January 23, 2005

Japan Fun Fact #9: Apartment Hunting, Part I



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Looking for an apartment in Japan can be a trying experience. When I first came to Japan, I had trouble because few apartments would rent to me. The first agent I saw showed me three apartments; I did not like any of them. When I asked to see more, I was told that there were no more. Apparently, the city of Toyama, population 300,000, only had three vacant apartments in the ¥60,000/month price range. So I went to another real estate agent. They showed me three places also. All were the exact same as the ones I'd been shown by the first agent. Back at the office where I worked, I asked the receptionist to call a third agent and ask them to show me apartments. They said that they would see me in an hour, then asked the receptionist for my name. She told them--and then was asked to wait. After a few minutes, they said that they would have to wait until the next day to show me any open units. And when they did, they were--you guessed it--the exact same three units as the other places showed me.

It was clear what was happening: before showing me any apartments, they were checking with managers in advance to see if foreigners were allowed to stay. Thus the sudden wait-until-tomorrow change from the real estate agent when they found out they would be dealing with a non-Japanese. And few landlords were willing to let a foreigner live in their units. When I asked agents--two different ones--about all those other, many apartment buildings studding the landscape, I was told uniformly that they were inhabited by yakuza gangsters and prostitutes, so i wouldn't want to live in any of them. Let me tell you, that town must have been brimming with yakuza and prostitutes.

When I moved to Tokyo, things were different. Not in that discrimination was lesser, but rather in that people were far more open about it. Instead of trying to save me face by making up stories, they just out-and-out told me: gaijin wa dame, literally "foreigners are no good." That was the exact phrase used by everyone, and its constancy was somewhat startling--no one used variations, just the same exact words.

And I heard them a lot. When I was moving from Toyama to Tokyo, I was on a three-week vacation in which I looked for both a job and an apartment. The job I found fairly easily; the apartment nearly broke me. My method was to visit at least two or three train stations per day, and I would find maybe four or five real estate agencies at each station. At each agency--that is, the ones that let me in, though only a few refused to let me enter--I would look through their bound book of available apartments. I got to know those books pretty well. Each apartment would have a one-sheet, which showed a layout of the apartment and had all the relevant information. First, the amount of rent (yachin), the deposit (shiki-kin), and the "gift money" (rei-kin, more or less an outright extortion fee demanded by the landlord), each denoted in the number of months' rent each would cost. Typically, the deposit and the gift money would be two months' rent each. Unspoken but understood would be the additional one month's rent paid to the real estate agent as a commission for the sale. That means that moving in--including paying the first month's rent in advance--typically cost 6 months' worth of rent, which could really put a dent in your wallet.

Also noted on the sheet were the age of the apartment building (I got to recognize the age of units just by the floor layouts, which were different according to age), and which units were available. The latter was most important because which floor you live on makes a big difference. In apartment buildings with just two floors, the second floor was commonly reserved for female tenants, likely for reasons of privacy, to guard against peeping toms and underwear thieves. Finishing up the one-sheet data would be distance from the local station, and special items in the apartment--was there an air conditioner, TV antenna, tatami or hardwood floors and the like.

Back tot he story. I would go to a real estate agent, look through the book, and find a unit which was in my price range, was not too far from the station, and which wasn't a really terrible-looking place. I wasn't too fussy, really (evident from the fleabag place I eventually settled for), but I didn't have much luck, either: despite finding three or four okay-looking units at each agency, I only saw a total of five or six units in the entire two-week period in which I searched. And I enquired about a few hundred places in total. I asked about so many because I was not finding anything I liked--the few places I was allowed to see were really unattractive units, so I kept looking and looking, stepping up my search as time ran out. But even if we assume I am misremembering, there is no way in heaven or earth it was less than a hundred in all--and even at that, I was refused 95% of the time.

The refusal was, as I noted, strangely identical, like there was an agreed-upon expression. Gaijin wa dame. Gaijin wa dame. Gaijin wa dame. Over and over and over again, many times a day. (And Japanese friends would wonder why I didn't like the term "gaijin.") I was not presenting myself poorly; I was clean-cut, clean-shaven with trimmed hair, and wearing the business suit I used in job interviews. I spoke Japanese fairly well, and explained at each place that I had lived in Japan a few years and was familiar with Japanese living customs, and knew how to take care of an apartment. I also presented at each place a copy of my new work contract, which showed I had ample salary to pay for the place, and could pay the entire six-months'-rent fee in cash, all right there. In addition to which, I had the all-important guarantor, my new boss (a Japanese national for a major corporation), who would cover any damages should I flee the country. But it seldom made any difference.

