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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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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Strolling

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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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