So you’re looking for a place to lay your head in Japan, long-term. It’s time to learn a thing or two about how apartments and renting work in Japan!
Talk The Talk
Everyone knows that real estate has its own “language”, and most of it in the US is pretty easy to figure out. “Cozy” means “small”, “efficient kitchen” means you can’t turn around without running into the fridge, and “needs TLC” means it’s garbage dump. In Japan, however, there are some more unique terms.
For starters, don’t expect to hear a lot of “square feet” or “square meters”. Instead, you’ll find that many apartments are measured by “tatami mats”. Tatami mats, those woven straw mats you see on the floors in tea houses and traditional rooms, come in standard sizes, though the standard doesn’t exist across Japan… In western Japan, they’re 6.2 ft long and 3.1 ft wide, while in Tokyo, they’re 5.10 ft long and 3 ft wide. Regardless of whether or not a room is actually floored in tatami, these mats are used as the standard measurements to communicate the size of a room.
While “open floor plans” are all the rage in the US, Japanese apartments have been nailing this concept for years with the “LDK”, meaning ‘Living, Dining, Kitchen’. This refers to a single large room that encompasses the kitchen and living space, where you’ll eat your meals, watch TV, entertain guests, and so on. Often the kitchen is delineated from the living space by a counter-top bar, half-wall, or simply a difference in floor materials (linoleum vs wood). Some apartments may simply be listed as a “DK” or even just “K”, meaning there is no separate living or entertaining space. So, if you see an apartment listed as ‘2LDK’, you’re looking at a two-bedroom apartment with a living/dining/kitchen area. If it says 1K, you’ve got a kitchen and a single bedroom.
Smaller yet are rooms listed as ‘R’, generally ‘1R’. These are the smallest of apartments that do not include any cooking space, so in all likelihood, you’ll need to roll away your bed before you plug in your hotplate.
On occasion, you may also see ‘S’ used. This refers to a storage room, which may be a walk-in-closet or similar. It can also be used to simply mean a ‘free room’ that’s just not large enough to count as a standard sized bedroom, but could be used for storage or as an office. You might see it listed as 3SLDK.
It goes without saying that nearly every apartment includes a bathroom and water closet (a small room containing the toilet). While some extremely small and older apartments may not include a bathroom, calling for use of a neighborhood bath house instead, this is uncommon these days.
Apartment, Or Mansion?
There’s not as much difference between these terms as you might think, at least, not in Japan. The word “apartment” tends to refer to older buildings with the standard walk-up design. Meanwhile, a mansion does not in fact refer to a ‘large, stately residence’, or rather, not for a single tenant. A “mansion” denotes a newer, modern apartment building with elevators, gated entry, and other amenities. These are more expensive, and generally more spacious, but in the end they are still just apartments.
In addition to standard costs (monthly rent, utilities, sometimes insurance, etc), key money is also common. Called “reikin”, meaning “gratitude money”, this is considered a gift to the landlord to show your gratitude for being allowed to rent their property. Yeah, you read that properly. It’s not a deposit of any kind, and will not be returned to you when you leave the property.
Key money can cost anywhere from one month to three months worth of rent, while some desirable properties may run up to six months. Some rentals in Tokyo also incur a renewal fee, which functions like a repeating key money. Many newer realty agencies, especially those dealing with foreigners, have begun to move away from the ‘key money’ tradition, but it’s still common.
Interested in learning more? Sites like Sakura House and Gaijin Pot provide English listings of foreigner-friendly apartments in Japan, as well as resources for connecting with other foreigners living in Japan!