Why should foreigners care about Japan in the long term? They’ll eventually return home, so they have no reason to care about Japan’s future. Consequently, some may come, create issues, and leave without facing the consequences, which is why landlords may be hesitant about renting to foreigners due to concerns about property respect.
I remember hearing this line of thought from my Japanese friends during a casual get-together. As someone actively searching for an apartment at the time, I was shocked by such a comment. Foreigners don’t have any reason to care about the future in Japan? I couldn’t understand the reasoning.
However, this wasn’t just one person’s viewpoint. It’s a common perspective among Japanese people. In Japan, the concept of long-term or permanent immigrants is uncommon. Many equate the term ‘immigrant’ (移民) with ‘temporary foreign worker’ (外国人労働者).
But why would a foreigner planning to reside in Japan for only a year be concerned about contributing to Japanese society or future interests?
The problem with this line of reasoning is that not all foreigners in Japan are temporary residents or tourists. There are significant populations of permanent residents (through work or marriage) or non-Japanese ethnic groups who have been in Japan for generations, especially those of Chinese or Japanese descent whose families immigrated during WWII.
So, why does it matter if Japanese people hold this generalization of foreign populations in Japan? While it’s true that many foreigners are here temporarily, it’s still an unjust stereotype.
However, the repercussions of this perspective deeply affect the lives of foreigners in Japan. From reminders at the bank to close your account when returning home, even if you have no plans to do so, to restricted access to services like online applications due to citizenship status, foreign residents often face unique challenges.
When coupled with the difficulty of obtaining citizenship due to the absence of dual citizenship options and a lengthy and costly process, foreign citizens find themselves underrepresented in politics and media.
Housing is one area where this issue is particularly pronounced. Studies have shown that having Chinese or Korean names reduces the likelihood of rental housing acceptance by about 13% compared to those with Japanese names. This problem was exacerbated by direct discriminatory behavior during COVID-19.
Why is this the case? Doesn’t Japan, like many developed nations, have protective laws for its foreign residents? Are there no ways to address this issue? In this article, I would like to delve into the problem of housing discrimination in Japan.
What is housing discrimination in Japan?
It’s been over 30 years since the influx of foreign individuals, commonly known as “Newcomers (ニューカマー),” began in Japan, garnering nationwide attention.
Today, the foreign resident population and international marriages have grown significantly, resulting from various factors, including increased immigration and intermarriage between Japanese and foreign nationals.
The blanket term “foreigners (外国人)” is frequently used in Japan; it encompasses various backgrounds and cultures, making generalizations challenging. The diversity among “foreigners” in Japan spans from short-term foreign exchange students to non-Japanese individuals with foreign nationalities who were born and raised in Japan, have Japanese as their native language, and lead lifestyles in line with Japanese culture.
In Japan, before the 1970s, the term “foreigners (外国人)” primarily referred to individuals from East Asian countries such as the Korean Peninsula, China, and Taiwan, with a smaller representation from Western nations. However, the 1980s saw an influx of foreigners from Southeast Asia (including the Philippines and Thailand), South Asia (Pakistan and Bangladesh), West Asia (Iran), and other regions, mainly for temporary labor purposes.
In 1990, an amendment to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act introduced a new residence status, “Permanent Resident (定住者),” which attracted many Japanese descendants (日系人) from Central and South American countries like Brazil and Peru, with a significant number of them finding employment in the manufacturing sector, especially in the Tokai and Chugoku regions.
Today, a variety of foreign resident categories exist, including technical trainees with primarily limited-term employment, highly skilled foreign professionals (高度人材) engaged in specialized technical or academic research, international students, foreign families brought to Japan through family reunion programs, and first-generation children of “newcomers” who were born and raised in Japan.
Consequently, foreign residents exhibit diverse social backgrounds, living situations, and employment statuses. Furthermore, individuals who have acquired Japanese citizenship (naturalization) after being foreign nationals or those who hold Japanese citizenship but have a foreign language as their native language, as well as “children with roots in foreign countries,” further expand the spectrum of “foreigners in Japan.”
Despite this diversity, the status of “foreigner” still has major consequences regardless of your background. A 2016 survey by the Ministry of Justice showed that 39.8% of foreigners faced housing rejections due to their foreign status, and 26.8% came across properties openly stating, “No foreigners allowed.” The nationality most frequently rejected based on being foreign was Thailand (53.1%), followed by China (51.0%) and Korea (50.0%).
The issue of foreign residents’ housing has been particularly acknowledged as a key challenge in municipalities with a significant foreign population. In 2006, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications published the “Multicultural Coexistence Promotion Plan (地域における多文化共生推進プラン),” which outlines four specific measures. Among these, “residence (居住)” is listed as the first item under “living support (生活支援).”
This plan categorizes “residential issues for foreign residents” into two main aspects: “individual challenges faced by foreigners” and “issues arising from the collective presence of foreigners” (mutual understanding with Japanese society and the lack of common rules). The former encompasses problems like housing discrimination, insufficient information, and support, while the latter primarily deals with living difficulties and communication issues with Japanese residents, especially within housing complexes.
