Dec 31, 2002, a total of 1,851,758 foreigners were registered with immigration authorities in Japan. That’s about 1.5 percent of this country’s population. But it’s an exceptionally diverse group and comprehensive information on their housing conditions is difficult, if not impossible, to come by.

One thing
for certain is that misconceptions on the topic of home ownership by foreigners abound.

Take visa status. Despite beliefs to the contrary, you don’t need permanent resident status to buy, or even obtain a loan — although it helps. In fact, as long as you can come up with the funds, there’s nothing to stop you from buying property in Japan on a short-term visitor’s visa.

Once an eccentric friend of mine from tropical Saipan — who didn’t like to have to lug suitcases full of seasonal clothes with him every time he visited Tokyo — actually plunked down about 10 million yen and bought himself a small 2-room condo in Tokyo’s Minato Ward.

The transaction proved to be surprisingly easy; all he had to do was register a “hanko” (personal seal) to stamp on the registration papers. The real estate broker handled all the remaining paperwork in a matter of days.

This writer purchased a house here in 1982 — just before the late, unlamented bubble economy drove land prices into the stratosphere. I was not a permanent resident at the time (that came four years later), but was deemed creditworthy, having held a salaried job in the same company for seven years.

More importantly, my wife and I were prepared to call on our accumulated savings and family resources to put down a substantial deposit. The realtor helped me secure a 20-year loan from a life insurance company for the balance.

Looking back on the past two decades, I would attest that most of the benefits to home ownership have been psychological. After jumping from country to country for the first 35 years of my life, setting down permanent roots has provided a sense of stability and even contentment.

But am I the exception to the rule? As a topic for this column, I produced a short, somewhat unscientific questionnaire and dispatched it by e-mail to a circle of friends and contacts.

They, in turn, forwarded it to others. More than half replied and I wound up with responses from homeowners from the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada and Egypt. The respondents’ homes were located in the 23 central wards of Tokyo (10); a municipality of greater Tokyo-to (5); Kanagawa (3); Chiba (2); Aichi (1); Gunma (1); Mie (1); and Okinawa (1). All the respondents were male, and all but two currently married. Of the total, around 60 percent live in houses, while the rest live in condominium apartments.

Respondents’ average total length of residence in Japan was just over 26 years, though the average time since their home purchase was just under 8 1/2 (three were within the past 12 months.)

Only two had owned their homes longer than 20 years, and it appears likely that the interim years of the bubble economy, when property prices were at their highest, discouraged many from purchasing.

For many respondents, a desire to avoid paying rent when they could own their own home was the chief reason for purchasing; others bought due to encouragement or insistence by their Japanese spouses. The balance between purchase of new and used homes was split almost down the middle.

A very small number, mostly outside of central Tokyo, were able to boast that their homes were custom-built from an original blueprint.

Few of the subjects said they encountered difficulties in financing their home purchase, and these problems were usually resolved after they obtained permanent residence.

A number benefited from the largess of a Japanese in-law.

One homeowner only managed to get a loan after a local politician and construction company owner came with him to see the bank manager and virtually ordered the bank to lend the money.

When asked if ownership of a home in Japan had changed their outlook toward living and working in this country, most said no, though several did reply in the affirmative.

“I no longer consider myself a ‘guest,’ ” said one American, who lives in Tokyo. Another homeowner from the States said: “Yes,it feels more comfortable not to be at the whim of a landlord. I no longer have to worry about having to move or paying higher rent in the future.”

And when it came to concerns residents had about owning a home in Japan, many cited a “major earthquake or other natural disaster” as their chief concern. “Decline in property values” was another common response. A few cited “loss of sunshine” or “deterioration of neighborhood.”

“It pissed me off that our real estate agent basically lied through his teeth,” said one Tokyo homeowner. Another Tokyo resident said: “Our area has increasingly become a magnet for eyesore ‘manshons’ whose walls run right up to the edge of the sidewalk. Tokyo’s wards do not seem to enforce sensible building codes.”

One couple in Kanagawa was concerned with how to make their home “barrier-free” for when they get old.

When asked, “looking back, are you satisfied with your decision to have purchased a home here?” the positive responses were virtually unanimous.

Nevertheless owning a home in Japan is not for everyone — not even long-term residents.

“I do not regret not having bought in Japan,” says Aaron Cohen, currently living in New York state but who resided in Tokyo for 35 years before his departure in 1999. “By the time I could think about buying, owing to my position and employment or income outlook, the quality of Japanese housing and the inflated real estate values were deterrents. Buying never seemed an option.”

“It would have meant a more permanent decision about where to live than I was willing to make,” he adds.

Cohen, who worked for a time in an architectural engineering firm, pointed out that Japanese houses and condos do not keep value owing to the building materials and standards used.

“It didn’t seem reasonable to depend solely on location and assumption of perpetual escalation of land values as criteria for investing in a home,” he says. “We bought our house in the U.S. with cash easily when I returned.

“Since then (end-1999) the value has more than doubled so it is almost like living in the Japanese bubble.”

Well, as the Japanese saying goes, “Sumeba Miyako” (a man’s home is his castle).

I suppose this holds true anywhere — even in New York.

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