In a nutshell: very.
Our lease is up for renewal this month, which reminded me that it's already been two years since we finally got this place. Do you remember the drama just to get it? If you're a new reader or simply missed it, you should read the post on how this place was taken away from us and the follow-up on how we got it back.
Table of Contents
The issue of being non-Japanese
There are a lot of difficulties encountered by foreigners trying to rent in Japan and mostly it has to do with the one thing you cannot change: the fact you are not Japanese. But unlike in many other countries where there are laws that protect potential tenants from racial profiling, at least on paper, you have absolutely no legal grounds when such things happen in Japan.
“…There are no laws in Japan prohibiting property owners from rejecting applicants based on their nationality. This means landlords can freely advertise their properties with annotations clarifying that foreign tenants are not welcome.”
And prohibit they do. Some real estate agents overtly place signs on their windows saying ‘No foreigners,' and I've even heard of foreign nationals being physically escorted to the door when they've entered one that has such a policy, whether it was clearly advertised or not.
Even when they don't have an advertised policy, nationality and race are often considered to be the number one point real estate agents want to clarify with the landlord of a property when dealing with potential foreign tenants. If you show interest in a rental property, the very first thing most real estate agents will do is get on the phone with the landlord and right in front of you, and as if they are breaking the most terrible news, say, “We have some potential tenants interested in your property. I'm very sorry, but they are foreigners…”
Sometimes the landlord will accept applications from foreign residents, but more often than not they say no. Or they may say yes for the sake of not wanting to appear racist, but then take issue with some other point to deny your application. But since they are technically within their rights to deny you on your nationality or race alone, and you don't know who the landlord is, many just don't even skirt around with niceties. And the real estate agent won't be surprised in the slightest; in fact, it was the answer they were expecting. Then of course they will apologize several more times before the phone call is done for putting them in such an “uncomfortable position”.
Why don't Japanese landlords want to rent to non-Japanese?
There are a number of common responses to this. A big one is communication. Many landlords or the real estate agents that represent them often fear that they will not be able to communicate effectively with foreign tenants. However, this is often cited as a reason in cases when the applicant is fluent in Japanese, been living in Japan for decades and may even have a Japanese spouse. While sometimes language ability could be considered a challenge, it's hard to see how language is the main issue a lot of the time.
Then there is flight-risk. Since most (almost all) foreigners are on a visa, they worry that we may leave at any given moment without settling our affairs here. This even goes for those with Permanent Residency. PR is actually not “permanent” in Japan and you have to keep renewing it like other visas. Citizenship is almost unattainable and most don't want it anyway as Japan does not allow dual citizenship, meaning you would have to relinquish your passport and rights in your country of origin.
Another is that they fear foreigners will cause trouble in the neighbourhood – being loud, not separating their trash properly and apparently inviting strangers onto the premises are common stereotypes. These have almost become like urban legends, nobody knows exactly when or how they began, but they are “stories” that everyone knows and likes to repeat, despite most not having had these experiences personally.
All of these stereotypes are extremely difficult to overcome. None take into account the very things that should matter: can you afford to pay your rent and are you of reputable character? The second is obviously harder to prove, but it's the fact that you are considered not to be purely by default that is really hard to come to terms with.
Extra requirements for foreigners
On top of everything else, foreigners are also often required to give extra assurances like having a Japanese person act as guarantor, who, in addition to being Japanese, should also look good on paper – especially in regards to job standing and income. They must sign documents stating that they are legally responsible for paying your rent and addressing other issues with the property should you default.
Even when you know this not to be an issue, this is a huge thing to ask someone, even if you do know them well. Many foreigners, especially those who have recently arrived in the country, often do not have the network in which they have a close Japanese friend to ask, and as Japanese people are generally really cautious about mixing friendship with business, they may not agree anyway.
Real estate agents/landlords may also demand extra fees from foreigners – such as double deposits – as a “safety net” in case anything goes wrong. As there are no laws against racial profiling in the real estate industry, they are absolutely free to do so based on the fact the applicant is non-Japanese alone with no legal backlash.
This can make the financial burden of moving even greater for foreign residents.
What are the costs of renting in Japan generally?
First, as you'd expect, there is the base cost of monthly rent. This of course depends on a range of usual factors like when the property was constructed, facilities and proximity to the nearest train station. The latter is a big factor since most people use public transportation to get around, in big cities at least. Rent usually drops in price once you get past 10 minutes' walk from the station.
There is another interesting point for apartment buildings, in that your rent can depend on the floor. For example, many Japanese people do not want to live on the 1st floor (ground floor) as they fear it a security risk, so the rent is often cheaper. We prefer the 1st floor because we don't have to take the stairs, we have quicker escape in the case of an emergency, and sometimes you can score a little garden rather than the standard concrete balcony. Plus this kind of crime is ridiculously low compared to other parts of the world, so we are willing to take our chances.
