Disenfranchised and disillusioned

I am a middle-aged, married, working, tax-paying, house-owning man. I am not legally entitled to vote anywhere in the world.

You see, I am a British man who has lived in Japan for more than 15 years. When you have lived away from Britain for that length of time, you lose your right to vote in the U.K.. I suppose there is a logic in that. I don’t pay tax in Britain and I spend at most two weeks a year there, so what right do I have to say how things are run there? I accept that I have forfeited that right.

Japan is my home for now. I pay my taxes here and I have permanent residence here. But I do not have Japanese citizenship and because of this I am not enfranchised. It can seem a little unfair but if I felt strongly enough about it, I could apply for Japanese citizenship. I meet the requirements and don’t imagine I would be refused. I think I could become a Japanese citizen and obtain exactly the same rights as those who were born here to Japanese parents.

So, why don’t I do it? Well, for one thing, I already have indefinite leave to live in Japan. I don’t need citizenship to be permitted to stay. I am also covered by their excellent health system and entitled to a pension here, and should I fall into unemployment I would be entitled to benefits. To gain these rights I signed a couple of bits of paper and paid a fee that was so minimal I can’t  even recall what it was. Suffice to say it was nothing like the fees one must pay to try to get the right to live in Britain. There was no language or culture test, either. In other words, upon marrying a Japanese citizen, I was made to feel I had a right to live in this country and indeed I have every right I could hope for except the right to vote. That is the only extra benefit that taking citizenship would confer upon me. There is one reason that stops me applying for citizenship, though. Japan does not recognise dual citizenship, and so in order to gain the right to vote in Japan I would have to renounce my British citizenship. That is not something I want to do. My wife – a Japanese citizen – and I have often thought we may one day move to the U.K and spend some time living there. Retaining British citizenship would make that much easier. Or I thought it would.

You are probably aware that there is a general election coming up in Britain. Although I have no say in this, I am following it with the heightened interest that comes with being an ex-pat watching home from afar. One thing that both grabbed my attention and dismayed me was the fact that the Conservatives have stated in their manifesto (peculiarly in a section titled ‘A COUNTRY THAT COMES TOGETHER’) that they want to increase the income threshold for ‘family visas’ where immigration is concerned. Now, what that essentially means is that they are discriminating on wealth with regard to the right to live in the U.K. with your foreign spouse. At present, under a rule devised by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, unless a British citizen earns more than 18,600 pounds a year, he or she can not bring a spouse to the U.K. to live. The conservatives want to increase that threshold so that you have to earn even more before you are allowed to bring your spouse to the U.K. ‘Well,’ you might argue, ‘times are hard, we can’t go handing out benefits to everybody who comes to the country.’ Okay, I’ll accept that. I can understand that reasoning. But Labour has a simpler plan, a more humane plan, a plan that isn’t pointlessly cruel. That is to allow foreign spouses in, but not entitle them to benefits. That way, we are kind enough to allow families to live together. And let’s be clear- we are not talking about permitting these people to become British citizens; we are simply talking about allowing them to join their spouse and perhaps look for work and contribute to society and help support their own family. We would be allowing families to stay together and accepting people who could quite literally only contribute to society. How is that bad? How can that have a detrimental effect on Britain? Unfortunately, the Conservatives will likely win the next election and more families will be separated.

I am fortunate. I earn a reasonably good income in Japan. I do so by teaching English. It is something that I have managed to turn into a good living in Japan but which I couldn’t hope to replicate in Britain. Were I to try to switch my career to the U.K., I would find it difficult to meet the income threshold to bring my wife with me. Why am I fortunate? I am fortunate because were Japan to implement the same rules as Britain, I could remain here with my wife. I would earn enough. I have friends, however, who are less fortunate. I have friends who wish to return to the U.K. and give their children the opportunity to spend at least a few years to get to know their own culture, and who can’t unless they also agree to leave their mother behind. I have friends who, if Japan followed Britain’s lead, would not legally be entitled to live anywhere with their spouse simply because they married a a foreigner and are not rich. Think about that for a second. Britain has enacted a law which, if followed by other countries, would mean some people would be forbidden from living anywhere legally with their spouse because they are not rich enough. How, I ask you, can that be acceptable?

