Bradley Robbins is a tech, trade, and travel writer with a lifetime of experience with North America, Europe, and Japan.
So you’ve finally secured the once-in-a-lifetime Japanese experience of your dreams. Maybe you joined an organization like the JET exchange program or have gotten past the overseas interview phase of a corporate job and are coming over to work with peers. You may have simply found work as a translator or tour guide for the summer or be ready to retire overseas. You’ve read the guidebooks and think you know what to expect. You know the secrets of shopping at conbini and underground department store markets, and you’ve heard stories of nights spent in capsule hotels. You can recite the employment fliers and official “Welcome to Japan” documentation.
But what about the things they don’t tell you? Especially when it comes to housing, Japan can be a whole different world than what you may find in most of Europe and the Americas. Some terms are obvious: rent, deposit, cleaning fee. But what is a key fee? Why is there an agency fee? And do they really require six months of payments in advance with only one month going towards your actual rent? What about the different housing types? Did you think you’d be seeing sliding doors and thatched roofs? Can you live in a capsule hotel or one of those manga kissa (cafes) you saw on TV?
I’ve spent my share of time in many of these accommodations as part of my travels and international business experience. Let me share with you a few of the secrets that aren’t in bold print on those brochures, as well as a few tips for getting the most out of each of Japan’s myriad housing options.
This isn’t a specific type of housing, but it’s an important consideration when you’re moving so that you can work in Japan. First and foremost, company housing is always dependent on your continued employment. Read that twice, three times if necessary. Recruiters will often state that they’ll help you move out of company housing if you move on. Understand this help often includes only an emailed link to local apartment listings, which may or may not be sent to your now-closed company email account.
Even if you believe you’ve found your dream job and aren’t worried about housing being connected (usually figuratively) to work, understand that your bosses know about this connection. When it comes time for payment reviews, they’ll likely take your housing into consideration. Even if you are expected to pay some of your housing bills, there is an unstated sense of gratitude that you must show the company for their assistance. That often comes in the form of lower wages than your peers.
Company housing for expatriates bears a certain stigma, and moving on from company sponsorship can be difficult as it exposes you to the challenges of finding living arrangements that others face when entering the country. Namely, that you likely lack anyone willing to vouch for you as a guarantor who will assume your debts. You may also not have the six or more months of rent often required to get a private place on your own. Hello Work can often help if you suddenly find yourself losing access to subsidized or paid-for company housing.
Traditional Japanese Houses
Does your dream house in Japan feature a thatched roof and sliding paper doors? OK, if you are going to work at a ryokan (spa) resort that features a traditional lifestyle, you may have a chance. These types of homes are getting rarer and rarer, and most are found only in one of Japan’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites. Teachers and researchers working in far more rural areas than Tokyo, Kyoto or Sapporo may encounter traditional Japanese houses, but it’s still unlikely you’ll be seeing one anytime soon.
Some of the things they don’t tell you about traditional Japanese houses, commonly called minka, include the fact that:
Most lack modern amenities. Some are without power or internal plumbing.
- All are historical sites, or at least treated by the community with the same level of respect.
- Not all are actually old. Many are mockups and may not fit the weather of the area.
- Fire must be confined to one part of the home. Smoking indoors is usually forbidden.
- Additional fees may be required for ongoing maintenance and care of all attached property.
The part about the fees is likely to surprise some workers who manage to rent minka from small businesses or private owners at a premium price. Any building on the same land, including maintenance sheds or tool storage areas, may have attached fees regardless of if you use or even know about the constructions. In some locations, typically those with historical importance, fees to upkeep unrented properties on the same site also apply. It works as sort of a premium paid for a lack of neighbors.
Similarly, you may be charged labor costs and repair or other fees associated with the upkeep of the area far in excess of what’s needed for a modern Japanese home. If you do decide to go this route, ask for all of the fees upfront and, whenever possible, pay all costs in advance. Financing in Japan makes you beholden to the lienholder. Paying in full makes them answerable to you.
Modern Japanese Houses
You can save money by getting a modern Japanese house and forgoing the dream of living in a Kurosawa samurai film. So what concerns beyond the rental fees and need for a guarantor may exist that don’t already plague homeowners worldwide? For starters, modern Japanese houses are still in short supply and generally belong to the most influential or affluent families in the area. Some are on land for which the family can trace ownership back to before the Sengoku period in Japan’s history. Modern houses, and the land they occupy, are highly treasured possessions.
There are a few tips to help you make the most of living in modern Japanese houses, often referred to as Western-style, despite architectural differences:
- Buy, don’t rent. As long as you are renting, you are a visitor in the community.
- Maintain upkeep. If your house is rundown, it will affect your social standing.
- Homeowners are expected to regularly participate in community events.
- Get to know the neighbors. Don’t expect them to come to you first.
It isn’t always possible to buy outright, but doing so shows your commitment to the area. It’s especially important if you plan to raise a family in Japan, as it will make parents and children more comfortable bonding with your family if you appear to be willing to commit to their corner of society long-term. While you may be a foreigner, you’ll be their foreigner when you integrate with and understand the community.
Learn to read the listings carefully. Houses, private apartments and guesthouses use a very basic numbering and letter system for advertising in Japan. 3DLK, for instance, indicates that a house has three major rooms, designed as a dining room, living room and kitchen. 3R, to indicate three rooms, is equally common, as many modern Japanese houses are still modular on the inside and assigning rooms is more common with apartments.
And then there’s the NHK receiving fee, or television tax. Expect to run into one of these tax collectors whenever you live in a property with electricity, even if you don’t have a TV. You’ll have to show to them that you don’t, pay the fee per television or politely ask them to leave. Legally, you could get in trouble doing the latter if you actually have a TV.
