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Foreigners still dogged by housing barriers

by Akemi Nakamura

Having arrived in Tokyo from Seoul about a year ago, Im Yeong Eun, like many foreigners who come to Japan, soon encountered a major difficulty — housing discrimination.

Im, 25, together with two South Korean friends who also came to Japan around that time, visited three real estate agencies to rent an apartment in Shinjuku Ward. But the agencies turned them away because they were foreigners.

“I never expected to be refused,” said Im, who goes to a Japanese language school in the ward. “I felt like I was treated like a criminal.”

Fortunately, she found a one-bedroom flat through a real estate agency that one of her friends introduced her to. The firm’s South Korean employee takes care of foreign customers by teaching them Japanese customs related to living in rental apartments.

Japan’s foreign population is steadily increasing. Government data show the number of registered foreign residents stood at 2.08 million in 2006, up from 1.48 million a decade ago. Nonetheless, housing discrimination against foreigners is surprisingly strong even in Tokyo.

According to a 2006 survey conducted by Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Information Center for Foreigners in Japan, 94 percent, or 220 respondents, out of 234 foreigners in Tokyo who visited real estate agents said they were refused by at least one agent.

To ease the discrimination, the public and private sectors have gradually come to offer various services to help foreigners find properties.

The Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry launched the Web site Anshin Chintai (safe rental housing) in June to provide rental housing information and lists of real estate agents and NPOs that can support foreign apartment-seekers.

“We hear that some foreign residents have been refused (by landlords or rental agents),” said Eiji Tanaka, a ministry official in charge of the project. “The system is to network local governments, rental agents and nonprofit organizations” to effectively help such foreigners as well as the aged and the disabled.

So far, Tokyo, Fukuoka, Osaka and Miyagi prefectures and Kawasaki have joined the project. For example, 237 real estate agents in Tokyo are listed as supportive firms.

The site — www.anshin-chintai.jp — is available in Japanese only, but foreigners who have difficulties with the language can ask local governments to explain the information on the site to them, according to the ministry.

The ministry is trying to have other local governments join the system and is considering offering the content in other languages as well, the official said.

The Japan Property Management Association, involving about 1,000 real estate agencies, also launched the Web site Welcome Chintai — www.jpm.jp/welcome/ — in September to introduce rental properties in six languages — Chinese, English, Korean, Mongolian, Spanish and Russian.

Information about properties and procedures and customs to rent rooms are put up by rental agents on the site’s six blogs — one blog in each of the six languages.

“The Web site is a tool for us to smoothly accept foreign customers,” said Masao Ogino, chairman of the association’s international exchange committee that runs Ichii Co., the real estate agent in Shinjuku Ward.

As real estate agents that registered with the site write about their experiences of dealing with foreign customers, other member companies can gain knowhow, he said.

But opening such Web sites is not enough to help foreigners, said Toshinori Kawada, a Meiji University student who set up The-You Inc., a rental housing consulting firm, in Shinjuku Ward last year.

“(Foreigners) often find apartments through word of mouth. Distributing fliers at places where they gather is more effective” than offering information online, he said, noting his company’s site showing properties for foreigners, launched in July, has failed to draw many viewers.

A key to solving the housing problem faced by foreigners is to ease landlords’ anxieties about accepting them as tenants, Kawada said.

Landlords and rental agents often say they are concerned that foreign tenants might not have proper guarantors and might cause trouble with neighbors.

To ease such anxieties, his firm gives rental agents and landlords consultations on foreign tenant management, such as teaching them rules of everyday life here and collecting rents, by utilizing the expertise he gained by working at a foreign customers-only real estate agency for a year.

These private-sector moves have come as real estate companies and landlords think the rental housing market targeting foreigners has potential as Japan struggles with a declining birthrate.

“An oversupply (of rental apartments) makes it difficult (for landlords) to manage their properties. So they reluctantly turn to foreign customers,” Kawada said.

Ogino of the association said more and more real estate agents would enter the market as the association is trying to enlighten them and pass along knowhow to handle foreign customers through its new site.

“Our industry is finally moving toward internationalization as some agents now hire foreign employees,” Ogino said. “If real estate agencies can obtain knowhow to deal with foreign customers, they could gain more benefits and make foreign residents happy.”