Friday, July 29, 2011

Finding an Apartment in Tokyo, Japan

Yes, this is the outside view of a Japanese apartment building.

This is part of a series responding to Christine at Almost Fearless' series 30 Ways in 30 Days to Redesign Your Life and Travel the World. 

Day 6

Finding a place to live for my first trip (Japan) doesn't intimidate me much. As an aside, the more and more I complete Christine's series the more absolutely convinced I become that I'm going to go on more than one long trip. The details of paying for it, however, are still up in the air.

I have lived in Japan before. I was a student, and I lived in the dorm recommended by my school. I know now that I could have found cheaper accommodations closer to my school, but it takes some legwork and research. If you don't speak Japanese it can be difficult to find the information you need.

Luckily, I now speak a little more Japanese than I used to.

Long term housing in Japan can be overwhelming at first. Tokyo rents are expensive. A typical lease in Japan is 2 years, and to renew a lease you have to pay a renewal fee of 1/2 to 2 months rent.

General Options
Gaijin Houses:
Sometimes people call these by the more PC term Guest Houses. This is basically a roommate or dorm suite style situation - most Gaijin houses have 4 to 6 bedrooms and a shared bathroom and living area. Agencies rent out these accommodations by the room, and keep in mind that there's not any sort of roommate screening or matching in most cases. The living situation can be the best thing ever or a nightmare based on who the other renters are. The whole apartment is usually furnished. These can be a very inexpensive option.

You can find dorms in Japan that are not just for students - they basically operate like a long term stay hostel. You share both your bedroom and your living area with roommates, and the number of beds per room depends on the agency running the dorm. Sometimes you get private bedrooms in dorms. The type of dorm style depends on who they cater to.

Student dorms have a cafeteria you can buy a meal plan to. Dorms are not run by or tied to a specific school like they are in the United States. A dorm is run by a separate company, which may have a contract with your school so that they can be recommended by the school to its students. The dorm will most likely have students from multiple schools, and is usually single sex with curfews (and inevitably the girl's dorm has a earlier curfew than the guy's dorm). The dorms that cater to students are sometimes more expensive than renting your own studio apartment, so make sure to compare costs, especially of they have a business relationship with your school. Once again, your roommates can make or break your stay.

Company dorms are actually much the same as student dorms, though usually run or owned by the company that employs the people staying there. You sometimes share a bedroom, and the kitchen and bathroom are shared. They don't usually have cafeterias. Additionally, these dorms also commonly have curfews, though most leave a separate door unlocked so the residents can come and go as they please. Most foreigners employed by a Japanese company that runs a dorm will be given their own room. These are almost always cheaper than an apartment, as they whole point is to subsidize a company's workers' living expenses.

Some rental agencies run general dorms, where anyone can stay so long as they pay the rent. How many people in a bedroom depends on the dorm, and most have a few options. They are similar in set up to a company dorm, but they are usually more expensive than the company dorms. As the student dorm prices vary, they can be either cheaper or more expensive than student dorms.

Apartments in Japan are the same as apartments in western countries: private space including bed area, bathroom, and kitchen area. But if you search for apartments on a Japanese realty website you will notice that there seems to be some kind of weird code as to what kind of space is being rented. Japanese apartments are divided into the following categories:

  • 1ROOM - A one room area, like a western studio, where the kitchen are and sleeping area are in the same room, but the bathroom is in a separate room. The shower and toilet are in the same room, which is considered less desirable by the Japanese.
  • 1K - This stands for 1 bedroom + kitchen. Here the bedroom area is separate from the kitchen area, and the toilet and shower are separate. There is not usually enough room in the kitchen for a table, it could be described as a galley kitchen - just room to cook.
  • 1DK - This stands for 1 bedroom + kitchen/dining area. These style apartments have a separate toilet and shower, as well as a separated kitchen and bedroom area. The difference here is that there is enough room in the kitchen for a table.
  • 1LDK - This stands for 1 bedroom + living/kitchen/dining area. The only difference between this style of apartment and 1DK style apartments is that the kitchen area is a living room area as well. There should be enough room for a table (or maybe there is a bar/countertop that can serve as a table) as well as a space for a coffee table or TV area. 
The numbers before the letters stand for how many bedrooms are in the apartment, so for instance a 2LDK would mean that there is everything described above in the 1LDK description, plus a separate bedroom. If you are still confused there's a beautiful chart posted by a Japanese real estate agency association here.

