Years ago, when a friend of mine was preparing to move back home to Los Angeles, I helped her clean her rented studio apartment in Tokyo. Shoving aside a pile of books, clothes and various other kinds of clutter, we wiped the wood floor, scrubbed the bathtub and polished the kitchen sink. We spent almost a whole day tackling the spots and stains that had cropped up over the years, until both of us were exhausted, both physically and mentally. Yet my friend was still worried whether she had made enough effort to clean up the unit.

“I don’t know what the Japanese level of cleanliness is,” she told me.

While there is probably no single standard for cleanliness in Japan, or anywhere else for that matter, the state of cleanliness in which a renter should leave their apartment when they leave is a rather prickly issue, often resulting in legal trouble. Some unscrupulous real-estate agents also charge exorbitant “cleaning fees” from departing renters (often in the form of cuts in the amount of their deposits or security money they get back at the end of their rental agreements) if they don’t clean or repair any damage themselves — even though some of that might be illegal.

In fact, there have been so many troubles over the issue that the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry released a guideline in 1998 and updated it in 2004, with brief summaries of recent court cases attached.

As the muddling title of the ministry’s guideline “Genjo Kaifuku wo Meguru Toraburu to Gaidorain (Troubles Related to Restoring [Rental Housing] to the Original State and a Guideline [on Resolving Such Troubles])” suggests, renters have the responsibility to restore their apartment/condo/house “to the original state” when their rental agreement expires. But the report points out that the original state does not mean that properties must be in exactly the same condition as they were when they were rented out.

The “original state” should take into account depreciation of such properties over time, the report said, noting that costs to be shouldered by renters are limited to any decrease in value caused “intentionally, due to negligence; by their failure to pay a commonly expected level of attention; or heavy wear and damage that derail from normal use.”

The guideline also says that a tenant’s burden to restore the property should decrease as their stay gets longer.

Here are some examples of the damage tenants are not responsible for, according to the guideline:

* Discoloration of tatami mats and (wood) flooring, caused by sunlight or due to defective building structure;

* Cost of applying wax on flooring;

* Blots on the wall caused by cigarette tar, if they can be removed by standard cleaning services;

* Darkening in color of wallpaper behind electronic appliances such as televisions and refrigerators.

On the other hand, tenants are responsible for the cleaning of such things as:

* Stains and mold on carpets caused by beverages;

* Scum and mold in bath tubs, toilets and washing stands;

* Stains on gas stoves and ventilating fans;

* Scratches and dents on flooring left by chairs with wheels.

The number of cleaning-related conflicts remains high. The National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan, a semigovernmental consumer-rights watchdog, handled 13,772 cases in fiscal 2006 related to return of deposits or security money after rental agreements expire, down from the peak of 15,388 in 2003 but still higher than 13,472 in 2002.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government went a step further when it implemented in 2004 a prefectural ordinance making it mandatory for real-estate agencies to explain to a prospective renter: the basic principle of the tenant’s responsibility to “restore to the original state”; the tenant’s responsibility to keep a rented property in good condition while living there; whether the agreement has a special clause not covered in the aforementioned duties; and contact information for repair and maintenance of the property during the agreement period. The metropolitan government also released its own guideline, which is almost identical to the land ministry’s version but a little more detailed.

The law applies to all agreements in Tokyo signed on Oct. 1, 2004 and thereafter.

Isao Okumura, an official in the realty section at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, said that out of the 17,292 dispute cases his section fielded on rented housing from both tenants and landlords in fiscal 2006, nearly a third were about cleaning obligations.

Asked whether the metro government’s guideline and the ordinance — together called the “Tokyo rule” — are commonly known among Tokyo dwellers, Okumura let out a chuckle of embarrassment.

“That’s a hard question to answer,” he said. “Because Tokyo has a lot of people constantly moving in from outside, many people coming here might not be familiar with the rule.”

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