One of the first hurdles for people planning to work or study abroad is securing a place to live.

This hurdle is regarded as being especially high in Japan, where the housing market has been notoriously tough for foreigners due to its closed culture, the need for a Japanese guarantor and prohibitive costs.

Several months worth of rent is generally required up front — including “reikin” (key money) — before prospective occupants can even get in the door.

The Kanagawa Housing Support Center for Foreign People is one venue that is trying to help, having assisted more than 250 foreigners in finding housing since it opened in April 2001.

When foreigners seeking housing visit the center, which is run by nine volunteers with the backing of the Kanagawa Prefectural Government, they are referred to one of 184 registered real estate agencies that the center believes can meet clients’ demands.

For those having difficulty with the Japanese language, staff members also act as interpreters.

But the housing search does not always end in success. Osamu Takahashi, the center’s de facto head, said the success rate for matching clients with housing hovers at only around 25 percent to 30 percent.

The biggest obstacle is finding a guarantor, according to Takahashi, who qualified as a real estate sales manager after retiring from the lactic drink maker Yakult Honsha Co. six years ago. By tradition, many realtors require that a foreigner have a Japanese guarantor, which can be a tall order, especially for newcomers.

The center succeeded in getting Fukuoka-based insurance firm SHI Co. to act as a guarantor by underwriting foreigners’ rent for two years in return for 30 percent of a month’s rent. The only condition is that the insured have proper visas.

But even if the guarantor, visa and cost hurdles are surmounted, there is still the landlord factor, Takahashi said.

“Even if an agent gives the green light, a landlord can refuse,” he said. “Farmers, especially, do not trust the Fukuoka company, fearing that such a small firm could go under at any time.”

The center is now working to get the prefectural government to stand behind the insurance company in the belief that public backing would provide hesitant and often conservative landlords with a greater sense of security.

The center’s services are provided free of charge in six languages — Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Spanish.

Just having volunteers who speak their language is enough to win the trust of the home-seekers, according to Takahashi and other volunteers.

As a result, the center is evolving into a facility offering counseling on various matters.

Foreigners now come in to discuss their financial problems, including loan woes, while others turn to the center when they face eviction due to the death or illness of a Japanese spouse. Foreign students also seek advice on how to find a job.

Recently, a growing number of foreign women who have fled their homes because of domestic violence have turned to the center.

“Some are on welfare and having trouble finding an apartment, and cannot take care of their small children,” said Pae Ann, a center volunteer. “We are starting to see cases that are too serious and difficult to be solved by this center alone.”

The housing support center was born out of a proposal made by the Kanagawa Foreign Residents’ Council, a group of 20 people of 14 nationalities set up by the Kanagawa government to encourage foreign residents to take part in prefectural affairs.

During one session, a Cambodian refugee who sat on the panel spoke of the discriminatory treatment he suffered while living at a refugee facility in the city of Yamato.

Pae, one of the 20 council members, said his comments triggered a barrage of similar statements by fellow foreigners with negative experiences trying to find housing.

This prompted the group to propose that the prefectural government set up a support system for foreigners seeking housing.

In a lifestyle survey conducted by Kanagawa municipalities between 1999 and 2000, one in four foreigners in the prefecture said their attempts to rent housing were rejected because they were non-Japanese.

“The situation has not changed a bit in 13 years,” lamented Kong Qi, another volunteer at the center, who also served as a member of the foreign residents’ council.

Kong left Beijing to study in Japan in 1989 and married a Japanese national, which led her to believe her housing difficulties would be over.

She experienced a harsh awakening. “We got ‘no’ for an answer, because as a Chinese, they (landlords) thought I would use a lot of cooking oil, which might stain the walls. They also insisted on meeting our parents, something they would not ask Japanese,” Kong recalled.

“We have all had to go through this,” Kong said after being asked for assistance by a student from China looking for a job and an apartment to rent. “I see my former self in these people.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.