JOHOR BAHRU, MALAYSIA – An increasing number of Japanese are relocating to Southeast Asia, not just to spend their retirement years in countries with temperate climates, but to do business and give their children a chance to master English.
And now, a new trend is emerging: In the wake of 3/11, some Japanese have grown wary about living in a nation shaken by natural disasters and scarred by the world’s worst nuclear disaster in a quarter of a century.
In southern Malaysia, plans are currently under way to develop a “Little Tokyo” at the center of Johor Bahru, a section of the country adjacent to the region’s major financial hub, Singapore.
A condominium complex now being developed is exclusively aimed at Japanese clientele. The roughly 300 units in the building, ranging in price from ¥16 million to ¥30 million, have already sold out.
Among the tenants slated to move into the condo are a convenience store selling Japanese foods, an “izakaya” pub and a medical facility with a Japanese doctor.
With plans in store for a Japanese shop to open in the vicinity, the district is expected to grow within five years into a hub accommodating about 10,000 Japanese.
Previously, Malaysia had been a prime destination for wealthy Japanese who hoped to start a second life during their retirement years, partly because the country has promoted long-term stays for foreigners through 10-year visas issued under the My Second Home Program.
Malaysia has also attracted interest because of its temperate climate and relatively inexpensive goods and services. More recently, the country has drawn interest from young Japanese entrepreneurs who are looking to expand into overseas markets due to the chronically strong yen, which hurts the competitiveness of goods made in Japan.
“More people are saying they want to move their residences to Asia, which offers more business opportunities,” said Masanori Fujimura, head of investment consulting firm Gaim, which sells properties in the region to Japanese.
According to Gaim, inquiries have grown rapidly about Southeast Asian properties aimed at Japanese clients since the March 11, 2011, quake and tsunami devastated Tohoku.
A 500-unit condo complex on Cebu Island in the Philippines that came with visas for retirees sold out in two days when Gaim put it up for sale last August, while a 500-unit complex in Thailand’s Ayutthaya sold out in just one day in March.
Statistics attest to the trend, with the number of Japanese who obtained long-term visas to stay in Malaysia more than doubling to 423 in 2011 compared with the previous year.
“The impact of the earthquake-triggered disaster and nuclear accident is huge,” Gaim’s Fujimura said, adding more people appear to want the option of living outside Japan, despite not wanting to desert the country.
A monk in his 30s from Noda, Chiba Prefecture, who decided to settle in Johor Bahru, also has property in Thailand. He is thinking about setting up Buddhist temples in parts of Asia where more Japanese are expected to move.
His settlement in Malaysia is “a natural course of events as many people pivot toward (the rest of) Asia,” he said.
A housewife in her 40s from Kanagawa Prefecture has also decided to settle in Johor Bahru with her 5-year-old daughter, while her husband remains in Japan.
“I want to provide my child with an education in international settings,” she said.
Her daughter, she added, “can’t learn English in a satisfactory manner in Japan, and would be left behind from the rest of the world.”
She said her goal was to enroll her daughter in a local branch of a prestigious British school from which Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, the wife of Britain’s Prince William, graduated.
But living abroad for an extended period can come with costs, the price of medical care being one and safety being another. There have been reports of people returning to Japan after finding local languages too difficult to pick up or having trouble getting used to local foods.
However, observers predict that the trend could grow further, as Thailand and Indonesia, two countries that issue visas to retirees in their 50s and older, are showing interest in attracting Japanese with ample financial means.