May 28, 2019 RETIREMENT

Retired Overseas

By Ernest Schaal

Each lawyer’s retirement story is different, but mine is unusual. I’m an expat lawyer who has lived in Japan for over seventeen years.

My story in brief: Stationed in Japan, returned to the States, got my M.S. Ch.E., became an engineer, married someone I had dated in Japan, received my J.D., and became a patent lawyer. For a long time, I had fantasized about living in Japan but doubted that it would ever happen. Then at age 58, I got a two-year contract with a Japanese law firm in Gifu. When the contract expired I didn’t want to go back to the States, so my wife suggested that we should retire here. She’s smart.

So why do I love Japan? Its people are courteous, its food is delicious, its festivals are exciting, its crime rate is low, its culture is interesting, its lifestyle is healthy, and its elderly are respected. It also helps that we live in a famous spa area.

Moving overseas was more complicated than a normal move, getting the necessary visas and registering with the proper governmental agencies. Even with help from the law firm staff, it took about four months from the time of my acceptance of the offer to the time of my starting work.

One difficulty in living in Japan is the language, which is radically different from English, not only in vocabulary but also in grammar. The subject is often dropped, like in the example below, which sometimes makes it confusing as to who is doing what.

English: “I wanted to go to the bank”
Japanese: “Bank to go wanted.”

Sometimes, a refusal sounds like an acceptance. For example, “Yes, that sounds interesting, but …” The crux of that sentence is the word “but” given without any further explanation. Japan is a polite society, and the reason for the refusal is often omitted so as to not provoke the listener. This works better with Japanese than with Americans.

If you ask a negative question in English like, “Don’t you want to come to my house?” an affirmative answer would mean an acceptance (“Yes, I want to come”). In Japanese, an affirmative answer would mean a refusal (“Yes, I don’t want to come”). In Japanese, they would take your negative question literally.

Add to that, the writing system is much more difficult to learn. An American student has to learn one alphabet of 26 letters, but a Japanese student has to learn two phonetic alphabets (each with over forty characters), and over a thousand Chinese characters by the time they finish grade school. Still, while studying Japanese is challenging, it's a fascinating challenge.

There’s an apocryphal Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Living in a foreign country is interesting, but there is a culture shock because of differences between the cultures. Here are some ways Japanese culture differs from that of the States:

  • People drive on the left side of the road, not on the right. That means that Americans have to change how they cross the street if they don’t want to be hit.
  • Tipping is discouraged. If you leave a tip, the server might come running after you to return your money.
  • On Valentine’s Day women give chocolate to men, and 
  • Japan not only has mascots for schools and sports teams, but also for cities, banks, spas, hospitals, police stations, and at least one penitentiary.
  • People wear masks during the flu season or when the pollen count is high, even in banks. If someone wore a mask in an American bank, the police would surround the place.
  • When people go on trips, they buy souvenirs for the people back home, not only for their family and friends but also for all of their co-workers.
  • Real physical bookstores are very popular, even though the Japanese have been reading e-books long before there was a Kindle or an iPhone.
  • Japan has a good national rail system, which offer a good alternative to flying. Train travel is more comfortable than flying, with more leg room, freedom to get up and stretch your legs, and better scenery and air quality.
  • Food portions in Japan are smaller. The Japanese tend to avoid overeating and thus tend to be healthy, with high life expectancy.

The biggest cultural shock in Japan is the obligation to fit into society and to avoid conflict. That is opposite to the American focus on the individual instead of the group. The result is that Japanese culture is more civil but more resistant to change. Both cultures have personal freedom, but rude behavior isn’t tolerated in Japanese society.

The result of this is that the Japanese tend to greet people (even strangers) when meeting them on the street, wait patiently in lines, and offer one’s seat to those more in need.

Recently, I got on a subway and a young boy offered his seat to a middle-aged man, and then the man turned to me and offered me the seat. I see this type of courtesy often in Japan, and I practice that courtesy as well. Living in polite society is fun.

I enjoy retired life in Japan. Our money goes farther, and medical care is better. The government medical insurance is more affordable, and the costs of health care and medicines are cheaper.

I also enjoy the international aspect of my life. I have both Japanese and expat friends. Most of my expat friends are not American. Instead, they come from four continents. That makes things interesting.


Ernest Schaal
Gifu City, Japan

Ernest Schaal
( is an American retired intellectual property lawyer living in Japan who writes and loves his Mac.