One place in particular still sticks in my memory. It was one of the last agencies I visited, so I had the patter down strong. I explained all of my good points to the agent, the experience in Japan, new contract, so forth and so on, and instructed the agent, when he spoke to the landlord, to relate all of these things so that the landlord would know that this was not some gonna-trash-the-apartment-and-ditch-the-country foreigner. I asked the agent if he understood, and if he would relate all of this. He grunted acknowledgment, and picked up the phone and dialed. "Hello? Mr. Landlord? Yes, this is Yaddayadda at the agency. That apartment you have open? Foreigners are no good, right? Yeah, OK. Thanks. Bye."

Sometimes you didn't have to wait for the agent to call up the landlord. I saw perhaps half a dozen apartment one-sheets that had it written down right there in black and white: petto, mizushobai, gaijijn fuka. No pets, prostitutes or foreigners allowed.

I eventually got a place, because one landlord really did his best to sell me as a tenant. "Hello, Mr. Landlord? Yes, about that apartment. I have a possible tenant. He's a foreigner, BUT he's a gentleman. He seems very nice." And so on. He actually used the word "gentleman," the English word in katakana pronunciation. He had to push the landlord for several minutes, but finally got me in. I took the place, but it was not exactly the ritz. The good points were that it was just a 3-minute walk to Asagaya Station on the Chuo Line, a short hop into Shinjuku, where my job would be. It was fairly cheap, ¥60,000 yen for a 6-tatami main room and a 4-tatami kitchen (more on that later). But that was about all that was good about the place. The building itself was pretty rickety, and as I would find out later, it was a sieve--it had tons of cracks and crevices, through which, I found to my disappointment, cockroaches entered in droves.

Still, I survived there for two years, until faced with a decision: apartment contracts usually last two years, and if you want to stay longer, you are forced to pay an additional one month's rent "gift money" at the signing of the new contract. So I instead opted to find a new place. More on that in the next post...

Asagapt


Posted by Luis at January 23, 2005 07:42 PM
Comments

Well, I know it's not easy, but if you don't live near the center of Tokyo, it may be a bit better. In fact, if you want to live out my way (Machida) I can probably point you to a few places or agents.

A couple comments, "Gaijin wa dame" just means "Foreigners are not wanted" - it doesn't literally say we are bad. That may not mean different things to you, but it does to them.

I think Japanese don't want to deal with foreigners b/c there are lots of cross-cultural issues that may be problematic. For example, we gaijin don't often have stable jobs or anyone to vouch for us (hoshojin), so it's risky for them in their sense. Also, many gaijin are not responsible (my observation) and they may be louder or act in a different way (not separate the trash) to cause problems.

Sure, there is lots of unreasonable fear and bias - but this is not our country. Furthermore, the laws in Japan favor the landlords, not the renters - and the market is such that most landlords don't have to wait long for another paying customer to take the room he/she denies you.

You want cheap rents and easy landlords - go to Hokkaido where the rents in many places is almost free. But there are few jobs and the economy is really bad...

Anyway, I feel for ya brother - but that's life here. Get some help from a Japanese person and don't give up.

-Curt

Posted by: Curtsan at January 23, 2005 07:48 PM

Well, I know it's not easy, but if you don't live near the center of Tokyo, it may be a bit better. In fact, if you want to live out my way (Machida) I can probably point you to a few places or agents.Actually, I'm perfectly fine right now--note the story has a "part 2," in which I'm going to continue on to present day. I should have noted that the experiences listed above only date to 1989.

A couple comments, "Gaijin wa dame" just means "Foreigners are not wanted" - it doesn't literally say we are bad. That may not mean different things to you, but it does to them." Damé " does mean "no good." Not specifically "bad," but certainly "unacceptable" or perhaps "bad for this situation." "No good" is quite apt. The dictionary provides the translations, "no good, useless, no use, futile, to no purpose, hopeless, impossible." Children in Japan use " damé " to indicate a very emphatic "no!" and "I don't like it!" To phrase it as "not wanted" is somewhat on the generous side.

