Dealing with a Bad Neighbor in Japan

By

February 16, 2017

Having bad neighbors can be a nightmare. Having bad neighbors in Japan, with its bureaucratic mountain to climb, a language barrier to overcome and not wanting to upset the wa (harmony) between everyone, is a nightmare of Japanese horror movie proportions (though my particular experience thankfully didn’t involve a curse-emitting VHS player.)

How my story began

Around April last year I began to hear music coming from my neighbor’s apartment – the unmistakable sound of bad drum and bass. Not wanting to upset the “wa”, not wanting to get the police involved, and not possessing the Japanese ability to write a note saying, “Have you heard of these new inventions called headphones?”, I dealt with this the only way I knew how: through passive aggression.

Complaining Japan style

I was told to do this “Japan style” by my landlord. This required me to write a letter complaining about the noise, and giving it to the manager of the building. This is a common first step in Japan when it comes to neighbor complaints. The manager then posts a noise reminder note (addressed to everybody) on the building noticeboard later.

So for a while, I followed the proper route of keeping a dated log and giving letters to my landlord every time my neighbour played music loud enough to hear from China. But I was worried that my lack of Japanese may have been too much of a hinderance and that they weren’t taking my complaint seriously.

Involving the police

Then, on one night of trying to sleep to a soundtrack of particularly hardcore techno, I had had enough. I rang the Japanese emergency number (110) to report the loud noise. I told the operator I wanted to speak English, and within a few seconds, they connected me with a translator who reported my problems and asked if I wanted an English translator to be sent out with the police. Fortunately for me, although a translator was with the local koban (police box), my Japanese friend had answered my call to arms.

As soon as my mighty army had assembled, I threw my friend at the officers like a linguistic hand grenade. Meanwhile I looked out the window trying my best to appear as sad and pensive as possible in the hopes that they might feel extra sorry for me. I even threw in some sighs when I thought they were looking.

The police ended up visiting my humble abode six times. Each time we’d have the same encounter. They’d send an English translator out and ask me for an update. Once they were satisfied, they’d go and knock on his door, be refused entry by him and then remind him through the intercom that perhaps one in the morning wasn’t the best time to be playing bad club music.

The War of the Trash and Letterbox

With the police interventions proving ineffective, I put a complaint directly to the management company of his apartment. They phoned him to give him another warning as apparently he already had one to his name. However, without him admitting to playing music, there wasn’t much the management company could do.

Then, returning home one night, I noticed a large amount of rubbish and newspapers stuffed into my letterbox. I didn’t think that much of it at the time. But I began to notice a pattern; whenever my neighbor returned home, my letterbox would mysteriously be filled with junk mail. I assumed he was just being friendly by letting me know about all the amazing deals I was missing out on.

When I saw him reaching into the bin, several times, and stuffing everything he could into my letterbox including a bento box, broken umbrella and a rather fascinating collection of used chopsticks, I knew for sure. The last straw was when, upon reaching into my letterbox/personal new bin, I pulled out a porn magazine and some used tissues. I’m still trying not to think about exactly what those tissues were used for.

A friend and I took some of the letters to the police (we found out he was taking post from other people’s letterboxes and putting it into mine). They took my fingerprints and kept a few for evidence, then sent me on my way.

A small victory

Eventually, after all the complaining to management and theatrical sighing in front of the police to no avail, I moved out. Though my noisy neighbor wasn’t the main reason, he did provide a good excuse to go. The management company agreed to waive my early leaving fee, hinting that the money came out of my neighbors deposit – a small victory, I guess.

As far as I know, he’s still living in the apartment. Who knows, maybe he’s switched to soft jazz? Here’s hoping.

