wasting no plastics by 2035 through reuse, recycling and other methods.
A leading Japanese food manufacturer has developed plant-based alternative seafood in anticipation of a shortage of marine resources that could trigger a global food crisis.
NH Foods, known as Nippon Ham, spent a year developing fish fries and popcorn shrimp from soybeans and other plant-based materials. It used seaweed extracts to add a fishy flavor and carefully recreated their soft texture. It plans to start selling the foods in March.
The company ventured into alternative seafood after successfully developing hams and sausages using plant-based meat substitutes.
A survey by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization shows that annual seafood consumption per person increased about eight-fold in China, and about four-fold in Indonesia, over the half century through 2019.
Population growth and development in emerging economies have led to surging demand for marine resources, which are already dwindling and could become depleted in the future.
Maeda Fumio, NH Foods’ General Manager of Processed Foods Business Division, says the company aims to expand the possibilities of protein, and develop various products in the form of ingredients and pre-cooked foods.
Update on the Netherlands
The number of entrepreneurs aged 65 and older who have registered with the Chamber of Commerce (KVK) has increased by more than 40% in the past five years. According to Chamber of Commerce adviser Angèle Magré, some of the over-65s still feel much too young to stop working.
The number of entrepreneurs aged 75 and older in particular is rising sharply, according to new figures from the Chamber of Commerce. In the age group of 65 to 79, the number of entrepreneurs even increased by 108% compared to five years ago.
Although a large number of people continue to work in their own company after reaching retirement age, the number of people starting their own company after retirement is also increasing. This group has increased by 15% in the past five years.
People over the age of 65 often start a new company in the business services sector. “Many older people want to share their experience, knowledge and network in specific industries with young people,” says Magré. “More and more often we see that they start a business as a coach and mentor.”
The group of older people who continue in their own company after reaching the predetermined retirement age often have a practical reason for doing so. “There is also a group of entrepreneurs who do not yet have a buyer or successor for the company,” says Magré. And the group that has found a successor sometimes finds it difficult to let go of the company they built.
The energy from solar panels on your roof will probably yield less money from 2025. On Tuesday, the House of Representatives will debate the abolition of the so-called net metering scheme. This subsidy caused the explosive growth of solar energy in the Netherlands, but it has had its best time.
Currently, people with solar panels can offset all the energy they feed back into the electricity grid against the energy they get from the grid. Those who annually supply 2,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) and consume 2,500 kWh only pay for 500 kWh. On the remaining part, not only the supply tariff, but also the energy tax will be waived.
It is precisely this ‘netting scheme’ that has made it very attractive for many years to purchase solar panels. Partly because of this, they are now located in more than one and a half million homes. Small-scale solar roofs supply about 4% of all electricity we use in the Netherlands.
But because of that popularity, the treasury is missing out on a lot of money. This year, this subsidy on solar panels is estimated to cost the government more than 400 million euros in lost energy taxes. And that is increasing every year.
The tax credit ends up with households with a relatively large amount of money. “That’s a bit of an upside-down world,” says energy expert Thijs ten Brinck of WattisDuurzaam.nl. “Especially if you have your own house with space for solar panels, you also get a discount on energy.”
Moreover, solar panels have become so much cheaper in recent years that this government subsidy is no longer necessary. Those who buy solar panels in the coming years will still earn them back within seven years, TNO and Milieu Centraal calculated last summer. If energy prices remain high, this may happen even faster.
Meanwhile, the electricity grid suffers from the popularity of solar panels. Especially in older residential areas, it is just not made for houses that ‘send back’ many kilowatts of electricity on sunny days. Panels sometimes already fail because the grid cannot handle the generation.
This does not mean that we have to install fewer solar panels, but that we have to use the generated energy in a smarter way. Owners of a solar roof can now use the electricity grid as “a kind of fictitious battery”, says Ten Brinck. Those who generate more energy than they consume simply send it to the grid. If the sun doesn’t shine, you take power from it again.
