I consider myself a very privileged person. I can speak enough Japanese to communicate basically anything I want, I am from an overall very well liked country, I don’t really stand out in a crowd, considering I’m very much tiny and white. I am fully aware that these characteristics make me unlikely to be the victim of prejudice or racism, whether it is in Japan or in any other country, and for that I am very thankful.
However, as I have friends of many different backgrounds, I know for a fact that these discriminatory acts do happen here, with their frequency varying according to people’s skin color and country of origin. For example, it’s not uncommon to see Japanese people raising their voices in demonstrations against the presence of Korean or Chinese people in Japan. While these events have lessened, and people have started to oppose them, they clearly can be classified as hate-speech, and the fact that they are easily permitted by the authorities is very worrying.
In addition to these loud and clear actions, discrimination keeps happening every day on a smaller scale, and in a situation that no foreigner can avoid when living in Japan. This is the much dreaded occasion of renting an apartment. I don’t think there is any foreigner that can say that they have had an easy time when searching for a place to live here. The first barrier is the language, as not knowing Japanese will definitely limit your options and make the whole process much harder. Then comes the second barrier, which is that even if you know Japanese, there are so many specific procedures and conditions that you will find yourself lost and struggling in the end. And even if you surpass all these difficulties, you might still not be able to get a home. This is because in Japan the owner of the building has full control of who they want living in their real estate (the principle of freedom of contract), and thus not renting to people because of their nationality is a widespread and very accepted practice.
I had heard a lot of stories from friends that found themselves in that situation. A Spanish friend was denied apartments 6 times before he could find a place that accepted him. Many others had to wait for the real estate agency to contact the landlord before being able to even see inside of the apartment. And, while it is not directly related to nationality, I have a Brazilian friend that was all ready to move into a new place, but when he went to sign the contract, the landlord refused him on the spot because he “looked gay”. This is the discriminatory extent to which “freedom of contract” is established in Japan.
Being aware of these cases, I prepared myself for the worst when I decided to move out of the dorm I had been living for 4 years. And I my expectations, sadly, came to pass. Even though I used a real estate agency close to Waseda, which was used to foreign clients, many of the available buildings clearly said in their pamphlets that they didn’t accept foreigners. In fact, what shocked me the most was that this information was normally written together with things such as “we don’t accept pets”. It really felt like we were being held to the same standards as a dog or cat, less than a normal human being. I was also directly denied one of the apartments I had shown a little interest in, as the real estate agent called the landlord in front of me and received a negative answer. Also, even if foreigners were accepted, the caution money asked was doubled, and the conditions for finding a guarantor were also way stricter than towards a Japanese person. Even though I understand the fear Japanese landlords might have of losing money or of not being able to communicate with a foreigner, I don’t agree that these issues are reason enough to warrant this kind of discriminatory behavior, especially when there are other, better ways of solving any problems that might occur between the parties.
That was the first time I actually felt bad for being in Japan. I love this country, and I intend to live here for the rest of my life, but after this experience I’m very much scared that no matter how hard I try, because of my face, of my mother tongue, of my nationality, I might never be accepted as a good part of Japanese society, and will always be seen as someone that doesn’t belong and is not worthy of the same treatment given to Japanese people.
In the end, even with all those problems, I managed to find a nice place for myself. I don’t think I can ever forget this sad experience, but I will try to look at it positively and use it as a guideline to make sure that my actions are not being discriminatory. I truly believe that you should treat other people the way you want to be treated, and thus I wish to make sure that I never make other people feel the way I felt, and many other foreigners also feel constantly. I also hope that in the near future, this kind of practice from the Japanese real estate sector ends, and that all people may be treated fairly. I believe that Japan can definitely change it for the better!
F.S.T. (Student Staff Leader)