Tips for surviving bad neighbors in Japan

If you find yourself with a bad neighbor, here is some advice to help you get through it all:

  • Start by writing a letter detailing the situation (remember to keep a log), and give it to the manager of your building (if you’re in an apartment complex, there will usually be a window/letterbox to drop it off in).
  • Never confront the neighbor directly. In Japan, this can cause more harm than good.
  • Don’t be afraid to call the police – playing music late at night is against the law. Call them on the emergency number 110, and ask for an English operator. You can request a translator to be sent out.
  • Make sure to stick to the Japanese way, and if the situation gets worse, you can visit your local police station (not a koban), and go to the department which specifically handles neighbor complaints.
  • Even if you lack the language skills, don’t worry. You can visit both kobans and police stations and ask for police translators to support you.
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British teacher, Japan explorer and writer. I will exchange witty jokes for Marmite.
  • marshallcross says:

    While I was studying in Japan 2 years ago, I lived in a student dormitory and also had extremely negative experiences with my neighbours from both sides. Since it was an international residence, there were no Japanese of course. The 2 girls were both from China. I was used to SOME noises at nighttime from back home because I always lived in appartements. But the walls in Japan are very thin, which I think is pretty annoying. The girl on the left side kept skyping for hours and washing her dishes at 3 a.m., especially the Skype-part was annoying as her desk-wall was facing my bed-wall and I could hear everything because she was talking really loudly. She also had poor trash management. She was just throwing her trash on the balcony (!) for weeks/months until it got warmer outside and the food started to attract ants and cockroaches. It was smelly and disgusting 🙁 The other girl also had the same problem. They both refused to throw out their garbage wtf? I had no idea why. The other girl also kept inviting a guy to her room (eventhough it was forbidden) where they both kept laughing the whole night. It was pretty annoying. So I wrote a letter of complaint to both + reported them to the house keeper. Fortunately, they understood and at least threw out the trash. Can’t believe how lazy someone can be…
    Strangely enough, I NEVER saw them during my 6 months stay. Never. Guess they didn’t go much outside and were only active at night. This was my only negative experience during my stay.
    (PS: If someone wonders how I knew they were Chinese eventhough I never saw them: I spend a lot of time listening to them talking)

  • jxjan says:

    TLDR: move out. You are not going to win. It’s quite sad really 🙁

  • Sinophobia says:

    Why don’t you record a video of the noise and show it to the police as evidence since your ex-neighbor denied the complaint?

    • Alex Sturmey says:

      Unfortunately, the music was just too “deep” for my phone or any other recording device I used to actually pick up. I managed to record it once when I was standing on my balcony, but the management company didn’t really care at that point unfortunately.

  • Dale Goodwin says:

    Rule number one: Take a close look at where you live BEFORE you move in. If you are trying to get a cheap apartment to save on rent, you should have sense enough to know that your neighbors are probably not very high up on the economic ladder either. If you live in a relatively new, clean place, odds are you are going to have like-minded neighbors (and not encounter problems).
    Rule number two: Learn the language. Speaking Japanese is not rocket science, even if reading and writing it may seem that way to you.
    Rule number three: Pay attention. If somebody is causing problems for you, they are probably causing problems for somebody else too. Approaching problems as a group is much more effective than trying to deal with somebody one-on-one.

  • TaziCrazi says:

    Hey this is a pretty well written article. Definitely useful for when I move to Japan, I’ll keep this in mind. Also, the use of “linguistic hand grenade” was hilarious. Great stuff.

    • Alex Sturmey says:

      Thank you for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      I’m trying to get Linguistics Hand Grenade added to the dictionary. It’ll be my legacy.

  • Nicholas Tenhue says:

    I would not recommend the emergency number (110) for a situation like loud music. It may channel important emergency service resources from more serious matters. Please call a non-emergency line so you don’t interfere with accident/crime emergencies. See more info on the appropriate response for your situation here https://www.tokyo-icc.jp/guide_eng/gov/04.html

    • Alex Sturmey says:

      Thanks for the comment.

      So I should have perhaps clarified in the article about that. I was told by my local koban (and this was confirmed by the police station) that calling 110 for something like this was perfectly okay. Especially if it was a continuous complaint.

  • Willem Cohen says:

    Geez… that sounds like a heinous story. Thank god you had a network of people to help out with the police stuff.

    Is it common that you can find an english translator just by hitting 110 for an emergency? I thought I heard somewhere that you had to register for a longer phone number to call in English.

