The basics of finding an apartment in Japan

by Paul Goodchild

There are several frustrations that foreigners can experience during their time in Japan, one discussed before was banking, another is long-term accommodation – renting an apartment.  Why is it such a chore?  Well moving to a new place is a stressful event at the best of times, but to do so in a foreign language and culture just adds to the complications.  I will attempt to break down the very basics of what you can expect to experience, and some things to look out for when undertaking this quest so that they’re not a complete shock to the system.

The very basics

When you meet with the estate agent/fudōsan (不動産) to find your dream apartment, you’ll need to have thought about the following points before you get there:

  • where – typically specified by train-line and the stations on that line.  Typically accessible to your place of work
  • budget – depending on your requirements, this will seriously dictate what is available to you
  • distance from the station – a very common requirement is how far from your desired station are you prepared to live.  Would you walk 10 minutes, or are you prepared to live a 15 minute bus ride away.  Something to consider.
  • apartment age – some apartments on the market are incredibly old and if safety in an earthquake is big factor for you, then you need to bring this up.  It’s also an indicator in the materials used in construction – see below in the ‘Apartment build types’

Room sizes and layout (madori/間取り)

In order to quickly categorize the size and layout of an apartment, they use the following shorthand:

  • R – Room
  • L – Living
  • D – Dining
  • K – Kitchen
  • S – Small
  • # – a number representing the number of potential bedrooms

It’s always been a little vague and down to interpretation – let’s take an example to illustrate: 2LDK.  Breaking this down, it tells us that this particular apartment has 2 bedrooms, and a “combined” Living-Dining-Kitchen room – so 3 main rooms altogether.  This doesn’t include bathrooms or shower rooms.  Depending on how the owner interprets the layout of his apartment, this could have been called a 2DK.  If it had only been named a 2K, then you can assume the room represented by the ‘K’ is really just room enough for a kitchen.

There will of course be a specified floor space area/menseki (面積), in either m², or the more traditional tsubo (坪).  1-tsubo is the equivalent of 3.31m², or 2x standardised tatami mats.

Apartment build types

There are 3 main types of “apartment” on the market, and they are:

  • apaato (アパート) – a room within a wooden based building structure
  • manshon (マンション) / – a room within a reinforced concrete (RC- 鉄筋コンクリート) building structure.
  • ikkodate (一戸建て) – a separate house

Experience has shown that the only one really worth any consideration is the ‘manshon’ type.  While these also aren’t anything special, they beat the completely un-insulated wooden apartments that are terrible during the extremes of the Winter and Summer seasons in that they cannot retain heat or cool respectively.  Houses are appropriate if you need the space and sometimes will bag you a bargain.

Another important point to note is that most newer building are constructed using RC and are therefore said to be much more reliable and resilient to the damage inflicted by an earthquake.  This sounds logical, but frankly if the earthquake is substantial enough, it’s not going to really matter.  ‘Mansion’ types are also naturally more costly than ‘apaato’ types.


There is a set of standard costs incurred with moving into an apartment in Japan – below are the main ones:

  • estate agent fee – typically 1 month, though there are some that charge 0.5 month
  • skikikin (敷金) – the deposit, usually 1~3 months depending on the landlord
  • reikin (礼金) – a ‘gift’ to the landlord for his/her generosity in allowing you to reside there.  Usually 1~3 months depending on the landlord.
  • hoshōkin (保証金) – the guarantor fee, described further under the section about contract types

There is a long-standing tradition for the obligatory key-money (gratitude) payments, though by all accounts this practice is slowly but surely being phased out and reikin-free apartments are quite common.  It is perhaps the most significant issue foreigners in Japan take when making a lease.

As with anything such as this, rent, key-money and deposit are usually negotiable to varying degrees and the simple fact is that if you really don’t want to pay gratitude costs, you don’t have to – you just specify properties that don’t demand this payment.  One way that the landlord will “forgo” the gratuity is to spread the cost of it out amongst the first 12 months of the lease.  That’s one option, but you are free to decide if this is appropriate for you or not.

My opinion is that market forces will win out in this case.  If nobody is prepared to make these gratitude payments, then the landlords will be forced to scrap it.  Clearly not enough people are standing up to this system, so it naturally perpetuates.

Contract types

There are 2 main types of contract available to you.  One is private/kojin-keiyaku (個人契約), the other is corporate/hōjin-keiyaku (法人契約).  This is where the guarantor issue and payments comes in to play.  If your employer is prepared to take on the lease on your behalf, you will gain in 2 ways.  Firstly, rent can be paid directly from your salary each month using pre-taxed yen making your costs lower.  Secondly, since it is your employer that is contracted, it is a safer bet for the landlord that they’ll will receive their monthly payments each month.  In this case also, a guarantor for the lease is required and typically it is you – that is, if the company fails to meet it’s obligations, you will signed as the person responsible in the end to meet the payments.  Naturally this is the preferred option all-round.

Private leases however are more complicated.  They’re riskier in the eyes of the landlord and are therefore more challenging to obtain.  If you want to cut your employer out of the picture altogether, you will need a Japanese national to act as guarantor for you.  However, Japanese people are generally very reluctant to put their signature on a contract like this and so you’re usually forced to make use of a “Guarantor Agency”.  You pay the agency typically a month’s rent and they will sign on the dotted line for you.

Private leasing in Japan generally does not make for a pleasant story…

Further points to note

When choosing what you want in your apartment, as you meet with the housing agent you will be presented with a whole range options and specifications.  Below are some of the most common so you can recognise them if they’re written only in Japanese:

  • バス・トイレ別 – separate room for bath and toilet
  • 2階以上 – the room is on the 2nd floor and above (due to safety concerns for some people, this is important)
  • エアコン – air-conditioner unit(s) are provided
  • 室内洗濯機置場 – there’s a dedicated place provided to set your washing machine
  • ペット相談 – the landlord is open to the discussion of allowing your pets
  • 駐車場あり – car parking space option is available
  • 南向き – south facing and therefore captures more direct sunlight
  • 2人入居可 – catering for couples
  • 築年数 – years since construction

There are many more things to consider besides all of these, such as payment methods and initial fee and rental payments/schedules… too much to list in a single article.

If you need further translations of the terms here, please see the Links page for translation tools available online.

Moving out

A very important issue that comes up is moving out of an apartment before a lease is up.  The standard lease is 2 years, but there is usually nothing, unless it is binding in the contract, keeping you there – you can leave at any time and should not incur costs for this.  This becomes more significant when you reach the end of the 2 year lease period since, as another way to squeeze more money from you, you are required to pay a renewal fee that amounts to a month’s rent.  This is the cost you incur for the privilege of staying the apartment.  It is not uncommon for people to take this opportunity to move to a new place.

When you actually do decide to move out, consider your notice period and notify early.  It is a good idea to state that this notification period be 1 month at the time of creating the contract, as it is quite common to have a 2 month period specified by the landlord.

Usually on the last day of your stay, the landlord and/or agent will c0me to inspect the property.  Based on that inspection, you will be liable for any damages and cleaning fees.  It is typically deducted from the deposit you paid in the beginning, and the remainder is returned to you through bank transfer after approximately 1 month.

Personal note

There are agencies out there that service the foreign community in Japan though I have yet to find a definitively quality outfit in either English or Japanese.  I have noticed that some of the foreigner-focused agencies demand a price premium for the services offered so be aware of this when using them.

If your current agency is providing what you think is poor service, do not hesitate to find somewhere else that doesn’t.  Shop around.  In general all the agencies source the same pool of apartments and the only difference is the service you receive, not what is on offer to you.

Good luck.

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