In a culture where a great deal of stock is put into polite wording, especially when deal with customers as the real estate agents are, "damé" is very rough. "Ikenai" (the more polite form of " damé ") or "hairenai" ("cannot enter," if I got it right) would be somewhat less harsh, and most businesspeople, when dealing with an impossible situation for customers, would much more typically use "muzukashii" ("it's difficult (to do)") in this kind of situation. Think about the times you've asked a shopkeeper for something, and they've responded with "muzukashii," meaning in fact, "it can't be done." Have you ever heard a salesperson tell you, in short, minimalist language, that something you want is " damé "? Certainly not when they're trying to be polite.
I think Japanese don't want to deal with foreigners b/c there are lots of cross-cultural issues that may be problematic. For example, we gaijin don't often have stable jobs or anyone to vouch for us (hoshojin), so it's risky for them in their sense. Also, many gaijin are not responsible (my observation) and they may be louder or act in a different way (not separate the trash) to cause problems.Which would not have had an effect on my getting an apartment. As noted, I had a solid contract for more than enough to cover the rent (the apartment I got in Asagaya was about 1/6th of my salary, up to 1/3 is not unusual). I also had a hoshonin, who would be responsible for paying any costs I incurred. As for causing problems, in the last week of my searching, I offered to refer them to my landlord in Toyama. None of that made the slightest bit of difference to them. I was a gaijin, and that was that.

Were they nervous about communication problems? Perhaps--but as I pointed out, I was speaking fairly good Japanese at the time (it sounded particularly fluent because I practiced the same apartment-search conversation dozens of times over), but as with everything else, they didn't want to hear about it. Several times I did get agents to relay all my good points--and it never did any good. Any way you slice it, that's discrimination--and the curt way the agents informed me of the decision made it clear that they weren't trying to be polite to me, either. Probably with conscious intent, they knew how unlikely I'd be to bring them a commission, and likely were hoping I'd just leave. Not all of them, as again I wrote above--but certainly most.
Sure, there is lots of unreasonable fear and bias - but this is not our country. Would you accept that behavior against non-natives in your own country? I wouldn't. Of course, that's how it was in the 80's in Japan. And let's not forget the "pets, prostitutes, and foreigners" bit--that is, without any question at all, highly degrading. But I don't see how this not being our country makes it in any way unobjectionable for them to discriminate or even be impolite.
Furthermore, the laws in Japan favor the landlords, not the renters - and the market is such that most landlords don't have to wait long for another paying customer to take the room he/she denies you.No question there, but only in the operative sense, not in the strict legal sense. The laws specifically prohibit discrimination as I described was happening. But the legal system will more likely laugh at you if you try to avail yourself of it. Can you imagine going to the law and trying to get a landlord to place you in their apartment because they turned you down on the basis of race? Even with a tape recording of them blatantly saying such, a lawsuit would cost far more than it would net you, and would take years, and who wants to go through that for a lousy apartment? Which is what the landlords count on, of course.
Anyway, I feel for ya brother - but that's life here. Get some help from a Japanese person and don't give up.Something I again will note in the next post--you can't give up in situations like that.

In the next post, more travails and finally a break leading to a great, spacious low-cost apartment with a great view, no gift money, no sponsor needed, where foreigners are welcome, and the rent has actually gone down by a few thousand yen each year!

Posted by: Luis at January 23, 2005 09:30 PM

Look at your dictionary again... "Dame" in this context doesn't mean bad, it literally means "can't do" or "impossible, hopeless". It's the short way of saying "can't be done". I think you are reading more into it than needed.

Secondly, your comments about "Would you accept it in your country?" is in itself biased. Yes, in the US (that is the old US before the neocons took over) this kind of bias is illegal. You can still see it in small rural communities, belive it our not. But we are not Japanese, this is not our country, and they have their own cultural views.

The laws may prevent discrimination, but you know that's just window dressing. If the landlords don't want to rent to us - why should they? I don't think it's right to force them if they feel uncomfortable or worried about particular rentals. It doesn't matter what nice things people say about you if the landlord has already made up his mind and doesn't want to discuss it further. By pushing this issue, the rental agent may be harming his own standing if the owners want none of it.

It's not the American way, but why do we need to cram our way down their throats? Again, I think that landlords should be more open to gaijin, but until there is a better acceptance of outsiders and comfort level - it isn't going to happen. That's going to take a while in this xenophobic society.

In any case, I've had pretty good luck getting apartments here - but I also had lots of help from agents/friends who didn't even show me places that were "dame" for me.

