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Accommodation in Japan: What you need to know

What should you check if your school offers you an apartment? How do you go about finding one by yourself?

There are two main options for apartments. Either your employer provides one (and possibly pays for it), or you have to find one.

For most teachers in Japan you’ll end up with the first option (your employer won't pay for it, but it will be subsidized). That’s because there are a whole bunch of problems with finding an apartment in Japan as a foreigner.

If you’re just interested in the process of being given an apartment or finding one you can use the contents to skip forward, but it’s useful to look at the big differences between Japanese apartments and what you’re used to back home.

3 differences between Japanese and Western Apartments

1. Size

They’re small. Japan is a small country with a lot of people. As a result the apartments end up being a lot smaller than you’re used to back home.

As a teacher coming here for the first time your apartment is likely to be 6 – 12 tatami in size.

What’s Tatami?

Tatami (or Jo), is the measurement system used for most Japanese apartments, based on the size of a tatami mat (a traditional Japanese floor mat).

A tatami mat is approximately 18sqft (6 x 3). So the average apartment size for a teacher who’s just starting out will be 108sqft – 216sqft.

Wondering how big that is? It’s pretty damn small. Aeon have a diagram of how a 6 tatami flat will look, it’s pretty much a single room and a bathroom. The 12 tatami flat is obviously bigger but it’s still pretty tiny, usually the extra space is used to put the kitchen in another room. You can see a layout here. (It’s the 1K apartment, the kitchen is marked with a K, the largest area with a 6 in it is your combined living room bedroom area).

2. Difference in apartment furnishings

When you rent a typical Japanese apartment, you get a completely empty space. That means completely unfurnished, no washing machine, no cooker, no nothing.

Hopefully your school will have filled it up (unless you’re going at it alone, we’ll deal with that in a bit), but still don’t go expecting the world. Aside from the common items listed below, you’re unlikely to get much else and as you’ll notice some of the items are not what you’d get in a western apartment:

  • Small gas hob (one or two burners, not a western oven)
  • Air conditioning unit
  • Heater unit
  • Basic cooking utensils
  • Fridge
  • TV
  • Table
  • Possibly a bookshelf

You may have noticed I didn't say bed. That’s because you won’t have one. Instead you’ll have a futon, a traditional Japanese style mattress that you’ll roll out in the evening to sleep on. It’ll be great for your back. Your main living room is likely to double as the bedroom.

You’ll also usually have a very small balcony, which is a good place to dry clothes.

3. Upfront Money

Along with rent, Japanese apartments are notorious for having pretty monstrous upfront fees. The common ones are:

  • Key money: This is a gift to your landlord and it’s non-refundable, usually one or two months rent.
  • Deposit: The same as a deposit back home, a couple of months rent.
  • Agency Fee: A fee to the agency for helping you find the apartment, usually a months rent.

Put this all together and you can end up dropping 4 - 6 months rent when you first move in, most of which you won’t get back.

The usual solution to this problem is for your employer to provide you the money at the beginning and then take it out over a couple of months paychecks. That's because most teachers won't have that sort of money floating about to spend when they arrive. If your employer is providing you with the house then you'll usually only deal with them and not the landlord.

As a teacher mentions in one of our perspective series, this is fine with a good company, but a problem with a bad company. You’re less likely to get the money back if you split badly and there’s often little you can do about this.

Being Given an Apartment

Being given an apartment is good because it saves you from the pain of having to find one yourself. You’ll avoid many of the common problems you can run into with renting an apartment in Japan. (Take a look at the finding an apartment sections, then laugh because you don’t have to deal with it).

The normal wisdom with being given an apartment applies, get as many pictures as possible and ask plenty of questions beforehand. If you get options it’ll help you pick the best one and if you don’t have options, well at least you’ll know what you’re going into before you jump on a plane.

