People may have notions of millionaires as ostentatious, bejeweled, big-spending clotheshorses, but the reality is that most — and there are many — keep a low profile.

According to this year’s World Wealth Report released by Merrill Lynch Japan Securities Co. in June, the “high net-worth individuals,” defined as those with financial assets of $1 million or more, came to an estimated 1.312 million in Japan at the end of 2003, up 6 percent from the previous year.

Japan’s millionaires — part of some 7.7 million worldwide — surged largely due to a continued high savings rate of 28.7 percent of income, and the better than expected 2.7 percent growth in gross domestic product in 2003, Merrill Lynch said.

So how do millionaires think and act? What separates them from the less-flush?

Ken Honda embarked on a project to investigate just that — mailing questionnaires to 12,000 of the nation’s highest taxpayers in 2002 and receiving responses from nearly 1,000.

No surprise, he noted that most millionaires fit into five loose categories: business owners; professionals, including doctors, lawyers and athletes; top corporate executives; heirs of fortunes; and artists, such as musicians and writers.

“They make a living out of what they really enjoy, as opposed to most people who have jobs they don’t like,” Honda said.

Honda, 36, a millionaire himself, leads a semiretired life in Nagano as a dad, writer and owner of three businesses. He declined to be photographed for privacy concerns.

Millionaires “like the people they work with. They spend less than what they earn,” he said. “They have very good relationships with their partners, children, friends and acquaintances.”

There is also a good chance that in the past, many millionaires experienced failure — including financial and marital — and learned from it, said Honda, who married for the first time at age 23 only to get a divorce three years later.

Honda noted that, contrary to one popular image of rich people being big spenders, many real-life millionaires lead frugal, nondescript lives.

“They might be someone who owns a chain of five or six dry-cleaning shops,” he said, “or a man driving a van in a worn-out uniform. You would never think he was rich.”

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