After spending 2½ years living the quiet life in buttoned-down Shiga Prefecture, Ryukoku University student Victor Rosenhoj was looking forward to moving into bustling central Kyoto, where things promised to be more lively and international. First, though, he needed to find a suitable apartment, so he picked up a copy of the student magazine, Ryudaisei No Sumai, from the cooperative store on campus.

Thumbing through it, Rosenhoj, originally from Belgium, came across an attractive and affordable place just a stone’s throw from Gojo Station in the downtown area. His heart set on the apartment, he made an appointment at the student co-op on the university’s Fukakusa campus, which arranges accommodation for students in the Kyoto area.

When he pointed to the apartment he was interested in, the shop manager told him that no foreigners were allowed to rent the place.

“Well, the very first moment I was told that, I thought I had misheard something. But it soon became clear that it wasn’t a misunderstanding,” Rosenhoj said. “I felt both hurt and angry at the same time, though it took a while for those feelings to really reach the surface.”

Rosenhoj said one of the things that surprised him the most was the “matter-of-fact way” the manager informed him that the apartment was off-limits to foreigners. After Rosehoj confronted the manager about the issue, he says he was somewhat apologetic about it, but at the same time dismissive of the idea that it could be construed as racial discrimination by a foreign customer.

In his five years living in Japan, 25-year-old Rosenhoj had heard plenty of stories about discrimination in the private rental sector, but he never imagined he would have to face it at the university where he was studying.

“I couldn’t believe that something like this was happening to me at the very school I was attending.” This, said Rosenhoj, “was more psychologically damaging to me than anything else, since I thought that people working for the school and those affiliated with the school were working in the students’ interests, including its foreign students.”

Ryukoku University is one Japan’s oldest institutions of higher education and grew out of a Buddhist seminary attached to Kyoto’s Nishi-Honwanji Temple that was established in 1639. It has approximately 20,000 students, of which 500 are foreigners, hailing from 37 countries. According to the Ryukoku International Center’s website, the university’s goal is to become a “Glocal (Global and Local) University seeking Symbiosis Harmony.”

Rosenhoj says he spoke with staff at Ryukoku University’s international office about the accommodation issue. They told him there was not much that could be done about the matter, and suggested instead that he look for real estate companies specifically catering to foreign students. Ryukoku University declined to comment on Rosenhoj’s case for this story.

Takashi Shimomura, the Fukakusa campus co-op shop manager who originally dealt with Rosenhoj, says he telephoned the property management company, JSB Kyoto, to check if it was possible for the property to be rented out to Rosenhoj after the student complained.

“They told me that foreign students were not able to rent the apartment as the property’s owner had prohibited it,” he said. “Of course, we would have liked Rosenhoj to have been able to rent the place, but the management company and the owner were opposed to it, so it would not have be possible for a contract to be written up.”

Shimomura adds that after the issue of discrimination came up, he also spoke directly with the manager of JSB Kyoto, discussed the problem and said the university wants to be able to offer more apartments that foreign students can rent.

“We are currently trying to improve the situation and are consulting with a range of property management companies to find out how many have apartments that allow foreign students,” he said. “We are directly requesting that, where possible, they offer apartments that accept foreign students. Now, almost all our apartments allow foreign students.”

Shimomura was not able to confirm how many of the properties advertised by the university refuse foreign students. “It is difficult to get that information,” he said. “Ultimately, it is not the co-op’s decision, so it is difficult. We feel it is regrettable this situation occurred and are sorry.”

Ryosuke Maruya, a spokesman for JSB Kyoto, says that in the case concerning Rosehoj, JSB was not acting in the role of property manager. “We were just the go-between company in that case. Our role was only to introduce the property. The decision about whether foreign students could or could not rent the place was not made by us, but by the owner.”

Although JSB does manage a large number of student apartments in the Kyoto area, this particular landlord had opted to retain responsibility for managing the property. “In this case, the tenancy agreement would have been directly between the landlord and the tenant. JSB would not have had any part in that,” the spokesman said.

In these sorts of cases, Maruya added, it is not possible for JSB to determine what kind of tenants can live in the apartments. “With properties we manage, foreign students are almost always accepted,” he said. “If we had been the management company, he [Rosenhoj] would have been welcome.”

Maruya says he doesn’t know for sure about properties administered by other companies, but he suspects there are still a considerable number of apartments in the Kyoto region where foreign students are not welcome. “I don’t really think is due to racial discrimination on the part of the landlords,” he explained. “Many have only had Japanese people living in their apartments in the past so they are not really accustomed to dealing with foreigners. Another reason may be that they lack the confidence or ability to speak a foreign language.”

Maruya says that JSB is working hard to help foreign students who come to Japan find a suitable apartment where they can live comfortably. “We have the opportunity to give advice to the landlords and we try to encourage them to accept a wide range of people as tenants. We are trying our best to get them to understand it is OK to have foreign students living in their apartments,” he said.

Victims of racial discrimination in Japan are in murky waters when it comes to seeking legal recourse. The Japanese Constitution prohibits discrimination, yet the degree to which this can be enforced in practice remains unclear.

To quote from Article 14: “All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.”

Yet according to Doshisha University law professor Colin Jones, it is unclear whether this constitutional right to equality extends to relations between private individuals or organizations under law, and even if it does, there is a lack of sound legislation to ensure these protections are upheld.

“The traditional view of a constitution is that it protects an individual against the government, but it doesn’t necessarily extend to discrimination by private individuals,” he said. “You have to do some fairly complicated legal gymnastics to get Article 14 to the point where it applies to private conduct.”

One way to do this would be by invoking Article 90 of the Civil Code, which states that a juristic act with any purpose that is against public policy is void, Jones said. “Then you could argue that if the Constitution is an expression of public policy, then it applies.”

This is a far cry from the situation in some other countries, where it is explicitly spelled out in legislation that discrimination is illegal, said Jones. “In the United States there are the federal fair housing laws, which basically say you may not discriminate against people based on a long list of categories, and there are statutory remedies if that happens. Whereas in Japan, it is more just the idea of discrimination being bad, with not a lot of protections in place.”

Jones believes the lack of a statutory regime to enforce constitutional principles means Japan takes only a soft line when it comes to discouraging discrimination. “There is certainly an effort by the government to encourage people not to discriminate — it is almost badgering people and saying ‘discrimination is bad’ — but it has no teeth. There is no formal mechanism for challenging discrimination.

“While it may be possible to challenge a particular incident through the courts or by bringing a complaint with a human rights committee, neither may lead to a concrete result in terms of remedies.”

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