January 27, 2005

Japan Fun Fact #9: Apartment Hunting, Part II



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All of the experiences I outlined in my last post about apartment-hunting were from the 1980's. Those were heady days for Japan, when it was the nation of the future, buying up everything and set to take over the world economically. Japan was feeling its oats a lot more, and there was a lot more conflict, especially in trade, with the United States. Japan was the country of success--in business, in education, in a safe society; the United States, and other countries, were seen in a more adversarial light than today, and foreigners were seen more as a threat, commonly represented in media as violent, criminal, or diseased, a contrast to Japan.

Then came the 90's. Aum Shinrikyo and the subway gassings. Children killing children in the schools. Horrific stories being told about domestic crime in the press. And, of course, the bursting of the bubble economy. Japan's ego took several palpable hits, and the recession kept going and going and going. America retook the computer industry, Japan was no longer seen as the juggernaut, and Japan's markets opened and Japan's ironclad grip on the future of the world economy seemed like a strange illusion of yesterday. Suddenly, Japan was no longer on top of the world--the economy sputtered, and crime seemed to spike at home. In short, things changed. The national ego lessened, the feelings of superiority ebbed, and the adversarial atmosphere thinned.

Those changes were also reflected in how foreigners were regarded. Less and less were we threatening aliens who were taking over sumo and baseball; less and less were we icons of crime and disease. Or, perhaps, more and more Japan focused on its own ills. Japan is kind of like that, in extremes when it comes to international comparisons--either it sees itself on top of everything, or on the bottom, to overstate the matter perhaps a bit.

Not that this changed much immediately in the early 90's when I came back to Japan and looked for an apartment anew, but it changed things somewhat. The real change was much more apparent when I returned again in the late 90's. I heard a lot fewer stories about foreigners being stopped on the street and asked for ID, or accused of having stolen their bicycles. The media represents foreigners in a far less negative light today. And apartment hunting similarly became easier.

By the time I left Japan for the second time in 1995, I had lived in five apartments: two in Toyama and three in Tokyo, the last one secured in 1993. I had also found an apartment for my brother when he moved here (I used the same agent who had pushed for me in finding my own apartment). In every case, I found myself up against the rather formidable "gaijin wa dame" element.

When I returned in 1998, things had noticeably changed. Though I was looking for an apartment in much the same areas, I found a lot less resistance, and a lot more possibilities. This time, I found a place just a ten-minute bicycle ride away from that first cockroach-infested dump in Asagaya, but this place was a lot nicer. It cost a little more, but for the price, it was much nicer. Two seven-tatami-plus rooms, plus the kitchen/bath areas, but also a nicely-built three-unit apartment with a rather kind landlady living with her family on the second floor, just five minutes' walk from an express station on the Seibu Shinjuku line just 12 minutes out from Shinjuku. And this I found after only a very brief search that lasted only a few days, not a few weeks. The agencies I visited along the way were much more accommodating than the ones I had experienced five years and more before, and I had several units to choose from despite the brevity of my search.

After two years, however, I decided to move up. The job I had originally been hired for changed--soon after I had moved into my new place, I was promoted from newbie EFL instructor to the coordinator and effective dean of the academic department of the college--a change that shocked me, but which I happily accepted, and it came with a nice increase in pay, needless to say. I stayed in the first apartment more through inertia than anything else, but after two years, I faced the familiar one-month's-rent gift money fee, and I also was getting tired of bumping into furniture when I had to get up and move around at night. So I started looking again.

Let me stray from the narrative a bit here so I can explain a bit more about apartment hunting in Japan. First off is cost, and cost is determined roughly by a formula which includes the chief variables of distance from central Tokyo, distance from the local train station, and the size of the apartment, though not necessarily in that order. Go far out from central Tokyo and rent a small place 15 minutes away from the station by bus, and you can get it for a pittance; the reverse will be costly. Some train lines are more expensive than others as well: the Chuo Line, for example, can be pretty pricey, and express stops are at a premium. If you can walk to the local train station in a few minutes, that'll cost you. It matters a lot more than what shops or schools may be nearby, as most people commute by train in Japan. Proximity to town can also mean a lot to people; some cannot stand having to commute long distances to get to work every day; that can be a deal-breaker for many. The trade-off is for size, and that's what I've chosen myself; It's a 45-minute-to-one-hour commute to work from where I am, but I have a nice, spacious place.

Size of apartments in Japan is usually measured by square meters, and room sizes are measure in tatami mats (thatched straw mats three feet by six feet in size), even if the room in question does not use tatami mats. Tatami can be nice--softer than hardwood floors and less prone to be cold--but they also have their drawbacks, in that they don't last too many years, and often are home to small bugs.

