All About Renting Apartments in Japan

As you tour the world, visiting a country for a few days or a couple of weeks is never enough to know it truly and deeply. Anyone who wants to fully experience a country must live there for a while; immerse him or herself in the nation’s culture, people, experiences, and of course, day-to-day life. A crucial step in doing all of this is to first get an apartment.

A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Apartments

It is quite easy to find an apartment to stay in in Japan, with the dawn of technology and internet guiding you with your choices, and giving you tangible information. No matter what city you’re looking to stay in, you can take comfort in knowing that getting connected with your future home is just a few clicks, messages, and phone calls away. All you must do is equip yourself with understanding the terms and trends that occur in the Japanese real estate field.

How the Japanese Refer to Apartments

The Japanese word for an apartment is “apāto”, (アパート). Although that is the direct translation of the word, it is also used to reference apartments that are older, prefabricated, and built to last only on a short-term basis. There aren’t that many units in an apāto building; 12 is the most you’ll find. Then again, “Mansion” and “apāto” are sometimes interchanged by the realtor to try to get you to rent it.

There are different kinds of apartment buildings; one kind is “danchi”, which literally translates to “group land”. Many danchi were made right after the war, up until the 70’s. They are relatively small buildings that reach 4 or 5 floors, clustered up together. JHC, which stands for The Japan Housing Corporation (but are currently named UR, for Urban Renaissance Agency) constructed many of these kinds of apartment buildings.

Another type of apartment is the “mansion” type. These are the most common and modern of them all, and you might refer to them as condominiums. They don’t fall under the same definition as a mansion in English but refer to how the condominium was built. A mansion style apartment has many floors, rooms, and is made of concrete. They handle earthquakes very well and have soundproof walls. Just because they’re called “mansions” doesn’t mean that the apartments here are any bigger than the usual ones.

Getting Friendly with Real Estate Terms

The word for “rent” in Japanese is “yachin”. In most cases, an automatic bank transfer is set up, allotting the amount of your rent to your landlord during the beginning of the month. What you pay your landlord (again, on average) is completely different from the utility bills you’ll have to pay as well. Note that above the rent, you may have to pay a maintenance fee. Discuss this with your landlord to make sure there are no misunderstandings. Your landlord may also want you to shell a little more for insurance purposes.

Knowing the different words and abbreviations when looking for apartments is helpful for you to quickly decide on which apartment most efficiently suits your needs while you look around both online and in real life.

When you see the word “1K”, for example, that means that you’re getting a studio apartment, plus space for a kitchen. “1DK” indicates that the apartment for rent comes with a kitchen area as well as dining area. “1LDK” stands for the fact that it has a living room, dining room, and kitchen, plus one bedroom.”1” refers to the number of bedrooms the apartment has, “L” stands for the living room, “D”, dining room, and “K”, for the kitchen.

Terms Commonly Found in Renting Procedures

In speaking to someone about rent, or dealing with a rental contract, some words that will be mentioned quite often will pop up. “Tetsukekin” means “Reservation Fee”; which is the amount you must pay to grab a hold of the apartment you’ve chosen, just to make sure that it doesn’t go to anyone else who might want it. It also lets the agent know that you’re serious about getting the apartment, and won’t be finicky with your choice. “Chukai tesuryo” or service fee, is what you pay to your real estate agent himself. This usually costs the amount of your rent for a month.

Then there’s “reikin”, which translates to key money. This is the largest amount chunk that you pay your landlord, and cannot refund it. This could be the amount you pay for monthly, every 6 months, or in the terms you discussed with your agent or landlord. “Shikikin” or your deposit is a refundable amount (if not used, or if there’s any spare left) that exists only in case you damage the apartment in any way, wherein it will be used to pay for the cost of the repairs. The amount of the deposit can be as much as your rent for a few months.

It Can Get Quirky

The Japanese are known to be a little different in terms of their ways of handling (and sometimes building) things. They can be very resourceful when it comes to making use of space in their homes. Don’t be surprised if you find an apartment has no doors to its bathroom, or if it doesn’t come with a bathroom at all – though most do. Always make sure to visit your apartment personally and ask all the possible details you can think of that are important to you.

This doesn’t go for all apartments, but you also may notice that flooring of your next possible home may look a little different compared to the white color (irodori) tiles other flats offer. You might find yourself stepping on tatami floors, which is made of a special wooden (or polystyrene foam from a factory) matting that is native to Japan.

Not all landlords are okay with you bringing in pets. Not only that, as much as possible, you should be very clear and honest about what and whom you plan to bring into the apartment to avoid any conflict. Landlords can be very discriminatory with whom they let rent their apartment. Explain how you plan to live in it; i.e. if you’ll be working from home, (you might want a SOHO, which stands for “Small Office/Home Office”) or if you’ll be out most of the time.

