Death and Taxes in Japan

Now that I have a daughter and a flat, I decided it would be a good idea to look into wills and inheritance. Since, at the moment, we’re all in Japan, I had to look into the Japanese law. Fortunately, there are books available on the topic, so I bought one.

The system is very different from England and the US.

Let’s start with the will. There are three basic kinds of will in Japan, and a number of special ones for use in emergencies.

The basic one must be written by you, by hand, and signed and sealed. That’s it. It doesn’t need any witnesses. However, you must write the whole thing by hand; no typing or using a word processor. You can put the will in an envelope and not have anyone look at it until you’ve died.

There’s also a “secret will”. Here, there are two witnesses and a public notary involved, and they testify to the existence of the will, but know nothing about its content. One reason for this is that you can recognise illegitimate children in your will, and they then become legal heirs, although at a lesser level than legitimate children. The illegitimate child is then recorded on your family record, so you might not want to do that while you’re still alive and your wife can see…

Finally, there’s a notarised will, where you tell a notary what you want to do, he writes it down, reads it out, and you and two witnesses sign to say that it’s right. This is very expensive.

And then there are the rules for inheritance. The law defines your legal heirs. These are your spouse and children, in the first instance. If they don’t exist, your parents and grandparents. If they’re all dead, your brothers and sisters. Your lineal descendants inherit the status of legal heir if your children die first, as do nephews and nieces, and you can make them into heirs in your will. You cannot make anyone else an heir, although you can leave posthumous gifts to anyone you like.

There are limits on that, however. First, your legal heirs can claim a portion (typically half) of the amount that they would inherit if there were no will, no matter what the will says. That means that, if you have legal heirs, you cannot leave more than half your estate away from them, and get away with it. There’s an exception to this. If a legal heir uses violence against you, is “terribly disrespectful”, or is engaged in a course of life that everyone would agree was really bad, you can disinherit them. You have to make a will that does so, and the family court has to agree that your reasons are good. This is much more restrictive than the UK, where you can disinherit anyone you want.

Second, someone who isn’t a legal heir has to pay more inheritance tax than someone who is.

Ah yes, inheritance tax. This is ridiculously complicated. First, add up the whole estate. Then subtract the allowance. The allowance is 50,000,000 yen plus 10,000,000 yen for every legal heir you have, excluding grandchildren you might have added (but they don’t have to pay additional tax). (You can adopt people to make them legal heirs, but, if you have actual children, only one of them counts towards the allowance. If you don’t, only two of them count. This rule was introduced because rich people actually were adopting armies of people to reduce the inheritance tax, apparently.) The remaining estate is then split, according to the law in the case of no wills, between all the legal heirs, and the inheritance tax (which is graduated) calculated on the basis of how much they would each inherit in that case. Then the tax is split between the actual beneficiaries in proportion to how much they receive, with extra tax for beneficiaries who are not legal heirs.

The effect of this, of course, is that there is no way to change the tax payable by changing the details of the will.

There are a few exceptions. Gifts made while alive are not among them, however. Gifts you make while alive are taxable, the exemptions are lower, and the tax bands are narrower. The top rate (50%) is still the same, however.

There are a few other exemptions, for your spouse, for gifts to legal heirs during your life (they can count against the inheritance, at the value at the time of the gift, which is good for things that will go up in value), and for land below a certain size or with rented property built on it.

Trusts, in so far as they are recognised in law, seem to be catastrophically bad for tax planning. It looks like the money counts as a gift from a corporate entity, which means they count as income. The allowances on income are much lower, and the tax bands are much tighter. (Depending on the trust, it might count as a gift from an individual, I guess, but then the trustees would have to pay gift tax when the trust was created.)

Basically, then, it looks like you can’t indulge in effective inheritance tax planning in Japan; the most tax efficient thing to do is, almost always, to simply hang on to things until you die, and then just leave them to your heirs. That fits with the general opinion, which is that a family can only be rich for three generations; by the end of that, inheritance tax will have made them ordinary.

Still, the upshot is that Mayuki is unlikely to have to pay any inheritance tax, unless my writing suddenly starts selling a lot better than it is now.


On Monday evening, I went with Yuriko and Mayuki to see the fireflies.

Fireflies are fairly common in Japan, and children going to watch them over a river on a summer evening is a standard image of childhood. It’s probably something like the eating ice cream and drinking ginger beer image of British childhood, in that the number of children who’ve done it in the last fifty years is probably quite limited. Nevertheless, there is a little river within easy walking distance of our home where we can see fireflies.

Admittedly, we saw a grand total of three. We may have been a little bit too late, or possibly being in the middle of the Tokyo sprawl limits them. Still, it was the first time I’d seen them. They were a lot brighter, and a lot bluer, than I’d expected. I’d expected a greenish light, but they looked more bluish, and they were really bright and noticeable as they flashed. We pointed them out to Mayuki, but I’m not sure whether she really noticed them. I did, though, and I hope we can be organised enough to go back next year.