3A standard room size is six tatami mats, or nine by twelve feet--a smallish room, especially if that's the only real room of your apartment. Standard studio apartments in Japan will consist of a single 6-mat room with a small kitchen area, a bath room and a toilet room (or both bath and toilet combined in a pre-fab "unit bath"). No room for a western-style bed without serious crowding, so a futon is used. Not like many futons in the U.S., which are often thicker and more rigid, Japanese futons are more like thick, heavy blankets than mattresses, and are folded up and put in large two-tiered cupboard/closets during the day, leaving space for moving around and the like. The image at right illustrates this kind of room, the double doors in back being the cupboard/closet.

The apartment I had in Tokyo in the mid-90's had a six-tatami room and a three-tatami room; the three tatami room (six feet by nine feet) was pretty much just enough for a futon to be laid out in. Eight-tatami rooms (twelve feet square) are considered fairly spacious in Japan. See this page for standard tatami layout patterns. Newer apartments have hardwood floors more often, though multi-room apartments often have one tatami room.

Another way to measure the size of apartments is by room counts. In this system, L is a living room, D is a dining room, and K is a kitchen. Often they are combined to read LDK, especially if they are in fact one room. Additional rooms are represented by number. If there is just one room, it is called so: a one-room (studio) apartment. A 1LDK would be one room plus a living-dining-kitchen room, or what in the U.S. would be called a one-bedroom apartment.

Other considerations for apartments in Japan include the age of the building (chikunen); if the building is more than, say, twenty years old, it is much less desirable. The construction type is also important--you have apartments and mansions. "Mansion" doesn't mean the same thing here as in the U.S.--a Japanese mansion is like a condo, as they are more often bought than rented. The building is usually much more solidly constructed--thick concrete walls and floors, for example, rather than the thinner, shoddy walls found so commonly in apartments.

Okay, back to the story. When I got tired of the apartment I had lived in since arriving in Tokyo, I decided I would be willing to spend a bit more and live farther out in order to get more space. After searching for a while (I had more time to hunt this time), I found the place I was looking for when an acquaintance clued me in on public housing. I'm still not entirely sure exactly how "public" it is, but I get the feeling that it is more publicly-subsidized than publicly-owned. They used to be called Toshi Kodan (都市公団), or the Urban Development Corporation, but sometime last year they changed to Toshi Kikou (都市機構, or "Urban Renaissance"), and I have no idea what that signifies.

But what it mean for apartment hunting is just what I was looking for. First of all, you don't go to a real estate agent for these places--you go straight to the local UR office. That means no paying one month's rent for the agent. Second, and more significantly, because it is not a regular landlord, that means no gift money, a huge advantage. And finally, it's government-related, so that mean they can never say "gaijin wa dame"--you don't even need a guarantor! I just walked into the office, asked to see a place, and then reserved it once I found I liked it. You do have to certify that you can earn enough to pay for the place, show some tax forms or the like, and there's a bit more paperwork than the usual apartment requires. And there is still a deposit--a bit steeper than usual, three months' rent--but that's refundable. Moving in was just the deposit and first month's rent.

Also, the building I got was a mansion type, meaning great walls and floors--there's a couple who live right next door, and they have an infant. I never hear it, not even a bit. At most, I'll hear people upstairs banging around a bit, but not often and it's not loud. My previous place was so un-sound-proofed that every time my smoking next-door neighbor went to the bathroom, I could hear him go, even when he didn't loudly hawk and spit into the toilet. The soundproofing in my new place also means that I can play music or have the TV on at high volume even late at night, and I never have to worry; I've asked neighbors if they can hear anything, and they say nothing gets through.

But the best part of the new place is the size: 84 square meters, almost double my older room. All hardwood floors, it consists of an 8-mat-size master bedroom, a 4.5-mat second bedroom, a large genkan (vestibule, or whatever) leading to a toilet room and a bath room off a small dressing room with sink and mirror, and then the big "LDK-plus" area--an 8-mat living room, 4.5-mat dining room, 4-mat kitchen and 6-mat extra room, all in one large joined area (no doors, but a few interior walls). And that does not include the walk-in closet (albeit a small one). If you want to take a look, I have the layout and some photos of the place I made before I moved in.

Then there's the rent--at ¥136,000 when I moved in, it was low for such a big apartment--but then something strange happened: it went down. Usually it's supposed to be the reverse, but not with this place. After a year, it went down to ¥131,800, then ¥127,200, then to ¥123,400, and this year it's ¥119,800. All this despite the fact that the apartments are almost completely occupied, more than when I first moved in. And there's also no contract renewal fee--just another rent decrease. Bizarre. Great, but bizarre.

I'll likely stay here until I buy into a new place, either a mansion or a house--which will lead to a whole new level of possible conflicts, including taking out a loan, which I kind of dread. But, as I like to say, I'll burn that bridge when I come to it.

