Housing discrimination in Japan

The number of foreigners living in Japan has reached 3.41 million — a record high — but they often face discrimination when they try and find a place to live. The government has called on real estate companies to be aware of this problem, but some landowners still refuse to accept foreign nationals.

A survey by a private housing information website shows that around 40 percent of foreign respondents said they were discriminated against or felt inequality in viewing housing and contract procedures — just because of their nationality.

Instagram post goes viral

Joshua Thomson, a British national who was born and raised in Japan and is a fluent speaker of the language, posted a video describing his experience of being rejected by a real estate company.

Joshua Thomson describes his house-hunting experience in Japan.

Thomson said he just felt very sad as he talked with the agent, who repeatedly said, "Foreigners are not allowed." But he added he also wanted to turn it around by adding humor to the story.

The video has been watched more than 2.7 million times, and many people commented that they had similar experiences.

One of the comments said, "I have permanent residency and I work for a major Japanese company, but I was refused." Another stated, "I've been living in Japan for more than 20 years but refusal is always the case."

Not even with a Japanese guarantor

A 36-year-old Spanish man also commented on the video. He came to Japan six years ago and works as a university instructor. In January 2023, he emailed a real estate firm asking to view a condominium in Hyogo Prefecture in western Japan.

He received a reply saying that foreign nationals are not allowed to live in the unit — even with a Japanese guarantor.

This man faced housing discrimination in Japan.

"I was perplexed," he admitted. "There were no questions about annual income or work. They don't know anything about me. I feel I was turned down just because of my nationality."

He asked the local legal affairs bureau to investigate the case, but he gave up on filing a complaint after being told the bureau could do nothing.

He said, "I am disappointed that there are properties that refuse to accept foreigners — and also disappointed by the government's response."

Real estate firm: It's the reality of Japan

NHK contacted the real estate firm about the incident. The branch manager said they had no intention of refusing foreigners.

But the manager said the staff member who replied to the original email was no longer available, and that it was a very busy time, and that the case may have been a misunderstanding.

The manager added, "To be honest, some other real estate management companies don't allow foreign nationals. I think that's the reality of Japan."

Concerns of property owners and management companies

Concerns of trouble are behind the reluctance of landowners and management companies to rent to foreigners.

A survey conducted by an industry group in 2022 found that 52.7 percent of landowners said that some trouble occurred while foreigners lived in their properties. Not following garbage disposal rules and noise complaints were the most common issues.

Expert: Rumors spread even without direct experience

Ogino Masao, a director at the Japan Property Management Association, is well-versed in the rental market for foreigners. He says there are a lot of negative rumors about renting houses to foreigners, and some people or companies worry after hearing tales of trouble from others even if they have never experienced it directly.

Ogino Masao, Japan Property Management Association

Empty rooms no use to anyone

One landlord who owns properties in three prefectures, including Shizuoka Prefecture in central Japan, talks about the time tenants from Southeast Asia left the room he rented at the end of last year.

He says the room suffered extensive damage and that he was busy dealing with the situation.

He expects to pay 650,000 yen, or about 4,180 US dollars, to clean up the mess.

The owner says the repair costs will leave him in the red.

The property owner, who goes by the online name Sorim Uha, decided to carefully explain to foreign tenants what to watch out for when they move in. He hopes to get them to adopt a "Japanese lifestyle."

He plans to provide cleaning materials and insecticides, and teach them how to use them.

He wants to continue to rent to foreigners.

"If we can accept foreigners under good conditions, the vacancy period will be shortened and business can continue."

Win-win solutions

Yiqun Gong, an employee of a company that operates a housing information website in Tokyo, is from Shanghai. She has lived in Japan since she was 5 years old and has also struggled to find a place to live.

Given her experience, Gong launched a page that allows people to search for real estate companies that cater to people who have difficulties in finding homes, including foreigners. Around 4,400 firms welcome foreign clients, mainly in urban areas.

Yiqun Gong operates FRIENDLY DOOR, a search page that specializes in helping the socially vulnerable.

A real estate firm in Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture, that registered on the website is actively hiring foreign employees, believing they will add value to their business.

Gong went to see them.

A Chinese employee stressed that the company has less trouble as they explain important information in the customer's own language.

Yiqun Gong with the business manager and Chinese employee (right)

One staff member said that when he makes up a contract, he explains details like garbage disposal, not wearing shoes inside, and following Japanese etiquette.

Gong says she hopes the network will spread throughout the country and help foreigners find a place to live.

"While reducing risks, we will firmly seize business opportunities. I think it will be a win-win for everyone," she says.

"If real estate companies in Japan become friendly to everyone, including foreigners, our services will become unnecessary, and that's the biggest goal."