Questions to ask

  • What size is the apartment? (Wondering about Tatami mats or Jo? Take a look at point 1.)
  • What is the apartment made of? (Wood, or concrete and more modern materials. As you might imagine the second blocks out sound a lot better)
  • Is it furnished?
  • If it’s not, will they be able to provide any pieces? Can you buy it off the previous tenant?
  • If it is, can you get an inventory of the furnishings? (See point 2, this’ll be quite small)
  • How much are the rent and utilities?
  • Find out how much the upfront cost is, it’ll probably be coming out of your salary for a couple of months. (See point 3.)
  • How long is the commute time?
  • How close is it to train lines and main roads? Japanese apartments are not the most soundproof and living next to a train line will be a very loud experience.
  • Which way does the apartment point? Pointing towards the sun will have a big affect on the temperature in the summer and winter.

The most important thing as always is to get pictures and to ask all these questions before you leave. You need to know you'll be comfortable living there and possibly get things solved before arriving.

We'll split finding an apartment into four sections:

  1. Finding an Apartment: What to do when you first arrive?
  2. Finding an Apartment in Japan: Hunting for a place
  3. Finding an apartment: Signing the contract
  4. Finding an apartment: Finishing Up

Finding an Apartment: Where do you stay when you first arrive?

When you first arrive a good option to take the stress off the search, is to stay in a guesthouse (also called gaijin houses).

They’re aimed at foreigners newly arriving in Japan and provide cheap short to medium term housing.They typically have monthly contracts and are either shared or private apartments.

Although they’re small and basic, they’re a very good way to take the stress off the apartment search and avoid racking up a giant hotel or hostel bill.

Sites like Sakura House are a good place to start looking.

Finding an Apartment in Japan: Hunting for a place

The best way to find an apartment is through a real estate agency a lot like you might do back home.

And as with real estate agencies back home the best way to find a good one is personal recommendation, so it’s well worth googling around your area and seeing if you can find a couple who’ve got good reviews.

If you’re in a larger city, particularly Tokyo you might be able to find real estate agents who’ll focus on the expat community. These’ll help with the problems that foreigners can run into trying to rent apartments in Japan (which we’ll come to in a minute).

In order to save time when you get there and make sure you're looking at the right apartments, it’s a good idea to check out the listings online before you go and if you can, print them out and bring them with you (because you’d be doing this on your first visit anyway).

It’s at this point you’ll begin running into problems.

Aside: Very few apartments in Japan allow pets. If you’re thinking of coming over with one it’ll make your apartment search a lot harder.

Problem 1: Two Year Leases

Most leases in Japan are for 2 years. For many people this is going to be a problem, because you don’t know if you’ll be staying for two years. Schools obviously circumvent this problem, they can hire out an apartment on a multiple year contract and then re-use it as teachers come and go.

Solving it: Common solutions to this include temporary housing companies and solutions aimed at expats like, LeoPalace21, Best Estate JP or Minimimi. Finding a good real estate agent who's used to working with expats is also invaluable.

Problem 2: The language and culture barrier

Most Japanese landlords only speak Japanese and even though in Japan difficulties are usually dealt with through your real estate agent, the worry about having a tenant who can't speak your language is still very strong.

The culture gap between a Japanese landlord and foreign tenant also tends to be filled with bad stereotypes about westerners, that they’re noisy, dangerous, unable to deal with the Japanese trash system and so on.

Put it all together and Japanese landlords will often not want to rent to foreigners.

Solving it: Same as above, using temporary housing companies or ones aimed at expats are going to filter your options down to those who’ll accept foreigners.

And again getting an estate agent who’s knowledgeable and skilled enough to be able to find some apartments who’ll accept foreigners is incredibly useful.

Two things to you can do to help your estate agent find them:

  1. Once you’ve put together an apartment shortlist (either from website listings or with the estate agent), make sure the estate agent then checks all of them to see if they’ll take gaijin. (Sounds obvious but sometimes it doesn’t happen.)
  2. Give your estate agent as many arguments as possible to convince the landlord to take you. Usually this means Japanese connections so: Japanese language ability, Japanese other half, respected Japanese employer etc. The estate agent is obviously on your side (they get commission), but they’ll need to be able to convince the landlord.

Hopefully you manage to find a couple which suit you and now can go and view them.

As you’re viewing the apartments, you’ll get a chance to spot anything you don’t like or missed in the pictures (unlike those who are given their own apartments). For example, one thing that you can't check from pictures is the insulation. Can you feel drafts by the windows and doors when they're closed? Japanese winters are cold. And how loud is the apartment, could you sleep there?