Posted by Luis at January 27, 2005 11:19 PM
Comments

That apartment you are in now is incredible! What area is that in?

Posted by: Alex at January 28, 2005 01:51 AM

Alex: it's in the Tama area. One of the cheaper locations. If you go to the linked page for UR, I think there's a search engine for open apartments. If you're looking for a place, you might want to check it out, or maybe visit the closest UR office and ask them for assistance.

Sorry about your blog. In the future, you should routinely download the database which holds all your entries and such, back it up. A hard lesson to learn...

Posted by: Luis at January 28, 2005 03:01 AM

Foreigners would be stopped in the streets for ID? Wow.

Most interesting, all this. Thanks for your time in posting it. Brad.

Posted by: Brad at January 28, 2005 11:34 AM

Sounds like you used to live out in Saginomiya. I used to live around there from 91-94. It was very convenient and rent was relatively low. Did you ever go to that SUMO chanko nabe place (or maybe it was an izakaya) on nakasugi-dori and waseda-dori?

By the way, I think it is easier for foreigners to get a housing loan these days. Of course there was that Steve Herman case a few years ago but I know a few friends who got loans to buy a house and they're just average joes with moderate incomes.

Posted by: Roy at January 28, 2005 01:50 PM

Brad:

Foreigners would be stopped in the streets for ID? Wow.

Yep. Happened to me in Tokyo once. Happened to a lot of people I knew in Toyama. They would stop you and ask you for your gaijin card, and if you didn't have it on you, you could get into trouble. Quite often they would simply walk you home if home was nearby, but if you were far from home or if they just felt like it, then they would take you to the police station and keep you there until a friend or family member could bring in the gaijin card. If you could not get anyone to come, then they would not release you unless either someone did or until you gave them your key, and they went to your home and got it for you (though I never heard of that actually happening).

I had a friend in Toyama, an exchange student, who got caught far from home without her card. She had to go to the station and wait until her host parents got back home, and then they had to bring her card in. Naturally, she had to write a formal "gomen nasai" letter, a famous (or infamous) document for foreigners at the time, but not heard of much nowadays.

I have heard some report that they are still stopped by police, but mostly people around Otemachi or other Imperial Palace surrounds--likely a security thing. But it used to happen everywhere, and fairly commonly. Not so much any more.

Another common thing was for the police to stop you on your bicycle for "biking while foreign." I got stopped maybe a dozen times or more when I lived in Koganei. Often it was several policemen, and they would surround me asking questions while one of them went to the squad car and radioed back the serial number of my bike. Usually they were formal enough about it, but I heard stories from friends who said the policemen immediately and outright accused them of stealing the bike before checking it. I never saw a Japanese person stopped on their bike by a cop.


Roy:

Yes, that was the station, Saginomiya. I remember sumo guys mostly in Asagaya in the late 80's, though, when I think it was Futagoyama stables located there (they have since moved). One of the most vivid images I have in Japan was in Asagaya when I saw two sumo wrestlers riding a bike--one pedaling and one on the back. I am still astounded that the bike's tires didn't explode!

Who was Steve Herman, by the way? Never heard of him....

Maybe with the bank loan, I could use Mizuho, who I've had an account with forever and have always behaved well....

Posted by: Anonymous at January 28, 2005 05:08 PM

Steve Herman is a journalist living in Japan and he sued Asahi bank because they refused him a loan even though he made a lot of money and was famous somewhat. Here's an article about that.

http://www.debito.org/hermancase.html

I was just talking to a friend (Japanese) about her house loan and she said that she got it from some government organization (sorry I forget the name) and didn't have to submit a hoshonin, although the interest rate was a little higher than banks. My other foreign friend told me that he had no problems getting a loan and buying a mansion with no money down! I think he went to Mitsui-Sumitomo

Although I only know a few cases I'm guessing it's easier for foreigners to get loans these days. My theory is that (1) There are fewer younger people and therefore fewer people taking out loans (2) Increase in freeters are reducing the number of people who are eligible to get loans.

You think?

Posted by: Roy at January 28, 2005 09:38 PM

About getting stopped by the police.

I'm Asian Canadian and don't really look too visibly foreign. Years ago, I was stopped by the police many times while riding my bicycle. I used to work in Roppongi until late at night and ride my bicycle to Nakameguro where I lived. The police in Ebisu would always stop everyone, Japanese included. Of course that was around 4am in the morning. But they never asked me for my gaijin card. So I don't think they target JUST foreigners although foreigners are more often singled out. The strange thing is, if you ride an expensive bicycle the police will never stop you..

I used to think the police were just wasting their time but then my bicycle was stolen and a few days later the police returned it to me. Apparently having found it by stopping a guy riding it! I was pleasantly surprised.