Scoring An Apartment

Conventionally, the way apartments are rented in Japan is usually accomplished with the help of real estate agents instead of a direct agreement with the landlord. Their services can be very expensive, with extra fees (from the tetsukekin, shikikin, reikin, and chukai tesuryo) cumulatively ranging around possibly a quarter to even more than half of the rent you’ll pay for your apartment -  for the entire year.

Plus, you’d usually have to go through advertisements and listings, or directly to a real estate office where you browse through the apartments (and their layouts) that are available listed by their window. Rental deals usually last for 2 years, which is less than the amount that a foreigner plans to spend in Japan.

Another possible hindrance is the possibility of language barriers, as the foreign tenant may not be able to speak Japanese as well as their landlord would like them to. Japanese landlords may even want proof that you are financially capable enough to carry out your payments. How do you establish this? By having a guarantor (who is Japanese and stable him/herself) co-sign an agreement that you are, in fact, financially capable of paying up.

Because this process isn’t as foreigner-friendly as other systems may be, there are real estate companies that cater to foreigners. There are also places called “guest houses” or “Gaijin Houses”, they exist for the sole purpose of short term use. Some young adults use guest houses as a stepping stone to living in instead of their parents’ houses. They are cheaper and don’t require key money (reikin).

Factors of An Apartment in Japan

When looking for the right apartment for residence, you should consider for a minute these major factors that will help you decide on whether you want it, and if it’s worth the amount of money you are paying. Those four factors are where the apartment is, the size of the room you’re renting, the position/layout of your home, and how old the building is.

The location is a number one factor here because it determines so many things; if it’s nearest your office, how close a walk it is to a train station, convenience stores, shopping malls, etcetera. The more establishments there are around your condominium, the more expensive it will likely be – but more worth your yen.

The Japanese measure the size of their rooms based on how many tatami mats can be fit. A tatami mat’s precise measurements are different based on which region you’re in.  For Kyoto, they go by 0.955 m by 1.91 m, while in Nagoya, they go by 0.91 m by 1.82 m. The standard version used for measuring room sizes are the Nagoya kind; which comes in half mat and full mat sizes.

The age of the building points out the amenities that you may or may not receive; some buildings are so old that they don’t have elevators. Old fashioned buildings tend to be cheaper and less sturdy, while newer, more expensive buildings sometimes come with more privileges, functions, and safety features.

As for the position of your building, you may be given a room whose sole window is facing a brick wall. Perhaps it’s near the garbage shoot, or beside the public bathroom that everyone keeps entering. Make sure to physically check what you’re about to rent to avoid misinterpretations.

How Many People in Japan Live in Apartments?

Real estate in Japan can get very pricey, depending on the area you live in. Cities in Japan are also known for being high in population density, thus making it a huge luxury to have a large home in the bustling capital. Each prefecture has different rates, as well as ratios of people to flats/apartments. When it comes to the inner cities, people tend to purchase an apartment more than they do a house, and this number varies per prefecture.

 The Prefecture with the highest ratio of flats belongs to Prefectures with large cities. According to data from 2014, 70% of residents in Tokyo live in apartments. Next up is Kanagawa with 56.1% of the population living in apartments, followed by Okinawa with 55.9%, Osaka with 55.2%, and Fukuoka with 51.1%. The average of all Prefectures comes out to 42.4%.

More rural areas Prefectures that are located far from the capital of the city have much lesser density, with the top three lowest scoring Prefectures being Toyama at 18.9%, Yamagata at 18.4%, and Akita at 17.3%.

Apartment Floor Plan Explanations

When you look at the floor plan of the apartment you plan to rent or buy, you’ll notice that there are some kanji written on it, labeling it a specific place. Turns out, there are different parts of a Japanese apartment that are unique to Japan itself. The first one is the “Genkan”, (玄関). The Genkan is a little space left for entering and holds a place where you put your shoes, or “Gesoki-iri” (下足入り). When the floor plan indicates closets in a room, you’ll see the kanji (物入れ), which means “mono-iri”. As for the more traditional Japanese closets, this is represented by (押入れ) which is pronounced as “Oshi-ire”.

As for the word “room”, the word that represents this is “Shitsu”, or its kanji (室). The Japanese style room, which usually has a tatami (畳) mat, is called “Wa-shitsu”, whose kanji is (和室). The kitchen is still pronounced “kitchen” (キッチン), while the dining room is called “dainingu”, (ダイニング). The bathroom is called “yoku-shitsu” (浴室). Inside you’ll have the “sen-men” (洗面) which includes the mirror and sink, the toilet or “toire” (トイレ), and a yunito basu (ユニットバス) otherwise known as a unit bath.

Apartments in Japan are quirky and different. Renting or owning one can be easily arranged to rent or purchase as long as you have the right information to understand more about them, and enough money to pay the bills.