Sunday, June 24, 2007

Having Your Cake...

What follows here is a wallow. Not an activity for the faint of heart, but a full-fledged wallow in the vagaries of two modern-day bureaucracies and the cost of living with less than a persnickety attention to detail. If you venture in, I recommend you bring with you one or more of the following: a) a cultivated appreciation of the absurd and the ability to cackle; b) an ability to use a glass of something with maximum power to intoxicate; c) a mastery of Schadenfreude and no shame about the need to feel lucky and superior.

Here's my latest little windmill assault-in-progress. And a view of my mental decay as of Sunday, June 23, 2007.

Even though I have left Japan and now live in the United States, I determined it would be wise to hold fast to my option of being able to return to Japan, should President Bush be assassinated and Cheney become President. For that reason, I wanted to hang on to my permanent visa(永住権), the Japanese equivalent of a Green Card. When I left Japan almost a year and a half ago, I did not turn in my alien registration card(外国人登録証明書)because that, I assumed, would have meant the end of my permanent resident status. And so my troubles with the tax office began...

The problem is, I am being taxed in both Japan and the United States. I was given to understand that that would not happen, but that information, it turns out, represents conditions in a perfect world, and not the one I currently inhabit. I have repeatedly appealed to the Japanese authorities to recognize that I am now resident in the United States, and, according to the terms of the U.S./Japan Tax Treaty, I should be exempt from double taxation. The rub is there seems to be a Catch 22 that prevents me from exercising that exemption. (Or not. I may simply be being assessed taxes on my Japanese social security.) Plus this Frankenstein monster of a solution to the tragedy that too many old people in Japan fail to die, called kaigohoken (介護保険).

Kaigohoken is a tax on old people for being old. It is assessed on all residents of Japan, Japanese and foreign, who are over the age of 65. It is labeled an insurance, but it is a tax. It is meant to pay for services old people (as a class) tap into in the health program, and that justifies the special tax levied just on old people and not on the rest of the population. Problem is, by not labeling it a tax, but an insurance, they make it impossible for foreigners to declare it as a deduction, but it is most assuredly a tax. Not voluntary. Not a service accessible by those not physically present in Japan, but a tax on being old. Taxation, without the participation of the taxpayer, on people who cannot vote, for services they cannot possibly use. The kind of thing my people once fought a revolution over.

If I pay all Japanese taxes, including this tax on being old, I will be considered a resident of Japan by the various Japanese governments, national and regional, and I can stay as long as I like in the United States. The only limitation is that my re-entry visa runs out July 4, 2008. And that's not necessarily a problem, I don't think, because if I return to Japan at some point before then and renew it, I am good for the duration of that new visa – (three years, unless the rules have changed since I got the last one). I can continue to come and go at will, with my Japanese Green Card in tact.

Also, if I pay those Japanese taxes, I may be able to claim them as deductions on my IRS taxes. My tax accountant takes the approach that with the IRS one makes a case for a deduction and hopes they are persuaded. We'll call that UNKNOWN #1.

As of March 29, 2007, I was ¥86,640 in arrears on my kaigohoken, and as of June 1, 2007 I was ¥114,900 in arrears on my city and prefectural taxes. A mere pittance to folks in the "have" class, but a good chunk of change (about $2000 and increasing daily) to those of us living on a retirement income of no more than $12,000 a year from the same Japanese government now slapping me upside the face with these taxes.

UNKNOWN #2 is whether the city and prefectural taxes are one-time taxes, on 2006 income. Japanese tax authorities levy taxes. They do not explain them. Are they taxes on my social security income? Will those amounts be constant? If ever the sky opens and the gods of Japanese tax agencies I've been petitioning for an answer respond, and if I get an affirmative answer to that last question, I can then assess the cost, by adding it to my kaigohoken amounts, of maintaining my permanent residence in Japan (Miura). I know the kaigohoken tax amount is constant. I do not know where to ask about how the city and prefectural tax was assessed beyond contacting again (for the n'th time) the Miura City Hall, as well as the Tokyo Social Insurance Agency in Tokyo (Social Insurance Agency, Japanese Government, 3-5-24 Takaido-nishi, Suginami-ku, Tokyo, Japan / 東京都杉並区高井戸西3−5−24 社会保険事務所 )

If I surrender my permanent visa, these problems go away. I then need only to find out how to do that. Which brings me to UNKNOWN #3: How do I surrender my alien registration card? There is an information service at the immigration office. They accept inquiries only in Japanese, but that is a hurdle I can jump, and we are currently inquiring a) if my assumption is correct, that I cannot both maintain my residence in Japan without paying Japanese taxes, and b) what the procedure is for surrendering my alien registration card, and c) whether that, in fact, invalidates my permanent visa. I am loathe to ride that merry-go-round once more, because in the past the immigration office told me to contact the tax office about taxes and the tax office told me to contact the immigration office about immigration concerns. I wish now I had taken off all my clothes in both offices and painted my body red until the person came out who could speak to the intersection of immigration (emigration) and tax concerns. I know he/she is in there somewhere.

