At first glance, there’s nothing seemingly unusual about the building. Just your average seven story, red brick building on a nondescript street in Tokyo’s financial district. But upon second glance, you might notice that hanging from every apartment window are identical, lime-green, plaid curtains, or perhaps you spy the giant sign posted near the front entrance that lists the address of the building in English, instead of Japanese. But if you pay very close attention, you might just notice that every person who enters and exits the building is a foreigner.
If you should see such a building, you will know that you’ve arrived at the “Foreigner’s Ghetto”.
The “ghetto” or “refugee camp” or “Zoo”, is home to to foreigner’s of every size, shape and color. They could be the waiter at TGI Fridays or the English teacher at Gaba or the intern at the Korean Embassy. The only thing they all have in common is that they aren’t Japanese and they aren’t rich enough to afford to live anywhere else.
Because no one in their right mind would chose to live in the foreigner’s ghetto. It’s over-crowded, your roommates are picked at random by the company who owns the building and the rent is so inflated that you wind up paying twice the amount a Japanese person would for an apartment the same size. But unfortunately, Tokyo leaves you with few other choices.
Landlords require an outrageous amount of money up front as a security deposit (which you don’t get back). They also require a two year commitment and your company’s co-signature on the lease. But even if you manage to cough up the money to cover the hefty fees and coax a signature out of your boss, you’ll be lucky to find a landlord that will rent to you if your last name isn’t Sato or Suzuki.
Yes, that’s blatant discrimination. And yes, it’s perfectly legal.
The landlords’ argument is that foreigners are a flight risk. What’s going to stop some ESL teacher from skipping out on their rent and hopping on the next ferry to South Korea? That’s understandable. There’s no laws preventing discrimination against age, race or gender in Japan, so it’s logical that landlords wouldn’t want the headache and hassle of renting to a foreigner when there are millions of qualified Japanese candidates waiting in line for a chance to rent that same coffin-sized apartment.
It’s just unfortunate that this frame of thinking effects even responsible and upstanding foreign residents, like my American friend. He has a masters degree in Japanese literature, works as a translator and speaks Japanese fluently. He spent thousands of dollars on and half a decade, mastering the language; he’s not going to be leaving Japan anytime soon. And yet, even he had a tough time finding someone who would rent to him.
Conversely, if a Japanese person should want to rent a room in the ‘Foreigner’s Ghetto’, he or she would be barred from doing so. So the discrimination works both ways, I suppose.
But it’s not all ‘hard knocks’ in the ghetto. There are some advantages. All the apartments come fully furnished and the utilities are included. You can move in or out with only a week or two’s notice and a housecleaning service comes once a week to clean the common living space (kitchen, bathroom and living room).
Plus it’s sort of exciting to live in Tokyo’s own miniature version of the “melting pot”, even if it feels a little odd to share such close living quarters with complete strangers. You don’t get to meet or speak with any of your housemates before you pay the deposit and sign the contract, so it’s a little like agreeing to be on the reality show the “Real World”, minus the cameras, fame and endorsement deals.
This is a funny article Metropolis printed featuring an interview with a Japanese photographer who created several photo books featuring the apartments of foreigner’s living in Japan. He claimed to be most surprised by how open the foreigners were to the idea of having their privacy invaded. Most of them didn’t mind having candid photos of their apartment taken, even if it meant the World seeing their messy, dirty rooms or their personal porn collections.
To see some of the photos he took, visit his website: http://www.otsukayutaka.com/