For those who are curious, our monthly rent in Tokyo is 82,000 yen. That's around US$730 currently. This is actually really good as foreign residents and I'll explain why later.
Monthly maintenance fees
If you live in an apartment block, there is usually a monthly maintenance fee that goes towards the upkeep of the building. Several times a year, they'll usually send someone out to check or maintain various amenities. Around 5,000 yen (about $45) is probably average from what we've seen, but it can be a lot more if you live in a really swanky place.
We currently pay 7,000 yen (about $60) a month for maintenance. Apartments on the 1st floor in our building pay 2,000 yen a month more because we have gardens that requirement extra attention. They send gardeners out twice a year to weed, and to trim and spray the hedge/border trees.
Just like in much of the world, you need to pay a “refundable” deposit to cover any potential damage you may cause to the property. The average cost of this is 1-2 months' rent.
It often depends on how nice the place is to begin with. The newer and swankier (or if you have pets – more on that in a bit), the more likely your deposit charge will be higher.
In Japan, it is the responsibility of the tenant, not the landlord wanting to lease their property, to pay the real estate agent's fees. You essentially have to pay to be leased to. This is a once-off payment at the start of your lease. Average cost is 1-2 months' rent.
This is sometimes referred to as “gift money” because it's money that you give as a gift to the landlord to thank them for the privilege of being allowed to stay in their place. Don't think that it operates as a usual gift though, in that you can choose if or how much you want to give. This is 100% mandatory and the cost is set.
It is usually between 1-2 months' rent and is paid at the beginning of each rental agreement. So that means when you first start the lease, and any time you renew thereafter. Standard leases are 2 years in Japan so you can expect to have to pay this every two years. Ours is about to come up and we recently received a letter to remind us to ensure we have enough money in our bank accounts by payment day for the regular monthly rental and maintenance fee, the “renewal fee” AKA gift money, and for renewing mandatory fire/third party insurance. As many people have to plan their finances around this, they also sent us the same notice six months ago to remind us to start preparing for it.
As I just mentioned, you may also need to pay for insurance costs to cover situations like fire. We are sent a bill from the real estate agent every year. For us it costs around US$250 annually.
If you have pets, this will dramatically decrease the amount of properties you can rent. Most apartments have a strict no pets policy. For landlords that do allow pets, you may also need to pay more – perhaps by way of an extra deposit or it may actually be termed a “pet fee” to account for the extra wear and tear to the property.
This will really depend on the landlord. Some may be pet lovers themselves and not care too much about a little damage, especially if the place is already a bit scratched up from previous tenants' pets. You'll have to look at each properties fees, and terms & conditions, to see what applies.
Moving in Japan is an expensive task
With all of these fees, moving is a huge financial outlay in Japan. I was speaking with a Japanese nurse recently who was telling me about the extra shifts she's been doing over the summer to earn extra cash so hopefully she can afford to move to a place closer to the hospital she works at soon.
Moving is not something that most people can just pick up and do when they find a suitable place in Japan (foreign or not); they actually have to actively plan for it financially.
Of course, the cost of moving will depend on a number of factors, and a big one will be what your base rent is to start with as a lot of the fees are calculated on that basis. We'd say that a good point of reference would be $5,000 in big cities like Tokyo for that initial hefty payment at the beginning of a lease.
Getting your deposit back?
In Australia, I always got my deposit back. In fact, that is what helped me to move to new places. I'd get my deposit back and that would cover the cost of the deposit for the new place. So I'd only have to worry about paying my rent. In Japan, the deposit is technically refundable too, but you may not get it back, even if the place is left in good condition.
When you move into an apartment in Japan, they often “renew” the apartment. This can often extend further than simply sending a cleaner, such as putting down new tatami if there is a tatami room, and putting up new wallpaper. When we rented our first apartment in Japan, I remember being amazed walking in for the first time after officially receiving the keys. It looked so different than when we went to look at it previously (at which point it had not be cleaned after the previous tenants). The floors were squeaky clean and there was that new tatami smell and fresh wallpaper. This was of course wonderful for us as tenants.
We stayed in that apartment for around 3.5 years and were very careful to look after it. We were fully expecting to receive our deposit back. After all, the apartment had only been “renewed” a few years earlier. In the kitchen, one small piece of wallpaper, no bigger than a coin, had peeled off. We hadn't even noticed it as the spot was behind a shelf. But instead of considering a small thing like that acceptable wear and tear that comes with someone living in a space or as a small deduction from the deposit, they said they would need to replace the wallpaper – not just in that room, but in the entire house! And they would also be replacing the tatami too, which still looked like new. So that meant our deposit was completely gone.
