Of all of the experiences of living in Japan as a foreigner, the process of finding a new apartment and moving is infamously loaded with roadblocks and problems that…often don’t have any simple solution. That being said, through the process of trial and error through 3 major moves in the country (one of them being cross country from Osaka to Tokyo), I learned a lot of micro-strategies, and stocked up on interesting stories and…sometimes crazy experiences.
For people who are interested, you can read about my experiences moving multiple times within Japan at the bottom of this article. For everyone else, let’s get into my advice.
Tip for moving in Japan #1: You should find multiple options before heading to a real estate agency.
As you will come to find out if you are planning on staying in Japan for the long haul, the honest truth is that many systems in Japan are still not designed with foreign residents in mind. Japan is still 98% Japanese, and I personally have gone through MANY unnecessary headaches and been blocked with more red tape than when I have decided to consult in somebody within Japan, rather than simply preparing the information myself. This is true for career consultants in Japan as well. I hope this continues to improve, but your experience as a foreigner will likely be facing a lot of rejection initially from landlords who are worried you won’t be able to assimilate to their rules and culture. It’s…textbook racism, but it does make sense if you look at it from their perspective. In my experience living in Japan, most foreigners in this country can’t speak Japanese, won’t follow the rules as closely as everyone else, and are more likely to leave on a whim than a local tenant. So, if you want to help all of us foreigners, go against that stereotype, be a fantastic member of the community, and hopefully by …2050 foreigners will be much more accepted than they are today? (lol)
Also, this is an important point. Did you know that you can introduce any apartment in your area to any real estate agency?
Yes, it’s true! Most apartments will have a real estate company they are partnered with who is helping them advertise the listing, but you can actually have any real estate company introduce you to any room you want. This is very important, because as a foreigner you will most likely NOT get the room they are advertising in the listing, and most real estate agents in Japan are incredibly busy. In my experience, people will not be eager to deal with the headache of helping the foreigner find a room that will accept them, and I remember being passed around the office ‘hot potato’ style until I finally ended up at the desk of the new guy who had no idea how to talk to foreigners, was actually incredibly intimidated by me, and really didn’t sell my case at all to the owner of any of the rooms I was looking at.
This is why preparing multiple listings is important, because it lays the groundwork for exactly what can be done, and gives you a winnable case that people will want to work with. I recommend printing out the listing of 5 rooms in the area you are interested in, and bringing them with you to a real estate agency nearby. After introducing yourself, you can present all of these options to the reception. This achieves a few different things. When there is a clear roadmap to success, people will be much more willing to help you, the foreigner, find an apartment in Japan. When the road to success is clear, it is much, much easier to sell yourself. This is true everywhere, but especially true in Japan.
Tip for moving in Japan #2: You should prepare a paper trail of your history in Japan too.
Somewhat related to the point above, many landlords will request to know your exact history, occupation, and current status in Japan. Are they allowed to do this? I…really don’t know, but I was requested to provide a printed copy of my passport, resident card, and also proof of my occupation. Of course this depends heavily on your situation in Japan, what exactly you are doing, and how long you intend on staying, but it will save you a lot of trouble during the moving process in Japan.
To save yourself some time and repeat visits, printing out a copy of all of these crucial documents (and anything else you can think of that may be important), and bringing them with you to the real estate agency is a good practice.
Also, similar to the point above, it shows that you’re prepared and will make people more happy to help you through whatever questions you may have or necessary processes. Presentation is also key in Japan, so preparing these documents in a nicely organized folder or binder will also improve your chances of getting through the minutia quickly. Remember, as a foreigner in Japan for better or worse, it is going to become your job to make other people feel as comfortable with you, and as comfortable assisting you as possible.
Tip for moving in Japan #3: Try to keep things in perspective.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right away. Finding an apartment is probably the most difficult thing you will have to do as a foreigner in Japan. There is still a lot of prejudice, and things can be unfair. It is unfair. It’s a strange dichotomy for a country to push globalization and English learning so hard, only to have virtually no systems or standards set it place to make it easier for foreign residents to find housing. That being said, you can get through this experience, and not everything in Japan will be like this.
