Pets OK, No Foreigners: The Reality of Housing Discrimination in Japan

Pets OK, No Foreigners: The Reality of Housing Discrimination in Japan

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Housing discrimination in Japan
Picture: Canva
What's it like renting in Japan? For many resident foreigners, it's a humiliating ordeal - and it's even worse if you aren't white.

These days, more and more foreigners are moving to Japan. However, many here report having trouble finding a home to call home. Many landlords flat out refuse to rent to foreigners, making the housing search a frustrating and, sometimes, humiliating process.

Recently, NHK did a report on this issue, which doesn’t get much Japanese-language press. Here’s what they said, what UJ’s own readers said about their experiences with housing discrimination in Japan, and why residents from other Asian countries tend to bear the worst brunt of it.

40% of foreigners may experience housing discrimination in Japan

The article from NHK (which they’ve also published in English) spotlights the frustration that foreigners experience when they run up against landlords who refuse to rent to non-Japanese people. Sometimes, the reasons for this are practical: the landlord is afraid of renting to someone who’s in Japan for a short term and whose visa may not be renewed.

Other times, however, landlords are hesitant to rent out of a belief that foreigners will damage the property, or that Japanese neighbors may not like the presence of non-Japanese people in their neighborhoods. And some times, a landlord will refuse to rent to a foreigner because…well, they simply don’t like foreigners.

NHK leads off its piece with a video from Joshua Japan, a popular Instagram influencer of UK nationality who was born and raised in Tokyo. Joshua’s Japanese video, subtitled in English, plays out a familiar scene for many foreigners in Japan: finding an apartment that suits your needs – only to discover the landlord won’t rent to you.

One investigation in 2022 said that as many as 40% of all foreigners in Japan may experience housing discrimination. NHK shared the experience of one of them, a 36-year-old professor from Spain, who moved here six years ago. He showed NHK the emails he got from a realtor explicitly saying an apartment he was interested in wasn’t available to foreigners.

Countering the discrimination

NHK also shares the landlord’s perspective, with one landlord in Fukuoka sharing images of an apartment by what they say was a tenant from Southeast Asia. However, the landlord also said that, instead of refusing to rent to foreigners, they now provide foreign renters with detailed explanations of Japanese expectations of apartment cleanliness. They even provide insecticides and other cleaning goods to control pests.

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Yes, the implication here that foreigners are naturally less clean than Japanese people is…well, not great. Neither is the implication that foreign tenants trash out a place more frequently than Japanese tenants.

Many foreign renters also point out that there’s already a solution for this scenario: guarantors. Renting in Japan usually requires having a financial guarantor sign for you in case you decide to skip back to your country of origin. If you don’t know anyone or your employer isn’t your guarantor, you can use a guarantor company, which will often require a deposit in the form of one or two months of rent.

Japanese people (especially women) have issues, too

LIFULL Friendly Door advertises itself as friendly to foreigners, LGBTQ people, the elderly, people on social assistance, single moms, and those fleeing natural disasters. (Source: LIFULL Web site)

To be fair, when foreigners are denied, it’s not necessarily always a case of racial discrimination or nationalism. Clearly, racism plays a part when a landlord says they only refuse Chinese and Korean applicants. In other cases, however, it may be a case of perceived risk avoidance.

Not every foreigner experiences trouble, either. I had little problem when I moved to Tokyo earlier this year. Others chimed in that they’ve either not encountered issues or encountered them in one city but not another. In other words, your experience may vary. Unfortunately, it’s hard to deny that being of the “right” non-Japanese group (white) and renting units with greater than average rent both decrease your chances of refusal.

Japanese real estate: “a walking contradiction”

Finally, foreigners aren’t the only ones with issues renting in Japan. A survey by real estate company LIFULL this year found 60.4% of disadvantaged people as such – not just foreigners but also the elderly, single mothers, LGBTQ couples, and disabled people – said they’ve encountered discrimination in the housing process in Japan. One man was flat-out told that a landlord didn’t rent to people with mental health issues.

In response to these issues, LIFULL launched its own service, FRIENDLY DOOR, which works explicitly with people in these groups to ensure they find housing. A LIFULL rep, Kyo Igun (sic; 龔 軼群(キョウ イグン)) argues that, with the number of vacant and unrented properties in Japan increasing, it’s important for both sides to break down barriers to renting.

“With the population dropping, there’s a risk that the number of unoccupied properties will increase if landlords deny occupancy to disadvantaged groups based solely on surface issues. Japan’s real estate world is a walking contradiction.”

