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.