UNKNOWN #4 is the question of whether the Japanese taxes already assessed can be voided and UNKNOWN #5, if I do not pay them, will my social security payments be garnished? The Miura City Hall tells me that since I did not surrender my alien registration card upon leaving Japan, I am liable. The taxes were appropriately levied and are overdue. I did not surrender my alien registration card, for reasons explained above, but also out of habit. For the past eighteen years I have been leaving Japan without doing so, and I left thinking I would return within a year. What loose ends there might be, I thought I could handle on my next visit. I didn't anticipate being away so long.

My major failing was in not collecting information on what taxes would be assessed after departure, how much they would be, what the connection is between maintaining the permanent visa and paying taxes, and how the Japan/U.S. tax treaty works.

I did not know, for example, that the Japanese tax office required a Form 6166 directly from the IRS attesting to my residence in the U.S. And that I got such a form by submitting a Form 8802. And I did not know that the IRS would turn down such a request if filed for a year any part of which I was resident outside the United States, effectively assuring double taxation.

I was working under two assumptions – that Japanese, unlike Americans, did not pay national taxes when living abroad and that foreigners not physically present in Japan on January 1 would not be assessed local taxes. As far as I can tell, those assumptions were correct. Missing, however, was the information that, from the Japanese government’s perspective, “physical absence" is tied to receipt of Form 6166 from the IRS – and, as I have explained, that Form is not issued until one has been resident in the United States for one entire tax year. According to statute, although I regularly watch the sun go down over the Pacific, I am in Japan.

UNKNOWN #6 is whether I have that information right. I do not know where to get this kind of information. I have petitioned the IRS for it, but they do not respond for months at a time, and then, in my experience, with unsatisfactory answers. The Japanese tax office simply plays by the rules and says the rules say they must have that Form 6166. I will keep trying, but I have to assume this is a lost cause.

Not only does Miura City Hall continue to bill me for kaigohoken; it informs me there is no way to pay directly to them. It must be paid only into a local Miura bank – not even a Yokohama bank will do. In a recent telephone call, I asked (couching my question in multiple hypotheticals) if I were to pay where I would send the money. They said I would need to find a friend who can hand carry the money to a Miura bank. Or, of course, I could open a Miura bank account and do this through a bank transfer.

I have beaten myself up for not doing my homework. But at some point myself stood up to this bullying, and protested that I did, in fact, do the homework. The real problem is multiple bureaucracies and inadequate piecing together of multiple bits of information from sometimes conflicting sources of information. An exacerbating factor is that there are precious few people in my position, so "general knowledge," which normally passes efficiently through the grapevine, was not there to be tapped into.

So, if you are do happen to fall into this pothole after me, let me suggest the following. Tentatively.

Rule #1: Know before you leave whether you intend to return.

If you do…

1. Prepare financially to pay double taxes for a period of one to two years, and quite possibly for as long as you hold on to your Japanese residence permit. Ignore the information you hear that the Japan/U.S. Tax treaty prevents double taxation. Claim Japanese taxes as a deduction when you file your U.S. taxes, and hope it works.
2. Arrange a method of paying your Japanese taxes. In the case of national taxes (on any Japanese income, including social security income), if you keep your Japanese bank account open, you can pay by direct transfer. If you live outside the Tokyo (or, presumably, other large) urban area, be ready to hear there is no way to pay taxes except through a local bank, and make arrangements accordingly, in advance.
3. Seek out information from a competent Japanese tax consultant on how the Japanese tax system works in retirement, what amounts will be assessed and on what basis. Don't be penny-wise and pound-foolish as I was, thinking you can do this on your own. The money you spend will save hours of your time thereafter. (If you do find such a person, please make his/her name available broadly.) Don't depend on the tax offices themselves, in other words. Recognize that one tax authority will not necessarily have information on another tax authority’s policies, and that city taxes, kaigohoken, and koseinenkin are all run by separate administrations.

