In coming from overseas to work in Japan, finding a place to hang your hat can be both frustrating and confusing because of the traditional procedures and fees involved. Fortunately, many Japanese employers are well-used to dealing with these issues on behalf of their foreign staff, though that might not always be the case.
In this article, we’ll consider some of the important things you should know about renting accommodation in Japan, beginning with the types of housing commonly available.
Japan’s Housing Stock
The major factor affecting the affordability or otherwise of rents and leases in Japan is land values, which are insanely high in the metropolitan centres. This is why so few salaried Japanese workers and their families can afford to live in the inner city, and why Tokyo is ringed by sprawling satellite communities of apartment complexes, often referred to as bed towns. In this way, property prices and rents tend to reduce outwards in concentric circles from the urban centres.
However, building standards in Japan are generally high and slums or slum landlords virtually unknown. Similarly, with street crime being rare, there are no ‘bad areas’ in the sense that Westerners might understand the term. New apartments and houses are being built all the time, whilst a tradition of rebuilding or reforming property means that existing stock rarely becomes dilapidated or unsafe.
Most Japanese people these days live in compact, modern apartments, and prefer to do so. Flats may be small by Western standards, but the creative use of space, for which the Japanese are so well-known, prevents them from being unduly cramped. They’re also well-tended, clean and free from damp and draughts. Flooring these days is typically wooden, though sleeping areas often have tatami mats.
Single Occupancy Flats
Most single occupancy flats have just one multi-purpose room with a small kitchen area, and a combined bath/shower/WC. But many landlords provide basic fixtures, such as air-conditioners (essential in the summer), gas hobs and/or microwave ovens. Otherwise, furnishings may be necessarily quite sparse because, unlike a Western bed-sit, one folds away one’s futon into a traditional built-in cupboard made for that purpose.
Many single occupancy apartments are built as two-story wood framed buildings, perhaps containing between 8 and 12 individual units, often squeezed onto small patches of vacant land. I don’t recommend this type of accommodation because the construction is so light, you can literally hear a pin drop in adjoining apartments. Wherever possible, choose a more solid, concrete building if you prefer a peaceful, private life.
Bigger, and therefore more expensive apartments, tend to follow the above pattern, except that they provide one or more separate bedrooms, separate bathroom and WC, and have more built-in cupboards. Typically built in larger, and higher concrete blocks known as mansions, their floor plans vary, but are all variations on the same basic theme.
Like the bigger apartments, Japanese houses are primarily intended for nuclear families, or may be older, traditional wooden properties that may have housed several generations of the same family for donkey’s years. Even if they were generally available to rent, they’d be less appropriate to the needs of most foreign residents, and considerably more expensive than an apartment. But if you’re a high rolling investment banker or foreign diplomat, I’m sure you company or the tax payers back home can provide you with any kind of Japanese house you like.
I don’t have any personal experience of these myself, except once as a visitor, but some of the large trading companies have dormitory accommodation for new recruits (freshmen) from out of town. As I understand it, these aren’t intended as long stay options, perhaps just for the first year of one’s employment, after which you’re on your own. Typically, dormitories are single sex with shared facilities, providing little more than a small room for sleeping, and as such can be compared to university halls of residence. Actually, the one I visited had quite draconian rules and regulations and was suicidally austere, but dormitories can provide a useful stop gap while one is looking for more suitable accommodation elsewhere.
The search for a flat is typically done through a letting agent, easily recognisable on any high street by the widow full of cards depicting floor plans of apartments for rent. However, I’d caution against just walking in on them as most are still extremely old-fashioned and wary of dealing directly with foreigners. And even if you speak fluent Japanese, their prejudices may actually deafen them to the fact.
It is far better to choose your agent by personal recommendation, or have your employer make the necessary arrangements on your behalf, as most are happy to do. It may be the case that your Japanese employer can arrange for a company let, in which case you will be spared some the expenses itemised below.
The Cost of Housing in Japan
With regional and local adjustments, you can expect, on average, about a third of your income to go on rent. But before you can even think about taking up residence, you’ll have to prove your suitability as a tenant by providing the estate agent/landlord with the following documents:
- a copy of your passport
- a letter from your employer showing your salary
- your Japan tax certificate
- a copy of your residence card (Juminhyo)
- guarantor information where applicable
On top of that, your initial outlay will involve fees in addition to rent, typically:
- 2 month’s rent as deposit
- an agent’s fee equivalent to 1 month’s rent
- key money (a blatant gratuity) equivalent to 1 month’s rent
- contract renewal fee equivalent to 1 to 2 month’s rent
- and miscellaneous charges related to insurance and building maintenance
All of that could easily add up to the equivalent of 6 months rent! “Property is theft”? Proudhon must be spinning in his grave! The legality of some of these fees is open to interpretation, but Japan is a great grey area for unenforced rules, so all you can do is pay up and take independent advice later if you so wish. But it does kind of underline the advantages in allowing your employer to make these kinds of arrangements on your behalf.
Not everyone in the letting business in Japan is out to bleed you dry. UR Housing in Tokyo, for example, is a public company offering rental dwellings without any need for key money, agent or renewal fees, or a guarantor, and rents to anyone irrespective of nationality.
Beyond that, low cost public housing, particularly as provided by local authorities, is not easy to come by. Applications may only be accepted at certain times of the year, properties might be allocated by lottery, and low income families or the disabled will take precedence. However, as a possible future means of escaping high rents, foreign residents would be advised to find out what public housing might be available to them in their area.
Foreigners renting accommodation in Japan will often require a guarantor, someone who takes the responsibility to ensure your rent is paid when you cannot, for whatever reason. This, as you might imagine, adds to the fees and paperwork.
As stated, most employers will act as guarantors and provide company lets, or may be able to offer dormitory accommodation, thus taking the initial hassle of flat hunting out of your hands. Similarly, if you have a Japanese spouse, they will act as your guarantor in all respects, not only housing.
Things to Watch Out for When Viewing Flats
If you’re tall, as I am, eschew any accommodation where you have to stoop to pass through doors. Seriously, I’ve known more than a few foreigners receive nasty head wounds by forgetting to duck when passing from room to room. For the same reason, check the height and location of cooker extractor hoods and overhead cupboards, and be prepared to tape wads of towelling over exposed corners after you move into a flat!
Japan is probably the noisiest place I’ve ever lived or visited, so the universal lack of double-glazing and thin adjoining walls means noise from outside and from neighbours is all the more audible. Try to view prospective flats at times you’re likely to be home, and try knocking on adjoining walls; if they’re solid concrete, so much the better.
Finally, look out for any vacant plot of land adjoining the property; somebody WILL build on it before long. Not only can that mean weeks of 24/7 hammering, but the chances are you’ll end up with a new building just inches away from your windows, blocking light and any view you might otherwise have had. I remember my late mother-in-law becoming very depressed when a new apartment block occluded the view of Mt. Fuji that she’d once so enjoyed.
A Final Thought
Moving homes is always very stressful, but moving from country to country, culture to culture, can be even more daunting. Don’t be afraid to ask your employer or other contacts what they can do to help you find accommodation before you come to Japan. As you might expect, you may have to accept what is made available to you, but it will improve your comfort and outlook if you can make as many of your own choices as possible.
By Bill Ambler
Read more TalentHub blogs : https://talenthub.jp/blog/?lang=en