Modern moving and minimalist living at its best, but you knew that as soon as you started looking at apartments in Japan, right? Especially in Tokyo, the populace overwhelmingly ends up in one of two living arrangements. “Manshons” are like the upscale apartments and condominiums found in much of inner-city America. These are often larger buildings, sometimes skyscrapers, and are made of sturdier stuff than “apaato,” Japanese apartment buildings with only one or two stories. Manshon rooms are often a bit bigger, and air conditioning and other features are more often included.
The listing abbreviations are the same for houses, with 1R and 2RL being equally common. Measurements are often given in tatami mats, which are approximately five feet long and three feet wide. It’s not uncommon in crowded areas to see a listing that reads “1R - 3 tatami” and sells the apaato like it is one of the greatest things available. It may well be. The fees and neighbor agreements are far less likely to be given upfront, at least until you sign the paperwork proving your intent to move in.
A list of important fees, which may have to be paid prior to you moving overseas:
- First month’s rent. This one seems obvious enough.
- Gift fee. One to three months of rent as a gratuity for the landlord, also called key fee.
- Two months deposit. This may or may not be refundable. Usually not.
- Agency fee. A gratuity of one to three months’ rent for the agency that referred you.
So yes, that’s six months of rent, easy, for most private apartments. And you will still need a guarantor. And most owners will expect you to pay them the agency fee if you weren’t referred. Where the real fun comes in is with the social contracts, which are often literally written rules, for interaction with other renters. Unlike American apartments, where “don’t let your dog poop on the sidewalk” and “quiet time after 10 p.m.” are some of the more strict, in Japan these social agreements can lead to culture shock with:
- Extra fees. Expect fees as penalties for not sorting garbage or not meeting contract guidelines.
- Bike parking rules. Including specific times, locations and licensing restrictions.
- Number of guests and guest hour rules. Don’t break these.
- Food smells. Some residents or landlords may just hate certain smells. And yes, it’s enforceable if you sign the agreement. Natto, curry and vinegar are generally OK.
To make the most of these living arrangements, you have to be a king of living minimally. That means minimal space, minimal clutter and minimal distraction to your neighbors. Japanese citizens living in tight quarters in places like Tokyo have transformed this into an artform, and you are expected to follow suit. Of course, there are places for the party animal or temporary worker who doesn’t want all of these restrictions.
People go to Japan all the time and come away with these great stories about sharing a place with foreigners from Australia, Europe and the Middle East. There’s a place where all the gaijin seem to hang out and have fun without having to worry about guarantors or massive fees and investments. And they set up everything long before they moved to Asia. That place is the guesthouse, colloquially called the “gaijin house,” and it’s a mid-term housing option for those working for a month or longer in Japan.
Situated somewhere between a shared apartment and a youth hostel, with actual rooms for its guests, the guesthouse is a good deal for those who don’t mind paper-thin walls and the likelihood of sharing space with heavy partiers on extended vacations. Don’t confuse these with the ryokan or other Japanese guest accommodations, these are more like the large rooms shared by town visitors in “Seven Samurai” than any permanent housing option. They also have a bit of that “flophouse” stigma, so best to keep stays brief (to under a year or so) as you move up in your career path.
Accommodations can often be booked, and even paid for, while still overseas thanks to easy sharing of digital documents and forms. These locations market heavily to ex-pats and foreign vacationers alike, but there are a few things the guesthouses leave off their brochures as well:
- Few are very well maintained, due to the temporary nature of the guesthouse visit.
- On-site managers are often overworked and underpaid but really want to help.
- Many visitors do stay much longer than a year, but it is not encouraged.
- Partying and drinking occur at all hours, and there may be no social contracts.
- The walls do not mask noise, and many vacationers are quite amorous.
Guesthouses provide a relatively safe place to stay without the need for heavy upfront fees or guarantors. If you have to quickly find a place and don’t have a sponsor in Japan to help, they are a great choice. You’ll often also find Japanese persons living in them to make international contacts or better learn foreign languages. These neighbors can be some of your biggest assets as their networking skills can help you find a guarantor or a job to help you move on to other accommodations.
Bonus: Capsule Hotels and Manga Kissa
Many a Japanese salaryman has a tale of missing the last train out and being stuck in a capsule hotel. Vacationers do it for fun. It’s not a long-term living arrangement, and you’ll quickly find that the sight of naked men walking to and from the bath loses its appeal quickly. Most of your roommates will be older Japanese salarymen (or women, though most of these hotels are single-sex) and snoring can be an issue. It’s a nice place to visit when needed, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
Manga cafes are designed for quiet rest and relaxation. Get a beverage, catch up on your favorite reads… but again, these aren’t designed for long-term residence. A quick nap or two in the manga kissa won’t do much harm, and many a drunken reveler has snoozed away the night there. If you get caught making a habit of it, however, it could hurt your reputation and even get you labeled as a vagrant or homeless person. Not really worth it if you plan on living and working in Japan, even if the accommodations seem nice at first glance.
Before you venture overseas, make sure to check out all of your options. If you have connections already, ask them if they’re willing to vouch for you so your housing can go off without a hitch. Consider becoming roommates with friends or family, and look for dorm housing if you plan to study as well.
Choosing the right place to stay can make a big difference when you’re living in Japan. Make some friends on Gaijin Pot, and become a commenter on Japan Today before you go (sites I have no current affiliation with but have made many friends through) to start that networking early.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2018 Bradley Robbins
Matt Doran from Manchester, UK on June 06, 2018:
Interesting article, Bradley. I have a Japanese friend who has spent the last few years living in Melbourne. He recently had to move back to Japan for family reasons but he's really struggling to re-adapt there.