The Foreign Rational

The world seen through the eyes of a life-long nomad

So kiddo, you say you want to live in Japan? Maybe you like the food, the culture, the people? Or maybe you just watched way too much anime? Don’t worry, I’m not gonna judge you. Those days are behind me. 

Before you make up your mind, I just want to tell you a little story. A cautionary tale of something that happened to me while back. It’s a tale much like life itself: full of deceit, deception and disillusionment.

Don’t read this expecting justice, honor or romance—you’re not gonna find any of that here. This is a mafia story. The true story of what it’s like to find a place to live out in Wild Wild Tokyo. 

It was time

My story begins during what the locals call tsuyu (梅雨), the rainy season that marks the beginning of the sweltering Japanese summer. The literal translation has a romantic ring to it: “plum rain,” as if the season reminds one of the sweet taste of summer fruit. 

It doesn’t. If anything, tsuyu reminds one not of the plum itself, but of what happens to your bowels after one too many slices of plum tart. Days on end of drizzle, dampness and dreary gray skies, coupled with an oppressive, suffocating heat. Not a great time to enjoy the city. But the perfect setting for this story.

At the time, I was still in my late twenties. I was paying the equivalent of 700 dollars a month to rent out an 11-square-meter room in a run-down sharehouse, twenty minutes by train west of Shinjuku. 

Frankly, it was a fun time. The other tenants were good people, transients like myself, passing from one stage of life to the next and using that dilapidated abode as temporary refuge.

But there comes a time to move on. Especially when you realize it’s pretty hard to get a date to take you seriously. Things don’t go well when you tell her you can’t take her home because it’s “against the rules,” your seven housemates wouldn’t appreciate it, and anyway the walls are so thin you can hear flatulence from a couple rooms over. 

My time had come. I had a stable job, a decent salary, and some savings. I needed a real place to live. An apartment I could settle down in. A home to be proud of.

Little did I know that before giving you the least bit of respite, Tokyo will swallow you whole. 

The local path

There are a bunch of ways to find an apartment, but in most cases, if you want something nice, you’re gonna have to go through an agency. It’s a jungle out there: dozens of agencies to choose from, each with varying degrees of access to real-estate. 

I didn’t feel confident in going to one of the agencies for gaijin (外人, foreigners). If you’re afraid of Japanese bureaucracy, be my guest, but price-wise, don’t expect it to be any better. In my experience, if you want the best deals and you can speak Japanese, you’re better off going the local route. 

Luckily I had a Japanese colleague—let’s call her Scarlet—who had moved to her new place a few months earlier. She had a friend in the business who she said was diligent and reliable. 

After all, if you play by their rules, even the mob has some fellas who are diligent and reliable. 

I was feeling confident. Scarlet had known this guy personally for a while, so he wasn’t about to do me dirty. I accepted his card. Let’s call him Big Mike. 

The fees! THE FEEEEES!

Big Mike wasn’t built like most Japanese men. He stood close to six feet, with broad shoulders and enough body mass to wrestle a black bear—and come out on top. Every time we met, he carried with him a thick leather bag, bulging at the seams from his massive laptop and a mountain of documents. The thing must have weighed at least a dozen kilos. And remember, he was lugging that thing around during tsuyu. Needless to say, if we walked more than a couple minutes, he’d be drenched in sweat from head to toe. 

Big Mike was a good kid. He was still in his mid-twenties, pretty new to the business. He was working to impress: answering messages at any hour of the day, sending me lengthy PDF documents full of potential flats, and always ready to visit on very short notice. Little did I know it’d come at a premium. 

It’s probably time I tell you a bit about the Tokyo real estate market. While overall, the Japanese population is on the decline, there’s no shortage of people wanting to live in Tokyo. As a result, most landlords can get away with pretty much anything. 

Luckily, Japanese etiquette is strong enough to keep even landlords and real estate agents honest. What you see is pretty much what you get. No leaky pipes, cockroach infestations, or living next door to a brass marching band—you know, the things you’d have to be careful of when looking for a place in New York. In fact, pets and instruments are flat-out banned in most Tokyo rental contracts. 

Instead, what’s insane is the fees. Renting in Switzerland was straightforward: moving in, you pay the first month upfront, and an extra two to three months as a guarantee. When you move out, you get your guarantee back. Simple, right?

Well kiddo, in Japan you’re in for a treat. 

The horsemen of the Tokyo rental apocalypse

When Big Mike showed me an apartment I actually liked, here’s how our chat went. Just for you, I’ve converted yen into dollars and translated from Japanese to English. 

“Wow, this place is amazing! I wish I lived in a flat like this!” he said, grinning childishly. 

“I have to admit, it’s quite nice.” I responded. “How much is it?”

“The rent is 1400 dollars.” he replied. 

“That’s toward the upper end of my range.” I said, hesitant. “How much is the shikikin?”

Shikikin (敷金) is Japanese for deposit. 

“Standard, just one month.” He said, reassuringly. “In fact all the fees are pretty standard for this place.”