    • Alex Sturmey says:

      I was very fortunate to have so many people wanting to help me out.

      I’m not sure. It could just be a product of Tokyo. It wasn’t common for an English translator to always be there in person, but they could at least get one on the phone.

      I’ve never heard about the longer number. Do you have more information? I’m interested about it!

      • Willem Cohen says:

        http://telljp.com/

        This is what I was thinking of… This line is really cool because they can help with a lot of the culture shock stuff… as well as other issues that one may not forsee when coming to Japan. I remember hearing a horror story about a JVlogger who had to leave Japan because her abusive ex was stalking her. She didn’t have any Japanese friends and didn’t know where to turn so she just quit her job and went home.

        This service is really good and useful, especially in the post 2020 Japan where Gaijin are going to become commonplace. They do offer emergency service help, maybe it’s more intuitive than screaming into the phone in english after calling 119 haha.

  • Georges says:

    My experience was quite shorter than yours, I rang my neighbor bell, said “good evening, you’re are little bit noisy”, he said “sorry” and never did it again.

    So basically I did opposite of all your advices for quite a quicker and better result. Don’t be sneaky with somebody you don’t know, he might give you back in a much worst way.

    • Alex Sturmey says:

      Thanks for the comment. I think I missed some things out in the article which clarified a few things.

      When he told his management company I was harassing him by putting in the complaints (onky after the second time), I was told by the police that any confrontation by me wouldn’t end well. It would provide him ammunition in his claim. Already being in a bit of a tricky situation, and not having amazing language skills, I decided to listen to them.

      Seeing as his response after a phone call from his management company, was to start throwing things onto my balcony and putting them in my letter box, I sort of drew the conclusion that he wouldn’t be the most responsive to a conversation. Plus, the police had said they don’t recommend it, as he wasn’t opening the door to them (something the detective joked meant that he had been arrested once).

      Hope that clarifies as to why I had to take the actions I did.

  • Lancaster says:

    Well…. if the guy is stuff garbage and other crap in your letterbox, it sounds like a perfect time to come out to give him a little talking to. Clearly a hostile act that can be considered as vandalism. Perhaps doing something non-Japanese may send the message that you mean business.

    • Alex Sturmey says:

      The funny thing is, he was actually breaking, among many others, a law about putting porn in letterboxes. It’s against the law here in Tokyo, and so he managed to break it when he gifted me that lovely magazine.

      Unfortunately, although I saw him, I was never able to prove it to the police and management company.

  • viffex says:

    Next time take out your balls and speak directly
    to the neighbour.

    • Alex Sturmey says:

      The action may land me in more trouble than not. Plus it’s a bit cold these days.

      I was told by the police I wasn’t allowed to, due to his complaints against me, and with my Japanese ability extending to only being able to ask where the bathroom is, I didn’t want to make a bad situation worse!

  • أبا الحكم says:

    Doesn’t seem to me like much of a victory that way… I would probably escalate more if I was in your situation 😀

    • Alex Sturmey says:

      I was told by the police I wasn’t allowed as he had made some harassment complaints (because apparently me complaining about his noise was harassment…)

      Unfortunately it wasn’t. His deposit actually ended up covering my early leaving fine so it wasn’t all bad!

  • papiGiulio says:

    So you went through all of that to in the end leave the apartment? That sucks.

    Im sure there is a Japanese way of doing this or a WA way but if I have problems with my neighbors I first call the fudousan (real estate agency) because letters take too long and are too much hassle, then if nothing changes I go directly to the neighbor, if that doesnt help I will go to the police, but yeah in Japan people just want to avoid confrontations so you probably wont get much help from anyone. Call me an a*hole but all this jumping around doesn’t get you anywhere. Especially with neighbors like yours. Confronting them sometimes is good imo

    • Alex Sturmey says:

      Part of me wishes I could have done a more “confrontation” approach, but the police specifically told me not to, and that as he had made harassment complaints against me, if I did confront him, it would put them in a difficult situation. I really wasn’t a massive fan of the whole “passive aggressive” stuff but I was in a delicate situation with the police.

      However, you’re right. Sometimes it could be the best way.

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