Our reader’s experiences

To get more insight into this issue, we asked Unseen Japan’s readers what issues they’ve had securing housing.

One reader responded by showing a list of the 14 refusals she’d received – all explicitly because she’s a foreigner:

Reader Kali shared an example that can’t be interpreted as anything but discriminatory:

“Before we bought a house my husband & I found an apt in Yokohama. The landlord & rental company said that they didn’t rent out to foreigners. My Japanese husband had to convince them that HE would take care of everything, including taking out the trash. Got the place after that.”

Another longtime reader, Rara, noted that it’s easier to buy than rent. “I bought my house cuz I was refused for being foreign, refused for having kids, refused for being a single mom, refused for having pets. I just said f*ck it and bought instead.”

One common theme that comes up is the number of readers who note the apartments they’ve found that will accept dogs and cats as pets…but not foreigners as renters. Finding oneself listed as a condition alongside pets can sting and feel dehumanizing. As reader Horatio put it:

“I once saw a sign in a real estate window (in Japanese). ‘No pets. No gaijin [derogatory term for ‘foreigner’]’. What really hurt was the order.”

User Alex Gieber shared an experience with one such apartment. They were pet-friendly…but as soon as a Japanese national applied, they found their application bumped to second place.

It’s better if you’re white

More than a few readers also said they were allowed to apply for an apartment. However, the realtor and landlord made it clear that it was only because they fulfilled certain conditions – i.e., they were neither Korean nor Chinese. That’s sadly not surprising, given longstanding racial prejudices against both nationalities.

“When I moved to Yokohama 8 years ago, I found a good place but was told that they didn’t accept foreigners,” says user @Kohakunai. “For some reason the owner called back and he clarified that I, as an American, was welcome. Just not Chinese or Korean people. I did not accept that apartment.”

Another reader, James Smith, said he’s seen the same thing. “Going through all the paperwork, only to be told no foreigners in the end. Asking if I was a naturalized citizen or permanent resident; asking if I had a Japanese partner, etc. Some landlords were ok with westerners, but not ok with SEA [Southeast Asian] foreigners.”

Denied despite good jobs

We heard from another user (who wishes to remain anonymous), a Filipino national married to a Vietnamese woman, about the discrimination that other Asians face firsthand:

“We looked for ads that specifically stated “foreigners welcome” to prevent any potential friction. I think it was either a mansion in Kunitachi or Kitami that we applied for where we got up to the screening phase with the landlord and were declined. The real estate agent we were speaking with indicated that the landlord preferred that “白人” [hakujin; white people] rent their property.”

The user said he and his wife hold good jobs – him in law enforcement and her at a publicly-traded tech company. “I was initially upset over being passed over when our credentials seemed good on paper. We moved on from it. Insisting on renting that mansion when we were obviously not welcome just sounded like trouble down the line.”

Like Rara, when the couple moved, they decided to buy instead of rent.

Black people also fall victim to Japan’s whiteness problem. Reader Roadstar.jp got an apartment but then felt pressured to leave. “Once my landlord found out my roommate was Black, it was pretty much every accusation to get us out of the house that she could level against us.”

A pressing problem with no clear solution

Last year, Japan saw a 4.8% spike in foreign residents, or a total of 2,939,051 residents. (Another 284,807 people have “special permanent residency” – mainly zainichi Koreans.) The majority of these come from Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, and South Korea (the top three), as well as from the Philippines, Brazil, Nepal, Indonesia, and Myanmar. All told, immigrants from Asian countries comprises over 81% of immigrants to Japan.

These numbers are only going to increase in the next decade. The Japanese government is seeking to increase immigration to offset chronic labor shortages brought about by its declining population.

It’s important that new arrivals can find housing quickly and easily. Sadly, current prejudices against renting – particularly to non-Japanese Asians, the country’s largest immigrant block – make the experience a trying ordeal for many.

One solution might be to pass better legislation in Japan to crack down on housing discrimination. However, that’s no guarantee of progress. Despite having a legal right to take paternity care, for example, many new fathers still have their requests for leave denied.

In the long run, it may be that education is the only way to knock loose age-old prejudices. Either way, it’s clear that, as immigration continues to rise along with the number of vacant properties, something’s gotta give.

What to read next

Sources

Housing Discrimination in Japan. NHK News

What Is A Japanese Rental Guarantor Company And Why Do You Need One? Jobs in Japan

「障害者に貸せる物件はない」耳を疑う最悪対応も…“住宅弱者”を救う新サービスとは?Diamond

令和5年6月末現在における在留外国人数について. Japan Immigration Services Agency

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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