If you don’t…

4. Contact the immigration office before you leave and verify the procedure for turning in your alien registration card. Expect to lose your permanent visa.
5. When leaving the country, submit your alien registration card. The authorities will likely cancel your re-entry visa.

And whether you do or not...

6. Find the person responsible for kaigohoken and murder him in his bed. Time travel, if you can, and murder him in his cradle.

One last piece of advice.

Don’t beat yourself up for trying to have your cake and eat it too. In the great ebb and flow of life, one should never do any less.

So much for Rule #1.

There's a Rule #2, which is an alternate, not a complement, to Rule #1:

Be rich. Pay what they ask and forget about it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Defending Tradition

“This is a Christian country. If you don’t like it, go live somewhere else.”

Americans say things like that. So do Europeans. So do Australians.

Something wretched about that. It’s both a false assertion – we are most assuredly not a Christian nation (I’m speaking as an American now) – and a demonstration of how self-proclaimed patriots are often simply jingoistic bullies.

With the waning of the religious right (one thing to write a thank-you note to W about), this view is being properly challenged, at long last. Most people know we are a secular state, and even most religious Americans understand that separation of church and state does religion more good than harm.

But there is something else going on behind the kind of claim that “we are an x nation” that is troubling. All nations have a cultural identity, and many even have institutions established to maintain that identity. France has the Academie Française, Japan has the solidly culturally nationalist Foreign Ministry, and Germany speaks of a Leitkultur (dominant traditional German culture) in contrast to the cultures of the large numbers of immigrants who first entered as guest workers and have decided to stay. In Holland, since even before the murder of Theo van Gogh by a radical Muslim, the world’s arguably most progressive nation has been seriously considering what to do about the perceived threat to its social stability. The Dutch are asking themselves, “Have we gone too far? Are we too free?”

This is a complex issue because it involves taking on the question of the connection between nation and perceived national culture and who speaks for either one. To put it another way, how do we continue to advocate pluralism and give everybody a chance to act out their own values, and not fall apart when somebody asserts “traditional values”? What do we do about absolutes? Best example of this, I think, is the case of Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten’s claim that the publication of the Mohammed cartoons is free speech. What’s the right thing to do? Insist on the absolute right to free speech? Or suggest that incursion on religious sensibilities approaches hate speech (i.e., not free speech)?

Bruce Bawer, an American progressive who left the States to live in Norway with his Norwegian partner only to become disillusioned with a social system progressive Americans tend to idealize, has come out in his latest book with an indictment of European liberalism for its inability both to do right by immigrants in human terms and to meet the challenge of some of their dogmatic claims that ultimately threaten European progressive values. I’ll wager this is only the start of many more moves by progressives -- I hope this is the case -- to move onto turf, however cautiously, once thought to belong exclusively to conservatives. (Bawer, incidentally, made a similar case in his previous book, Stealing Jesus, arguing that moderate Christians ought to steal him back from the conservatives. And ditto, I'd say, for the American flag.)

The problem, it seems to me, is that many pluralists are naïve when it comes to understanding how liberalism is constrained, as all freedom is constrained, by a threat to its own existence. They miss a very important point.

Freedom of speech is not freedom to say anything and everything. Along with freedom of speech goes the requirement that one freedom must never be allowed – and that is the freedom to shut down freedom of speech. The same goes for all other freedoms as well. We should spend more time sharpening our understanding of the concept of freedom. Freedom contrasts with licence (an unthinking excess of freedom) as education contrasts with indoctrination. The latter in both pairs are routinely mistaken for the former, and ultimately subvert it.

Barry Goldwater got there first. “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Because he said it, and because the Reagan conservatives now own it, no progressive I know wants any part of such a slogan. Fine. Avoid the association with Goldwater and Reagan if you must, but don’t miss the wisdom Goldwater hit you with.

Anyone who has ever seriously tried to foster a no-holds-barred approach to something soon discovers that it leads to chaos and ultimately the defeat of the freedom one is advocating. Nothing worth anything can be borderless.

Back in the 60s, when I first came to California, I was struck by how often I heard people say, “Oh, we’re very informal here. We don’t have the social rules that restrict you like they do Back East.” (Everybody seemed to be from Back East in those days.) But God help you if you tried to act on your tight-assed ways from Back East. You were clearly breaking the rules. It wasn’t that there were no rules; it was only that the people telling you there were no rules were unaware of their own rules.

