While many people in Japan do have their own houses (which I’ll talk about in a future post), for those living in or near major cities such as Tokyo, apartments are far more affordable than houses. Now you may be thinking that apartments are apartments no matter where you are, but Japanese apartments do have some rather unique elements.
Renting an Apartment
In the US, especially with current market conditions, rental companies tend to want to make it as easy as possible for you to get into a new apartment. Many apartment complexes have rental offices that are open nearly every day, making it easy to drop in and take a look around. Find a place you like and it’s often a simple matter of signing some papers, paying the first month’s rent, and handing over a few hundred dollars as a mostly refundable security deposit. Your new apartment probably won’t be furnished but unless it was extremely cheap you’ll almost certainly get a fridge, oven, microwave, dishwasher, and quite possibly a washer and dryer as well. To add some extra incentive, many apartment complexes feature move in specials as well, offering reduced rent, free TVs, and the like to new tenants. Unless you’re really picky, on an extremely tight budget, or determined to live in a very crowded area, finding and getting a decent apartment is a fairly simple task.
But that’s the way it’s done in the US. Japanese people aren’t so lucky. First off, you can pretty much forget about rental offices. While there some rental agencies and private listings, if you want an apartment in Japan you’ll often need to find a full-fledged realtor to handle things for you. And when it comes to moving in, while the paperwork may not be that much different than it is here, the move in fees certainly are. To begin with, very few apartments in Japan allow you to rent on a monthly basis. Instead, you need to commit to a long term lease (usually for at least a year or two). While that’s not necessarily a problem, it means that you should be sure you’re happy with the place before making a deal. You should also make sure that you have quite a lot of money on hand, usually the equivalent of 4 – 6 months’ rent. Part of that goes to your realtor as a finder’s fee. Then there’s the security deposit which is not only much higher than the US equivalent but entirely non-refundable as well. Finally, there’s key money, which is essentially a questionably legal and in no way optional cash gift for the landlord. There are a handful of apartment companies (most centered around the Tokyo area) that often partially furnished apartments with minimal move-in costs and no long term lease, though the monthly rent tends to be significantly higher as a result.
With so many fees, switching apartments is something that is rarely done on a whim. And then, of course, you still need to spend to set up and furnish the apartment. Unfortunately, regular apartments in Japan often don’t include even the most basic appliances, so that’s another big expense. Even so called “fully furnished” apartments are often somewhat lacking by US standards.
In the US, apartment complexes range from massive towers to groups of smaller buildings spread out over a nicely landscaped area. Many also include things like swimming pools and gyms to attract renters.
In Japan, I’ve never seen anything like the sprawling landscaped apartment complexes you can find in many parts of the US. Instead, it’s all about single buildings. While there are some older smaller apartment buildings around, quite a lot take the form of massive high-rises. Amenities such as pools and gyms are also pretty much unheard of.
While you can get large apartments in Japan if you have the money, in general you can expect any given Japanese apartment to be smaller than its US equivalent, though space does become a bit less of an issue as you move further away from the big cities. Japanese apartment sizes are classified as a number followed by letters. For example, a 3LDK apartment has three bedrooms, a living room, dining room, and kitchen while a 1K will only have a tiny kitchen and a multi-purpose room which serves as the bedroom, living room, and dining room all in one. On the bright side, rent on such tiny apartments isn’t all that expensive, at least if you can get past or avoid the move-in fees.
As for the rooms themselves… Kitchens, even in larger apartments, tend to be a bit on the small side and dishwashers and ovens are pretty rare. Instead, dishes are washed by hand and cooking is primarily done on stove top (except for rice, which put in a rice cooker). Bathrooms are a bit different than in the US, with the toilet in a completely separate room from the shower/bath and sink. And, with space at a premium, things like walk-in closets aren’t common. Instead, many apartments include some large cabinets built into the walls. Though, in smaller apartments, they’re often cut to save space. And, while washing machines are moderately common, dryers are not and even today many Japanese people hang their laundry outside to dry.
In the end, Japanese apartments aren’t horrible but you have to accept the fact that space and things like dedicated living and dining rooms are considered luxuries rather than standard features. Both of my Japanese apartments were ok for the short term, though nothing had I been planning to stay in a single area for more than year I would have definitely gone looking for something nicer.