With burdens like language barriers and “key money”, finding an apartment in Japan is not a pleasant business. One of the blessings of the JET Program is the Contracting Organizations usually arrange housing for participants. Of course, that means we get plenty of questions about housing.
My friend’s apartment is better/cheaper than mine.
Contracting Organizations are not required to provide participants with housing, so anything you receive is at the discretion of your CO. Depending on the CO and the area you live in, you may arrive in Japan to find anything from a palace of a two-story house to a tiny, run-down studio apartment, or perhaps teacher accommodations. Try to make the best of it!
Of course, if you arrive in Japan to find a serious problem with your housing (holes in the wall, large-scale mold infestation, etc), please let your CO know and try to work with them toward an acceptable solution.
My fridge is broken! Will my school buy me a new one?
It is not your contracting organization’s responsibility to buy you anything. If something in your apartment breaks, please do not expect your contracting organization to replace it. Some schools will provide you with furniture out of the kindness of their own hearts, but it is important to remember that your home is not their responsibility. Sorry.
My school wants to charge me a lot of money for new tatami.
Things like tatami mats and shoji (those sliding paper doors) need to be replaced periodically. Tatami mats are usually replaced once every three years, though some places change the tatami mats for each new tenant. Unfortunately, replacing tatami isn’t cheap, as the price of one mat can vary from ¥3,000 to ¥7,000.
If you have a tatami room, we highly recommend you talk to your school about costs. Some schools charge their ALTs a monthly fee, others only ask for money from the ALT who is living in the apartment when they change the tatami. One of the former PAs used to live in an apartment with tatami and, as it cost about ¥40,000 to replace the tatami every three years, each ALT was asked to pay ¥13,000 a year. Talk to your school about how they do things, and if you think it’s unfair, try to convince them to try a different approach.
Can I move?
Your contracting organization is probably involved in a one-year lease with your landlord, and it probably won’t be possible to move out during that period without incurring some substantial headaches and costs for yourself and your CO. As such, changing apartments is not encouraged. If you feel strongly about moving, talk to your school about it, giving them your reasons for wanting to move (filthy carpeting, holes in the wall, etc). They might try to come up with other solutions (cleaning the carpeting), or they might try to find you a new apartment.
If your school tells you that they won’t move you, and you believe your situation is absolutely intolerable, you do have the option of finding and moving into a new apartment by yourself (subject to the terms of your contract, of course). In this case you will be responsible for any and all costs concerned, which can add up to a mind-boggling amount of money. You’re probably looking at a figure of between ￥300,000 and ￥500,000 and that doesn’t include all the other setup fees (furniture, appliances, internet etc). If you are moving without financial support from your CO, we would recommend having savings of around ￥800,000
Landlords are also legally allowed to discriminate based upon race in Japan, and many do not want foreigners living in the housing they provide. This makes finding new accommodation a real struggle, and unfortunately being an English teacher will probably also do little to improve your chances. You are also required to have a guarantor, and this must be someone in Japan (realistically someone who is Japanese, and in a senior position to you). Your CO is not required to be your guarantor, and coworkers are generally not willing to do this, especially if you’re new. Asking coworkers to be your guarantor will not be a pleasant task.
All of this adds up to something that is going to be very hard (or impossible) for you to deal with by yourself. It’s such a huge task that it will be stretching your friendships with Japanese friends (or friends who are very fluent in Japanese) to the limit if you ask them for help. This is not a case of going to the real estate agent near your local train station and walking out with a new apartment in 3 hours. It’s something that will likely take weeks, multiple trips, and will probably require that you go to more than one real estate agent.
If you do move, the trouble you cause your school (who may have to continue paying rent for an empty apartment) may cause some bad blood between you and your coworkers, and in some cases, moving out of CO-provided housing means there will be no housing available for your successor.
The final decision is yours, but moving out without the support of your CO is not advised.
Our advice would be that, if you really want to move, keep hounding your CO about it and try to convince them to let you. Don’t expect to be able to move right away, as they probably need to draw up a budget for it, which will happen in March.
Moving in Japan: A Personal Account
(This is a personal account from the perspective of a CIR, who is fluent in Japanese (JLPT N1), has lived in Japan before, and is used to Japanese culture.)
Before I came, I knew that moving would be insanely expensive, and had approximately ￥1,000,000 saved.
Unfortunately the prefectural government is not required to provide housing or support in finding housing to CIRs. In my case, I was given the option of moving into a temporary “monthly” apartment for my first month in Japan. Monthly apartments are fully furnished and all utilities are included in the price, but are generally very expensive for the size. In my case I was spending ￥110,000 a month for a one room apartment with a separate kitchen and bath. I stayed there for my first month in Japan for convenience.
