Dec 13, 2016

Finding an apartment in Japan: Expats on the challenges and surprises

Finding an apartment in Japan is easy in a certain respect. There are lots of them! The highest hurdles can present themselves when it comes to actually getting our name on the lease, keys in hand, and ready to move in. The machinations of this process can seem overwhelming to the expat, and it’s here that we can see the best (or, indeed, worst) of Japan’s penchant for the filling in of forms.  

Then there is the expense. Or should that be ‘was’ the expense. Deposits, management fees, and mysterious entities like key money and gift money could amount to us handing over up to 6 month’s worth of rent before we’ve had the chance to hang up some curtains. In recent years however, an awareness seems to have been growing that such terms and financial transactions have been alienating a growing market for realtors in Japan; us, the foreigners living here. Where once key money and gift money were a given, these days they are an option that, if flexible in our apartment hunting in Japan, can be avoided. This increasing accessibility has been bolstered by the growing appeal among 20s to 30s locals in a period of stay in one of Japan’s share houses where they can save money, and maybe practice that English they learned during a homestay in Australia.

We asked City-Cost bloggers and users to recall some of their experiences of finding apartments in Japan, the basics of which you can read below. While we largely use the term 'apartment' some of this can be applied to houses as well.  

We started with one of the great causes of exacerbated laughter between foreigners and locals in Japan, the interpretation of the term ‘mansion’.  

1)  Do you understand the difference (in Japan) between an apartment (アパート) and a mansion (マンション)?

Don't care (when choosing a place to live/rent)0%

2)  Do you understand the size/measurements of apartments/mansions in Japan; 1DK, 2LDK etc?

Not at all5%

3)  What were the key factors in you choosing your current apartment (or the last apartment you rented) in Japan?

4)  What was/is the most difficult part about renting an apartment in Japan?

5)  Did any of the following surprise you when you moved into your first apartment in Japan?

In ranked order

1Poor insulation19%
2Kitchen/cooking space17%
3Thin walls16%
4Overall size (or lack of)10%
4Lack of fixtures/fittings/furnishings10%
5Lack of space to hang out laundry9%
6Lack of natural light due to proximity of nearby buildings6%
7No parking spot (for a car)5%
7Tatami flooring5%
8The bright lights (if they were installed when you moved in)2%

6)  When moving into a new apartment in Japan, which of the following items would you set as a priority to buy, assuming they didn’t come with the apartment?

The reason for posing this question was that, for the most part, when moving into an apartment in Japan you will be afforded the bare bones in terms of fixtures, fittings, and furnishings.  As such, the fully-furnished share house can seem a tempting option for expats in Japan.  This is even more so when they have potentially forked out months' worth of rent to get through the door of their new apartment.  The 'When' and 'How' of getting a new place to feel homely can be a daunting prospect for some.  

7)  Japan has many earthquakes. Did this/does this factor into your thinking when looking for a building to live in?

In ranked order

1Quite a bit33%
2Don’t worry about it too much22%
3Very much so19%
4Don’t have the budget to give it any consideration either way15%
5Don’t worry about it at all11%

The events of March 11, 2011 potentially hammered home the reality of living with earthquakes for a whole generation of expats in Japan, who up until that point had perhaps gotten complacent to the odd tremor.  Without wanting to scaremonger, locals said of my old apartment that should 'the big one' hit, well, the outlook wasn't good. 

Perhaps we approached the above question the wrong way, as the responses, although giving an indication of consciousness of earthquakes when finding apartments in Japan, don't shed any light on their priority when it comes to choosing a place to live.  This may be a reflection of my own attitudes to this as being one of, Well, first things first, let's just find a place that fits my budget and location requirements, and actually take me in.  I'd speculate that plenty of others feel the same way.

From now, we'd like to break down some these apartment / house hunting in Japan issues and challenges and go into further detail in future posts, so please watch this space for more info.  In the mean time, if you've any thoughts on finding an apartment in Japan that you'd like to share, we'd love to have them.  Drop us a line in the comments below.

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