Maybe this has just been our experiences and that of those around us, but nowadays, we fully expect not to receive our deposit back. It seems deposits not only cover potential damage, but also the opportunity for landlords to “refresh” their properties. You essentially pay for them to maintain their investments and for regular home improvements.
One can argue that if we get new tatami and wallpaper when we move in, then it is only fair that the next person does too. But on the whole, this seems like a rather unnecessary cost for homes that are in good condition and conditions to which the renter already agreed to. What is more annoying is when the place is given nothing more than a brief clean at the beginning of the lease and then when you move out the landlord decides “it's time” to do a whole lot of updates to the house, using your deposit to do it with.
Getting our place
As I mentioned earlier, our rent is actually really great. We live in a residential area, but we like it that way, and we're only 2 minutes' walk from the station. We have a three bedroom apartment with a living/dining space, kitchen, bathroom with washlet (that means one of those fancy Japanese toilets with buttons), outdoor storage closet and a 20 square meter garden, where we can grow our own vegetables and herbs. All that for $730 bucks for the two of us is quite the score.
However, not all foreigners are so lucky. We were only able to get this place because of our good Japanese friends who helped us significantly – willing to sign as guarantors, making lots of phone calls vouching for us and the fact that one of them actually worked part-time for the real estate agent we were going through. In the end, we only got it after long, drawn out negotiations, and only when they didn't have anyone else interested in the apartment. They were willing to keep it vacant for months rather than rent to foreigners. I guess money swayed them, in the end. It was our money or no money!
Special services for foreigners
Because it is so difficult for foreigners to go through a regular real estate agent, there are many services popping up now that are trying to fill the gap in the market by providing services in English (and/or other languages), and reducing some of the usual headaches. For example, these services usually don't require a Japanese guarantor and often they don't require key money either. It is great that these services exist, but what I really dislike about them is that are essentially buildings for foreign residents, in existence largely because many Japanese people don't want to live next to a non-Japanese person.
Most foreign residents end up in one of these buildings, or in a sharehouse, where the rent for a tiny room is often close to or equivalent to our rent. Sometimes it's even more and they often have to share facilities. If you are working for a company, you may be lucky to have your employer provide accommodation for you. Many big Japanese companies actually own whole apartment buildings and place their workers there. I'm not sure I'd want my employer in control of my living situation and to live next to colleagues though, even if the company was so big that I didn't really interact with them at work.
Times are changing but prejudice remains
Some people, especially of the older generation, perceive foreigners as having no place in Japanese society. Just ask our elderly neighbours, who flat out refuse to acknowledge our existence and will not even reply when we say hello to them.
A lovely young couple, who was planning to move into the apartment on the other side of us, came to our door recently to introduce themselves and give us a small gift (as is Japanese custom when moving to a new place). They seemed surprised when we opened the door, but we had a nice little chat and they just wanted to let us know that they'd be moving in over Obon (a week-long holiday in mid-August when the Japanese often go back to their family homes and celebrate their ancestors) and apologized that there would be boxes being brought in and that there might be a bit of noise in the process. We told them it was absolutely no problem and once again welcomed them to the building/neighbourhood.
Well, it's now mid-October and there is no sign of them. I may be being extremely paranoid (logically there could be any explanation) but I've been wondering if they were scared off because of stereotypes or by what our racist neighbours may have said.
Just take a look at this article from The Rising Wasabi. This is satire (it's like ‘The Onion' for the expat community in Japan), but touches on several common stereotypes many Japanese have about ‘gaijin' (foreigners), including that they reduce community safety, are loud, and don't respect recycling rules. I'll explain the cologne joke another time, as it is unrelated.
Essentially foreign nationals have very little choice when it comes to renting in Japan. It's often a long, drawn-out process full of frustration and heartbreak, and you may end up having to live in places you don't want to just because that is all you can get.
This is not an issue of lack of apartments like in some countries, where rental competition is intense. There are so many vacant houses and apartments in Japan that the fact that nobody is living in or maintaining them is actually an increasing problem. The reality is deep-seated fear stemming from racist ideology that causes this distrust of foreign renters, even though there is absolutely no evidence that a foreign resident is any more likely to cause issues than a Japanese renter.
To quote Japanese immigration lawyer Shoichi Ibuski from the same Japan Times article I referred to earlier:
“There are no grounds suggesting foreign citizens are more likely to cause any problems. I doubt there are any statistics proving that theory.
“Japanese cause the same troubles as foreign tenants do, which result from differences in age, birthplace or way of thinking. It’s not as if Japanese wouldn’t cause the same problems they believe foreigners would.”
The foreign population in Japan is still extremely small relative to the Japanese population, but it is increasing. With the aging society and low birthrate, Japan's economy will need to increasingly rely on foreign workers to fill the gaps and stimulate growth. We need to find ways to break through these stereotypes and develop communities where sense of worth is not pinned to race or nationality, and that, in fact, this diversity is valued.