Japartheid: Separate but Equal

In today’s environment of oversensitivity to most everything, it should come as no surprise that someone is upset about something. In some instances, this ire is even deserved. This is one of those times.

Ayako Sono, well-known author, former host to impeached Peruvian president (and convicted human rights violator) Alberto Fujimori, previous education advisor to Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and current poster girl for living with senility, has recently suggested separate housing and designated “foreigner zones” in Japan.

To point out the obvious, the year is 2015.


“Since learning about the situation in South Africa 20 or 30 years ago, I’ve come to think that whites, Asians, and blacks should live separately,” wrote Sono in a recent op-ed piece for the Sankei Shimbun.

South African Ambassador to Japan Mohau Pheko was understandably offended, writing a letter in response in which he condemned the opinion of Sono as well as the newspaper for printing it. The newspaper, in what seems a rather disingenuous attempt to abdicate any “ownership” of the piece, has expressed that they were merely printing an individual’s opinion.

In all honesty, Sankei Shimbun probably didn’t see any problem with what was being suggested in the first place. Let’s not forget that Japan—one of the most homogeneous countries in the world—already has a “mostly segregated” housing situation as building owners are more or less free to openly discriminate, telling foreigners “gomen” (“sorry”), bowing, and then not renting to them (or anyone they don’t like for that matter).

The most blatant example is a real estate agent taking away perhaps half of the information sheets on properties that you’ve selected while stating that “the owner does not rent to foreigners, so choose from these (remaining).” A more covert way to achieve the same result is to require a guarantor’s signature. This signature usually needs to be a Japanese property owner, preferably a relative, and still working. Hmmm… relatives in Japan, anyone? No? Well, as you are a foreigner I will still feign surprise at this news. Our hands our tied. Gomen. Bow. No apartment for you.

No need to worry, though, as guarantor companies are here to help. For just a “small” consideration, which ranges from 50–100% of a month’s rent in addition to a management fee, these companies will act as a guarantor for one-year renewable periods, meaning you will be charged this each year. Even then, though, they still have the right to refuse sponsorship. And it is still up to individual real estate companies and building owners if they want to deal with a guarantor company. Including “key money,” one could easily find themselves paying 16+ months of rent for a 12-month rental period.

What’s more, real estate companies/building owners that are willing to rent to foreigners and do not require guarantors or large sums of key money usually only offer apartments in much older buildings that many Japanese don’t want to live in.

Even marrying with a Japanese citizen does not stop this headache, as the spouse probably isn’t able to sign for their own apartment. They would still need their parent’s signature to rent. In a land where many parents object to their children marrying foreigners, this is not always easily obtained.

Companies are often able to provide another option, but many smaller companies don’t want the responsibility for a new employee and many larger companies often have preferred rental companies that only offer one-room apartments for single employees at prices much higher than a similar apartment on the open market.

Share apartments and guest houses mostly offer “crap at exorbitant prices,” knowing that their customers have little other options available. Private rooms in a shared house in central Tokyo could easily cost ¥100,000 (US$850) a month, and most are small, old, and inconveniently located. In a case of the absurd (and the extreme), some owners have even turned hallway closets into “rooms” (in which there is literally no place to even stand) by throwing a padlock on it and laying a futon lengthwise on the shelf.

In terms of discrimination, Japan is by no means alone. And yet Japanese do have a unique politeness about it that tends to leave victims dumbfounded as opposed to angry or outraged. Considering this, perhaps Ayako Sono’s excuse isn’t ignorance, but that she’s just forgotten proper Japanese etiquette in her old age.

H/T: The Japan Times

  • Larry

    Good article. It appears Japan hasn’t changed since I was there in the 80’s. I still love the country though but maybe I’m just romanticizing too much.

    • Peter Zhang

      Indeed! The “Gaijin approved” apartments I was shown when apartment hunting in Tokyo years ago were awful… and I agree- there’s still a lot to like about Japan despite the housing challenges.