Because I will be moving with my boyfriend and cats, an apartment is really our only option. 

Costs to Rent an Apartment
The Japanese don't move much. There's a reason for that.

Security Deposit:
In order to rent an apartment you need to pay a huge security deposit of 2 months rent. You can get your money back if there's no damage to the unit after you move, but be aware that Japanese property managers and landlords act much like property managers and landlords everywhere, which means that if there's damage they're not going to bargain shop for the cheapest repair, and they may inflate their costs a little. If you have damaged your apartment in any way, it may be cheaper to hire someone to repair it before you move than let the landlord decide how much the damage should cost you. Oh, and if you want to bring your pet you need to pay an extra months rent towards the deposit.

Advance Rent:
You are usually required to pay the first two months rent in advance, on top of the security deposit. I have heard this is because there is a high percentage of people in Japan who sign the paperwork on an apartment and then never move in, but I have no idea how true this statement is. 

Key Money:
This is where you get to see the ghosts of Japan's past return to haunt you. Key money, or reikin (礼金), was basically bribe money. After World War II there were very few properties left standing, so people gave gifts to the landlord in order to get housing. Despite the fact that housing is no longer scarce, everyone in Japan still pays key money. In case you couldn't guess, this about is also 2 months rent. 

There are ways around paying the key money, but it often involves paying high rent (sometimes higher than rent + the key money would have been) or catching a promotional sale by the property manager. If you are going to move to Japan, budget for paying this, as the chances of avoiding this fee is not in your favor.

Guarantor Fees:
In order for anyone to rent an apartment in Japan, they must have a guarantor or hoshonin (保証人). This is in effect a cosigner on your lease - if you do not meet your obligations the landlord can turn to the guarantor for the money you owe them. Because this is such a big deal, most Japanese will only sign on as a guarantor for family members. 

Here is the problem for foreigners moving to Japan - the guarantor must be Japanese. I may be wrong, but I don't believe there is a legal requirement for the guarantor to be a Japanese person, just a Japanese resident to that the legal system will have the ability to extort have jurisdiction over them should you not pay your rent. If someone is not ethnically Japanese, even if they are Japanese residents who have been in the country for 25 years or have married a citizen, Japanese property managers will not let them be a guarantor. 

Japanese people see foreigners as unreliable, and every time I hear about an English teacher skipping the country leaving unpaid debts behind I think that they have just made is harder for honest foreigners to live in Japan. Yes, it's a stereotype, and stereotyping is bad. But stop reinforcing stereotypes, people!    

So what is a poor foreigner to do? Pay out the nose, of course. There are guarantor companies in Japan, called hoshonin-gaisha (保証人会社), which are basically insurance companies that will sign on as your guarantor in exchange for one month's rent per year you need them to act as guarantor. Expect to pay both years up front. This would be an additional 2 months rent to your move in costs.

Agency Fees:
In order to find an apartment in Japan you usually need to find a real estate agent. Renting in Japan is competitive, and even Japanese people use rental agencies to find an apartment that suits their needs and budget. Almost all apartments in Japan are advertised through an agency, so often you pay the fee even if you didn't hire an agency to look for apartments for you. 

Of course, finding a good agent if you are a foreigner can be hit or miss. Many Japanese agencies won't serve foreigners, sometimes out of fear that they will be unable to explain key parts of the lease to someone who does not speak Japanese. Other times it's racism or prejudice. Some agencies will search for an apartment the same way they would search for a Japanese person's apartment - which is bad since many landlords will not rent to foreigners, for the same reasons.

Agencies aimed towards foreigners usually have a certain clientele in mind, and they seem to price rents a little higher than a similar quality apartment listed on a Japanese rental agency's website. Some are companies that own their own network of buildings, and will only show you the open rooms in their network, and others are more traditional agencies that just happen to cater to foreigners.

The best place to find an agent would be to ask on an expat message board like or If you plan on teaching English in Japan I highly recommend for general questions. 

So what are my total costs to rent an apartment in Japan? 9 months rent, give or take, just to rent the room. Of that, only 3 months worth can be refunded. Pretty pricey.  

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