All Fine Here

There’s been another big earthquake in Japan, but it was a long way from here. We think it did have an effect here, though; it made our living room light swing a bit. So we’re fine, but there is likely to be quite a bit of damage in Tohoku, as the quake is estimated to have been magnitude seven. (This is why it made our light swing despite being a long way away.)

Since I’m writing, a quick update on Mayuki. She’s fine, and still lively and happy. She now likes standing up in her bath and banging on the sides of the bathtub, and really doesn’t like me washing her face. That’s odd, because a couple of months ago she really liked it. She likes playing with her picture books, and turns the pages all by herself. Of course, she also holds the book upside-down and turns the pages the wrong way, but you can’t have everything. Bringing her up with books is a good way to start.

She’s also mimicking our actions more obviously. She’s started waving goodbye from time to time, and when we put our hands together to say “itadakimasu” before eating, she does, too. With a bit of clapping added, but she is quite clearly imitating us.

She’s still not crawling, but she’s very close, and can actually move herself around a bit. She’s getting quite good at pulling herself up to a standing position, and walks if you hold her hands and guide her.

In short, everything seems to be well within the normal range.

Well, apart from the fact that she is far and away the cutest and cleverest baby the world has ever seen, of course.

We’re Back

We’re back. You may not have noticed that we were away…

One of Yuriko’s friends was getting married in a nice area of Japan (Yamanashi/Nagano, the mountains west of Tokyo), so we took the opportunity to stay a bit longer and have a short holiday. Overall, it was a big success, but I don’t have time to write a diary entry about it right now. I’ll do one in a few days, though.


As people with a passing familiarity with contemporary Japan are probably aware, “otaku” is the Japanese equivalent of “geek” or “nerd”, or maybe “obsessive fan”. It tends to be applied to people who like geeky things, like science fiction, anime, computer games, or roleplaying.

This morning the caretaker at our flats addressed me as “otaku”.

However, this is not as shocking as it sounds. The etymology of “otaku”, so I have heard, is that it derives from a very polite form of “you”, and is used because it’s the pronoun that otaku use when addressing women, because they get very nervous and haven’t the faintest idea what to say. Since she immediately followed it up with “anata”, which is a more familiar, and more common, form of you, I’m sure that is what she meant. It was an interesting experience, because I’d never heard “otaku” used to mean “you”, so I wasn’t sure about the purported etymology. Now, while I know it might still be a false etymology, it does at least sound more plausible.

Incidentally, one reason I’d never heard it is that it is very, very rare for Japanese people to use the second person pronoun. “Anata” is almost exclusively used from wives to husbands, for example. The reason the caretaker used it this morning is that she wanted to ask about whether I was eating properly, whereas I thought she was asking about Mayuki. I mean, obviously, Mayuki is the most important and interesting subject in the world; why would people ask about me. But apparently I look like I’m not eating enough or getting enough sleep. This may be because I’m not eating enough and not getting enough sleep. Possibly. Anyway, I bought a lot of chocolate for today to try to offset it.

Normally, Japanese people use the surname to specify who they are talking about, but obviously that wouldn’t work in this case, because Mayuki and I share our surname. It’s quite possible that the caretaker can’t remember my given name, so she had to use the second person. So, first she was very polite, and then she used the more common one, probably in case I wasn’t familiar with the polite use of “otaku”.

Talking of Mayuki, she’s fine. She was quite lively yesterday, although she had a long nap in the middle of the day. She has finally started eating her weaning food enthusiastically, after a few weeks of being rather ambivalent about the whole business, and both her lower front incisors are now visible in her gums, and one is starting to cut through. Last night in the bath she was standing up from sitting on my legs, so in the near future we expect her to start pulling herself up around the house. She’s also, finally, rolled over a couple of times. She still doesn’t do it much, but she’s proved that she can. Maybe she just doesn’t see the point.

Art Fair Tokyo

Until she quit work to have Mayuki, Yuriko worked at the executive committee of Art Fair Tokyo. This year’s fair, with which she had very little to do, was held last week, and yesterday was the last day. Obviously, we had to go to see it. One reason was that Yuriko wanted to; she is interested in the art, and definitely wanted to see how things were going. The other reason was to show Mayuki off to Yuriko’s former co-workers.

Showing Mayuki off was a great success. We walked into the office, and were immediately surrounded by people saying “Oooh, isn’t she cute?”. (This is, of course, an indisputable truth.) Everyone seemed very pleased to see her, and Mayuki responded by being very smiley, and very pleased to see everyone.

The Art Fair itself was a bit more mixed. A six-month-old baby is not the ideal companion in such a context, although some other people who know Yuriko told us that Mayuki was cute, and Mayuki actually fell asleep while I was carrying her around. So, although it looked busy, and there were some interesting looking galleries and works on display, we didn’t have as much time to look around as even I would have liked, and Yuriko wants to spend longer in such places than I do. Maybe when Mayuki is a bit bigger, we’ll be able to work out some sort of pattern that lets Yuriko enjoy it properly.