Finding an apartment: Signing the contract

When it comes to signing the contract, you’ll now run into the next two set of problems:

Problem 3: The upfront money

This problem is described in this section here already.

Solving it: The usual solution to this problem is for your employer to provide the money at the beginning and then take back over a couple of months paychecks.

If you’re going with housing aimed at expats then you may find the key money can be lower or non-existent. (However if you do find a property without key money, more often than not the cost has been made up elsewhere.)

Problem 4: A Japanese Guarantor

Most Japanese apartments require a guarantor. Specifically a Japanese guarantor without a criminal record. This is the person who’ll be responsible if you suddenly take off, stop paying rent etc.

If you’ve just arrived in the country, it's often a problem because you don't know someone who can take on this serious commitment for you.

Solving it:

  • Your employer can serve as your guarantor. As we mentioned above, this is fine with a good company, terrible with a bad one. If you lose your job you’ll usually lose your guarantor and your housing. (Having said that, if you have housing through your school, this is the norm).
  • Got any close Japanese friends, other half, or family? Time to go ask very very nicely.
  • If you’re in expat specific housing or temporary housing then occasionally it can be skipped in return for a one time fee.
  • There are companies who’ll serve as guarantors in return for a fee.

Brilliant, if you’ve managed to sort out all of that, you’ve got yourself an apartment.

Finding an apartment: Finishing up

Two final things. First the good news, when things go wrong your real estate agent will act as an in-between for you and landlord and help get problems sorted, especially at the beginning. Secondly the bad news. Furnishings.

Problem 5: Furnishings.

You might have been lucky enough to get a furnished apartment, places targeted at expats might come furnished, in which case move on. However if you haven’t then you’ll need to get your brand new empty apartment a set of furnishings.

As you might remember from the first section, most Japanese apartments come unfurnished and not just empty, but completely bare without even basic appliances. So how do we start hunting down it all?

Solving it: Can you buy anything from the previous tenant? If it's another teacher, perhaps heading home after teaching for a year or two there's a good chance they don't want to take their furniture home. But suppose that's not an option or it doesn't get you everything. What next?

Well your employer may also be able to provide you with some basics, it's well worth checking to see if they have anything lying about from previous teachers. What else?

The guaranteed solution is to either rent a set of furnishings or buy them. IKEA has made it to Japan, Craigslist remains a great way to hunt down bargains and there are a number of rental companies or who'll rent you a whole set of furniture for a year.

There’s an excellent article over on Wander Tokyo about places to search for appliances and furniture, along with some common appliances you’ll end up needing. Click here to read it.

It’s also worth looking out for resident association mailing lists in your area, who might list items up for grabs. The Japan Guy mentions one for Tsukuba here etc. You usually pay a small fee to join them, sometimes when you move in. Click here to read it.

Finally Apartment Images

To give you an idea of what your apartment might look like here are a collection of blog posts and videos which show teacher's apartments.

Apartment Photo's & Videos

Robyn of This Open Road gives a short photo tour through her apartment in Japan. She's even managed to fit in without using her loft. Note the little balcony out front for drying clothes. Click here to read it.

Katrina from Katrina in Japan gives a photo tour of her Leopalace21 apartment. At 19 metres squared (12 tatami), it's pretty small. Even more impressive she shares it with her boyfriend. Click here to read it.

The Japan Guy gives a excellent video tour of his 12 tatami apartment. He gives loads of information and is an excellent guide. This is part 1, Youtube will suggest Part 2. Click here to watch it.

A video tour of a Japanese apartment by Carey Ciuro. Good filming and more importantly good commentary. It's for 12k apartment I think. Click here to watch it.

Another really good video tour, this time by Lauren Jubelt. Again more interesting commentary and good video. Unlike the other apartments this is only a single room and looks like a 6 tatami apartment. Click here to watch it.

Image Attribution:

"Our tatami room, Kirinoya ryokan" by Ruth Hartnup is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Photo has been cropped.
"Homeikan Honkan Ryokan - かえで屁" by Debs (ò‿ó)♪ is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Photo has been cropped.
"Apartment tatami room" by Karl Baron is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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