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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Just Ask Me

I’ve been on holiday for a few days. This morning, my good wife and I were in the rather charming town of Matsue where we decided a sail along the town’s canals would be an agreeable way to pass the morning. The boats were small, able to hold about a dozen passengers, and we lined up at the boarding point behind a Japanese family of five who would be our shipmates. Just as were about to board, my wife, as is her way, decided she had better go to the loo, lest we end up disgracing ourselves by interrupting the guide’s speech with a shamefully embarrassing bottom hanging overboard incident. Anyway, she passed me her handbag, went to the loo and I boarded behind the Japanese family.

I had never spoken to the Japanese family before, so you can imagine their discomfort when the guide turned to them, pointed at me and asked in Japanese, ‘Does he understand Japanese?’ The family looked a tad taken aback and I tried to put everyone at ease by telling the guide that I understood Japanese just fine.

‘Oh good,’ he said. ‘But, anyway, I will speak slowly.’

Now, I know that Japan isn’t as cosmopolitan a place as the UK or many other countries, but still, doesn’t that seem a little rude and patronising? I know any offence was completely unintended but can you imagine seeing someone of a different colour of skin in Britain and turning to ask complete strangers loudly and without shame if that fellow spoke English? And then, when the person at the end of the outstretched finger said that he did to basically say you don’t believe him so will speak slowly? It wouldn’t go down well.

It’s hard to get too upset, though. I dare say most foreign tourists here don’t speak Japanese particularly well. I dare say assumptions can be made here more easily than they can in the UK. I am willing to concede that. Nevertheless, some people do need to learn to give folk a chance or at least ask them directly if they speak the language and then believe their response. It may be that some overestimate their ability in the language and understand less than they expected but that is for them to regret, not the asker to assume.

He didn’t speak slowly, as it happens, and I understood him without problem.


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On Getting A Bad Review


When I released my books, I did so without telling anybody who actually knew me. For more than a year, apart from my wife, not a single person in my family knew that I had written and published a book, had a blog, or even had an interest in writing. It was my own secret pleasure.

Part of the reason for this was shyness, of course, part, I dare say, was fear of being laughed at, and part was that I knew that those who love you will probably not tell you that they think something you’ve created is rubbish. So I blogged in secret and interacted online with strangers.

It was extremely gratifying, then, to discover that almost everybody was very nice about what I had written. They left nice comments. They thanked me. Some even shared what I had written with lots of other people. For years nobody really said anything too bad and, finally, upon the urging of a few of those people and, I suppose, a growing confidence, I collated some of my blog writing and put out a book. Once again people were nice. I garnered a few good reviews and took pleasure in the fact that none was from somebody doing so out of familial duty. I put out another book. It got fewer reviews, sold fewer copies than the first, but still nobody had been scathing about it. Three stars were the fewest I had seen.

That continued for about a year and a half and then – well it had to happen, I suppose – I got my first bad reviews. Two within a week, one of each book and both offering one star and a a few words of sharp criticism.

The first one was for my second book and was, I feel, unwarranted, unfair and nasty rather than offering a critique of the work. Unwarranted because the major criticism seemed to be that I hadn’t written an unrelated history of western colonialism when writing a section about possible frictions in Japanese and Korean relations, unfair because the reviewer claimed I represented a point of view directly opposed to that which I wrote and admitted he had returned the book after just twenty minutes, and nasty because it accused me and two other bloggers and writers known within the foreign community in Japan as being racists and latent white supremacists. Anyway, Amazon clearly deemed it to be unfair and slanderous as they quickly removed it.

Anyway, that was that. Or so I thought.

But then, a few days later, I discovered another one-star review, this time for my first book, the book I prefer of the two, the one everyone has been so nice about. At first I thought it was my hater coming back, but I read the review and I don’t think it is. This one is much more considered. It doesn’t abuse me. It doesn’t repeatedly misspell my name. It simply says that the reader didn’t like the book. And that, I must concede, is all fair and well. Of course, writers will be disappointed to hear such words and they may (as I do in this case) feel the review focussed on an unrepresentatively small section of the book, but that is neither here nor there. People have their right to express their view in a fair and reasonable manner and if that view is that you wrote a rubbish book, you have to accept that and move on. They say even bad reviews help sales, so maybe it’s not that bad a thing anyway.

