Finding an Apartment in Japan

Despite evidences to the contrary in what follows, I am not whining and moaning about life in Japan here: nor am I bitching about its ludicrous cost of living or its locals’ strong xenophobic prejudices. In fact, I am not even complaining about anything.
That, for three reasons: a) I hate these foreigners who make it a mission during their whole stay in Japan to rant endlessly about every single irritating detail they encounter: if I didn’t want to be here, I’d have got the hell out a long time ago. b) I know this type of thing is hardly a Japanese exclusivity: for instance, I have yet to see how a person with only vague notions of English and limited intent to settle for long-term would fare into getting a random landlord to rent him an apartment at market price in NYC. And c) I found a place after all… so screw all these other discriminated-against gaijins who will have to sleep in Ueno Koen next month… I love Japanese landlords.
Why am I writing this then?
Because the noise of my fingers randomly hitting keys on a keyboard has a soothing effect on my naturally psychotic character. That’s why.

As part of my lifelong ambition to stay away from the bore of a peacefully happy and enjoyably simple lifestyle, I must ensure at all cost that I do not ever spend more than three months at the same address (ok. it also helps keeping the feds off my back… but that three-count-of-felony-with-aggravated-manslaughter-and-international-drug-trafficking thing was a total setup anyway). So, in keeping with the plan to make my life a little more difficult with each passing day, I decided to give my notice a month ago, intent as I was on finding a new, nicer, cheaper house. Preferably a house where announcing rent price would no longer send half our friends into fits of hysterical laughter and prompt the rest to politely inquire about the state of our mental health. And indeed, it sounded like we were paying quite a lot compared to Japanese already vertiginous market prices.

That, of course, turned out to be even poorer an idea as it may sound (and if you are me, or know my tendency to come up with moronic plans, you are already expecting a pretty high level of stupidity here).

Let me start with a quick explanation regarding housing options in Japan. More specifically, housing options for this evil race of non-japanese people that sometimes attempt to invade this beautiful country; the one we commonly refer to as “gaijins”.
Though some of them can be insidiously hard to spot, due to their similar skin color or their impeccable mastering of local customs, rest assured that the average local won’t be fooled two minutes by any attempt at obsequiously bowing every twenty seconds while chanting “hai, sou desu ne, wakarimashita” as if you were one of them. Rest assured you will soon be reminded of your real status:
“Most honorable respected visitor friend, I must point out to you that, no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you are and will remain for all practical purpose, a good-for-nuthin, bread-stealin’, virgin-raping, foreigner.”

So being a gaijin slightly affects your housing options.

At the bottom of the scale, you got the guesthouse, tellingly found under the “gaijin-house” denomination in most ads.
Overall, it’s not a bad option: it’s cheap, it’s convivial (you get to share your living room and your bathroom with all types of interesting people) and, if you pick carefully, you can even avoid some of the nastier short-term ones filled with european otaku backpackers and obnoxious american frat-boys (oxymoron added for clarity purpose) in favour of places that house equal numbers of slightly older foreigners and japanese nationals, with nicer atmosphere and improved wa as a result (it should be pretty clear by now that foreigner being the source of all evil, the fewer there are, the better). Guesthouses are ok, provided you don’t mind walking around your pockets filled with 100 yen coins, mandatory to operate about every other utility or household item (shower, heater, washing-machine etc. depends on the house), but it’s fair game since you don’t really pay utility bills after all.

The next evolutionary leap in the life of the profesional gaijin dweller is the gaijin apartment. Gaijin apartments are similar to regular apartments in every respect except for the noticeable fact that they belong to realtors who cater exclusively to the foreigner community in Japan.
I am not talking here about company apartments, residential hotels and other expat dwellings: no point going over these depressingly boring uber-expensive sanitized apartments sometimes provided by corporations to their foreign recruits (though less and less in those days of post-bubble economy). Beside, if that’s the kind of housing you are shooting for, you probably should be doing better things than reading this, such as trying to convince the boneheaded corporation that hired you that it was worth paying extra to import the US version of the upper-management salaryman droid, minus politeness and local language skills.
Gaijin realtors are targeting regular foreigners who still have to pay for their house and want/can afford better than shared housing. In addition to offering services in non-japanese languages, they usually provide lease conditions closer to western customs and will not run away if you tell them you don’t have a Japanese passport and that, indeed, neither does any member of your family that might sign as your guarantor. These places usually also come with basic furniture, unlike traditional Japanese rental, where you’ll be lucky to get a sink and a bathtub, let alone heater or fridge.
They make up for this convenience by charging roughly twice the price of any equivalent surface you would find at the Japanese real-estate agency across the street. Can’t have it all, can you?