On the way back home, we were sitting next to an older lady on the bus. She was very taken with Mayuki (this is apparently quite common), and even gave us sweets “to eat on the baby’s behalf”. That’s not so common.

The interesting thing was that she commented, in the course of the journey, that my Japanese was very good, and asked where I was from. Both the comment and the question were directed at Yuriko…

Cherry Blossoms

This weekend the cherry blossoms in Tokyo have been in full bloom, so we’ve been to see them. If you don’t know how important the cherry blossoms are in Japanese culture, you could look at my Japan Diary for this time of year, or, indeed, just have a close look at the background for the diary (not the blog). Almost everyone, it seems, goes to spread blue plastic sheets under the trees and have a picnic. This being the nation of conformity (allegedly), who are we to be different?

So, we went to Ikuta Ryokuchi, a park near our home, to see the cherry blossoms. Actually, the park is closer than I had thought; it’s about the same distance as the Forest Park (Shinrin Kouen), so we may plan to go there a bit more often. Today, Yuriko had organised the “Mummies Group”, which is made up of the people we met at the Ward’s parent classes, to meet for a picnic. That meant that there were five babies around six months old, along with all of their mothers and, by the end, four of their fathers. It was my first time to meet some of the fathers, but obviously I’d met all the mothers before. It was also my first time to meet the babies.

Mayuki was, of course, the cutest baby there. This may have been because she was in the best mood; she didn’t go to sleep, and she smiled and laughed nearly all the time. One of the other babies slept all the time, while the other three slept a bit, cried a bit, smiled a bit… behaved like babies. (Of course, Mayuki cried as soon as we got home; she must have been enjoying the outing.)

We actually went to the same place as last year, and went up on the viewing platform to take a picture of Mayuki with the boar. They have the animals of the Chinese zodiac on the railing of the viewing platform, and Mayuki was born in the year of the boar. Of course, we got the cherry blossoms in the background, so that’s a nice picture. We got quite a few nice pictures; I was pleased about that.

Today’s weather was not quite ideal for cherry blossom picnics, but we didn’t let that stop us. Yuriko had made a home-made packed lunch for us, with rice balls, quiche, and pickles; it was really nice. She also baked a marmalade cake, which we shared with everyone, and that was very nice as well. Still, it was a bit chilly and rather cloudy, so we only stayed about three hours. It was good timing, too, because it started to rain on our way home, and now it’s raining quite hard. Quite apart from making it unpleasant to sit under the trees, rain has a tendency to knock the blossoms down. By tomorrow, they probably won’t look as good.

The only downside is I’ve been feeling a bit as though I’ve caught a cold; I hope I’ve not, really, and that it’s just a reaction to pushing Mayuki’s pushchair up and down hills in cold weather.

Law in Everyday Japan

This book is a serious legal/anthropological study of the effects of the legal system on various aspects of Japanese society. It was very interesting, in part because I learned a few more details of what the law in Japan actually is. It made me think that I need to find a basic “introduction to Japanese law for people living here” book, but quick checks around bookshops and on Amazon didn’t yield anything particularly useful. I’ll have to have another look at some point.

Anyway, back to this book. It starts off with a chapter about the lost and found laws, and an experiment involving dropping wallets and cell phones in both Tokyo and New York. In Tokyo, he got 85% of the wallets back, all with the money inside. In New York, he got 40% back, and 25% of those (10% of the total) were missing the cash. His argument is that the Japanese system makes it easy to return lost goods, thanks to the ubiquitous police boxes, and specifies a reward for those who do so, and penalties for those who don’t (picking up and keeping lost property in Japan is embezzlement, and it is sometimes prosecuted). In this case, he says that the system and social expectations all work together smoothly to produce a very positive outcome.

Some of his other examples were less successful. The most spectacular example was that the law passed to regulate and restrict love hotels seems to have had the effect of massively expanding the business. (A love hotel is a hotel that rents rooms by the hour for the purposes of sex. At some hotels, married couples are the largest single group of customers; this, apparently, does not apply when the hotel is next door to a night club.) This, he argues, was because the law defined quite precisely what a love hotel was. It was therefore a relatively simple matter to avoid the definitions and not be a love hotel, while still serving that function. The presence of the definitions forced the hotels to be a bit less tacky, and the existence of regulation made them seem somewhat accepted. So their image improved, and they became more popular. Given the soundproofing of the typical Japanese apartment, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s certainly not what was intended.

He also discusses the structure of the governing body of sumo, changes to bankruptcy legislation, and other topics, making the book rather miscellaneous. As a result, it doesn’t really have an overall conclusion, beyond “the law makes a difference to the way Japanese people behave”. That would seem extremely obvious, were it not for the fact that some people have, apparently, denied it. The point is made very convincingly, however, and the case studies along the way are extremely informative. A recommended book.