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Overseas voyages by retirees include more than a few shipwrecks

by Mark Schreiber

In 1986, shortly before the beginning of Japan’s “bubble economy,” a department in the former Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) announced a plan named Silver Columbia 92.

The project encouraged Japan’s private sector to develop “silver towns,” communities abroad that would attract large numbers of Japanese retirees. The United States, Spain, Mexico, Canada, Brazil, various Asian nations and Australia were listed as possible destinations.

The name Silver Columbia 92 acknowledged that 1992, the year the project was to be launched in earnest, would fall on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the New World.

Behind the bureaucrats’ thinking was the inevitable rise in retirees, particularly from around 2007, when millions of dankai no sedai, as Japan’s postwar baby boomers are called, would be reaching the mandatory retirement age.

But many Japanese angrily brushed off the MITI proposal as a callous effort to export the elderly, in what was effectively a more humane version the ancient practice of ubasute, the abandoning of elderly women in the mountains. The MITI plan also drew criticism from the proposed inbound countries, which had no infrastructure to provide medical care and other services to Japanese expatriates.

Aside from the emotional issues, some parts of the MITI plan did make sense. Due to smaller dwellings and various socio-economic factors, the ratio of three-generation households living together under one roof was rapidly declining. Seniors, too, began to look forward to their golden years as a time to pursue hobbies, travel and other interests. Their pensions and savings were regarded as something to be used up during their lifetime rather than hoarded for their heirs.

Another key development was the sharp appreciation of the Japanese yen, which from 1986 has more than doubled in value against the U.S. dollar, giving retirees considerably more purchasing power outside Japan.

Silver Columbia 92 spawned the LongStay Foundation (www.longstay.or.jp), an incorporated foundation established in February 1992 that works with private-sector businesses and individuals to disseminate information for those considering a move abroad.

Toyo Keizai (Feb. 9) ran a 40-page cover story devoted to overseas residence and investments. As of 2011, the magazine reported, 1.18 million Japanese were “long-term” residents overseas — defined as staying outside their country for three months or more. The figure increased by about 3 percent from 2010.

“After the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, there was a major rise in interest toward moving abroad,” a knowledgeable source tells the magazine. “Previously this group was largely made up of affluent people, but now it’s spread to other segments of the population.”

While the appeal for taking up residence abroad may vary, lower living costs are clearly a key attraction. A survey of 575 such people by HomeStay Foundation found that only 22 percent of respondents said their monthly outlays exceeded ¥210,000 per month, as opposed to 32 percent with monthly outlays between ¥100,000 and ¥150,000. (Another 23 percent said they pay between ¥50,000 and ¥100,000 per month.)

Noting that Japanese are not only paying higher rates for utilities but will also soon face the prospect of an increase in the consumption tax, Nikkan Gendai has been running an ongoing series titled “You can’t live on your social security,” which has featured testimonials from Japanese living in such places as Portugal and Chiengmai, Thailand.

Another appeal of such countries is affordability of care-givers. When a retired gentleman named Makino moved to Malaysia in 2006, he checked his elderly mother out of her rest home and brought her along. The monthly cost for her round-the-clock assisted living came to ¥60,000. When she passed away three years later at age 92, her remains were transported back to Japan for burial, which involved a bit of red tape, but at ¥270,000 the total cost was manageable.

As more Japanese move money abroad, however, the government has begun to adopt tougher measures to monitor their assets. Shukan Diamond (Feb. 23) reported that from 2013, the National Tax Agency will require Japanese to report all foreign assets exceeding ¥50 million, and cheaters risk fines or imprisonment. The new laws also aim at closing loopholes heretofore not covered, such as transferring assets, either through gifts or inheritance arrangements, to family members living abroad, even if they have acquired foreign nationality.

At the opposite end of the financial spectrum are those who, through carelessness or bad luck, find themselves far from home and flat broke. Toyo Keizai cited a staff member at the Japanese Embassy in Manila who noted the growing numbers of compatriots — 103 in 2011 — who come calling to request financial assistance. Most even lack their return fare to Japan or funds to pay the fine for visa violations — about ¥6,000 per month of overstay.

A 48-year-old man from Aichi prefecture was one such person. During the day, he managed to earn enough to eat by working at a stall in the market that sold fried vegetables. But for one year, he spent his nights curled up on the floor of the Baclaran Church until finally managing to find a sympathetic person willing to underwrite his return to Japan.