Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Tokyo Pushes Back on ‘Bizarre' Death Tax That Deters Expats

Updated on
  • Governor Koike is seeking to make Tokyo a major financial hub
  • Foreigners ‘can’t die in this country’: Schroders Japan head

Considering a work stint in Japan? You’d better make it short, and you’d better stay alive.

That’s because the government subjects long-term foreign residents to inheritance tax of up to 55 percent on their worldwide assets -- meaning heirs could be forced to give up their family homes or businesses, even if they’ve never set foot in Japan.

Now, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike is trying to ease the impact of the rule as part of her bid to make the city a global financial hub. Her government released a report last Friday urging the rule to be reviewed, together with other measures aimed at attracting asset managers to the Japanese capital instead of rival centers such as Hong Kong and Singapore. 

Yet there’s no guarantee that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government will heed Koike’s call on the tax, especially since it only just amended the law in April. 

“Japan doesn’t seem to want long-term residents anymore,” said Paul Hunter, secretary general of the Tokyo-based International Bankers Association, which represents about 50 overseas financial institutions and has been lobbying against the rule. “Why would you do that at a time when you’re doing Tokyo as an international financial center?”

When the inheritance tax was introduced in 2013 -- mainly to target Japanese nationals who give up their citizenship to avoid paying taxes on their overseas assets -- it potentially applied even to short-term foreign residents. In April, the rule was tweaked to restrict it to people who have lived in Japan for more than 10 years. At the same time, the government added a “tail” clause that allows tax authorities to claim a former resident’s global assets even if he or she dies within five years of leaving Japan.

‘Can’t Die’

Expatriates “can’t die in this country,” Shigesuke Kashiwagi, Japan head of U.K. investment company Schroders Plc, told Koike in June at a meeting of a panel formed last year to advise the local government on luring financial firms to Tokyo.

Not only will the tax prompt talented people to hesitate about coming to Japan, it could also force financial-industry veterans already living there to leave, according to Hunter. Ten years is “not a long time out of a working career” and the tail provision is “really, really bizarre,” he said.

Finance Ministry official Keiichiro Inui said the amendment eases the impact on short-term foreign residents. “We will monitor the situation with the new framework and consider any revisions if necessary,” said Inui, a deputy director in the tax bureau.

Koike is seeking to attract asset managers who are keen to handle more of Japanese households’ $16 trillion of wealth. Yet her goal faces challenges beyond just the estate levy. Japan’s income taxes are higher than those in Hong Kong and Singapore, and its labor laws remain inflexible. Her panel also identified low English proficiency and cumbersome bureaucracy as weaknesses.

Labor Strains

In last week’s report, the committee recommended lowering corporate tax rates for asset managers and financial-technology firms located in special economic zones. 

It also announced a 30 billion yen ($260 million) fund to help fledgling asset managers that want to start handling money for investors and build a track record. The local government will set up meetings between foreign funds and domestic institutional investors.

The inheritance tax issue may also create a strain on a labor market where skills are in short supply due to Japan’s shrinking population, according to Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute Inc. Imposing the levy “runs counter to government policy” of trying to secure skilled workers through measures such as easing conditions for permanent residence, he said.

Matt Sweeny, a Bain & Co. consultant who took up his post in Tokyo about two years ago, learned about the tax liability at a seminar soon after he arrived. “It was a shock,” he said. “It limits my career options.”

Sweeny, who owns assets outside of Japan including real estate, has already consulted with his tax adviser.

“I’ll keep working in Japan for now,” he said. “But I’ll need to consider whether or not to stay here before I go over the limit.”

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