I have kept my British citizenship and accepted my disenfranchisement because one day I might like to move home and spend some time with my parents in their frailer years. The current government is fairly sure to win the next election and make that dream all but impossible. And all because I have a Japanese wife.  Of course, none of this would affect me at all if I were wealthy and had a high paying job in Britain. The defining condition for bringing a spouse to the U.K. has become money and for the current government that seems to be just fine.

I never used to think of myself as particularly proud to be British, but I’ve come to realise I was. Sometimes you don’t discover how proud you were, until you notice how embarrassed you have become.

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Nanami

Sixteen years ago or so, I began teaching a little girl called Nanami. I remember the day she came for a trial lesson – a shy, skinny child, looking over at her mum every so often and releasing the most heartwarming of proud smiles that she’d just said something in English. I liked her immediately. For 5 years, I taught Nanami, and for five years she was a delightful student. She was not the most academically gifted kid I had taught by any means, but she had that indefinable asset ‘likeability’ in abundance.

One week Nanami didn’t come to class. I thought nothing of it. Kids are sometimes absent and their parents don’t always call in advance. Then she was absent again and we thought it was unusual. My wife called her house to check all was okay. Her mum began crying on the phone. Nanami was being bullied and had stopped going to school. She had stopped going anywhere.

This broke my heart. Tales of bullying always do, but I found it hard to think of any reason why anybody would want to tease such a sweet girl. She wasn’t a bragger, a show-off, or a weakling; she wasn’t outstandingly pretty nor lacking in charm or beauty. She was kind, pretty, talkative, good-hearted and, well, nice. But I don’t suppose bullies need reasons and he, she or they picked on Nanami and destroyed her confidence. I don’t know how bad it was, but she stopped going to school and missed at least two full years of junior high school. I bumped into her by chance with her mum one day when she was about 15 and she was overweight, pasty-faced and stared at the ground while her mother and I chatted. She didn’t smile and she barely even said hello or goodbye. She was little more than a shell, the empty, bloated casing of a long departed spirit. She may have started leaving her house again, but she was outside only physically.

That was how I remembered Nanami. I taught her sister for a few years longer, and my wife and I occasionally stopped and chatted with her grandmother, who didn’t live too far from us. We would ask after Nanami but we never got much by way of reply. Just a sort of ‘She’s okay,’  manner of response. We didn’t like to pry too much. We didn’t want to seem nosy. Sometimes her grandfather walked his dog past our house and we would say hello and perhaps comment on the weather.

A couple of days ago, the kairanban (a sort of community noticeboard that gets passed around the houses in the neighbourhood) contained the unexpected news that Nanami’s grandfather had passed away. On such occasions, neighbours often visit the home of the deceased to light some incense and convey condolences. As we were neighbours who had also had several years of close connection to the family (albeit some time ago) my wife and I decided to wander up there to do just that. The grandmother invited us in to the front room where her husband lay, his peaceful face looking ‘just as it did when he was sleeping’.

‘I keep thinking he is going to wake up,’ Nanami’s grandma said.

My wife and I lit a stick of incense each and placed them in a small pot at the deceased man’s head. We closed our eyes, put our hands together and said a prayer.

As we were about to leave, a young woman entered the room. She said hello, thanked us for coming and then smiled the smile I remembered of a little girl bursting with pride because she had just uttered her first words in English. My wife and I grinned broadly, too, and Nanami sat down and chatted cheerfully with us as her late grandfather lay silent on the tatami mats beside us. It was an odd situation. Nanami was in mourning, of course, but she seemed genuinely glad to see us and I think she was pleased to be able to show us what she had become. She wasn’t staring at the ground, she wasn’t bloated, she wasn’t reticent or withdrawn, she wasn’t a shell. She was a 23-year-old version of the seven-year-old I knew before the bullies got to her. We talked a little about her job and her life now, but it wasn’t really the time for emotional catch-ups, not with a grieving widow and a coffin in the room. Still, we left happy and strangely uplifted.

On our way out we met Nanami’s mum coming in. We offered our condolences and my wife told her how pleased we were to have been able to see Nanami and how well she seems to be doing. Her mum had tears in her eyes. They were mostly for the loss of her father, of course, but I think one or two might have been a mother’s pride for the fine young woman her daughter had become.

