The Great Japanese Housing Rip-Off

If you decide to move to and work in Japan it is not unlikely you’ll need a place to stay. Though this is always a rigmarole, in Japan there are certain issues you’ll need to be aware of.
Housing comes in several shapes and forms; from an actual house to the more likely apartments, called either “apaato” or laughably “mansions”, or dorms and gaijin houses. The latter two I’ll discuss a little later on, but first let’s look at getting your own place.

Flats are smaller than in the west, yes, but they needn’t be the 1 room tatami boxes you may have seen on television. Sure, they exist and are cheap, but you can also splash out on a semi-affordable places with a kitchen and bathroom.
The size is usually denoted with a series of letters. “K” meaning kitchen, “”D” meaning dining area, though these are usually part of the kitchen, “L” meaning living room and preceded by a number which indicates the number of rooms. So, e.g., a 2LDK is an apartment with two rooms, a dining/kitchen area and a living room. A 1K is one of those 1 room studio flats with, what in the UK would be called a “kitchenette”.
Rental places are more often than not unfurnished, not even including a fridge or washing machine.
Sizes are either mentioned in square meters (Japan is metric) or tatami sizes. (1 tatami = roughly 1.8 square meters).

If you are going to use a realtor you may get your first glimpse of outright racism. On information sheets about the apartments there may be certain restrictions like “no pianos” or "no pets”, but sometimes even “no foreigners”.
If you find a nice place you face the titular rip-off: advance, key and gift moneys. Unremarkably you’ll need to pay some rent in advance, usually around two months’ worth. On top of that there is a thing called “key money”, which is basically a deposit, again usually two months’ worth. In an ideal world you’ll get some of this back, but don’t be surprised if it all goes down some drain. But you also have to pay “gift money”, a token amount you give to the landlord as a thank you for letting you rent his apartment; again usually two months’ worth – this you will not get back!
So before you can move in you are likely to have to slap down 6 months’ worth of rent. Say your monthly rent is 100,000 Yen (850USD, 670 Euro) you’ll need to slap down 600,000 Yen (5000USD, 4000 Euro) before you even get the key. This can be quite a chunk of money, as you can see.

You’ll also need a guarantor, someone who will vouch for you and who will cough up the dough should you be unable or unwilling to pay the rent. Don’t worry, this part is not a racist thing; the Japanese have to contend with it too.
Ideally the guarantor is a professional Japanese male. Pretty much nothing else will do. There are companies hat will be your guarantor for a fee, which is throwing bad money after worse, or you can ask your boss to be your guarantor, but that would tie you to the company and makes changing jobs very difficult.

There are realtors that cater specifically to foreigners, ones that dispense with key and gift money and ones that don’t require guarantors, but they are few and I have no idea what their prices or the quality of their apartments are.

Some things you need to think of:

1. What is the age of the apartment building? Older mansions can be a bit dirty and cold. Newer ones are better but there was a scam uncovered recently of builders cutting costs and building under spec.
2. Location is important. The further out of Tokyo you go, the cheaper the nicer places will be. Be sure you don’t live too far from your local train station as that can easily had half an hour to your commute.
3. Does it have all mod cons? Make sure the bathroom and kitchen are up to scratch and if it isn’t included buy yourself an air conditioner as soon as you can afford it; Tokyo summers can be unbearable without one – seriously, a fan won’t do. Also make sure there is a connection for a washing machine inside; some older apartments still have them next to the front door or on the balcony.
4. Are there no hidden costs like building upkeep fees?
5. Do you want parking? Occasionally apartment buildings do offer parking spaces but only if available, and it will not be cheap!
6. Do you really want tatami? Sure, it’s nice and comfortable to loaf on, especially in the summers, but they require a bit of maintenance and if dirty can harbour creepy crawlies.
7. Check which cable company supplies your area or apartment block; this is especially useful if you want to get a fast cable internet connection.

I am going to assume you’ll be renting apartments, as houses, though possible, are in far shorter supply and could be more expensive.

But are there alternative? Sure, you could stay in a gaijin house. These are usually dorm style affairs with a private room but shared toilets and kitchen. The real plus is that you won’t have to worry about guarantors and gift money, but on the other hand, it is a dorm, usually inhabited by other foreigners. I’ve heard some real horror stories about these places but they can also be nice. Best to shop around first if you plan to use these.

Then there are company dorms. Some of the more traditional corporations have dorms where new hires are sometimes required to live, even if they already have a house and family. It may be a good deal for any incoming foreigners, but it all depends on how institutionalised you are willing to get.

So what can you expect to pay for a place of your own? Well, prices vary enormously. Obviously the further out of the center you go the more affordable it gets but even then there are “popular” areas where prices can still be high. I think it’s safe to say if you’re paying 100,000 Yen per month for a small apartment in central Tokyo you’re probably getting ripped off. But you could pay 100,000 to 150,000 Yen per month for a nice family apartment further out. Or you could be cheap and pay as little as 50,000 Yen a month for a cardboard box-sized apartment in central Tokyo, or a whopping 3 million yen a month for one of those swanky places in the new Roppongi Hills area. The latter is, of course, reserved for the rich and profligate.
The key is to shop around and try several realtors before you make a final decision. By the time you have moved to Japan things may have changed and it differs from area to area so I can’t really be more specific than this I‘m afraid.

If you’re planning on buying a place, well, that’s a whole different Hell. Bank loans, mortgages, paperwork, your undesirable status as a foreigner, that requires a post all to itself, but sadly I am not the one to write that, so you may have to check elsewhere.


  1. Dirty tatamis are special to lure scorpions and centipedes, thats why I prefer a couch instead, follow my advise.

  2. It is 2015 and the Japanese real estate market is still ripe with legal extortion. For a 70,000 yen apartment, I was just quoted 400,000 in "initial fees", including the key money, guarantee company fees, lock changing fees and some inexplicably expensive "cleaning fee".