I think many people panic when they first start reaching out to real estate agencies, only to be met with the same prejudice and hurdles from landlords again and again. The real estate industry is incredibly hard to navigate for Japanese locals who don’t even have to put up with these added hurdles. In the defense of these landlords, they are taking a big risk every time they accept a foreign tenant who likely doesn’t speak their language, may not know about their culture, and may not follow their rules. In a country where (especially non-Asian minorities) make up less than 1% of the population, this is still a legitimate concern for them. I have met many, many people in my 7 years of living in Japan who have told me that I’m the first foreigner they have ever talked to. Period. That…is a lot of responsibility, but it also does put things in perspective. So, when you are moving in Japan and inevitably face some rejections for not being Japanese, try and keep things in perspective, and try not to take it personally. Learning how to deal with these kinds of challenges in a positive way is absolutely a crucial component of learning how to live a happy life as a foreigner in Japan.
A bit about me, my background, and how many times I’ve moved in Japan.
I moved to Osaka, Japan in January of 2015 to enroll in Human Academy Japanese Language School in Shinsaibashi, a downtown neighborhood of Osaka within walking distance of Dotonbori, Osaka’s most photogenic (and arguable) most famous neighborhood. After spending many a-night studying, and heading out into the Osaka area’s surrounding the school, my efforts at learning the Japanese language would pay off, and I would be accepted into a Japanese university.
Great! Finally, the grueling application process is over! I had interviews in Japanese. Tests in Japanese. More interviews in Japanese. And now I would need to graduate from my Japanese language school. Oh, and move!
I got into a Japanese university! Now there is just one thing left to do! What was it, again?…
Oh…move? Right! I…I kind of forgot about that. I had help finding an apartment when I first came to Japan, but now I would need to find a new apartment near my university…and I had no idea where to even start. As a logical first move that many people would probably take, I decided to take a look at listings on local real estate agent sites. At the time, I didn’t know that I should probably put together 5-10 of my top apartment picks and bring them to the real estate agency, as I had suggested you do earlier in this article. Whoops!
My experience first going to a real estate agency in Japan.
I was nervous, but just diving in and heading to the real estate agency would probably make the experience of moving in Japan more streamlined, if anything…right? I remember it distinctly. With passion in my heart and bountiful yen in my pocket, I scoured the internet for the perfect apartment. I composed lists of possible contenders, factoring in the distance to my new university, and finding a way to digest as much information as possible despite my low Japanese level at the time. The last apartment I lived in was kind of a dump, but this time things were going to be different. This time I could speak some Japanese. This time, I was 1 year older. This time, I was A MAN!!! After searching though hundreds, no, THOUSANDS of listings on real estate sites like suumo and at home, I found what seemed like the perfect apartment. It was within my budget, well within my ideal area, and I liked the design. I was doing it! I was successfully moving in Japan! Wow!
Time to head to the real estate agency! I walk in, and am immediately met with the silent stares of the 5 staff that were sitting near the agency entrance. Granted, this wasn’t in the center of downtown Osaka, so they probably didn’t get a lot of…people like me out there. (lol) You know that scene in every wild west movie where the gunslinger enters the saloon and gets the stare down from all of the outlaws? Yeah…it felt like that. I introduced myself and was presented with a Dixie cup of cold green tea. I also showed them the listing I was interested in, the receptionist went out back to grab someone who would contact the landowner of the property.
So there I am…sitting there…being stared at…enjoying my Dixie cup of cold green tea. And this guy comes back, and in the worst possible English I have had heard up to them, and still to this day looks at me and says “You want live here?” I respond to him in Japanese and he looks at me even more puzzled. All I said was “yes” in Japanese, but I think his brain short circuited seeing that word come out of my very white face (lol) . He heads to the back to fumble around with the papers for a bit, and then comes back.
And then…this thing happened. I was pretty shocked at what happened next, and as a white male from the US this was a bit of a turning point in my life, and a wakeup call for me.
He gets on the phone with the landlord, and after explaining that somebody is interested in the property (and I’m not making this up) he proceeds to wholeheartedly apologize to her that I’m a foreigner. “I’m SO, SO sorry to inconvenience you, but the person interested in the room is a foreigner. AHHH I’M SO SORRY!!!” I could then hear the landlord mutter a few things, the agent says something along the lines of “Ohh, I understand”, and then I didn’t get the room. Then he told me I didn’t get the room because I’m a foreigner, incase I couldn’t understand his Japanese. (lol) I could have understood what was really going on without comprehending a word.
This was my first experience with truly blatant racism like that, and like I said, as somebody who grew up as the standard white male in the US, it did give me a lot of perspective. The lesson: Moving in Japan as a foreigner can be a pretty brutal experience. There aren’t many people that are fighting for you, and it really demands a lot of patience. It’s best to come prepared, and have to have something to take your mind off of it after every step of the way. Of course, I eventually was able to move successfully in Japan, and with a bit of patience, you can too.