Living in Japan Part 3: Apartment Hunting Basics

While my last two posts on living in Japan covered a lot of different areas for before you leave and immediately after you arrive, today, I will be talking specifically about hunting for apartments. For someone unacquainted with Japanese real estate, finding a place to live can be a frustrating experience, especially if you are trying to locate somewhere good before you even arrive. Some people therefore prefer to avoid the hassles of living in an apartment entirely, either moving into international dorms, guest houses, or share houses, etc.

BUT, all of this said, living in your own apartment is something some people just prefer and is, at times, unavoidable. So for my next two articles, we’re going to break down the apartment-hunting process, beginning with what to expect, where to start, important processes to know about, an example of initial costs, and, in the next article, a how-to guide for reading apartment listings (along with basic explanations of Japanese apartments) including a full vocabulary set and examples of online advertisements. But first: the basics.

Previous articles:

Living in Japan Part 1: Before You Arrive
Living in Japan Part 2: Getting Your Residency Started

Ready? Here we go!

Getting Started:

First off, things you will typically need to take with you to the real estate office when you actually sign for an apartment:

  • passport
  • zairyū card (see previous article)
  • hanko (see previous article)
  • guarantor
  • cell phone (recommended for filling out contact information, but not entirely necessary)
  • lots of money up front (see section on cost estimates below)

As I also previously mentioned in more detail, you will want to do the following things in preparation probably even before you arrive:

  • Do online searches for apartments in the area that you want to live.
  • Look at maps of the general area on GoogleMaps.
  • Ask friends or colleagues who are in/have been to Japan about the area you want to live in.
  • Make a best case/worst case scenario budget. (see more on this below)
  • If applicable, ask your boss or friends for their suggestions for real estate agents (especially if they are your guarantor)
  • Find a real estate agent.

N.B.: I was told by a Japanese friend that you cannot sign a contract without being physically in Japan. I’m not sure if this holds water all the time, but may be something to be aware of.

Photo by Aaron Webb

Photo by Aaron Webb

Real Estate Agents

The last point, finding a real estate agent (fudōsan不動産) can actually be done after you arrive. In my case, I had a friend who was a real estate agent who was helping me through the process, but many people just walk right into one of the many real estate offices you see littering the streets of whatever city. You can usually recognize them because they’ll have apartment advertisements plastering their windows or on big signs out front of their officers.

Generally speaking, in Japan one does not deal with landlords directly, but MUST go through a real estate agent. There will probably be a negotiation that goes on where the real estate agent first has to ask whether the landlord is willing to rent to a foreigner. In areas like Tokyo or Yokohama, which have a large foreigner population, this typically isn’t a problem, but it could be, depending on the person’s hesitancy to deal with a tenant with limited Japanese skills or any experiences they may have had with a bad foreign tenant in the past.

Be wary about real estate agents who may seem to be showing you less than respectable places. This is not, so far as I know, a typical experience, but if you feel like your agent might be showing you shadier apartments because of your foreigner status, go ahead and try a different agency, as they are common enough that you don’t need to feel tied to your first stop.

Sites to Consult

If you want to go into a real estate office very prepared with a good idea of just what it is you’re looking for (which I HIGHLY suggest), you can search online ahead of time at Japanese apartment listings. There are major sites as well as local sites for individual areas. Surviving in Japan found these to be some of the major online sites:

In addition to these big conglomerate websites, individual real estate offices also maintain their own sites you can google, and depending on where you live, you might also find local options. Since I wanted to live near Tokyo University, for example, I looked at and also checked out options through Tokyo University Be sure to ask at your university what options they have for foreign students or if they have an agency that they recommend. People will almost always have suggestions.

When you check these sites out, typically you have a number of ways you can search for what you want in a general way, selecting:

  • エリア検索 (area search)
  • 沿線検索 (rail line search)
  • 駅検索(station search)

In addition to these basic options, you might also find some like 店舗検索 (store search) for those who want to find an apartment within a certain distance of shops in an area.

It is also important to note that unless you are using a website that is specifically geared to the English language, all of your exchanges, contracts, etc. should be expected to be in Japanese. Cities with large foreign populations can be expected to have some English language businesses that can help you, although the cost of services in the end is not necessarily different. For example, here are some options suggested by A Texan in Tokyo for places to look for English-language options in the Tokyo area:

There are also English-language options to look for apartments on sites like GaijinPot, but when I sent some listings I liked to my real estate agent friend, she pointed out that some of the listings were from disreputable places and had advertisements up that were years old, so be careful what you look at.

Types of Buildings

The type of building you want to stay in is also important. If you are not familiar with Japanese, you may not realize what the difference is in some of the vocabulary. For example, Surviving in Japan has this to say about the difference between apaatoアパートand manshonマンション:

What’s the difference between an “apaato” and a “mansion”?

A “mansion” is not a giant, fancy building as you might infer from the word, but just a large, multiple-story (three or more usually) apartment or condo building made of reinforced concrete, steel or a combination of the two. … The walls are obviously thicker, so sound doesn’t carry as much … You’ll see these under 賃貸 or 賃貸物件  for apartment rentals (so you aren’t looking at buying a condo!)

An “apaato” is usually only two to three floors and made of wood or lightweight steel (which means sound carries more). They remind me a bit more of townhouses. Sometimes they are two-story single units with maybe four to eight units per building (depending on how big the building is). There are variations, of course.

You might also find yourself finding words like 一戸建てikkodate or just kodate 戸建, which means a  “(separate) house” for rent. These are often houses for lease, and are often a good option for people who come to Japan with their families.

