Living in Japan/Getting Established
Finding a good place to live is difficult no matter where you are, but it is particularly difficult in Japan. Apartments and houses tend to be very small by American standards, and rather cramped by European standards.
There is no shortage of rental apartments 賃貸マンション chintai manshon in Japan: you can find "for rent" signs on every other city block in Tokyo, plenty of options on listings sites, and new buildings are constantly being constructed (and old ones demolished, due to government policy supporting homebuilders). Due to falling population, the vacancy rate in most areas is rising, and thus housing is easy to find. The population of Tokyo is still rising for a few years, but vacancy rates are nowhere near as low as cities like New York. In smaller or grayer cities, like Kyoto, it is possible to rent large housing for quite cheap prices, particularly older stock (50,000 yen/month for a mid-century machiya is reasonable).
The key variables are:
- Monthly rent
- Commute: both train and walk to station
- Building age
Key issues are:
- Moving expenses (key money, deposit, agent fee)
- “No foreigners”
These should all be checked as soon as possible, as they can all be deal-breakers.
You should also be aware of:
- Disaster risk (earthquakes and tsunamis)
Ideally you will have four to six months rent on hand, an established Japanese professional adult as guarantor, and a good command of Japanese or Japanese friend who can assist.
Be aware that many landlords also charge a renewal fee 更新料 kōshinryō at contract renewal. This is primarily found in Kantō (including Tōkyō) and Kyōto. There are other regional variations: in Ōsaka key money is instead deducted from a large security deposit, which is known as 敷引き shikibiki.
You should also consider Urban Renaissance (see below), a semi-public housing agency that avoids many of the problems typically associated with Japanese housing.
The main consideration in getting an apartment is money. Usually, leases are for at least one or two years, and it can be difficult for a landlord to evict a long-term tenant without cause. So getting an apartment in Japan usually requires a lot of money up front, in addition to guarantor (see below). The up-front money is divided into key money (礼金 reikin), a non-refundable fee to the landlord, and deposit (敷金, shikikin), which is in principle refundable (minus cleaning fees), but often fails to come back. Reikin and shikikin together usually amount to three or four months' rent. If you go through a real estate agent to get your apartment, you will need to pay the agent a commission as well, usually equal to one month's rent.
Some of these expenses can be avoided, analogously to “no-fee” apartments elsewhere: direct rentals (no agent fee) and no key money apartments exist, though the selection is more limited.
As a rule you will need a guarantor, who is ideally an established Japanese professional; Japanese people will typically use their father. (The idea is that apartments are for younger people, and established people should buy their own place.) In many cases it is possible to use one’s employer as a guarantor, or instead pay an additional fee to a special guarantor company if this is not acceptable. If you have young Japanese friends, it is often possible to use their parents, particularly if you have met them already.
If you use a Japanese friend as guarantor, please remember to give or send a gift, such as some local sweets – this is an expected courtesy. Further, pay your rent and do not do anything which may require recourse to your guarantor, particularly when Leaving Japan.
If you do not have a suitable friend and your employer will not act as guarantor, you have no choice but to use a guarantor company.
If you wish to use your employer as guarantor and the landlord refuses, consider another apartment, as the guarantor company fee is simply wasted money and there are plenty of apartments.
Beware that landlords making a fuss over a guarantor (only accepting a Japanese person as guarantor) may actually just not want foreigners, and are using guarantor issues as a way to avoid saying so directly. Thus if you have trouble with this, consider interpreting this as a “no foreigners” sign and look elsewhere.
Japanese landlords can refuse to rent to someone without giving a reason. In particular they may refuse to rent to foreigners, though they may also refuse to rent to Japanese whom they feel are lower class or outsiders, and these both happen. It is thus safest to ask up-front if foreigners are allowed, and to be aware of possible anxiety by the landlord or management company throughout.
In some cases a landlord categorically refuses to rent to foreigners, due to the additional hassle, risk, or simply racism. In other cases, landlords or management companies may express anxiety about a foreigner who has poor command of Japanese or is not used to Japanese customs – speaking Japanese, being polite (and showing command of Japanese manners), and showing acquaintance with Japanese culture and housing customs (esp. having spent time in Japan) can go a long way to relax people.