My goal was for me and my partner – who is Japanese – to move in together. I got to Japan in at the end of July, and only had time to start apartment hunting from the middle of August. I came with an awareness that it would not be an easy process, but even then I wasn’t prepared for what a nightmare it would be. I started looking at places online a few months before I came. I felt like I had a pretty idea of what to expect in terms of price, and where I wanted to live. Of course, all that changed once I got here. A lot of the areas were either inconvenient, noisy, or just didn’t seem right for us.
I started by going into the real estate agents office near my closest train station, made appointments to check out places I liked, and also made some appointments online with other real estate agents.
Making appointments online required me to deal with followup phonecalls in Japanese. The appointments were generally for a few days later.
The first thing I was surprised by was the price. Even for places that were old, small, or in inconvenient places, the setup fees were prohibitively expensive. Luckily my partner and I had agreed to go halves on everything.
Thankfully because I work for the prefectural government, am fluent in Japanese, and have a Japanese partner, my race didn’t really come into question when it came to finding a place. I also ensured that I was dressed well, and handed out my Hyogo prefecture branded business card at every opportunity. My partner and I also decided to tell the real estate agents we met that we were engaged.
Our first appointment was to check out a couple of places we thought we might like. One ended up being too old and inconvenient, the other was perfect. Big, in a good location, and was exactly what we were looking for. Unfortunately that was when our first major hurdle came into place: No guarantor. The prefectural government wouldn’t be my guarantor, and my partner’s parents are against us being together, so they weren’t an option.
Before I came, I knew that having no guarantor would be an issue, but figured that I could use what is known as a guarantor company. Guarantor companies charge a yearly fee (generally around ￥50,000) to act as a guarantor for people who don’t have one for whatever reason. After mentioning this to the real estate agent though, I was told that it was very unlikely that we would pass the screening process if we used one. We asked if we could put a deposit down anyway (refundable in this case) while we tried to organise something.
I tried mentioning the lack of a guarantor at work indirectly, but instantly felt like it wasn’t something I could pursue. After asking Japanese friends about this, they said that most people aren’t willing to be guarantors, particularly if they don’t know you well.
Over the next week we went to about 3 different real estate agents, but either having no guarantor was an issue, or the places they showed us were too inconvenient. One real estate agent told us he could negotiate with the landlord over the no guarantor thing for one place, but we didn’t like the location.
Taking the information that he could negotiate with the landlord though, I went back to the original real estate agent who found the place we liked and applied a bit of pressure. It took him a couple of days, but he was able to successfully get around the lack of a guarantor. Unfortunately though, this also made the initial setup fees more expensive. Due to the indirect nature of Japanese society, many Japanese people may not be willing to apply pressure like this, in particular this was something my partner made me deal with. I think my fluency in Japanese and my job also had a lot to do with my success in getting around the guarantor issue.
We finally signed the contract a few days later, and this was a long process in itself, taking almost 2 hours. We had to receive explanations from multiple staff members, and it was required that we understood the content of the contract. The contract itself was obviously written in complex Japanese legalese, but it really was important that we understood it – there were parts to it that could have been very financially damaging to us if we weren’t aware of them.
This was followed by a final viewing of the house, and meeting the landlord to hand over the keys. Luckily the landlord took an instant liking to us, otherwise it would have been quite awkward. We also gave him a specially prepared gift. We’d also arranged gifts for our neighbours, and then had to go around and greet them. Note that we did this mainly because we live in a house as opposed to an apartment. It’s probably not really necessary to do in an apartment complex.
Moving into my own place was only something I did because I plan to be in Japan for the long run, even after JET (at least 10 years or so). This is something you need to seriously take into consideration if you plan on moving. Please do not take this process lightly, it was very stressful for both my partner and I, despite the fact that she’s Japanese and I am highly fluent in Japanese. Japanese real estate agents, as a whole, are also salespeople at heart and have quotas to make. This was both annoying to deal with (awful sales talk) and stressful. It’s likely they will try to pressure you into moving into places that have been stagnating, and one even tried to emotionally manipulate us into going with a place we didn’t like.
The house hunting process is also something you’ll likely need to do outside of work hours, increasing the inconvenience for both your CO and whoever has to help you. Appointments with real estate agents also lasted between 3 – 7 hours.
Bottom line: The whole process was such a pain that it’s not something I want to repeat anytime within the next 5 years.