Are you someone thinking about moving to Japan? Are you a foreigner currently living in Japan, but want to change your housing? If so, this is a comprehensive guide to what you’ll need in order to rent apartments in Japan, and how to overcome the obstacles that many foreigners face.
After living in Japan for seven years and moving seven times one would think that I were an expert when it comes to housing. Unfortunately, the learning curve has been steep and each move has been full of surprises (to my dismay). As I’m sitting in my latest cramped space with paper thin walls that shake every time a truck passes, I’m questioning my life choices, and wondering how I can help prevent others from ending up in a similar predicament.
Tag along if you want to know what to avoid when moving into an apartment in Japan, and what features you should look out for. Here is my top advice for renting apartments in Japan as a foreigner like myself.
Housing Agencies in Japan and How They Treat Foreigners
The process of finding an apartment in Japan always begins with a housing agent. It’s almost impossible to deal with a Japanese landlord directly, and any inquiries or problems you may have with the facility will always involve a middleman.
The first problem you’ll run into is finding an agency willing to work with you if you don’t speak any Japanese. Most do not have English speakers or websites, so either you’ll have to buckle down and study, or bring a Japanese friend with you to help translate.
Even if you do speak fluent Japanese, there isn’t a guarantee that they’ll help you. I’m not fluent, but I can speak at a conversational level, and I can understand the majority of the kanji used in documents for the registration process and contracts.
One agent, however, turned me away within minutes when he found out that I would be moving into a new place with the person I was dating at the time. He asked if that person also spoke Japanese, and when I said no, he turned me down saying that it would be impossible to build a relationship with our neighbors and that they didn’t have any places suitable for non-Japanese speakers.
In all the years that I’ve lived here, my neighbors have never once said more than “Hello!” the few times we actually bumped into each other outside. It was really just the agent’s way of saying that he didn’t want to deal with explaining to each landlord that we were a foreign couple and asking for permission to allow us to view the place. That brings us on to our next point.
Reasons Japanese Landlords Will Reject Foreigners
If you happen to come across a place that you really love and seems perfect, don’t get too excited or grow attached to it quickly. The housing agent will have to first call the landlord and ask them if they’re willing to allow foreigners to move in. If the landlord says yes, they’ll then ask if they’re also willing to accept a couple.
The agent will then have to specify to the landlord whether or not you’re married. That is because there is still a social stigma attached to unwedded couples moving in together. Also there is a fear that one of the tenants will move out if the relationship turns sour.
Married couples also have reason to be concerned, because the landlords will want to know if you have children, and whether or not you’re planning to have any during the period of your contract. Some places do not allow small children, or they may require you to pay an additional amount for the deposit.
Another reason Japanese landlords may reject you is if you haven’t been living in Japan for a long period of time. They’re worried that you may suddenly disappear and return to your home country, because newcomers typically have fewer strings attached. You may not like your new job and decide to work elsewhere.
Or, you may get homesick and realize life in Japan just isn’t for you. One landlord was even worried that we wouldn’t be able to throw the trash out properly (because only certain items can be thrown out on certain days) and questioned if we knew how to sort it.
The biggest reason foreigners get rejected is because they don’t have a Japanese guarantor. This is a person who promises to be financially responsible for the apartment if you decide to bail, or are somehow unable to pay for whatever reason.
Your guarantor cannot be another foreigner, and not all Japanese people have a high enough income to be accepted as one.
Some landlords are willing to accept tenants that pay a guarantor company. This usually equates to the same amount as one month of rent. However, roughly half of Japanese landlords prefer or require that you are backed up by an actual person.
Hidden Apartment Fees
Let’s imagine that you’ve found a place, the landlord has accepted you, and you have the guarantor situation all sorted out. What next?
Well, now comes the point where the agent will calculate the total costs that you’ll have to pay upfront before moving in. Most nice apartments will require you to pay one to two months worth of rent for a deposit. They’ll also require an additional month as gift money that you basically just throw away.
It’s given to the landlord, but there’s no benefit to it for you in any way, and you won’t get any of it back. You’ll also have to pay a fee to have the locks changed, to have the place cleaned, to purchase home insurance, and the agency fee (which is generally around 50% of your monthly rent).
When all is said and done, you’ll need roughly 300,000-400,000 yen ($3000-$4000 USD) just to move in, and you’ll be expected to pay rent from your second month of stay.