As elsewhere, apartments vary in which pets they allow – cats, small dogs, and large dogs are the main categories. It is easiest if you not have a pet, but if you have a pet or plan to get one, this is an important criterion.
An unusual feature of Japanese apartment is that new construction is very highly prized, in contrast to the West, where older buildings are often desirable. This is most simply because Japanese buildings are shoddily built and designed to only last a few decades (typically 20–30 years), and there are essentially no old stone or brick buildings like New York’s prewar Brownstones or London’s Victorian tenements. Thus a 15-year old building will often be visibly shabby.
A second reason is that building standards are constantly improving, particularly around earthquake safety, notably in the wake of the Kōbe earthquake. It is thus safest to live in an apartment where construction started after the Kōbe quake, so completed after 1996/97 or so.
If you do not mind a somewhat rundown building, you can save money by renting in an older building, bearing in mind the concern about earthquake safety.
Some apartments in Japan are as small as 9 square meters (100 square feet)! Usually, the size of an apartment is given in square meters or in tatami mats. The configuration of an apartment is usually described using the following codes:
- ワンルーム (wan-rūmu) denotes a one-room (studio) apartment.
- A "1K" has a bedroom and a tiny but separate kitchen.
- A "1DK" has a bedroom and a kitchen large enough to eat in.
- A "1LDK" has a bedroom and a larger kitchen which can accommodate both a table and a couch.
- "2K" usually denotes an apartment with two bedrooms and a small kitchen, but some landlords or agents may use the term to refer to something more like a 1DK (in which the kitchen is part of the smaller "bedroom").
- After this, you have 2DK, 2LDK, 3DK, 3LDK, etc.
Naturally, if you plan on spending much time at home, you will likely want a 1LDK or larger apartment, though if you minimize on furniture you may find a 1DK, 1K, or even studio sufficient. In any location within 45 minutes of central Tokyo, a 1LDK costs at least ¥70,000/month in rent alone, and the cost of rent goes up dramatically in the most popular areas of the central city. One-room and 1K apartments are often much cheaper, however.
As the saying goes, “location, location, location” – location, and associated commute time, is a key factor in desirability and cost. Housing in a fashionable, central neighborhood (such as Omotesandō) can be very expensive, while housing in a more distant or less fashionable area is much cheaper.
The cost of rent also goes down if you live in a more distant location, or if you are further from a station – an apartment a 10-minute walk to a station will be significantly cheaper than one a 5-minute walk away, and even a 1-minute difference can make a noticeable difference in price. Bearing in mind that commute time (and commute quality, given crowded Japanese commuter trains) is a significant factor in quality of life, you will need to balance commute, size, and quality within your budget. It is possible to live within walking distance of work, but in central Tokyo this is very expensive.
Another important and easily overlooked feature is earthquake and tsunami risk. Major earthquakes and tsunamis occur periodically in Japan, and thus living on landfill or in a low-lying area runs a risk of death or serious injury from ground liquification in an earthquake (if on landfill) or flooding (from an earthquake). If living near the coast, including Tōkyō, safest is to check the elevation of the address via a website (elevation given latitude/longitude).
In Tokyo, the most desirable neighborhoods are primarily between central Tokyo and Yokohama, in the southwest (particularly along the Tōyoko line 東横線 Tōyoko-sen), and some west of Shibuya and Shinjuku, with a few in central Tokyo. This is all in the traditional Yamanote area, which is build on bedrock and at high elevation, hence safety from earthquakes and tsunamis. By contrast, the port and Shitamachi areas are built on landfill or swamp, and are at high risk from earthquakes and tsunamis.