-Curt

Posted by: Curtsan at January 24, 2005 09:51 AM

Look at your dictionary again... "Dame" in this context doesn't mean bad, it literally means "can't do" or "impossible, hopeless". It's the short way of saying "can't be done". I think you are reading more into it than needed.Hmmm... we have different dictionaries, I suppose; I listed the definitions straight from the tome. But I stand by my interpretation--particularly since I have observed the use of the word in living language, and it always has the connotation I noted. Further, as I pointed out, there are many expressions commonly used to soften the blow of saying "no" in Japan; not using them is, in itself, a snub.Secondly, your comments about "Would you accept it in your country?" is in itself biased. Yes, in the US (that is the old US before the neocons took over) this kind of bias is illegal. You can still see it in small rural communities, belive it our not. But we are not Japanese, this is not our country, and they have their own cultural views.Yes, but we look down upon those rural communities for doing that--and Japanese people don't approve of it either, in law or in majority public opinion. Just because something is cultural does not mean it is right, approved of generally, or acceptable, nor do I see myself as forcing anything on the Japanese. If I'm being mistreated, I have a right to say something about it, citizen or not.The laws may prevent discrimination, but you know that's just window dressing. If the landlords don't want to rent to us - why should they? I don't think it's right to force them if they feel uncomfortable or worried about particular rentals.I guess we just have different mindsets. They cannot prohibit people from renting their units based upon a prejudice, straight and simple. I don't see how this could be argued for, really. Maybe that's my bias after having nearly been forced to abandon a job and a life change or accept substandard living quarters, but it occurs to me that such a thing--forcing unacceptable living conditions of people because they are of a different race--is exactly why it is unacceptable. If it is a choice between an unthinking, ignorant bias versus being fair and letting people have the same standard of living as others, well, it's not hard to figure out which side I fall on.

As for being worried about rentals is part of the game; if you enter that market, you take everything that comes with it. It's a package deal; you can't just exclude entire groups because you have an irrational fear of them. Would you accept it if you were denied entry into most shops because the owners were uncomfortable or worried about having gaijins in the store, because they are known to steal? What if that made you have to shop for groceries three stations away from home? If it affected your life in that way, would you say, hey, they have the right? Maybe you would, but I would not.

Posted by: Luis at January 24, 2005 10:10 AM

Fascinating. I'd heard that the Japanese were among the most racist on Earth but have never tried to do any serious reading on the subject. I've only been reading your journal for a week or so and I think this is the first entry I've read on life in Japan. I'll be most interested in your part 2 and anything else you post about life in Japan as a foreigner.

Brad

Posted by: Brad at January 24, 2005 10:36 AM

Brad: I wouldn't say they're the most racist. First, the racism element is more a matter of isolationism and homogenity rather than a true hatred. But also the racism appears greater because it is not hidden nearly as much. There is about as much racism in the U.S., if not more, I would be willing to wager--but Americans are simply better at masking it. there is also the positive side of discrimination--I have to admit that I have been given special positive treatment as much as I have been given special negative treatment.

Were Japan truly so racist, I would have a hard time living here.

Posted by: Luis at January 24, 2005 10:45 AM

Luis,

I think that there is what you see and what people say, and what people do. If you've lived in Japan for a while you surely have some understanding of it. In Japan image is more important than reality, and I bet you if you took a poll today you would find most people in japan (if they answered truthfully) would prefer not to rent to foreigners - even if they think such a thing is "unfair".

A good example of the image thing... A recent poll by the Japanese government claimed that something like 30% of Japanese men are smokers. You KNOW this is BS, because we see it in practice. 90% of the people in most restaurants are smoking here.... I suppose those 30% are always in the restaurants I'm at.

And I'm not advocating bias at all, just pointing out it is there and part of this very xenophobic culture. Such biases may decrease over time as Japan becomes more inundated by gaijin and more internationalized - but don't hope for it anytime quickly.

The truth is that bias is everywhere - even in the US. It's just that here it is not admitted to, or dealt in a different way. Aggression is passive here as well.

And lastly, I stand by my comments on the use of "dame" in the context you provided. My jisho shows the definition you provide as well, but if you look through the different usages - it indicates pretty clearly the contextual nature as being "unwanted or not allowed". "Warui" is a better word for bad you would hear if that was the meaning they wanted to convey.

