Spring is often considered simultaneously both the best and the worst time of year to look for a new apartment in Japan. As the 新入社員 (new employees) wander red-eyed and semi-hungover out of university and into the reality of their first job, plenty of accommodation is made available for these soon-to-be business people to rent. It also means that a fierce battle ensues for the prime properties and locations. For foreign residents, it means plenty of opportunities to snag a nice new place to live, but you have to act fast — and know the lingo!
Unfortunately, it’s very easy to feel left out as there are surprisingly few English-speaking realtors and the few that there are often assume that foreign people will snap at the first grim hovel shown to them (true story: I was showed an apartment literally surrounded by a graveyard once!).
In that regard, you may want to try the friendly staff at our GaijinPot Housing Service. They are not realtors, per se, but they are ready to help you source an apartment here in English!
You may also want to visit a Japanese estate agent. While it may sound intimidating, most of them want to make a sale, so with a few basic (and not-so-basic) words, you can soon uncover some hidden gems.
… there are surprisingly few English-speaking realtors and the few that there are often assume that foreign people will snap at the first grim hovel shown to them…
The first thing that trips potential renters up are the differences in the words for renting or buying a 物件 (property). When you go to a 不動産 (agent) in Japan, you will request to look at an apartment to either 賃貸 (rent) or 分譲 (purchase).
However, upon answering, “賃貸,” you have only glimpsed the tip of a large and potentially Titanic-sinking-sized iceberg. Suddenly, you are bombarded with options as — in Japan — there are a surprisingly large number of words to describe a living quarters including 家 (house), 一戸建て (detached house), アパート (apartment), シェアハウス (shared house), and メゾネット (maisonette).
Once you have decided what type of place you want to live in, you will have to choose the layout. Generally, apartments are listed alongside mouthfuls of acronyms such as 2SLDK (pronounced: ニーエスエルディーケー) and 2LDK (ニーエルディーケー) that will tell you the layout style.
Feel free to inject some Japanese here, as some 不動産 may not know the English words that L, D and K are abbreviations for. The first numeral is, of course, the number of bedrooms — which are called 寝室 in Japanese — although they may include 和室 (Japanese-style rooms). How about these abbreviated letters? “K” is the 台所 or キッチン, “L” is the 居間 or リビング room and “D” is the ダイニング room.
Particularly nice apartments may also have a 納戸, or storage room, which is the “S” although you may see some rooms that are so small no person could ever live in them — so they become storage rooms called 物置. Typically, 納戸 don’t include 押入れ (Japanese-style sliding-door closets), 収納 (storage closets) and that most desirable of things for people with dreams of that Sex in the City lifestyle — the ウォークインクローゼット (walk-in closet) that most houses also have.
Of course, no description of apartment types would be complete without mentioning the infamous ワンルーム, or 1R, apartments found mostly in the Kanto area. These consist of a single room which can be sized anywhere between livable to so small that a battery-farmed chicken would consider it a bit cramped. Check out our recent GaijinPot article on terrible apartments if you want to see how bad these can really get!
Even something as simple as the bathroom can offer a bewildering array of choices. Generally, these may be called 洗面所 (washroom), 浴室 (bathroom) or お手洗い (lavatory). Small rooms containing just a toilet will be marked “トイレ” on the layout sheet.
It describes those terrifying toilets that are nothing more than a deep depression on the floor where you have to squat.
Foreign people from non-Asian countries may also want to watch out for this infamous kanji: 和式. It describes those terrifying toilets that are nothing more than a deep depression on the floor where you have to squat. You may also want to watch out for ユニットバス which are when the shower, sink and toilet are all in one room for obvious reasons!
However, it’s not all terrifying as some apartments have hidden benefits such as a ベランダ (veranda), バルコニー (balcony) or even a 庭 (garden) — a very rare thing in most cities (and the existence of these may even influence your decision).
In addition, apartments are often divided depending on whether they are more Western or Japanese style. More Japanese-style apartments will more often than not include 和室 with things like 畳 (tatami mats), 襖 (sliding doors) and the aforementioned 押入れ (especially in respect to futon storage). This is a love-hate thing for many people as the mats are incredibly comfortable for futon users, but they are hard to maintain and make the use of space ineffective. If you want to avoid these, go for a place with 洋室 (Western-style rooms).
Strangely, even rooms that don’t have 畳 are often sized by the amount of tatami mats that they would have if they had tatami mats in them! This is often abbreviated to “J” — short for じょ. Therefore, a room that would be the size of six tatami mats (if there were tatami mats in it!) is called a “六畳,” “6帖” or simply “6J.”
If it sounds confusing, don’t worry — it can be confusing for some Japanese people, too. While you’re more likely to find the counters 畳 with Japanese-style rooms and 帖 with Western-style ones, these days the system is becoming increasingly lawless and will often be used in whatever way makes the apartment sound bigger. Instead, today many 不動産 simply write the size of the apartment using the 平米 (square meter) system.
One thing that is often overlooked by foreign people is whether the apartment is 鉄筋コンクリート (reinforced concrete) or 木造 (wooden) as these can make a huge difference to the amount of noise that is tolerated in the building as the walls of 木造 buildings are often so thin that you could concentrate and hear exactly what someone was saying next door.
Finally, if you’re having trouble with the neighborhood weirdo or the annoying and threatening NHK man — who may or may not be the same person — then it’s worth looking for extra security features. These include things like an オートロック (door at the front of the apartment that automatically closes to prevent people entering willy-nilly), インターホン (video intercom system so you can see who is buzzing your door and talk to them) and a 防犯カメラ (video camera for spotting trespassers).
… ask the age of the apartment as older ones tend to require more maintenance and often cost more in fees…
And, last but not least, you will want to ask: “築何年ぐらいですか？” This is to ask the age of the apartment as older ones tend to require more maintenance and often cost more in 管理人 (maintenance) fees.
Whew! Quite a lot to think about for people looking for a new place to live in Japan.
The last thing to establish is when you should say, “借りたい場合はいつまでにお返事をしないといけませんか?” (“By when should I inform you if I want to take it?”) to the agent if you decide you want the property. Of course, this is after enduring the 不動産’s long spiel about how “apartments in this area are going quickly” and how “that grave outside your window really accentuates the décor.”
After that, you can relax and enjoy the hopefully ideal non-hovel that you will stay in.
Ever discovered a graveyard outside your window? Or found a secret to getting a great apartment at a reasonable price? Let us know in the comments!