It was delightful to see Nanami, even in such peculiar circumstances. I hope she has left her scars behind and that she is proof that you can rebuild your life. I hope so more than ever, because a few weeks ago my wife had another telephone conversation with a crying mother. It’s a boy this time and he hasn’t been to school since November. He is ten years old.

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Retire Japan

Whenever I look out of my window, I see my elderly neighbour pottering around in his garden. He plants vegetables, he feeds strange fish in a tank, he is constantly drilling holes in bits of wood or undertaking some kind of D.I.Y task. His costume of choice is a straw hat, a stained white vest, long baggy shorts and welly boots, although every so often he dons a black suit and tie. Those are the days when he attends one of the ever-increasing funerals of his ageing friends. I look out of the window and I can’t help but envy Mr Yamamoto. Not the funerals, of course. Nor the D.I.Y or vegetable growing when it comes down to it. No, what I envy is that he is free to do as he pleases each and every day, and if he chooses to wear comical clothing and spend a day scraping mud off the roots of carrots, he can jolly well spend as long as he wants doing it. And if one of his friends expires, he can feel sadness and grief without worrying about the pain of having to request a day off work. Mr Yamamoto is free. Mr Yamamoto is retired.

I suppose I first started thinking about retirement when I was in my mid-thirties, a few years after I had started my own school. I had managed to amass a small cushion of funds in my bank account and wondered what I should do with it. The generally expressed view regarding pensions was that my generation could expect but a scant one, and that any funds available could be claimed at an ever advancing age. Being self-employed, no company pension exists for me and I soon realised that if I want to avoid shuffling around car boot sales in slippers and spending my senior years wrapped in blankets and wondering if candlelight might be more prudent than electricity I had better take things into my own hands. I phoned a fellow in Tokyo.

This chap was apparently a financial advisor. You would think that means he knows a lot about finance. Maybe he does; maybe he doesn’t. I’m still not sure. What I do now know, is that it doesn’t mean he will always offer his best advice to me. After all, self-preservation is a tempting priority.

The man talked to me about funds and dividends, about annuities, bonds and bonus payments, about diversity and maturity, and I nodded and said ‘I see,’ ‘Yes’ and ‘I thought so,’ at inappropriate junctures, when all I really wanted to ask was that he stop the highbrow mumbo-jumbo and talk to me as though I were an idiot.

A few years later, I realised that is exactly what he had been doing, for it seems what I had agreed was that I would send him some money monthly, and he would invest that money somewhere far away that would ensure he would continue to increase the funds in his bank account while the assets he bought for me would offer considerably less return than the money I kept at the back of a sock drawer. This, he somehow managed to convince me, would be a sensible agreement for the next 15 years.

As I checked the value of my account each month, I thought that alternative action may be necessary if I wished to avoid penury. I did a bit more research, and stumbled upon the rather wonderful site Retire Japan. This is a site that explains things easily to people. It is a site for anybody who worries about the future but for whom the thought of even beginning to get to grips with NISA and J401 and ETFs and bonds is overwhelming. And don’t worry if you don’t know what any of those things are, because it is a site which is welcoming to beginners. You can join its forum and post, ‘I’m thinking about buying one of those stock market things. Any thoughts?’ and nobody will laugh at you.

Of course, there are lots of sites out there giving advice about investing and Retire Japan does indeed link to many of them, but what this site does better than any of them is give advice specifically to people living in Japan. That is important, because much of the advice on other sites or in books doesn’t apply to Japan. You can’t be a Brit in Japan, for example, and just open a UK trading account. There are rules that stop you doing things like that. Retire Japan helps you decide what else you might do.

So this is a post to recommend Retire Japan to people in Japan. I have no direct interest in the site; I just think it is a good one and think it would be better if more people came to visit its forum to either offer their own advice or experiences, or to ask questions. What Ben at the site has done is make it easier for people in Japan to take better control of their own financial future. It’s not just about investing, either. You can learn a bit about the tricky subject of inheritance over two jurisdictions, about how best to transfer money abroad, or simply about saving. In other words you can start thinking about all those annoying  but necessary things now so that you can save your energy later to concentrate on the things that will need it then: liver spots, sagging skin, hair that leaves the head and pointlessly redistributes itself to unnecessary areas of the body – those sorts of things. If nothing else Retire Japan reminds me to keep an eye on the future and take steps to make sure I don’t end up a piss-sodden chap shouting abuse at people in the street about  the injustices of the world.