Oh well, I hope to see your part 2 soon in any case. :-)

-Curt

Posted by: Curtsan at January 26, 2005 09:43 PM

Curt,

You appear to be a typical foreigner apologist for Japanese prejudicial behavior. It's possible you haven't been here very long (relative to people like Luis and myself) and your perspective is different as someone who hasn't been repeatedly subjected to prejudicial behavior. Your basic mindset appears to be that we are guests in their country and therefore we must passively accept whatever treatment (or mistreatment) they wish to offer us.

You seem to fail to realize that the point of being a guest is that you are (supposedly) wanted. We are here legally doing jobs that the Japanese need us to do. Most of the foreigners here legally are doing work related to language, English in particular, which the Japanese cannot teach themselves very well. The reason they require language teachers is to do business in the native countries of those teachers. In other words, we are here to do jobs that allow the Japanese to make a lot of money from our home countries. In fact, without the money from those markets, the Japanese economy would fall to pieces.

The presence of foreigners in Japan is the price Japan pays for international trade. Some may not like us or want us but they need us or we wouldn't be allowed in. Like all things in life, one must often sacrifice something in order to benefit from something else. The Japanese have to set aside their xenophobia and comfortable misconceptions of foreigners if they want the money from international markets.

Of course, most people are far more comfortable living with and acting on their bigotry than trying to set it aside and will not be compelled to change unless there is a persuasive external force. The complaints and posts of people like Luis are part of that force. This force is important in all cultures in order to compel people to behave in a more humanistic fashion.

People like yourself, who advocate accomodating prejudice if it is part of a culture other than your own (and in fact act as if it is ethnocentric to even question whether bigoted behavior is "wrong"), are acting antitehtical to basic human rights and decency and pretending it's a matter of culture rather than humanism.

Shari

Posted by: Shari at January 27, 2005 10:07 AM

I have personally never felt that Japan was not my country. Over the years I have come into contact with many people around the world who are ignorant to many things, easily surprised, and not very well educated. Coming upon a white man has caused life itself to come to a sudden stop for some. Many times I have been told I could not do something and many times I was unable. But it is important to never give up the fight for equality among humans. Though I am not a citizen, I am a resident and must be given the same rights as other residents. I may not be able to represent these people (hold office) or vote on their representative. That's fine. But as a human I must be allowed to live where I please, work where I please, eat and drink where I please alongside others who should have no advantage just because they are of the designated skin tone. I have learned a valuable lesson about what it might be like for minority people where I am from trying to get through life. But those poor people were actually born in that place and still are made to suffer injustice because of their skin color. It is important for foreign residents of Japan (not typical English teachers here on vacation) to do their utmost to blend into society, as would be expected in any other country around the world, and in doing so society itself will slowly adapt to meet and welcome that foreign person and their vision of life. We must educate the natives to the mysteries outside their country and never lose sight of our duty as international diplomats for cross-cultural understanding by apathetically giving in to ignorance, even among our own families and friends in our home countries. Anger, the strongest symptom ofignorance, must never be given a chance to flourish, but instead both parties must give in to the other and stand firm on that giving and receiving in order for any understanding to occur. Luis seems to be able to remain above the fray and does his best to instill a sense of mannerly exchange with the witless realtors. I think he did a fine job.

Posted by: Ken at March 5, 2005 04:35 PM

Hey Curt

I am interested in finding a place in Machida. Not having much luck at the moment. Nearly got a place sorted but need a guarantor..... any info greatfully received.

Gareth

Posted by: Gareth at July 31, 2005 10:17 PM

Gareth:

Don't know what to say. If you don't have a guarantor and your employer won't act as one (usually your employer is expected to do so), then your options are limited. For the Machida area, you might want to check out UR (called "Urban Renaissance"). The Machida area on their site is covered on this page:

http://www.ur-net.go.jp/akiya/tokyo/list_a05.html

They don't require a guarantor, but might require other things, like a job contract with a minimum salary level. Check with them on specifics.

The only other thing I can think of are short-term apartments, but they tend to be located more in the central areas of Tokyo. There might also be gaijin houses, but they usually do not offer private apartments.

CHeck the Metropolis/JapanToday Classifieds also:

http://classifieds.japantoday.com/biz.asp?action=home&pid=20

That's all I can think of for now. Hope it helps.

Posted by: Anonymous at August 1, 2005 10:33 AM

Thanks for the info - hadn't heard of UR - will see what I can
find.

Posted by: Gareth at August 5, 2005 11:04 PM