By far the two most popular are Kichijōji (west of Shinjuku and Shibuya) and Jiyūgaoka (southwest, towards Yokohama). Other consistently popular areas include Yokohama, Ebisu, Hiroo, Meguro, and Nakameguro. Popular neighborhoods outside the usual areas include Kamakura, Tomosu, and Kagurazaka, while a recently redeveloped and popular area is Futago tamagawa (also in the southwest). While Shibuya and Shinjuku are very lively areas, they are not typically considered great residential areas, though music fans may enjoy Shibuya, and there are many residential towers near Shinjuku. A neighborhood that is quite popular with youth and foreigners is Shimokitazawa, which has a rather funky feel, similar to Brooklyn.
If living and working in Kansai, there are a number of cities located in close proximity, and it is often possible to live in one but work in another. Ōsaka, Japan’s second city, is the largest and has the most jobs; Kyōtō, Japan’s traditional capital, is the most cultural; Kōbe (in Hyōgo prefecture), a port city, is the most fashionable and comfortable (due to the proximity to the sea). It is also possible to live near the boundary between Ōsaka and Kyōtō in order to work in one and visit the other.
An interesting particularity of the Kōbe area is that there are 3 rail lines in parallel in the narrow strip between the mountains and the sea. There is accordingly “rail line pride”; the closer to the mountains is more expensive and more fashionable. This also results in competition between the rail companies to build more stations and apartment complexes to serve the crowded area.
Kyōtō is an ancient city, with some neighborhoods having centuries or millenia of history. The main interest in the central part (north of 4th Street 四条通 Shijō-dōri) and along the mountains, where most temples are clustered.
As a foreigner, the most interesting housing, if not the most comfortable, is to live in a traditional machiya, particularly in the Nishijin or Higashiyama areas. This is relatively inexpensive and often uncomfortable, due to the age and poor condition of the houses, but is an unforgettable experience. Heating in winter is a particular problem – usually people use unvented kerosene or gas heaters indoor, which is extremely dangerous for indoor air quality due to the carbon monoxide (hence one often leaves the window open to ventilate, which quite defeats the point). An electric oil heater is much, much healthier and safer.
Particularly convenient is to live near or along one of the two main subway lines, particularly the north-south Karasuma line. A bicycle is very useful, due to the city being relatively compact and bikeable, and car parking being generally absent. For north-south biking, the side streets of Muromachi and Shinmachi are much safer and more interesting than the main Karasuma street itself, and the path along the Kamo river is well-maintained for much of its length and very refreshing, particularly in summer.
The south of the city, particularly from 5th Street 五条通 Gojō-dōri south is traditionally poor and generally lacks interest, though there are scattered places of interest even in this area.
Finding an apartmentEdit
There are a few overall networks, such as Suumo. You can also find an area that you are interested in and find the rental agencies that cover that area.
Urban Renaissance Agency (UR) is a semi-public agency that offers relatively inexpensive housing without many of the inconveniences and expenses of renting from a private landlord (no key money, foreigners allowed, deposit consistently returned, no guarantor required, no renewal fee). They do require a security deposit, which may be 1 to 3 months, and proof of income. As a large agency, many offices will have someone who speaks English, and there are private agencies that provide English assistance.
An alternative to an apartment is a "monthly mansion" or "weekly mansion." These are designed for shorter stays and do not require any deposit up front. To compensate for this, the monthly rent is about ¥20,000 to ¥50,000 higher than an equivalent apartment.
A "guest house" is a building shared by several people. Tenants in a guest house have their own bedrooms, but usually share bathrooms and living space. Some guest houses are actual houses in residential areas: others may be set up in apartment blocks or in converted commercial space. A number of guest houses are only occupied by foreigners: these are often called "gaijin houses."
There are obvious privacy and security concerns inherent in living in a guest house, and the other tenants may be insufferable. However, these tend to be the cheapest form of medium to long-term housing in major cities. A guest house room can be had near major train stations in central Tokyo for as little as ¥65,000/month.
Hankou or (signature) seals are carved stamps used throughout Japan for official matters. They are legally considered as an equivalent to your handwritten signature and are used whenever you are required to sign an official document (lease, mortgage, will etc). You will need to purchase your own hankou if you intend to stay in Japan, and you are obliged to register the hankou with your local city hall.