This leads to headaches for grid managers, who will invest many billions in the coming years to upgrade the electricity grid. They prefer that households use the self-generated electricity as much as possible within their own home, so that the grid is relieved.
The abolition of the net metering scheme gives consumers a price incentive to do so. The electricity you use from your own roof remains free, while you pay tax on the rest. This also makes the use of a (still very expensive) home battery more financially interesting.
In the future, you must continue to receive a ‘reasonable payment’ for the power that you supply back to the grid and that you can no longer offset. Minister Rob Jetten (Climate and Energy) wants to ensure that owners of solar panels receive at least 80% of the supply rate they pay to their energy supplier, he wrote to the House of Representatives. Even if you do not use the electricity from your own solar panels, they will continue to generate (less) money.
Originally, the net metering scheme was to be phased out from 2020, but that was postponed and due to the long cabinet formation, the intended start date in 2023 will not be achieved. Ten Brinck hopes that from 2025 it will be possible to phase out the subsidy. “The right time was actually a few years ago.”
Sales of newly built houses fell by more than a third in the third quarter of last year. That is the largest decrease since the start of the measurement in 2015, according to figures from Statistics Netherlands, the Land Registry and the European statistics office Eurostat on Tuesday.
In the third quarter of 2022, more than five thousand new homes were sold, 33.9% less than a year earlier. In addition, more than 50,000 existing owner-occupied homes were sold, a decrease of 6.4%. The decrease is smaller than in the second quarter of 2022 (10.2%).
In total, 9.9% fewer homes were sold in the third quarter. This is the sixth consecutive quarter in which fewer homes were sold than a year earlier.
The price of a new-build home was on average 13.7% higher in the third quarter of last year than in the same quarter in 2021. This brought the average sales price of a new-build home to almost 474,000 euros. In the second quarter, the average price exceeded half a million euros for the first time.
The price of an existing owner-occupied home was on average 11.9% higher than one year previously. The price increase leveled off for the second quarter in a row. In the second quarter, prices were on average 18.4% higher than twelve months previously.
From now on, the privacy watchdog Authority for Personal Data (AP) also assesses algorithms at organizations and companies. This is important, because they can be used, for example, for job applications or to provide mortgages. The new supervision must, among other things, tackle discrimination by computers.
In short, an algorithm is a set of rules that a computer follows to achieve a goal. At the start of the new algorithm supervision on Monday, AP chairman Aleid Wolfsen once again pointed out what is possible with these types of rules.
This way they can detect fraud and diagnose depression. “But they can also help with who you invite for an interview,” says Wolfsen. “And they can decide who has to pay up front with an online purchase and who can pay afterwards.”
It can affect a lot of people if algorithms are trained with wrong information. For example, bias and discrimination can creep in. “Software offers us great opportunities and innovative developments, but we have to keep an eye on the dangers that exist,” says Wolfsen.
It must become much more transparent how algorithms work exactly. “We want to understand how decisions are made with algorithms,” says State Secretary Alexandra van Huffelen (Digitization).
In addition, citizens must have more control over how their data may be used by algorithms, adds Minister Franc Weerwind (Legal Protection). According to him, digital technology should serve people and not the other way around.
Algorithms are also not always necessary for organizations to be able to carry out their work, Van Huffelen says to NU.nl: “Sometimes alternatives are better.” That is why companies must first make a risk analysis before they use algorithms to automate human activities, for example.
The AP will have a new directorate for its supervision of algorithms: the Coordination Algorithms. It will consist of about ten to fifteen people, says Wolfsen. In 2023, the AP will receive 1 million euros for its new tasks. This amount will increase in the coming years to a structural amount of 3.6 million euros in 2026.
Wolfsen “doesn’t want to grumble too much at the festive gathering”, but still calls his organization “generously too small” to be able to fulfill its duties. The AP has been saying for years that it has too many tasks on its plate and too little budget.
Algorithm supervision is now starting, but there is still a lot to be completed. “The most important thing is that we quickly start collaborating with other regulators, because algorithms are used everywhere,” Wolfsen told NU.nl. In addition, work is being done on a standards framework, which states which requirements algorithms must meet. There will also be transparency obligations for organizations.