These days bicycles are soo cheap and they are abandoned everywhere so I'm sure the police will be happy if anyone just took away those gomi bikes.

Posted by: Roy at January 28, 2005 09:55 PM

Wow! What interesting facts about living in Japan as a forigner! Would love to hear more about your experiences and if your are currently living in Japan.

Posted by: Donna at January 29, 2005 04:05 PM

Donna: yes, I'm living in Tokyo now.

Posted by: Luis at January 29, 2005 06:03 PM

Just finished up a Japanese house search myself, and can't say I could imagine any worse situation than my current one. Must have been ridiculou sin the 80's. So far I've gotten by on luck here, housesitting for people while they're away, moving into friend's places when a housemate moves out, etc. But the two times I've done a point blank search most of the places just say flat out "no gaijin." I lucked out in finding a new place at a reasonable rent 3 minutes from my local station that was inexplicably the only landlord at that real estate agency who would allow foreigners. Must have gone through the motions on a dozen or more places before I got a gaijin OK though. Wish I'd known about that public housing bit, but it seems a bit out of my price range.

Posted by: Jamie at February 6, 2005 09:28 PM

hi, what I read is very interesting...i am doing some research on chinese access to housing in tokyo. wonder if u have any info which can help to locate what kind of channels they use. highly extremely appreciated!

Posted by: vera at March 9, 2005 01:09 PM

I'm afraid my knowledge there is very limited. The most I know is when I was looking for a place 6 years ago, and one agent said that the "gaijin wa dame" sometimes applied to other Asian foreigners, especially Chinese, who they claimed would rent one apartment and six people would live in it. So there may be a bias, a discrimination, and it may be stronger than it is against whites.

But as for the actual place to go to get Chinese-friendly housing, I'm afraid that I don't have a clue.

Posted by: Luis at March 9, 2005 02:30 PM

Thanks. Very informative. I had also put up a similar house hunting experience in Tokyo on my blog. FWIW, I moved out of a UDC apartment into a private one this year. I did not have to pay any key money and the deposit is fully refundable. The owner (SMBC) has clearly mentioned how much they will charge for cleaning when I leave the apartment and not more than that. The UDC apartment was great too in this respect. After living for 3 years in a UDC apartment in downtown Yokohama, I had to pay only 45,000 yen in apartment cleaning fee and got back 31.5 of the original 35万円 that I had paid.

Posted by: packetguy at October 12, 2005 06:04 PM

Hello there. I just found this page while doing a search for info about UR. I am very interested in registering with them (to find a place in Machida), but I am wondering about any restrictions for foreigners. Are there any visa requirements? Is permanent residence required?

Posted by: richard at August 27, 2006 06:54 AM

Richard: Foreigners are welcome, there's no visa requirement that I know of (except to be legally in Japan, to have a visa, that is). There are a few requirements--a certain income level, I think, might be one of them. It's been six years, so I forget all the requirements. But for foreigners, it's a sweet deal. No gift money, no "gaijin wa dame."

You might want to go to one of their main offices--six years ago, they had one in the Shinjuku Island Building, 2nd floor I think. If you can't speak Japanese, bring someone along to translate. Good luck!

Posted by: Luis at August 27, 2006 12:27 PM

Thanks for the heads-up: I have started the process! It was made more complicted by my doing the initial (pre)registration online - as this adds a 4 day delay to the time before I can actually go and look at a place. (I was a little surprised about the MINIMUM income requiremnt, as I had imagined that this kind of scheme would to be to help out poorer folks. The place I have an eye on is about ¥85,000 p/m, and I need to prove an income of 350,000 p/m - or 8.5 million in savings!)

The documentation that I'll need when the deal actually goes through is amazingly brief - though (I think..) there is only a specified window of time between viewing a place and submitting all the docs. This means it makes sense to gather the paperwork before going to look at an appartment.

I will be dealing with the Machida UR office - and no, I don't speak Japanese - but doing all the registration. and making an appointment online to look at a place, is amazingly complicted, even for the Japanese people that were helping me! So, visiting a UR office to register etc is very easy, I am sure; but doing it online has the facade of being convenient - but is a bewildering process!

If I find a nice place, and it all goes through, it will be sweet deal indeed - and thanks again for waking us up to the existence of UR!

Posted by: richard at August 28, 2006 05:50 AM

Hey Luis, interesting readings. I'm reading some of your older stuff and find them useful. I just want to add that maybe due to cultural differences, we Americans usually wear shoes inside an apartment while Japanese take off their shoes. So particular landlords may prefer Japanese because it would mean less damage or repairs on their property's hard wood floors. Ive always made sure I take off my shoes when entering a Japanese house. Just a thought. But yeah I agree discrimination sucks.

Posted by: Andy at June 7, 2007 07:55 PM