Cheer up, guys.
Sure there are no enforced, cut and dry laws against racism in Japan. But with foreign nationals totaling well under 2% of the entire population, discrimination laws have an incredibly low priority in the legislative process. しょうがない for the time being. But have patience, and Japan will eventually cave to pressure from the UN to get its act together in regards to discrimination and racism. Globalization is inevitable, for better or worse.
Anyway, this is a fact of the culture one should be ready to face and deal with on a daily basis. As a human being making a conscious decision to reside in a land full of a different history operating under different values, it's your responsibility to go with the flow. Yes, it's infuriating and yes, it goes against the way you were probably raised, and yes, blatant xenophobia isn't exactly a pleasant experience to encounter. But you learn to work with it instead of letting it get you down.
That being said, not all landlords are racist. In fact, there are several agencies that cater to foreigners. However, if you’re up for the challenge of finding an apartment in an area that isn’t filled with foreigner-friendly agencies (i.e., just about everywhere that’s affordable), here is my strategy for dealing with landlords in Japan:
- Bring a Japanese person with you whenever dealing with landlords, 不動産, or other officials who have the power to judge you based on your facial features and passport. Even if you speak fluent Japanese, it often doesn’t matter, and you need backup to put some people at ease.
- When real estate agents call the landlord of a place you're interested in, listen to the conversation. Make sure the real estate agent is on your side. I found that every single agent started their phone conversations in the same way: "Excuse me, hello, I'm calling to make an inquiry on behalf of a foreigner." As a result, exactly 100% of the apartments I looked at turned me down without even letting me in the door. Let them know that that approach is unacceptable.
- If you're from a “western” country, you have a better shot at finding tolerance than someone from an Asian country. If applicable, use this to your advantage. Also, if you’re working for a massive corporation or went to a prestigious university, drop names. It will help.
- Make it clear that you have a reputable 保証人, and your landlord is free to communicate through your guarantor and doesn’t ever have to speak to you if that’s his style. I have actually never spoken directly to my 80 year-old landlord; he will only communicate with me via a Japanese secretary at work. This is how I learn about important things like maintenance, construction, and rent updates. Far from ideal, but it’s just the way it has to be done if I want to live in this particular place.
- Keep trying. If you’re looking for a place outside the usual gaijin track, you’re probably going to get some rejections. