If you’ve ever lived in a foreign country, you’ll know there are many hurdles to overcome before you can feel comfortable in your own space. You have to find a place to live, have a job that provides you with enough money to live comfortably, get a basic grasp on the native language of the country, and do plenty of other things just to get by in daily life. One of the biggest hurdles that I’ve encountered so far is housing; specifically, finding a place that allows foreigners.
If you google “expat housing in Japan” or “renting as a foreigner in Japan”, chances are that you’ll run across numerous horror stories of people who have had awful experiences in this country. I’ve heard quite a few stories from friends and coworkers about their highs and lows when it comes to finding a place to live, and decided it might be helpful to share my own experiences. In this simple and straightforward blog, I’ll go over what worked, what didn’t work, what to expect, and what to do to have the best possible chance at securing someplace you can call you home in a foreign land.
Finding A Place
My first accommodation while living in Japan was set up through my company, and as such my small, quaint apartment was ready for me before I even landed in Japan. The compact, small apartment – called a LeoPalace – was already furnished with a microwave, refrigerator, TV monitor, desk, and chair. Other than buying my own kitchen utensils, bedding, toiletries, and decorations, there was minimal fuss over making the apartment as comforting and homely as it could be.
Yet, as the months wore on living in the small, cramped area, I realized that the LeoPalace was not going to work out long term. I wanted a pet of my own, more space, and a better location. Thus, I began my search, both online and in person, for finding an apartment that wasn’t expensive, had lots of room, and was close to work. At this point, I had only been living in Japan for half a year, and my Japanese was definitely lacking the vocabulary to talk to realtors about housing. My saving grace was that I could email property managers and housing companies, which allowed me time to translate their messages and compose my responses.
For finding the perfect place to live in your area, you might have to get creative. The town I live in isn’t as small and rural as others, but their online resources were slim and lacking. Finding a place to live online in Tokyo would be 100 times easier in comparison, though finding an apartment in a rural town with only two supermarkets within a 50km radius would be 100 times harder. Knowing my options and limitations certainly helped me to focus on realistic goals and expectations.
Not knowing Japanese was one of my biggest roadblocks for finding a new place. I had to translate every email (using my rudimentary Japanese and Mr. Google Translate), and eventually had to ask a coworker with better Japanese to accompany me to the apartment showing. I compensated my coworker with a few cases of his favorite beer, so it was a win-win situation. Since I didn’t have any Japanese contacts at the time and didn’t want to bother my Japanese coworkers for something that should have been a simple, personal process, I struggled a lot.
Realtors knowing that I was a foreigner was another roadblock I was told to watch out for. Replying through emails in Japanese was one thing, but heading to the office in person was a whole different experience. The company I finally went with for my second apartment in Japan was the only one who kept talking to me after I explained through email that while I myself didn’t have much Japanese ability, I would have a translator (aka “Beer Friend”) with me to help. Many companies didn’t want the hassle of dealing with a foreigner who didn’t speak Japanese, and as such they either went cold or told me they couldn’t help me.
Having companies tell you straight up that they won’t rent to you is both a blessing and a curse. By being straightforward about their reservations for helping a foreigner, neither party wastes time trying to work with one another. It’s also incredibly disheartening to find that the company who oversees the rental of a property you love won’t rent to you for perfectly legal reasons. Foreigners from countries that struggle and deal with discrimination are often at the forefront of those that flock to social media to say “That can’t be legal!” or “How do I sue them for this?!”. Personally, if the company doesn’t want to work with foreigners, I assume they have their reasons for doing so, and would rather not force them to do something they aren’t equipped to handle or don’t want to do. I’d rather get told ‘no’ right away then kicked out of my apartment months later.
Knowing I was a foreigner, many companies also had reservations about my ability to produce a guarantor, or a Japanese person or company who could sign on my behalf to take the fall if I skipped out of town or missed the rent payments. Since foreigners are not tied to the country, many expats living in Japan have a high probability of simply ditching and breaking contract without any ramifications. Those that have done so in the past have made it harder for the new wave of expats to get apartments by leaving a bad taste in rental companies’ mouths when it comes to dealing with foreigners.
Honestly, my biggest roadblock to getting my own apartment without the help of my company or a native Japanese citizen was the fact that I only had a visa and good intentions to try and persuade companies to rent apartments to me. Thankfully, the company I had chosen to work with was able to work around properties with adversities to foreigners in order to find me those that would allow me to sign a contract with them. Before my first move, after looking at three potential apartments I finally found the one that I was certain was just right for me.
I found the perfect place, got the approval from the realtor company, put down a deposit, and was given a move-in date. It seemed that everything had gone according to plan and that I would be moving into an apartment I was absolutely smitten with. There were no tatami floors. It had a gorgeous view of the nearby ocean from my bedroom window. There was adequate space (and allowance) for a cat and a spacious kitchen that would allow me to cook to my heart’s desire. I was sure that this apartment would allow me the comfort and space to let my productivity flourish.
The day after signing the contract and transferring a sizable deposit (which included ‘key money’, first month’s rent, and other costs), I got a call. They left a voice message saying that I had to call right away. I had my friend call them to ask what was wrong. I was at work at the time, stressing out over what could have possibly gone wrong. Had I signed in the wrong place? Sent the money to someone else? Said something offensive by mistake? After my friend quickly called them back, he called me to explain the situation.
The company had said that although they had assured me that the apartment was mine, they would now need me to get a Japanese guarantor who wasn’t just one of the many companies foreigners pay to sign contracts as guarantors. I was devastated. The whole reason why I went with that property was because I didn’t need anyone else but an emergency contact in case I died in the apartment and they had to notify someone.
I couldn’t produce a guarantor, and as such, lost the apartment.
Success And Failure
It wasn’t the end of the world, but losing what I had considered to be my dream apartment after paying the deposit, signing piles of papers, and bowing until my neck was sore really stung. I still had two other options for apartments to live in, which they assured me didn’t need a guarantor, so I picked my second favorite apartment. It was close to work, decently sized, and only had one tatami room. It wasn’t my dream apartment, and quite frankly the friend I was with when I first saw it thought it smelled a bit moldy, but I was willing to look past its flaws because it was available to me, a foreigner.
It didn’t feel so great having to give up on what I thought was a great apartment, but in the end I still got into a place bigger than my original LeoPalace, and was able to adopt a cat to keep me company. Now that I’m moving yet again (this time into a house that I’ll be renting and living in with my partner), it feels interesting to reflect on my own personal journey when compared to looking for a place to live in with someone else. We had the same issues and setbacks – though my partner speaks terrific Japanese and was able to climb over the language barrier with ease – simply because we’re both foreigners, but in the end it all worked out for the best.
Overall Feelings About Housing In Japan
The best thing you can do for yourself if you’re a foreigner trying to find living accommodations in Japan is to accept that you won’t always get a friendly, welcoming reception. Two coworkers at a rental company argued loudly in front of my partner and me about who was going to tell the foreigners to go away when we entered their office. Though they were embarrassed when they realized we understood what they were saying, they still turned us away without a second thought.
It’s worth looking for a company that’s not only willing to work with foreigners, but also one that will take your needs seriously and try to help you as best they can. If the company I had gone with hadn’t been as helpful as they were, they likely would have just sent all my money back to my account, apologized, and moved on the moment our agreement hit a snag. Much like many things in life, if it’s worth having, then it’s worth working hard, waiting, and (in some cases) fighting to get.