These two perspectives and frameworks naturally differ. “Challenges faced by individual foreigners” have clear cause-and-effect relationships, such as housing discrimination due to foreign nationality or a lack of information in a foreign language. Solutions may involve institutional responses or government-led awareness and communication.
Conversely, “issues stemming from the collective presence of foreigners” are more intricate. These problems often arise among residents, leading to potential differences in opinions, perspectives, and values. Multiple stakeholders include foreign residents, Japanese residents, housing complex managers, local community associations, municipal officials, and support organizations.
Both foreign and Japanese residents are diverse groups, which adds complexity to the issue. Discrimination even exists even among foreigners. You see, there are “good foreigners” and “bad foreigners,” meaning non-white foreigners, especially those from developing countries in Southeast Asia or Africa, experience added layers to the discrimination.
What laws are in place to protect tenants in Japan?
Although Japan signed the “International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)” in 1996, there are no domestic laws addressing rental contract denials based on race or nationality, creating opportunities for discrimination.
As Junpei Kataoka, a Sapporo City Law Office lawyer, stated, “While there are many instances of unfair treatment towards foreigners, only a few ends up in court. However, there are cases where unjust rental denials to foreigners without valid reasons have resulted in legal action, leading to compensation orders. Courts typically assess the legality of such denials by considering various relevant facts, rather than uniformly declaring them illegal” (quote from McNeil’s 2022 article).
Basically, it varies from case to case, and the ease of finding a home for foreigners depends on the region. For example, in areas with a substantial foreign population like Tokyo, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government educates real estate agents on the illegality of nationality-based rental refusals, considering them discriminatory.
However, while there are cases of finding aid in courts that do exist, lawsuits over such refusals are often difficult, partly because it is expensive and time-consuming. On top of that, these lawsuits mean that you must prove nationality is the reason for the refusal, which can often be difficult to do. Suppose landlords say they are refusing a rental after comprehensively assessing income, length of stay, presence of a guarantor, etc. In that case, it is often difficult to find that it is illegal.
In reality, unfortunately, many foreigners, regardless of background, experienced discriminatory incidents. However, those who have come to know that such actions are tolerated and lack legal recourse end up accepting it as the “Gaijin Tax,” the cost of living in Japan as a non-Japanese.
What can I do when I face housing discrimination?
Speaking from personal experience, facing housing discrimination is difficult and exhausting. While addressing this discrimination at the institutional level is important, we all know the average incoming foreigner cannot affect the situation at that level.
So, what do I do as a foreigner looking for housing in Japan?
One important thing is to note that while there are Japanese who explicitly hate foreigners, this is not always the reason. It’s easy to feel resentful when this kind of discrimination occurs, but most prejudices exist from a place of ignorance, not necessarily malice.
In the case of housing, a large portion of rejections are due to language. Landlords are concerned about communication problems with foreign tenants. In other cases, the decision was made for other reasons or simply because it was deemed too risky. In Japan, many landlords are older, so they don’t want to take too many risks, and foreigners are a bit of a wild card in their eyes, given that foreigners are outsiders to what they’re used to.
Therefore, if you approach the situation by explicitly showing the ability or willingness to do your best to communicate in Japanese, it can go a long way. Likewise, having Japanese-speaking contacts can also help by providing direct communication and someone who can hold you accountable, lowering the perceived risk.
When you have a landlord, being respectful and polite is essential. While you may need to become more familiar with all Japanese customs, adapting and being courteous to your neighbors and landlord can improve the perception of foreigners. Building a positive relationship can benefit you when seeking a new place to live, as it provides evidence of your reliability as a tenant.
Another thing that can be helpful is finding real estate agents who actively aim to support foreigners and explicitly offer English (or your native language) services helps a lot as well. Having a Japanese real estate agent advocating for you helps navigate which landlords are open and friendly and which ones you might want to avoid dealing with.
Hopefully, you won’t experience discrimination in Japan, but if you do, remember that for every person with backward views and prejudices, there are just as many eager to meet you. Don’t dwell on hostile places because they probably aren’t where you want to live anyway. Focus on finding open and welcoming places for you and enjoy your future in Japan.
For more information concerning problems foreigners may face in Japan:
- Finding Your Place: Navigating Japan’s Immigration Landscape as an Immigrant
- Is Japan Safe for Women?
A Field Experiment on Discrimination against Foreigners in the Rental Housing Market in Japan Examining the 23 Wards of Tokyo
平成 28 年度 法務省委託調査研究事業外国人住民調査報告書 － 訂正版 －
2016 Foreign Resident Survey Report commissioned by the Ministry of Justice – Revised version –
Housing Discrimination Against Foreigners in Japan: Ministry of Justice Survey
The Issues of High Concentration and Dispersion of Non-Japanese Residents in Japan