My point here, incidently, is not to support, excuse, or criticize Californian libertarianism; it's that we make fools of ourselves when we don't take the time to examine exactly what we think we are advocating. In the case of the near absolutism of 60s Californian informality, the eventual discovery of the hidden absolutism behind the informality rule shocked people and made them cynical. And, foolishly, advocates of even greater anarchism.

It shouldn’t have. It should have made everybody aware that it’s not rules and restrictions that are the problem; it's not having solid reasons for the rules we do have. Liberals need to be unafraid to advocate social rules the same way they advocate the rule of law. With the rule of law we still recognize that, while some bad laws get made and must be rejected, you don't throw out the principle of the rule of law in the process.

Today, the hippies that have grown up to run the show in places like Scandinavia, Holland, Germany and Bi-coastal or Blue State America are bending over backward to allow Muslims to be Muslims – whatever they think that means. The New York public schools made a space for Muslim students to pray in the public schools after 9/11 – a kind of accommodation parallel to censuring the Jyllands-Posten for having engaged in hate speech. Bad mistake, I think. They should not have been granted freedoms not granted to Christians and Jews (and others). And they should have learned then and there that they were going to have to get secular, at least while in school. Like it or lump it.

We are so afraid of looking like hard-liners that we make a serious tactical error in not standing up to hard-liners.

We spend too much time with people who think like us; we would all do better (I’m preaching to myself here) to spend more time with those we disagree with, working out our differences through clarification of the issues, perspective switching and moving to higher levels of abstraction in order to seek common ground. But the time comes when you are faced with a closed mind. When the person sitting across from you says something like, “I have this information direct from God and I cannot compromise.” When that happens, there can be no other response than, “In that case I will have to fight you. I will try not to hurt you, but I must do everything in my power to limit the damage you do when you act on that attitude.”

Fundamentalist Christians do harm to vulnerable gay people who have not yet learned not to take religious people seriously, and to all gay people when their bigotry leads to gay bashing. Fundamentalist Muslims who insist that God wants them to use violence to help the world on its way to universal Islamic dominion are not advocating values on a par with Enlightenment humanistic values, and we need to be unafraid that we might come across as dogmatic, ethnocentric or culturally imperialistic when we say so. In our public spaces, we all need to be secular humanists – religious people too. Without an unbending defence of civil liberties through the recognition that freedom cannot be shut down, we’re done for.

It bears repeating that this is only the first step. There’s an important second step that I haven’t addressed – and that is managing this challenge in such a way that you don't defeat your own purposes. An in-your-face rigidity often backfires. In the absolute insistence on civil rights, there has to be an accommodation to those who voluntarily want to surrender those rights for themselves, for example. We’re going to disagree on what constitutes accommodation and how far to go. But what I’m concerned with for the moment is the fact that I seem to keep running into the idea over and over again lately, in conversations with progressive pluralists, and in reading reports of progressive public policy, that we have to “allow them the same right we ask for ourselves.”

Yes, if they want to wear rings in their nose. Yes if they want to be religious. But no if they’re asking for the right to shut down the painfully slowly evolved system of rule of law on the basis of Enlightenment values. There is where progressives have to be conservatives. There is where tradition has to be seen as something to support, and tradition a word not to shy away from. God help us from ourselves if we think once an issue is labeled as “conservative” or “traditional” or even “absolute” that we must line up to knock it down.

And, by the way, this goes both ways. I want no Muslim to tell me I have to respect their right to keep girls from getting an education. If you’re a Muslim father who tells me that, I am going to look for all the world like a right-wing bastard cultural nationalist when I tell you, “If that’s the way you feel, you’d do better to take your daughter elsewhere.” If a Muslim girl is living in my country, she goes to school. Period. And when the pope tells me Turkey should not join the EU because the EU has to be kept a Christian civilization, he can eat my grits. Europe was Christian. It ain’t any more. Thank God.

Europe, America, Australia, Japan – the entire modern world is now a place dedicated to fostering the values of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights – les droits de l'homme. At least in principle. We’re not there, but we’re getting there. Some places faster than others. Turks should be welcome in Europe. Muslims should be welcome everywhere. As individuals, not as ethnic or religious identities. Not when they buy into the belief their traditions require them to take us back to pre-modern times.

It has taken us a long time to get these rules in place. Let’s not be cavalier about defending them.

Bawer, Bruce, While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within