The cheapest place I moved into that didn’t have a deposit or key money still costed roughly $2500 up front. It included one month of free rent, but was just for a tiny one room apartment with just enough space for a bed, desk, and bookshelf.
When you move in you’ll also have to pay a deposit to have your gasoline turned on. You’ll need it even if your place has an electric stove, because it’s used to heat up your water and is usually another 10,000 yen ($100).
Does it all sound expensive?
There are different jobs that are available that can help you cover the high costs of living in Japan. If you want to rent a decent size place and still have money left over for traveling, take a look at How to Get a Job in Japan and see what options may be available for you.
Things You’ll Need to Buy for the Apartment
Most Japanese apartments do not come with any appliances whatsoever. This includes your ceiling lights. I wasn’t surprised when I toured my first place and it didn’t have a fridge or washer. However, I was shocked when I realized that it didn’t have any lighting at all, and we had to sit in total darkness our first few nights.
Ceiling lights can be purchased at department stores, and are something you should keep and take with you whenever you move into a new place. The adapter that they fit into is universal that you just have to twist to unhook, and then you can easily pack it away. I recommend getting one like the Iris Ohyama LED Ceiling Light, because it has adjustable settings, and comes with a remote.
Be careful when buying a washing machine in Japan, because unlike the light switches, the space dedicated to it in your apartment isn’t so universal, and may not fit the washing machine that you have. I learned this lesson the hard way. I had a wonderful washer/dryer combination machine that was very expensive and uncommon for most households.
You’ll find that most residents don’t have a dryer and still hang their clothing outside. I thought that I would take my washer with me to my latest apartment, but was horrified to learn that it wouldn’t fit when the movers brought it in, and was too big to even get down the hallway. I had to make a decision right then and there.
Either sell it to the movers for 8000 yen ($80) or give it away to a friend (and get charged for shipping). I had to kiss my 150,000 ($1500) washer goodbye and sat completely empty handed. Many tears were shed.
The morale of the story is, if you have a washer that you plan on moving with you, be sure to take note of its measurements, and take a measuring tape with you to check the washing area of your new place to see if there is enough space on the platform.
Some apartments have a rod in the shower and a fan for you to dry your laundry on. Most have holders outside on the balcony on each side of the window (which is usually the size of two glass doors) that you can hang an additional rod from.
The problem, however, is that most places don’t include an outdoors one, so you’ll have to measure the distance between the holders and purchase one. You can get a decent one that will last you for years for under 1000 yen ($10) in most major department stores. It’s just a bit of a hassle and kind of awkward to carry home. Make sure to pick up a couple laundry racks while you’re there, and you should be set.
The last major purchase you’ll want to consider getting is a futon or bed. You can get a single size futon for as cheap as 3000 yen ($30). Beds are not as common and will cost you anywhere from 20000 yen ($200) and up.
If you plan on sleeping in a tatami room do NOT use a bed. Any tiny hint of damage to the tatami will cause you to lose a huge chunk from your deposit. The legs on the frames of beds are just too rough, and are likely to scratch it.
Things You Should Know About Your Location
When you go on a tour of an apartment pay careful attention to where the nearest school is, and how close the apartment is located near a road. One of my favorite places that I’ve lived in so far was also right down the street from a junior high school.
It was in a relatively quiet area, but I was awoken most mornings as hundreds of students walked by while chatting and laughing early in the morning. Students in Japan are very respectful and won’t bother you, but that doesn’t mean they won’t wake you up!
Also, take note as to what kind of businesses are nearby. Try to avoid housing in more commercial areas if possible. I toured my current apartment on a Sunday. Even though it was near a busy street, inside still seemed relatively quiet, and I have privacy when I open my window.
However, I moved in on a weekday and immediately realized I had made a huge mistake. From 5am to 5pm on weekdays I have the lovely misfortune of feeling my apartment shake like there’s an earthquake every time a cement truck turns and drives into the factory just behind my building. It’s not the noise that I mind, but the tremors ever few minutes that make me wonder if the building is about to fall down as I’m trying to sleep.
Always, always tour the apartments you’re interested in on weekdays during peak business hours. Take time off work if you have to. You don’t want to run into any surprises and get stuck with them for two years because you have a contract.
There’s plenty more that you should look out for when moving into a new home in Japan, but I’ll have to save it for another post. I need to hurry and get some sleep if I want a full eight hours before the shaking wakes me up!