All aliens who plan to stay in Japan for more than 90 days must register with their local ward office 区役所 kuyakusho during their first 90 days in Japan. Registration, known as the Foreign residents’ registration system, is a relatively simple procedure. Household registration is also required for Japanese nationals (戸籍 koseki), and foreigners are now registered in the same system. The forms are available in English, Chinese and Korean, and you only need to bring your passport and two photographs (the photographs can usually be purchased from a machine at city hall).
Once you are registered, you will be issued a Residence Card (在留カード zairyū kādo). You are required by law to carry either the card or your passport at all times. Japanese police may ask you to show your card from time to time, so you should carry it any time you are in public. Under the former system, this was instead a Certificate of Alien Registration (外国人登録証明書 gaikokujin tōroku shōmeisho), abbreviated to gaitōshō (外登証?), and colloquially referred to in English as an "alien registration card" ("ARC") or "gaijin card." You may see references to this in older references.
Opening an accountEdit
Once you have a Residence Certificate, you can go to a Japanese bank and ask to open an account. There are many banks in Japan. The largest are Mitsubishi-Tokyo UFJ (MTU), Sumitomo Mitsui (SMBC) and Mizuho. In addition to these, many foreigners use Citibank (which has a full presence in Japan) or Shinsei Bank (a Japanese bank with foreign management and extensive service in English). Note that you need to open a new account at Citibank Japan even if you have a Citibank account in another country.
Another option is Japan Post Bank (JP Bank, Yūcho-ginkō), a savings institution tied to the post office, and the biggest bank in the world by deposits. This is very convenient while in Japan, due to the extensive branch network. However, JP bank has several drawbacks for foreigners: it is more difficult to establish an account (they are relatively conservative and inflexible); many tasks can only be done in person, on paper (not over the internet), notably overseas remittances; and you are not allowed to keep a bank account open after leaving Japan, which can cause serious inconveniences in receiving money (final paycheck, return of apartment deposit) or making final payments (e.g., utilities).
Some banks insist that you must live in Japan for a certain period before opening an account. This is incorrect, and if a bank denies you an account on these grounds you should find another bank.
Using your accountEdit
Some banks, particularly the large ones, give you an ATM card and send you a monthly statement in the mail–a familiar process for most foreigners. Smaller banks may still follow the "traditional" approach of giving you a passbook instead. To check your balance, you insert the passbook into an ATM, and the numbers are printed directly on the passbook.
Cheques are rarely used in Japan. Instead, you will probably pay your bills and receive your pay through furikomi, an interbank transfer system. You can send a furikomi from an ATM, or through online banking if your bank offers it. There is usually a fee of 100-500 yen to send a furikomi.
To make a cash deposit, you insert the bills directly into the ATM, which counts the money and confirms the total before depositing it into your account.
To make a cash withdrawal, you can use your bank's ATM or another ATM within the same network. MTU, SMBC and Shinsei all have large nationwide ATM networks, including 24-hour machines inside convenience stores. If you go with a smaller bank, you may be restricted to that bank's ATMs, which may have tight operating hours.
Sending and receiving money internationallyEdit
There are several ways to transfer money from a foreign account to your Japanese account:
- International wire transfer can be difficult due to money laundering countermeasures. Some banks only allow you to send an international wire in person. Check with your institution at home about the rules and fees. There will probably be fees to send the wire, to receive the wire and to convert the money into yen.
- Writing a cheque to yourself may be cheaper and easier than sending a wire, but usually takes much longer (as much as five weeks).
- You can also withdraw cash from your foreign account at a post office ATM, then deposit the cash in your Japanese account. This avoids fees on the Japanese end, but depending on the foreign bank's pricing, you may lose quite a bit of money in ATM fees and the exchange rate spread.
Some banks in Japan now offer accounts in multiple currencies. If you have such an account, you can receive a wire from the US in dollars, then convert the money to yen whenever you want to. This is useful for taking advantage of exchange rate fluctuations, and may also give you a better exchange rate than an ATM.
Health insurance is obligatory for all permanent employees and is automatically deducted from your wage packet. It goes towards the maintenance of the National health system and entitles you to free healthcare throughout Japan.