Things that typically affect prices (and which may give you some leverage if you’re into negotiating the rent) include how old the apartment/building is, the building materials, the structure of the bathroom, what direction the apartment faces, what floor it is on, and distance from stations. Older buildings made of wood are less sound-proof and fluctuate in temperature with the season more than their concrete counterparts. Having the bath and toilet in the same room is also less than ideal, and should lower the price of your apartment. Tenants tend to prefer south-facing apartments (thus, north-facing ones will be cheaper), because facing south brings in more light, lowers humidity, and helps save of electric bills. Humidity and its repercussions are also a bigger issue in first floor apartments, so first floor rentals will also be cheaper. The higher in a building, the more expensive the apartment, in my experience. Naturally, being closer to a convenient train station will also up your rental price.


Renting apartments or houses in Japan typically requires that you have a guarantor (hoshōnin 保証人) who can vouch for your character. This person should be a Japanese citizen. Some areas, particularly those in metropolitan areas with a large foreigner population, may make exceptions, but this is not, on average, the case. To sign without a guarantor may also cost you more money as a result. Having a guarantor serves as a way to feel more assured that you are not a bad tenant, won’t cause excessive problems (noisiness, mistreating the property, etc.), and are generally going to be reliable for rent and a good neighbor to those around you.

If you don’t have a Japanese acquaintance who can serve as your guarantor, it is also possible to have a guarantor company (hoshōnin gaisha 保証人会社) serve as your guarantor for a yearly fee (usually about 10,000 yen, or $100, but occasionally more).

Another option might also be possible if you have a fellowship to sponsor your stay in Japan. Some of the major organizations (Fulbright, for example) is able to act as your institutional guarantor (kikan hoshōnin 機関保証人) in lieu of a Japanese citizen. Some real estate agents may need convincing, but if your fellowship is willing to represent you, this can usually be negotiated over the phone. In some cases, this must be done in conjunction with proof of your income through them.

Basic costs on signing

Whereas Americans are used to a pretty straightforward understanding of their initial costs for signing an apartment contract (1st month rent + deposit), they are usually shocked to find so many hidden or unexpected fees when renting apartments in Japan. Not every apartment includes all of the fees we’ll list below, and depending on the age, type, location, etc. of the apartment, the price of each of these costs may go up or down, but for now, here’s a basic list of some of the fees you can expect upfront for apartment rental:

仲介手数料chūkai tesūryō
agent commission/
handling charge/
intermediary fee
typically one month’s rent and 5-10% tax. Varies by person and agency
security deposit 1-2 month’s rent, although in rare cases you can find places that don’t require it
key money 1-2 month’s rent (usually 1), non-refundable “gift” money given to the landlord for allowing you to rent from them
rent note that your rent is separate from your management fee, if you have one
monthly management fee a (usually) small monthly fee for the upkeep of your building (this is typically not included in your rent)
kazai hoken
home insurance this is usually mandatory and the cost will vary based on the apartment/company they use
parking I have read that in some cities you cannot own a car without having a parking spot officially secured. The cost for this varies by city and apartment, so check local listings for this additional monthly fee.

If this chart looks like a lot, it’s because it can be. Depending on the company you work through, the demands of the landlord, the location, size, and type of building you’re going to rent, etc., how much you pay on signing can fluctuate by at least one to two thousand dollars.

Here’s a real-life example of what it cost me on signing for my apartment (in Japanese, then translated). I began renting an apartment towards the end of August. It is a second-floor 2K in a wooden building (built in the 70’s) in Bunkyō-ku, very close to Tokyo University and two local train stations:

cost summary


cost summary (ENG)

As you can see, even without additional charges such as management fees, parking, lock-change fees, etc., my costs were still over $4,000, if you include the insurance I had to pay within the month (which came to me directly by mail). I had to pay both the prorated rent for the end of the month and my next months’ rent upfront as well, given the time that I was signing.

The best way for you to plan for how much your initial costs will be is to look at apartment listings online and start making spreadsheets or your best and worst case scenarios. At minimum, you may have to pay (blank), and at maximum you may have to pay (blank). My worst-case scenario budget was around $6,000, which I was positive I didn’t want to spend, but I wanted to make sure I had enough money on hand just in case I had to.

Other words you might come across for initial fees may include:

shoki hiyō
initial moving fees one-time moving costs (I usually don’t see these, but they do exist.)
neighborhood association fee this is a cost of usually around $10 for people living in residential neighborhoods—some places have it, some don’t
更新手数料kōshintesūryō lease renewal fee this is a fee you’re charged every time you renew your lease—typically one month’s rent
lock changing fee not every apartment has this, but some do, and it can cost as much as $200 at times

Note that most leases in Japan are for 2 years. There may be penalties for cancelling after only 1 year, although you will be able to find some places willing to negotiate or that will accept only 1 year contracts. Be sure to inquire about this upfront.


Phew! That’s it for now. Hopefully I’ve covered a lot of the how-to aspects of getting started and a number of the important subjects you’ll have to keep in mind as you plan for your rental prospects. The next article will be a practical guide to how to read apartment listings, and will describe in more detail the language used to describe and characteristics of Japanese apartments. If there’s anything I forgot here or you have further questions, please shoot us an email or leave a comment below. If I don’t have the answer, I’ll try to find someone who does!

Next article: Living in Japan Part 4: How to Read Apartment Listings


Links for additional advice and information:

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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7 Responses to Living in Japan Part 3: Apartment Hunting Basics

  1. Brittany says:

    That’s really good advice! There’s a lot of bad advice floating around in Tokyo regarding apartments! I like to add make sure that you have a real estate agent that’s in to helping out your needs and not in it for the money. The ones that are in it for the money will leave you hanging dry when you may need help, give you subpar service, or will hide things from you.

    • Paula says:

      Good point! I didn’t really have to worry about this because I went through a friend who helped with the agency. If your Japanese isn’t great you might want to have a friend go with you to help identify that sort of trouble and have things go smoother.

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