Still, what can you do to lessen the disappointment? Well, as I said, accept it and move on, probably. That’s what I thought it best to do. But then I did something better. I went online and looked at reviews for lots of my favourite authors, for best-sellers, for hugely critically acclaimed writers. And almost all of them had bad reviews; almost all of them had one-star reviews and a great number of them had suffered vicious attacks at the hands of readers. These are people who can write. Really write. People who I could never dream of criticising because to do so would be like me attempting to tell Lionel Messi why he missed a penalty. George Orwell, Laurie Lee, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, David Mitchell, Bill Bryson, Stephen Fry, David Sedaris and on and on – they have all had one-star reviews. I was cheered up immensely. Not because those writers had suffered criticism but because I remembered the obvious fact that it is quite simply impossible to write something, paint something, compose something or even say something that absolutely everybody will like. If people hate those writers’ work, it would seem a little precious for a self-published hobbyist like me to get upset! Sure, you need a thick skin but you have to write for yourself and if others like it treat that as a bonus. If they don’t, so what?

I am lucky, though. I have a day job. I don’t write to earn a living. I do it for fun. I am sure I will get more bad reviews, a few more one stars and a fleeting sense of disappointment that I have let somebody down or a fear that my poor old mum will get upset and somehow end up in an embarrassing online battle defending her darling son. For me that is likely as bad as it will get. Some writers, though, need sales and struggle to get by. For them, a couple of bad reviews must seem like a hard punch in the gut. So to those I say try not to worry. Just go online and look up a few authors you admire. You’ll soon find you are not alone.

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Nice place to farm.


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Writing and Dreaming

For a short time in the mid-nineties, I was unemployed. I lived on social security benefits and I worried about my future. And yet, odd as it seems now, when I look back on that period of my life, I realise that I was a very happy chap. The reason, I have since decided with a nod to schmaltz and cliche, is that I could dream. My lack of direction, my lack of purpose, my lack of job, allowed me to dream of all the things that might be.

That, you might reasonably think, is a young man’s game. I may not have had a job, but I had a whole life ahead of me and I could still become any number of things. If you are young and healthy you might yet become a movie star, a policeman, a successful businessman, an entrepreneur, an anything really. And then as you age and fall into career or lack of, those dreams fade. Your 25th birthday passes and you know you are less than likely to become a pop star, you celebrate your 30th with the other people in your section of the company and know you are unlikely to become the next Richard Branson, at 35 you look with envy at others who seem to be on a faster track than you, and by the time you are 40 you wonder why you always have a damp patch on your fly after going for a pee and just hope that you will make it to old age and retirement without having to live in fear of what financial damage putting a second bar of the fire on will do. Reality steals your dreams and passes them on to lottery tickets and your children. They can be anything they want, you tell yourself with grim determination!

I am not going to be Bill Gates or David Beckham or Richard Branson or (thank goodness) David Cameron. I have a reasonably successful business that will probably see me avoid penury in my life but I have no children to whom I can pass my dreams. I once dreamt of having my own school, enough students to survive, owning a house in Japan. Those dreams have been realised and I don’t now know what to do with them. I do, however, have a computer and an enjoyment of writing. And if you have those two things, you have no need to give up on dreams or find a transplant patient for them. You see, writing, for me is all about the dream.

I am not deluded. I am not living in cloud cuckoo land. I know that the chance of my ever being able to live off my writing is infinitesimal. I don’t care about that. I have sold a few books and every single one gives me a tiny thrill. I don’t expect or need those books to provide me with an income. But what they do give me is this lovely, life-affirming ability to hang on to dreams. In this day and age when it is so easy to self-publish on your own terms and conditions, I can put something out there and feel that frisson of excitement when somebody buys it. I can think and dream that others might buy it, too, and I can plan and dream of what to write next. Even better, I know that putting my plan into action will cost me almost nothing and certainly not require me to go to a bank and beg for faith and money. I know these books will never make me rich, and in a way I don’t want them to. After all, realisation of a simple dream stamps on that dream and demands something more. But the simple dream is probably the best dream of all. And neither age nor time can kill the simple dream of the would-be writer.

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