I am still some way from retiring, but I can at least now see the finish line. It’s not that I hate work or want to stop; it’s just that I want the choice. Maybe I’ll do nothing in my later years or maybe I will join the ranks of old folk with red batons helping people to near collisions in car parks in Japan. I don’t know. What I do know is that if Ben had started his site ten years earlier I would be dreaming about a life of freedom far sooner than I dare to now. Ah well, we’ll get there in the end.

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Adachi Museum

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Strolling

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Nice place to farm.

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The Little Gripes

The other day I was chatting with a fellow who had been in Japan for just over a year or so. He was talking about some of the things that got to him – you know, the usual things like being asked if he can use chopsticks, being stared at and whatnot. His grumbles seemed minor ones but they set me thinking about all those gripes and moans we hear again and again as foreigners in Japan and I wondered how valid they are and how commonly the apparent slights occur. This is a list of such things in no particular order – just as they happened to occur to me – together with my comments about whether or not  I have experienced them and some of my thoughts. I would be interested to know how my experiences over almost two decades tally with others.

  1. Been stared at in public

      Has happened often but nowhere near as common now as it was when I first arrived in Japan in the mid-nineties. It’s rude but can’t say it bothers me much, or ever did.

2. Been refused entry to a hotel, bar or restaurant due to race.

     Never experienced it.

3. Been complimented on chopstick use.

   More times than I can count and I have never been particularly upset about it. To be honest I don’t really get why this bothers some people so much. I get that it grates to hear it again and again and again, and I understand that some think the one issuing the compliment is somehow trying to ‘other’ them, to make a point of how very non-Japanese they are and therefore how something like using chopsticks should be beyond them, but mostly I think that is nonsense. Rather, the person likely has no idea how long the foreigner has been in Japan and is simply making conversation and trying to be polite.

‘But we have Chinese  and Japanese restaurants at home!’ argue the aggrieved. ‘It’s hardly difficult.’

Both those points are true but not everybody, in Britain anyway, is great at using chopsticks or even uses them to eat Chinese food. Many don’t. I once had a friend in Japan who hailed from Yorkshire. His father came to visit him in Japan and at one point in a restaurant his dad was sitting with a chopstick in one hand, a fork in the other exclaiming, ‘I’m half way there, son. I’m half way there!’ My own father managed to feed himself with chopsticks when he visited, but it wasn’t always pretty.

Even if people do know how long you have been in Japan and ought not to be surprised by your ability to transport food to mouth via short sticks, rare is the person who actually intends to ‘other’ or offend someone with their compliment. It’s a throwaway line and to scream that it is micro-aggression seems a bit over the top.

4. Been complimented on great Japanese after uttering a single word.

    Yes, even after a simple arigatou. But I feel much the same as I do about the chopsticks thing. Even if they don’t mean it and it’s obviously not true, it’s just someone trying to be nice. Like when you tell a new parent their freakishly weird-looking baby is beautiful.

5. Been refused entry to hot spring. 

    Never experienced it.

6. Had someone in a hot spring get out of a bath because you entered.

    Have been suspicious but can’t be sure. Once, after having a few pre-bath drinks I got into a tub and one old fellow who hadn’t been in long immediately got out and went to sit in a different bath. I decided to entertain myself with a game of annoy the possible racist and followed him to the next bath. He moved again. This happened one more time, but then again he may not have been racist in the slightest – he may well just have been feeling understandably awkward that  a big naked chap kept following him and sitting next to him in baths. And who could blame him?

7. Had people leave an empty seat next to you on a crowded train.

    Never experienced it.

8. Been stopped by the police and asked  to show your alien card for no reason.

    Never experienced it.

9. Been talked about by strangers in public within earshot.

    An unusually large percentage of people sitting in my vicinity in cafes and restaurants seem to end up talking about English or foreign travel. A few people have talked about me quite openly, but usually just remarking that I am tall. One mother in an elevator warned her kid not to catch my eye once!

