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Buck stops with landlord of moldy apartment

by Ashley Thompson

Reader G.R. writes: “My apartment has a serious mold problem. The bathtub is built in such a way that there is a space between the tub and the wall and water can easily get underneath and does not drain well.

“I have already dealt with this problem once. My coworker told our manager (our company rents these apartments for their employees), and they hired some people to remove our tubs; we had to clean the mold ourselves. When the men came to remove the tubs I asked them what I could do to prevent this mold from coming back, and they told me essentially that I just had to clean it every now and then.

“Well, that’s not OK with me. Now it’s back in full force. I can actually smell it when I walk in and I’m getting headaches.

“What are my rights in this situation, according to Japanese law? Does my employer or my landlord have a responsibility to remedy this problem, clean up the mold, and make sure it cannot grow back in the future?”

The first issue is whether the mold is caused by a structural problem or not. It sounds like it might be in your case, as the tubs had to be moved to clean the mold.

As you probably know, mold is a problem in most parts of Japan all year long (and at its worst during the humid months). It grows and spreads rapidly, and it’s impossible to keep it from growing in bathrooms (and other areas) without preventative measures (e.g. running a fan while in the shower) and regular cleaning.

Let’s assume it is a structural issue. If your company is the official leaseholder, ultimately they’re responsible for addressing the mold issue with the landlord.

Even if you’re subletting the apartment, your company is acting on behalf of you, much like a real estate agent would. When a tenant leases through an agent, the agent is typically responsible for communicating directly with the landlord.

You’ll also want to read over your lease if you haven’t yet (or have someone read and translate it for you). If your lease dictates the landlord and tenant’s maintenance responsibilities, those will apply in this situation.

If maintenance responsibilities are not mentioned in the lease, the Civil Code will apply. Yoshiya Ishimura, of Omotesando Sogo Law Office, explains: “Generally speaking, a landlord is responsible for maintaining a leased property in a good condition suitable for use and for repairing any damage or wreckage to the property such as walls, floors, ceiling, air conditioners, lighting, etc. It should be noted that if such damages are caused by a tenant’s misuse, a tenant would at least be charged for the repair costs.

“On the other hand, a tenant is responsible for using the leased property in a normal manner and for doing normal house cleanings. A mold issue, however, could be a gray area since while mold could build up in any apartment in Japan absent any structural issue, a structural problem of the premises may cause unusual growing of the mold.

“If the structure of the bathroom is as described in your case and it is very difficult to do cleaning without the help of an expert (removing the bathtub), and such mold is making the premises unsuitable for use, it is more likely that the mold removal will be part of the landlord’s responsibility.”

We also contacted the Real Estate Transaction Improvement Organization (RETIO) and the National Network of Tenant Associations; both emphasized working out the situation with the landlord. The latter said a landlord would probably blame a mold problem on the tenant, but if the mold made the bathroom “nonfunctional,” a tenant could negotiate with the landlord to reduce rent for a certain number of months if the tenant arranges and pays for repairs.

Also, according to the Civil Code, if a part of the apartment is nonfunctional through no fault of the tenant, they can demand a rent reduction equivalent to the value of the nonfunctional part. To prove this to the landlord, you likely would need a professional inspector to declare the area nonfunctional.

If the landlord still refuses to take care of the problem, the next step would be to go to civil court. If it does come to that, it would be best to consult with a lawyer or law office.

Yoshiya Ishimura and his colleague Sumito Nakahara offer their services in English through the Omotesando Sogo Law Office (www.oslaw.jp). You can contact Mr. Ishimura via email at ishimura@oslaw.jp and Mr. Nakahara at snakahara@oslaw.jp, or you can reach either by phone at (03) 6418-1888.

If anyone else has experienced a similar problem, particularly with a difficult landlord, how did you resolve the issue?

Ashley Thompson writes survival tips and unique how-tos about living in Japan at www.survivingnjapan.com. Thanks to David Thompson for his research assistance. Send your questions to lifelines@japantimes.co.jp