Emperor Akihito will be facing a lot of changes to his routine when he retires this week, but presumably the Imperial Household Agency will take care of all the details of his retirement planning. The rest of us, however, are on our own.

That means we need to arm ourselves with as much information as possible, just in case we end up permanently settling in Japan. For example, did you know that Japanese pensions are paid only six times a year?

“That means the pre-Christmas payment has to last through the New Year’s holidays and all the way up to Valentine’s Day,” says Wm. (Wilhelmina) Penn, author of “The Expat’s Guide to Growing Old in Japan,” which was first published in 2017. The book was updated in December last year to reflect recent changes in Japan’s inheritance law.

‘The Expat’s Guide to Growing Old in Japan’ by Wm. Penn

Originally from the United States, Penn is a newspaper columnist and author who has been living in Japan since 1973. When she first embarked on a book about getting older in Japan, she says she was far from knowledgeable on the topic — a fact that added to her motivation.

“I was well over 60 when I wrote the book but still had very little knowledge of how kaigo hoken (long-term care insurance) or assisted-living facilities or the inheritance system worked,” she explains. “It was long past time to give myself a kick in the procrastinating butt and start researching what I needed to know. As a writer, I felt putting the information together in one spot might help others, too.”

Penn pored over Japanese retirement planning guides and began fact-checking various points on government and NGO websites. She says there were plenty of surprising moments in the process.

“For example, I was surprised to learn that widows can, in effect, ‘divorce’ themselves from their in-laws by filing a simple one-page form at the municipal office called an inzoku kankei shūryō todoke, and more and more women are doing so.”

Her goal with the book was to provide the basic tools and vocabulary that readers would need to arm themselves with, and each chapter contains concise information on key words and paperwork. Japanese terms are offered in English, kanji and romaji for ease of use.

Many immigrants have had frustrating experiences when dealing with Japanese bureaucracy, and doing so in a language that’s not their primary one often exacerbates an already stressful experience. However, Penn stresses that it’s important to get the best information for your own specific situation.

“One of the points I reiterate in the book is: Don’t hesitate to ask for information and explanations,” she says. “Often there are lots of services and programs in place to help people but you have to know to ask about them. Many are not widely publicized. And when you need to make major decisions on matters such as pensions, ask the pension officer for all the pros and cons of each decision before you make it. Because once you make a choice, you are stuck with it forever onward.”

Penn encourages readers to take a proactive stance when conducting their own research.

“If you can, go to the websites of the government agency you are dealing with and print out the pertinent data to help them understand what you are inquiring about and show that you have done your homework, so to speak,” she suggests. “Also, don’t try to do it all yourself. Don’t hesitate to consult lawyers, accountants and other professionals for advice. There are some free or low-cost legal aid services available.”

Knowing what she does now, is there anything Penn herself wishes she had done differently?

“Save more … but, actually, I don’t know that I’d do too much differently,” says the author, who will be 70 on her next birthday. “Rather than giving advice, I am constantly thanking my 40-something self for having had the energy to dig in and figure out my pension situation. That gave my younger self migraines but it means I have far fewer headaches now.

“To those in their 40s and 50s, I would say look ahead 20 years to 2040 when Japan has become a super-aging society with people over 60 making up more than a third of the projected 110 million population, and those 14 or under accounting for only 10 percent. Can you see yourself aging gracefully and happily in such a super-aging society? Will it fulfill your needs? If not, it might be wise to start planning ahead and considering all your other options now.”

In a similar vein, for anyone who is almost ready to retire, Penn is upfront with her advice about mortgages and other large debts.

“I would say one of the biggest points is to make sure your mortgage (or any other major loan) is paid off before you retire, because the Japanese pension is so small you will have enough difficulty trying to sustain yourself, let alone trying to eke out mortgage payments, too.

“One of the things I discovered during my reading was just how easy it is to fall into post-retirement debt and one of the major causes of retirement age bankruptcies was trying to pay off huge housing loans. This often led people to either lose their homes or spend too much of their taishokukin (one-time lump sum retirement benefit) on paying off the housing loan.”

As a final comment, Penn reminds us that quality of life in our later years doesn’t just depend on paperwork and visits to government offices.

“For many of us, aging gracefully in place here will be the last great Japan adventure,” she says. “Maintaining our social connections, hobbies and outside activities will be an important part of embracing the challenge, keeping calm and carrying on.”

Read more about retiring in Japan on Thursday’s Community page when we interview RetireJapan.com‘s Ben Tanaka.

Takeaway tips for retiring in Japan


If you don’t yet have definite retirement plans, keep these points in mind:

• Learn to budget. Japanese pensions are paid only six times a year on the 15th of even-numbered months. That chilling thought is a strong incentive to sock away ample savings, look into safe investment options and consider part-time work that you can do at home or near your home during your retirement years.

• Beware! Japan is one of those countries where individuals can inherit a deceased person’s debts along with their assets. You have three months from the time of the death to file forms to decline the inheritance (hōki suru). Be well aware of the financial situation of those who may leave you an inheritance. It might not be a lucky windfall after all.

Stay on top of the paperwork pile. Keep a handwritten notebook of important personal information handy as well as copies of fire, earthquake and car insurance data so you can grab it quickly in an emergency.

• Be aware that retirement homes and care facilities can go bankrupt leaving care managers scrambling to find new homes for residents, and families wondering what happened to their hefty entrance fees. Choose carefully and think twice before you fork over large admission fees.

Declutter, declutter and declutter some more. If you want to leave happy children behind, clean up your own mess before you go. Beyond the family heirlooms and cherished memory boxes, everything else is just stuff. Eventually someone, somewhere down the line will have to throw it away. If you don’t get rid of them, someone else will and may not give them the proper care or attention you would.

• Have a talk with your family and make your wishes on death, burial and medical treatments known to them. Then continue to create and nurture your support networks of friends and neighbors and get on with enjoying your retirement life.

Wm. Penn’s “The Expat’s Guide to Growing Old in Japan” is available via ForestRiverPress.com.

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