“All the fees?” I asked, trembling in fear. 

“Yeah, you know, the reikin, chuukaitesuuryou, hokenryou and kagikoukanhi.” he replied, still smiling, as if introducing these four horseman of the rental apocalypse were the most normal thing in the world. 

Let me break it down for you. On top of the first month of rent and the deposit, most places will request a reikin (礼金), which is basically “thank you money” for the landlord. I don’t care what the locals tell you; this is a bribe. Some places don’t have it at all, while others ask you up to two months rent. One month is standard. You’re not seeing this money again. 

The chuukaitesuuryou (仲介手数料) is the agent fee. Big Mike’s cut. Talk about a commission: the standard rate is one month rent, plus tax. The guy spends a week helping me visit apartments and preparing some contracts, and in exchange I fork over about 1500 bucks. No wonder he was so accommodating.

Hokenryou (保険料) is straightforward: it’s the insurance money. The bulk of it is in proportion to your rent, usually between 40 and 60 percent. Then there are some extra insurance fees, including fire insurance (about 150-200 dollars) and emergency support (about 100-150 dollars). You’d pay these in any country, but adding that much cash upfront to an already bloated bill really hurts. 

Finally, there’s the kagikoukanhi (鍵交換費). At this point, we’re just adding insult to injury. The literal translation is “key exchange fee.” It’s basically the cost of changing the locks, then getting the agent to take the key from the landlord and deliver it to you. Usually this will be a flat rate, between 150 and 200 dollars. For that price, I could get the locks changed for the whole building and have all the resulting keys delivered to a hut in the middle of the Congolese jungle, but whatever. These fees are all symbolic at this point; bitterly divorced from any labor cost. 

So let’s add everything up. For my 1400 dollar flat, I had to pay one month rent upfront (1400), the deposit (1400), the bribe for the landlord (1400), the agent fee (1500), the insurance money (700+200+150), and the key exchange (200). That’s just shy of 7000 dollars, about five months of rent. 

Breakdown of move-in costs for a 155,000 yen appartment, with 次月総賃料、敷金、礼金、仲介手数料、保証会社利用料、火災保険料 and 緊急サポート.
Example of the initial cost to move into an apartment with a rent of 155,000 yen per month (about 1400 dollars). This place doesn’t have key money. From top to bottom, an extra month of rent, the deposit, “thank you” money, the agent fee, the insurance company fee, the disaster insurance fee, and the emergency support fee.

That’s the standard. Four to five months upfront just to move in. With only one month of deposit you may get back; the rest is gone. 

But that’s the cost of doing business with the rental mafia. For an unfurnished 40-square-meter flat in the outskirts of Tokyo (which, granted, most Japanese people believe is unreasonably large for a single tenant), seven grand upfront. And since I’d been living in a sharehouse until then, I also needed to buy all the furniture. Fun. 

A few more extras

In the end, I didn’t end up getting that first flat Big Mike showed me. I got one that was only slightly more expensive, but had no reikin. A lot of people here will judge your flat by the rent, wondering, “Why would you choose 1450 a month instead of 1400?!” without thinking that 50 bucks more a month to avoid 1400 upfront in reikin can actually be a lifesaver. 

Make sure you take all of this into account when choosing whether or not to deal with the Tokyo rental mafia. If you’re planning on living in Tokyo for less than two years, chances are, you’re way better off in a furnished flat or sharehouse run by an agency that deals with foreigners. 

You’ll also encounter a few extra fees after the upfront cost. Most flats have a “renewal fee,” where you pay an extra month’s rent every two years. Basically the opposite of a point card, “After the first 24 months, your 25th month is double!” 

My landlord made up for the absence of reikin by making me pay rent through a credit card company. They charged me a 500 dollar sign-up fee. At that point, I really didn’t care anymore, but it most certainly wasn’t made clear to me during the contract signing. 

Then there is the guarantor. For most places, proof of solvency is not enough; you need someone in Japan to vouch that you’re good for the money. Basically what the mob would call “collateral.” Typically the guarantor will be your company, as long as you have a long-term contract. However, things can get complicated. In some cases, the landlord may even request an extra guarantor fee, which can cost yet another month of rent. 

Also if you have pets, expect to have to pay an extra month’s worth of deposit. And don’t expect to get much of it back when you move out. 

On top of all the money issues, you have the administrative tasks. Setting up your gas, electricity and running water (all of which I had to take care of myself; Big Mike was already long gone). Getting an internet connection. De-registering from your former city hall, and re-registering at the new one. Filling out mountains of forms to notify your workplace, bank, the post office, and so on. Figuring out the city-specific instructions for trash collection. The list goes on (don’t get me started on NHK). 

All in all, finding a flat in Tokyo was a harrowing experience. Deal with the rental mafia and they’ll leave you dazed and confused, with a heavy heart and an empty wallet. But there is something oddly satisfying about having been able to do it. I went down the local route by myself, and came out the other end shaken but alive. I gotta hand it to Big Mike. After dealing with him, Japan feels just a little more like home. 

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