The various means of acquiring wealth have changed a great deal since the fifth century B.C., when Chinese philosopher Confucius told his disciples: “Riches and honors are what men desire. If these cannot be obtained in the proper way, they should not be kept.”

That said, in the 21st century such moralistic views are not necessarily outdated. Indeed, much of the controversial coverage surrounding this year’s campaign for the presidency of the United States has been focused on one candidate’s great wealth — and in particular, whether his fortune was acquired “in the proper way.”

While few Japanese multimillionaires can claim the flamboyance, or political ambitions, of Donald Trump, their examples are the object of intense study by members of the middle class, especially those who entertain probably unrealistic hopes of emulating them.

How is a person considered “rich” by Japanese standards anyway? In “New Rich World” (2006), author Hirofumi Usui cited a general yardstick of annual earnings of above ¥50 million and investments (not including fixed assets such as one’s home) of ¥100 million or more. Usui further breaks the wealthy down into six groups: professional rich, meaning people in professions with high remuneration, such as stockbrokers, athletes, TV and cinema performers and so on; winner rich, referring to successful entrepreneurs; stock rich, i.e., ordinary people who made shrewd investments; retirement rich, mostly made up of people in top management with “golden parachutes”; luxury rich — those who are actually at the top of the middle class but who spend lavishly; and what he calls “guts rich,” who obtain their wealth through sheer determination and persistence.

In a nine-page article, Shukan Gendai (Sept. 3) produced a list of 50 first-generation company founders who had built up their businesses without relying on credit, with annual revenues estimated at over ¥50 billion. Many had earned degrees from prestigious universities — Hiroshi Mikitani, CEO of Rakuten, Inc., attended Harvard Business School — but a surprising number appear to be self-made men (no females were on the list) whose education went no further than junior high school.

One junior high graduate was Seiji Hirota, 43, CEO of Nagoya-based Nextage Co., Ltd., a thriving national chain of used car outlets, which he founded in 1998.

“I enjoy making money maybe twice as much as the average person, but I don’t have much interest in spending it,” he told the magazine. “I’d rather pour it back into the business, which gives me much more satisfaction than shopping for stuff.”

Hirota also expressed an interest in doing “something that benefits society” in the future.

“Impoverished single-parent families have become a problem, and I’d like to develop some way to be useful to them,” he remarked.

Spa! (Aug. 16-23) focused on how clever people are coming up with new and unique ways to make money. Yoshifumi Inoue, for example, developed a system for recruiting bright Vietnamese, arranging for them to study the Japanese language and then placing them with employers in Japan. All perfectly legal, of course, and his efforts earn his business an income of ¥500 million per year.

Those willing to take a risk are also doing well. A man Spa! calls Mr. T. has been getting 15.1 percent per annum interest from the Khan Bank in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. (Check out this link and see for yourself, on the left: www.khanbank.com). Financial institutions in other developing countries are also paying far more than banks in Japan. One can earn 8.4 percent per annum in Azerbaijan, 6.13 percent in Laos and 6 percent in Cambodia.

Meanwhile, 38-year-old former club hostess Ms. K. clears ¥1 million a month just by scalping tickets to popular events at a 20-30 percent markup. Such activities, however, could put her behind bars.

Shukan Economist (Aug. 30) reported that based on a survey of 25,000 people conducted by the Central Council for Financial Services Information, a Bank of Japan affiliate, a majority of Japanese are in the dark when it comes to the purchase of securities, foreign exchange or other instruments that involve risk, with 61 percent replying they had no such experience.

Instead, the prevailing attitude toward money appears to be one of risk aversion. Compared with their American counterparts, considerably higher percentages of Japanese at three different income levels said they had savings on hand for contingencies. Fewer than 10 percent of Japanese admitted their credit was overextended, compared to over 40 percent of Americans in 2 out of 3 income brackets. This cautious attitude may be due simply to a lack of confidence: Only 7 percent of Japanese said they’d received instruction in school concerning savings and investment — well below the 19 percent of Americans responding to a similar survey.

The growing gap between rich and poor has numerous implications, not only in life but for aging and death as well. Shukan Post (Sept. 2) devotes 12 pages to the subject. Not only is there a huge shortfall in the availability of nursing home facilities for the elderly, but the minimal cost of moving into one — from ¥180,000 to ¥200,000 per month — is far beyond the means of most middle-class pensioners.

For some of the less affluent, the costs of death and interment have already become unbearable. A survey conducted in Hitoyoshi (population 33,472) in Kumamoto Prefecture found that 40 percent of the graves at local temples are left unattended.

“Families should be given the option of allowing the crematories to arrange for disposal of the ashes,” suggested religious scholar Hiromi Shimada. “That would also reduce the costs of maintaining graves and ease the burden on families. Isn’t that what one’s ancestors would desire for their descendants?”

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