I lived in a university-owned apartment my first year in Japan. The school reserved a spot for me, and I had a home hours after I landed – gas, water, electricity, and the internet all set up. An administrative assistant accompanied me for registration at the city office*, and after that, all I had to do was pay the bills: rent at the financial office, maintenance fee via bank transfer, and utilities at local convenience stores. No fuss, no muss.
*The same day I arrived on a 13-hour red eye, because why not? “Because Japan” has become a theme.
For a variety of reasons, I decided to find a private apartment for the rest of my stay. I knew it’d be a painful process: the Internet told me so, specifying high initial costs, guarantor requirements, and lack of English knowledge. My friend had gone through the search in March: his experience was not unpleasant, though still rife with the sorts of bothers that characterize the Japanese rental market. Thus, I knew what I was in for. I felt prepared. So I thought.
Friday, August 1
I email the same English-speaking agency my friend had used. After mentioning the reference, I get to the essentials. I wanted to move out by August 17th; I had my current place until the 19th. I specify the budget, apartment size, station area, and required features. I offer example listings. I share my visa status and mention I have proof of financial support for the next two years. Finally, I provide contact information.
Clearly, this was no feeler email. Over the previous few weeks, I had done a ton of exploratory research. I wanted to be prepared, informed. Thanks to Google Translate, I had parsed Japanese housing websites, knowing they offered far more options than their English counterparts. I played with the advanced search tools, looked at hundreds (maybe thousands) of listings, and compared and compared until I knew the market.
Sunday, August 3
I receive a response. I later find out that the agent – Z – works on the weekends, and has Tuesdays and Wednesdays off instead. He mentions that all five of the listings I sent a) were already taken, or b) did not rent out to foreigners (…because Japan). So while I had gained a ton of knowledge, most my work had been in vain. Z offers me three alternative listings. We schedule the visits for Monday afternoon.
Monday, August 4
I meet Z. He’s a Frenchman who’s been here for a few years, a nice guy. The agency is small, with just four total, two currently on vacation. He informs me one of the three places he sent is already gone; daily turnover a market trait. Undeterred, we head to the first of the two left. I actually recognize it, having demurred during my search on the Japanese sites. I decide to give it a chance… until the key doesn’t work.
Agencies in Japan partner with a host of real estate companies, and vice versa, Z tells me. He actually has never worked with this one before. He calls, and is informed – wrongly – that the key works. Thinking he might have the wrong vacancy pegged, Z tries it on another door. Behold, it works… on an occupied residence. The resident takes it extremely well (the door was chained), though Z is horrified. We move on.
The third apartment is a success in that we are able to see it. It is a failure in that I do not like it. The room’s setup – with carpet, oversized closet, and room-based kitchen – makes 18 square meters feels more claustrophobic than it already is. The day ends as a bust, as Z can’t simply wing it. The high turnover, geographic coverage, and multiple real estate companies means that everything is in flux. There is no master binder.
We tentatively schedule a Thursday meet. I am a bit concerned now. It had taken my friend 10 days for his search start to finish, and while that was on the long side, by Thursday, I would have 12 left before move-out. Worse, despite his promise to restart the search with vigor once he returns to his office, Z doesn’t write again Monday night. With him off the next two days, I am in no man’s land.
Thursday, August 7
We finally schedule an appointment for Friday. Keep in mind throughout this entire saga that I’m a researcher with an independent schedule. Imagine the process with a full-time job, and only the weekends – plus a sliver of time on weekday evenings – to search and visit.
Friday, August 8
We hit the streets with purpose. Over the course of 2-3 hours, we see six apartments: six vacancies in five complexes. However, the complex with two units turns out to be right next to the tracks. It is literally the first house over. Trains run about every six minutes. So I am down to four options. Another apartment stands next to a giant construction site – judging by its size, a new naval base. I am down to three options.
Fortunately, the three remaining appeal to me in different ways. And having no desire to replicate the day, I decide to apply for one. Naturally, it was the very first one we visited today. While 9,000 yen ($90) more than what I originally aimed for, everything else with it was great. Recently renovated, small balcony, second floor, indoor laundry, and a kitchen-room separator. It made the most of its 20 square meters.
I head with Z back to his office straightaway to do the paperwork. It is about 6 pm now; he generally works until 8 pm (because Japan). I provide copies of my passport, residence card, and letter of financial support. I also fill out a short application form, which asks for an emergency contact both in Japan and abroad. He faxes everything over to the real estate company. The waiting begins.
A couple of relevant notes:
- The rental market operates on a “first come, first serve” basis. Once you apply, the real estate company contacts the owner, who holds the unit while they investigate your data. Thus, there is a level of commitment: the applicant does not go around applying to other places. This is great and terrible, in that the renter has exclusivity, but is now in limbo with the possibility of rejection.
