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Monday, June 25, 2007

JAPANESE PERSPECTIVES

Social responsibility: the buzz word nobody gets


Spas are for healing, nursing homes are for caring, language schools are for communicating, amusement parks are for amusing and pensions are for carefree retirement. This is how things ought to be. It is not how things are in modern-day Japan.

Spas kill people. Last week there was a devastating explosion at Shiespa, the popular women-only luxury spa in the fashionable Shibuya district. Three people died in the blast. The operators of the facility are under investigation for suspected negligent practices. The facility is said to have been lacking devices needed to detect flammable methane gas.

Shiespa is typical of the many multiservice bathhouses cropping up in and around the Tokyo area. These are places where business-savvy but care-worn people, especially women, go to relax and refresh. Chic eateries and watering holes are available on-site. You can stay overnight if you wish. If a quick siesta is more your style, that is also an option. Shiespa seems to have been equipped with everything. Except safety devices.

Nursing homes cheat. Comsn Inc., the nationwide nursing care services operator, was discovered to have given false information when applying for permits to open new facilities. Elderly people who expected to be given professional and thoughtful care met with understaffing and poorly maintained premises instead.

Revelations of this wrongdoing led to the termination of operating licenses for the facilities in question.

Goodwill Group Inc., the grotesquely misnamed parent company of Comsn, is in talks with a host of potential buyers willing to takeover Comsn's services. Meanwhile, it is Comsn's patrons who are feeling the heat. Where and how they can hope to receive continuity of service, if at all, remains very much up in the air.

Language schools lie. Nova, the largest chain of English-language schools in Japan, has been ordered to partially suspend business due to deceptive practices. What Nova said in its flyers and brochures seems to have had very little in common with what actually happened once you signed on the dotted line. You were supposed to be able to book classes at the times and locations of your choice. The reality was that both time and place were restricted by staff shortages.

And its refund policies were not at all as generous as their advertisements claimed.

It is not just spas that kill. So do amusement parks.

Expoland located in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, has a roller coaster that kills. A young woman became its casualty back in May. The cause of the derailing that led to her death was a broken wheel axle, which evaded detection because of a lax inspection decision.

The inspections that were supposed to have taken place earlier in the year were put off to accommodate the big Golden Week holiday season — a season that turned into a nightmare of grief for the victim's family.

Pensions disappear. 50 million records on past pension payments have gone missing due to slipshod practices at the Social Insurance Agency. Inputting errors and confusion over a newly introduced record-keeping system resulted in persistent slippage in the tracking of who paid how much and at what point in time.

For the people affected by the errors, all those grim years of paying into the public pension system may account for nothing. Outrage would not even begin to portray what the general public is feeling at this moment.

Something is wrong. At a time when corporate social responsibility is so much the buzz word, nobody seems to have the faintest idea what social responsibility actually means anymore in this country. What frightening times we live in.

For related stories:
Spa blast probe turns up no gas detector
Comsn misdeeds found in 19 prefectures
Nova's policy on cancellations illegal: top court
Coaster in fatal crash overdue for inspection
Abe admits knowing pension problem last year

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.


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