10. Had people comment directly to you about your appearance. 

      People regularly mention my height. Some openly tell me I have a ‘high’ nose. An ex-student I hadn’t seen for some time and who couldn’t formulate the correct way to ask if I had gained weight asked rather bluntly, ‘Are you fat?’ (to which I had to concede that yes, I was a bit) and an immigration official at the airport told me I was much fatter than in my passport picture. It was less than a year old.

11. Had people shout random English words at you in public.

      Not for quite some time. A few ‘hello’s from kids and some annoying shouty greetings from drunk people, and one rather odd demand from right across a street that I tell the fellow where my country is.

12. Had people ask you if you have / do (      ) ‘abroad’.

      Often, and this probably annoys me more than any other. I don’t even represent British people, never mind all foreigners yet many seem to think that I am a spokesman for everywhere that isn’t Japan.

13. Had people tell you that Japanese snow, seasons, sea or whatnot are ‘different’.

      I’ve been told the snow is different and once managed to offend a chap by telling him we, too, had seasons in Britain. He clearly thought I was lying.

14. Been asked by a stranger if they can practice their English.

Once or twice. But more often I have just had people try to talk to me in English. Don’t mind if they are talking because they want to talk and will happily slip into Japanese if I do so. Find it a bit irritating if it is an interrogation and they are clearly just trying to practice or trying to show off. (But I bet this is every bit as common when, say, Brits who speak a bit of Japanese bump into a Japanese person in London or wherever. We all want to show off a bit!)

15. Had people just look blankly at you when you speak passable Japanese.

      Only when my Japanese was in fact still shit. I thought they were actively trying not to understand, but it may well have been my fault. After all, it doesn’t seem to happen nearly as much when your Japanese gets better.

16. Been on the good end of discrimination and been treated to things just because you are a foreigner.

      Often had drinks and food bought for me or been given lots of random gifts. Some quite lovely.

17. Been refused an apartment or housing on the grounds of race.

      Never. Although most of my housing was supplied by employers until I got married. Never tried to rent as a single foreigner.

18. Had someone go through your rubbish and complain (unjustly) about something.

I once had a bag of rubbish ‘returned’ to my doorstep as it had been put out on the wrong day. It wasn’t mine.

19.  Had someone complain about you to somebody (police, boss etc) rather than to you directly.

       When I was much younger I had a few friends over to my house and we were up late. We weren’t being outrageously noisy, but we could probably be heard by the neighbours and they would have been within their rights to tell us to keep it down a bit. They didn’t, though. Instead one phoned my boss the next day to complain about my rowdy behaviour. They also once phoned my boss to say that the weeds outside my house were needing to be picked and that I hadn’t done it. Actually, several Japanese people I know say they would rather call the police than complain directly to a neighbour. Perhaps it’s cultural but a bit annoying nevertheless.!

20. Been called ‘gaijin-san’ by someone in customer service.

      No, but the house mentioned above came with a parking space, complete with a handmade nameplate saying ‘gaijin’! The house did pass from teacher to teacher, so perhaps it was just too much effort to ask each person to write their own name! Considerately, it was written in katakana for those who couldn’t read kanji.

     

21. Had a server or shop assistant direct all conversation at your Japanese partner / friend.

      Yes. Not always but does happen.

22. Had shop staff give your change to your Japanese partner / friend.

      Rarely, but has happened a few times where I pay and they give the change to my wife.

23. Had someone ask questions about you right in front of you.

      Occasionally people will ask my wife questions about me when I am standing right there. ‘Is this your husband?’ is fair enough, but then to follow up with, ‘Where is he from?’, ‘How long has he been in Japan?’ ‘Can he eat Japanese food?’ and such instead of asking me directly can grate.

24. Been refused a credit card or bank loan on the grounds of being a foreigner.

      No. Had no issues getting credit card. When I applied for a mortgage most banks did say they wouldn’t consider me without permanent residence status, but being foreign wasn’t an issue. One bank did give me a mortgage even without permanent residence and another did try to tempt me to switch to them when my PR had come through.

That’s all I can think of for now. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I don’t think there is much there to get bothered about. Wonder how others’ experiences compare.

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