Well “not true”, I reckoned.
Nagged by the intimate belief that the perfect house was just around the corner and required only a little extra effort to reward us with a significant cut in our ludicrous rent budget, I decided to take it to the next step and start hunting:

Equipped with my laughingly approximate Japanese vocabulary and life-savior sidekick: Atsushi, vital in helping to ask and answer any question not starting by “genki”, this is how I foolishly decided to get a Real Japanese Apartment…
Conscious I might very well end up sleeping in Yoyogi park and would in this case need a housemate, if only to take turns watching over the tarps and personal belongings at night, I convinced Nordine to follow me on this hapless venture (not like he was happy with our previously inflated rent either).

Man, was it a lot of fun or what!
Over the course of the last two weeks, not only have I got to dramatically improve my knowledge of kanjis (especially location names) by reading thousands of useless Internet classifieds, but I also learned about 2530 different ways to say “no” in Japanese kenjougo (super duper polite version of Japanese spoken by anybody who might have to be otherwise very rude in what he got to tell you, but will therefore do it in the most humble possible way)…
The most common answer from realtors after calling the owner to inquire about a house, being a somewhat embarrassed:

Gaikokuzei dakara, chotto muzukashii desu ne…

Which translates literally to:

Because you are foreigners, it might be a little difficult, huh…

itself the teineigo (polite Japanese) version of:

Muwahrharhar… Not in your wildest dream, you White Devil Foreigner!

And it’s not like you are begging for a special treatment either: moving in will cost you, no matter who you are, one to three months of “reikin” (礼金 or “key money”), basically a gift to the owner, on top of the one month-commission fee to the agency and the two to three months “shikikin” (敷金: deposit). If you’d rather they use lube during the whole thing, you probably have to pay another extra.
Because one can never be too sure in Japan, you will also be asked for two guarantors (保証人) to sign along. Needless to say: your guarantors must be Japanese and, preferably be your own blood. The mere fact that our two japanese co-signer friends were not family-related was already a show-stopper with most owners that had not yet hung up upon hearing the word “gaijin”…

So in short, we can say it was a bit tough.

But we found one…
It’s definitely second dip, it’s quite a walk from the station, not in the hippest neighbourhood by any stretch…
but it’s about 50% cheaper, bigger, and it’s even got some kind of backyard (two by three feet at the most)…

Conclusion: We don’t have heaters anymore and it seems like winter’s decided to play serious prolongation, with a bit of snow around here, but we got a kotatsu and a flask of rhum: domestic bliss indeed.


  1. >>”so screw all these other discriminated-against gaijins who will have to sleep in Ueno Koen next month…”

    What is wrong with Ueno?

  2. “What is wrong with Ueno Park?”
    Nothing really… though maybe the complete absence of actual “houses” in favour of tents made of blue tarps, as the exclusive type of available dwelling in this area might be considered a downside by many potential apartment prospectors… Then again, if you really enjoyed camping in your garden as a kid, you might enjoy Ueno Koen during the Summer. Winter there sounded much less fun.

  3. well i live in a gaijin house in ueno and its actually not too bad, if you dont mind a washer, kitchen, bathroom, shower, bed, table, tv, and dont even ask about a closet, all shoved into less than 8 tatami mats. considering the 35000per month rent and the privacy though, i am feeling really good about it. but i know what you mean when you hear that sharp intake of breath and, muzukashi desune, which basically means, there is a way but i dont want to. you gotta love the japanese

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