Not everyone is positive about how the role of the new algorithm supervisor is being fulfilled. Amnesty International believes that the AP does not have sufficient resources to effectively tackle discriminatory algorithms. The cabinet should release more money for the supervision of algorithms, says the organization.
Although some aspects of supervision will only take shape in the near future, the AP can start enforcement if organizations do not have their algorithms in order. The AP already has sectors in mind that it wants to investigate, although Wolfsen does not want to say anything about that yet.
“The first fine has actually already been handed out,” says Wolfsen. He refers to the Tax and Customs Administration. At the end of 2021, that organization was fined 2.75 million euros due to the surcharge scandal. The tax authorities discriminated against certain groups of Dutch people using an algorithm.
Students use the advanced text generator ChatGPT for all kinds of homework assignments, without teachers cutting through. More than 250 students reported to the NOS who confirm that they use the AI software for school assignments. With a few exceptions, the students involved say, after a call that NOS Stories distributed, that they will not be caught.
It concerns individual paragraphs and answers to sub-questions, but also complete reports, papers and essays that are ‘outsourced’ to ChatGPT. Students also use ChatGPT to remove spelling errors from their texts or to come up with ideas.
“I use it to quickly do my homework,” says a student from 3 havo who wishes to remain anonymous. “It often says with an assignment: tell it in your own words. Then a teacher really won’t check what my own words are.” He claims to use the tool all the time.
How big the problem is and how many students cheat with ChatGPT is unknown. But Nijmegen lecturer Furkan Sogut is worried. He teaches Dutch, one of the subjects for which the students often say they use ChatGPT. “Of course I don’t want to assume the bad intentions of students, but I can’t see if they wrote anything themselves.”
That is also because existing plagiarism detection is powerless against ChatGPT. This plagiarism detection works by checking whether texts in, for example, papers occur elsewhere: in papers by other students, or on the internet.
But ChatGPT generates texts itself, which cannot be found identically elsewhere. One student says they explicitly use ChatGPT for this purpose: other people’s homework goes in, and a completely new version comes out with exactly the same content – but without the plagiarism detection sounding the alarm.
“As a school, we cannot solve this ourselves,” says Sogut. “There must be a national solution.” According to Sogut, the fact that students write their own texts is important in order to test whether students have a good command of the language. “Not whether ChatGPT has a good command of Dutch.”
For example, a fourth-year student of pre-university education says that he has outsourced his poetry analysis to ChatGPT. “According to the assignment, I had to give my opinion, ChatGPT is not very good at that yet. I rewrote that. But the theoretical part was fine, I could copy that.”
Sogut has pinned his hopes on websites that can recognize whether texts have been written by artificial intelligence. This is possible because “human” texts are less predictable, both in terms of word choice and sentence structure. A number of tools are already available in English that can do this.
According to Robert Chamalaun, Dutch teacher and chairman of the Dutch department of the Levende Talen trade association, some schools are already considering measures. “Students then have to write texts at school, for example.”
Another requirement may be the use of recent sources. ChatGPT only knows sources up to and including 2021. The model has not been trained on newer data. “You can then ask students to use at least four sources from 2022.” But if ChatGPT is updated with newer data, it may already be outdated.
Sogut would like to think about solutions together with his students, for example a book vlog instead of a book report. “We want to start the conversation with our students.”
Cheating by students is not new, incidentally, Dutch teacher Laura Borghols points out. “Students also get help from a parent or a brother,” says Borghols. “Or they use a smartwatch during tests. Every few years there is something new.”
Update on Dujat & Members
Happy new year! We are pleased to invite members to attend our New Year’s Reception on the 23rd of January. If you missed the invitation please contact our office.
If your company has any news to share in the next biweekly newsletter, let us know by sending an e-mail to email@example.com.
Jinn van Gastel
Project Manager at Dujat
DUJAT (Dutch and Japanese Trade Federation)
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