Computing in JapaneseEdit
It is necessary to do some minor changes in order to displaying Japanese text.
Inputting Japanese TextEdit
In the 'Regional and Language Options' Control Panel applet, choose the 'Languages' tab. Ensure that the 'Install files for East Asian languages' checkbox is selected. Click the 'Details...' button. Click the 'Add' button and choose 'Japanese'. Click the 'OK' buttons as necessary to close all dialog boxes.
To test the new settings, open any Unicode-enabled text processing application, such as Microsoft Word. Press the combination [Alt]+[Shift] on your keyboard until 'JP' replaces 'EN' in the new section of your taskbar. To input hiragana, enter the Japanese input mode by pressing [Alt]+[~].
Type a Japanese word using romaji keys (e.g. "nihongo") and either press [Enter] to leave that text in hiragana (e.g. "にほんご"), [F7] to change the text into katakana, or [Spacebar] then [Enter] to choose an alternative version containing kanji (e.g. "日本語").
To return to English input mode, press [Alt]+[~] again.
To install a Japanese typeface, simply open Internet Explorer and open a web page coded in Japanese. An Install-on-Demand window should appear, asking to install Japanese text support. After completing this install, the Japanese page should display correctly. (Please note: Wikibooks is not coded in Japanese. Try Google in Japanese.)
For Windows 2000/XP reading support, you will need to install a Unicode typeface, such as 'Code2000' or Arial Unicode MS. Both will cover nearly all of the non-Latin scripts used throughout Wikipedia.
For input support, you will need to install the East Asian language files. You can do this from the 'Control Panel'. Open the 'Regional and Language Options' and navigate to the 'Languages' tab. Minimally, you will want to check the box for 'Install files for East Asian languages', though you may wish to also install the complex script files, too. Clicking 'Apply' will install the 'Arial Unicode MS', 'MS Mincho' and 'MS Gothic' families of fonts. All of these fonts contain the Hiragana and Katakana scripts, as well as a substantial majority of the Kanji characters most commonly used.
Depending on how your computer was initially setup, you may need the original source CD to complete the installation. Your computer will prompt you to insert the CD if it is necessary
If this does not work you can also download and install the Office XP Tool: Japanese Language Pack from the Microsoft website.
Mac OS XEdit
Apple computers display Japanese characters out of the box, and are capable of inputting Japanese characters very simply. To do so, open up System Preferences (located in the "Dock") or click the Apple icon in the top left of your display and click 'System Preferences...'. Next, select 'International' and then the 'Input Menu' tab. Scroll down until you see 'Kotoeri' and check the box to the left of it. This will by default enable the input methods 'Hiragana', 'Katakana' and 'Romaji'.
To switch between your normal input and Hiragana quickly you can do one of two things. The first way to do this is to enable the input menu in the menu bar (you do this by checking the box next to 'Show input menu in menu bar' in the same place described previously), this will put a flag in the upper right part of your display. To change between input methods click the flag and select the new method. Alternatively, you can use the keyboard combination Command + Space Bar to switch between methods, although this is problematic in Apple's new operating system Tiger as this is also the shortcut for Spotlight. There are also direct shortcuts of Ctrl-Shift-; for Romaji, Ctrl-Shift-J for Hiragana, and Ctrl-Shift-K for Katakana.
Please note, while in the Hiragana input method you can temporarily switch to Katakana by holding down the shift key in much the same way that you temporarily hold down the shift key to type capital letters in English.
X11 (GNU/Linux, UNIX-like, etc.)Edit
For displaying Japanese, you will need the correct fonts selected. Please refer to your distribution's documentation for more on that.
You will need a helper application for inputting Japanese characters. The most prominent are:
- AA Editors FAQ? - a guide to typing special characters using common input method editors
- Let's type Japanese - a guide to setting-up SCIM/Anthy on Mandriva Linux, as well as a general guide to SCIM/Anthy
- Linjap Project - How to make any Linux distribution ready for asian languages with Canna/Kinput and and SCIM/Anthy