With a falling population, a shrinking tax base and a shortage of carers for its increasing number of elderly, calls are growing for Japan to allow in a large influx of foreign workers to plug the gap. The question is: When they come, will they be able to find a place to stay?

With its “shikikin” (deposit) and “reikin” (key money) — which mean forking out several months’ rent upfront and tracking down a guarantor willing to take on the payments in case of default — Japan’s real estate system is notorious for the high demands it makes of potential tenants. Even if an individual is able to pay all the fees and find a guarantor, foreigners often hit a brick wall when looking for a place to live simply because they are not native-born Japanese.

John Clark, a Canadian translator with permanent residency status who has been living in Japan since 1999, ran head-first into that barrier when he was looking for an apartment in downtown Hiroshima. Despite having a guarantor, sufficient funds and being fluent in Japanese, the building owner refused to even consider letting him rent the room.

“I was told that there was a Peruvian-Japanese who kidnapped and murdered a 7-year-old girl (in 2005).” Clark says. “The (owner) said, ‘Due to this event, I don’t want any foreigners in the building.’ I mean, I didn’t even know this guy!”

Clark’s experience is hardly unique; foreigners are rejected so often in Japan when trying to find a place to live that “no pets or foreigners” has almost become a cliche. Sakiko Tanaka, the CEO of real estate company Transborders, has heard her fair share of these horror stories. Offering translation services in English, Chinese, and Korean, Transborders negotiates with landlords and other real estate agents on behalf of foreigners seeking residences in Tokyo.

“It’s because of the law here that tenants are strongly protected,” she explains. “People who lease their rooms feel like they have to judge a tenant before they rent it out, because if he or she cannot pay for a couple months, the owner cannot legally terminate the contract.”

She adds that many potential deals are killed before they even get off the ground because of language barriers between the client and the building’s owner. “If the real estate agent is not confident about telling the owner about having non-Japanese-speaking tenants, then they feel hesitant. So they reject the potential customer even before they introduce him or her to the owner.”

Her view is echoed by Masao Ogino, president of Ichii Corp., a foreigner-friendly real estate company in Shinjuku. “Around 90 percent of real estate is closed to foreigners because of communication issues,” he says. Having dealt with housing for non-Japanese for over 30 years, he believes that while many older landlords are hesitant to take on foreigners, most are simply looking for someone who can pay on time.

Tanaka, however, cautions that some Japanese landlords have a “certain view” — more often than not negative — of potential tenants based on their nationality or ethnicity.

“There’s a prejudice that white people party hard,” she says. “If someone is from a Western country, there is a fear that they will have a home party every weekend.” As for tenants from Asian countries, she says many landlords believe that the tenant would invite friends or family members to move in without consultation.

Unfortunately, there’s not much a foreigner can do when faced with this kind of prejudice. Unlike hotels, which are required by labor ministry laws to admit foreign guests, Tanaka explains that the real estate industry falls under the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, which allows landlords to turn away clients based on “keiyaku no jiyu,” or freedom of contract.

Sometimes, troubles will continue even after a foreigner is lucky enough to find a place to live. Clark, who now lives at Ochanomizu Royal Heights, a condominium complex, says he and other foreign residents face routine discrimination from the building’s staff: disproving glares, the silent treatment, accusations of breaking building rules.

Clark and other foreign residents occupy property owned by Akihide Fukumoto, who is embroiled in a legal battle with the building’s administrators over his right to lease to foreign and short-term tenants.

Fukumoto explains that he had purchased a large room in the complex and has been leasing it out to foreign students, professionals and tourists for the past year and a half. Initially, he felt that it would not be a problem, as other businesses operate within the building. The administration, however, insists that the leasing is a violation of the building rules, and has pushed to have the guests removed from the complex.

“We are treated like aliens in the apartment,” Fukumoto sighs, “even though we’ve lived a long time there.”

Fukumoto admits that part of the poor treatment of his foreign tenants is down to the ongoing dispute with the building administrators, but he also feels that foreigners receive undue flack because they don’t “fit in” with the other residents of the building.

Swiss student Bettina Tasser recalls how the building’s receptionist confronted her one morning when she tried to enter the building. “I thought I’d be nice and say ‘Ohayo gozaimasu,’ and he just ignored me. So anyway, when I came to the door he was staring at me and making strange faces.” Pointing to a sign at the entrance, he insisted that her room was prohibited and that it was “dangerous” to enter the building.

Tasser added that the same man who intimidated her was warm and friendly toward a Japanese family in the building. “Once, there was a cute Japanese family, and he was like, ‘Ohayo gozaimasu!’ and smiling broadly.” More than the treatment she received, she is stunned at the difference in attitude shown toward foreigners and native Japanese in the building.

“The staff is very kind toward the older residents — they are around 60 or 70 years old, medical professors and company owners,” Fukumoto says indignantly, “but they are very rude toward younger people and to foreigners — especially those of Chinese and Korean descent.”

Fukumoto is also concerned about Japanese landlords’ tendency to discriminate against single mothers, the young “working poor” and anyone else who doesn’t fit the bill of being a normative, native-born Japanese.

Shin Morii, a Japanese resident of the complex, expressed concern that foreigners who come to Japan with an admiration for the country might be turned off by the negative experiences they face with accommodation.

“You often hear about racial prejudice in the U.S., but it seems the Japanese aren’t really ones to talk,” Morii said with a sad smile. “We Japanese have been going abroad for the past 100 years, and maybe experienced some discrimination there, but we’ve still been able to establish ourselves. . . . I feel bad for foreigners who studied hard to come here, and who are treated like this.”

Discrimination is an issue that will need to be tackled if Japan is serious about creating a more international society. Tourism minister Nariaki Nakayama alluded to this problem days after his appointment in September, when he bemoaned the fact that Japanese “do not like nor desire foreigners” and called for Japanese to “open their hearts” to diverse cultures. Nakayama was sacked days later.

Calls to allow in more foreign workers to Japan have grown louder as the implications of a rapidly graying society on Japan’s global clout and industrial might have sunk in. The Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) last month urgently called for an influx of “medium-skilled” immigrant labor. In June, former Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa presented a proposal on behalf of some 80 lawmakers calling for the government to raise the ratio of foreign residents in Japan to 10 percent of the population within 50 years.

Ichii Corp.’s Ogino says that although foreigners still face a tough time in the housing market, the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Transport Ministry is taking concrete steps to make the process easier for both foreigners and real estate agents. “The problem won’t solve itself, but the government is making efforts,” he says. He gives credit to the ministry for its “Anshin Chintai” (Safe Rental Housing) initiative launched last year, which helps landlords rent to “risky” clients such as single mothers, the elderly, and — of course — foreigners. He has also been helping the ministry work on a guidebook, to be released in December, that gives information to landlords and tenants in six different languages.

Transborders CEO Tanaka agrees. If Japan is serious about bringing in more foreigners, she warns, “the real estate industry has to change a lot. . . . Especially in 30, 40, 50 years, I’m not sure if Japan will stay one of the best Asian countries economically.” She adds that the country will have to make “a lot more effort” if it wants to attract highly skilled workers, and provide social services in English or other languages who don’t speak Japanese.

Tanaka says she wants the country to change so that foreigners not only find accommodation, but are genuinely happy to have chosen Japan as a place to live. People like Clark, who have chosen to work in Japan long-term, agree. If people are to make a commitment to the country, he says, they have to be offered more than grudging tolerance from their landlords and neighbors.

“If you want (foreigners) to support the economy and work for you, you have to house these people,” says Clark. “You have to give them a decent living.”

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