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Bread and Roses: Challenging Japan’s Rampant Housing Discrimination

SNA (Tokyo) — Pets, music, foreigners. Do these words ring a bell? They might if you are a foreigner who has tried to rent an apartment in Japan. They’re known as the three big barriers in rental housing.

The foreigners in my life to one degree or another have run into the gaikokujin fuka (no foreigners) wall when going to a real estate agency to find a dwelling. That one degree tends to be higher or lower depending on your nationality and race. The chance of outright rejection rises for Asians, Latinxs, Africans, and other people of color in comparison with whites and Westerners.

Among foreigners who have looked for housing in Japan, 39.3% have been rejected because they are foreigners, according to a 2017 poll commissioned by the Ministry of Justice. That, of course, doesn’t count the units not even shown to them in the first place because they are marked as unavailable to foreigners.

Let me begin with my husband, the example of the foreigner I am closest to. This white American says he has been refused housing due to his foreign nationality at least ten times during his 24 years in Japan. He describes opening the door to a real estate agency only to see the sales staffer jump out from behind the counter waving his arms, saying dame! dame! (not allowed).

Some agencies welcome foreigners, then bring a special box full of units available to outsiders. But even units that seem available at first may turn out to be otherwise.

He has seen more than once the agency representative call up the landlord only to learn that she/he is reluctant to rent out to foreigner. The salesperson reassures the owner saying things like, “He is foreign, but he works at a leading company and speak good Japanese. And he is American.” He surmises that American is code for white. The resistance he gets each time he looks for a place causes stress and pisses him off.

He recognizes that he has it lucky among foreigners in general: Chinese, Vietnamese, Thais, and other Asians (including Zainichi Koreans who were born and raised in Japan), Latinxs, and Africans living in Japan have it many times worse. One Chinese graduate student I know with a high level of Japanese ability says she was rejected by 54 landlords before finding a place.

I spoke with a Korean woman living in Japan. Let’s call her Ms. X. This happened this year 2019 in Japan. I have not embellished this story in the slightest.

Ms. X first arrived Japan in 2002. She then lived for almost a year in Osaka as a college exchange student. Japan was just entering the first “Korean Boom” period. Ms. X speaks passionately about the TV drama Winter Sonata and Yon-sama (Bae Yong-Joon). She met many Japanese who told her they want to learn Korean and felt great interest in her country. She returned home to South Korea with a fond, fun, and friendly impression of Japan.

Remembering her great time in Osaka, she returned to Japan to enter graduate school and got a job as an assistant professor at a private university in greater Tokyo. After thirteen years, her Japanese is fluent and has no problem with communication.

She recently decided to move to a bigger place because her books were piling up. She also wanted to be closer to her university. At the first real estate agency, the salesperson clearly lost all motivation upon finding out she was Korean, mumbling “we have very few units available.”  Feeling unwelcome, she went to another agency. The agent there showed kindness and enthusiasm, saying they had many foreigner-available places and “let’s look together.”

There are three types of rental unit files, as they deal with prospective foreign tenants: gaikokujin fuka (unavailable to foreigners), gaikokujin ka (available to foreigners), and files that have nothing written on them about foreigners. This second agent showed Ms. X industry data on places that met her conditions, then called the landlord of the one Ms. X wanted.  The landlord started backpedaling upon hearing that Ms. X is a foreigner.

The file for this place was in the category of those with nothing written about foreigners. The agent struggled to persuade the landlord, saying, “She is a foreigner, but has no problem with Japanese and teaches at X University.” The unit was made available to her on condition that a Japanese relative living in Japan be her joint guarantor. Not many foreigners are going to have Japanese relatives living in Japan. Ms. X gave up.

The agent assured Ms. X that it was worse for those from Southeast Asia. The next place the agent found for her was indeed available to foreigners, but on condition they sign a contract to pay a special guarantor company call Global Trust Networks. No such contract was required of Japanese tenants. She has to pay this fee on top of her monthly rent, meaning she would pay more than her fellow Japanese tenants just because she is foreign.

Ms. X loved the place but refused to accede to this kind of system. This discrimination made her feel like an outsider more than ever, despite living here for thirteen years and struggling hard to learn the language, customs, and culture. Her individual experience and situation meant nothing; only whether she was Japanese or foreign.

Many of her Japanese colleagues could not believe such a terrible system existed. Some pointed out that it is not only foreigners treated that way. “Single mothers, workers on irregular contracts, and the unemployed, have great difficulty renting an apartment,” one said.

Foreign friends nearly all recognize the situation immediately and recall their own similar experiences.

I would like to ask my readers to consider what this all means in terms of social justice and fairness. To be openly shut out (if you will) of housing, employment, education, commerce, social insurance, and other areas simply because you are a foreign national violates social fairness, legal statues, and the social contract.

Contrary to prevailing opinion, it is indeed illegal to discriminate against foreigners. Article 14 of the Constitution of Japan guarantees “equality under the law” as a starting point. Article 1.2 of the Civil Code (good faith); Article 90 (kojo ryozoku, or public policy), Article 709 (fuho koi, or torts), Article 3 of Labor Standards Act (kinto taigu, or equal treatment), and other legal statutes prohibit discrimination based on race or nationality.

Yet, strangely, housing discrimination draws little outrage. I hear that it is unavoidable, that the landlord’s position is understandable. The fact that real estate agents feel safe openly writing no foreigners on ads for their units speaks volumes on the complacency that has seeped into our society regarding housing discrimination. I see few constitutional scholars or attorneys leading campaigns to abolish such discrimination.

The position of the landlord is indeed understandable.  Discrimination can often benefit those who discriminate. The injustice is to those on the receiving end.

Few court precedents exist. One is an October 2, 2007, Kyoto District Court ruling. Company X1 and its Employee X2 sued apartment Owner Y for compensation for refusing to rent to X2 because X2 was Korean, claiming it violated the duty to act in good faith.

Employee X2 had already put up ¥470,000, including key money, deposit, maintenance, internet fees, fire insurance, and brokerage fees. The court ruled that no reasonable grounds existed to refuse to rent to X2 and ordered Owner Y to pay ¥1 million in compensation and ¥100,000 in legal fees.

This verdict made clear that race or nationality are not accepted as reason to refuse renting a housing unit, and that from a legal perspective, such refusals are in Japan simply unacceptable.

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