- The emergency contact is NOT a guarantor. Emergency contacts are more like character references; my friend actually needed a letter from his. In contrast, guarantors are obligated to cover rent and fees if the contract is broken. As such, they tend to be family members or close friends. I opted with a company that charged a half-month’s rent. More on money later.
Saturday, August 9
I get a call from the real estate company, which I figure out because I hear them say the name of my Japanese emergency contact. The caller doesn’t speak any English, and I don’t speak any Japanese. But I direct them towards Z. Later, he calls me. The company wants Z and I to be in the same room to answer a few questions about my application. For whatever reason, we can’t teleconference. And because Z is out and about, we can’t do this today.
Obon or just Bon is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors. This Buddhist-Confucian custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves, and when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori. The festival of Obon lasts for three days; however its starting date varies within different regions of Japan.
Guess when Obon hit Tokyo? Naturally, Saturday is the last day the real estate company was open. Z suggests that the holiday might push the application back until Thursday the 14th or Friday the 15th. The best-case scenario now is that I would be out by the 17th. Given the circumstances, I apply for an extension in my university-owned apartment: again, another luxury most apartment-seekers do not have.
The real estate company turns out to be closed the entire week, Z’s agency from Wednesday to Friday. We schedule an appointment for the following Monday, the 18th – one day before my original “hard” deadline. And because my school is also closed from Wednesday to Friday, my application for temporary extension remained in limbo. Everything went dark for Obon.
Monday, August 18
I make it to Z’s office, where we dial up the real estate company. Z and the person on the other end speak in Japanese. I confirm my presence by saying my birthday. They chat more. I get a question about my income sources: no, I wouldn’t have another job.* They speak some more. And… that was it. I had waited nine days to say my birthday into a phone speaker, and to confirm the job I listed on my application. The decision would be made soon, I was told.
*My income wasn’t an issue.
I find out that my university approved my temporary extension. I try not to think about the apartment; I wasn’t sure if realtor rejection actually ever happened. Later in the day, Z calls me with a sense of urgency. The real estate company claimed I had provided the wrong number for my emergency contact. I double- and triple-checked. It was correct. After a couple more back-and-forths (with Z and I as middlemen), they are able to connect.
Tuesday, August 19
Confirmation: I get the apartment.
Z and I make plans to sign the contract and pick up the keys Thursday evening. The irony of getting confirmation on the day of my once-hard deadline to physically move out is not lost on me. Before the meeting, however, I needed to transfer some money to the company – a lot of it.
Note the exchange rate is roughly 1 USD =100 yen:
79,000 yen (Deposit)
Same as one month’s rent. Apparently in the past, when Japanese homeowners had even more leverage, the deposit would be as high as two or three months’ rent.
79,000 yen (Key money)
This is some bullshit where you pay the owner for the “privilege” of living in their place or something. Pay to pay: This makes perfect sense because Japan.
28,030 yen (August rent), 79,000 yen (September rent)
I would pick up the keys on 6 pm Thursday. Naturally, they charged me for that night too. I couldn’t even get 12 free hours in my place. Thanks Abe.
85,320 yen (Agent fee)
Besides finding the apartment, Z will also open my utility accounts and continue to serve as go-between for the real estate company. Not worth a full month’s rent (plus 8% tax) though.
41,475 yen (Guarantor company)
As described above, in case I bail.
17,000 yen (Insurance)
I think this is in case of flooding and damage and stuff like that. You’d think this is on the owner, but what’s another $170?
Total: 408,825 yen
You’re looking at this correctly. It cost me more than FOUR GRAND to move. This is not atypical; it cost my friend about three grand. I get a return on only half of that, really: the rent and the deposit. The rest is tied to expenses associated with the move, to be scattered into the wind. Sigh.
Transferring the money into the real estate company’s account comes with its own set of obstacles, of course. The bank was closed by 3:00 pm as per usual (because Japan). Since my cash card has transfer limitations, I have to take cash out from the ATM and then deposit it manually – via five separate transactions, thanks to a deposit limit. The result is an additional 10 bucks or so of charges. A drop in the bucket.
Thursday, August 21
Z and I head to the real estate company. The realtor is endlessly amused that Z looks like Z but speaks Japanese, while I look like me but don’t. Of course he is. The guy walks us through the details of every agreement: the one for the agency, the guarantor company, the insurance company, the actual rental. He explains it line by fucking line. I get the highlights from Z, but I don’t need the fine-tooth comb.
For what feels like an eternity, or around 45 minutes, I fake pay attention like a champ. I make eye contact, nod sporadically at Japanese. I even smile as he tells yet another coworker about our hilarious “white guy speaks Japanese, Asian guy doesn’t” situation. As we wrap, he indiscreetly slides over a cash envelope to Z: the agent’s cut.* We finish with a bow-off that he wins handily (I don’t participate).
*Z would tell me later this is NOT customary.
Finally then, three long weeks after the start of the Tokyo apartment search, I have the keys to my new home. All that’s left to do now is everything.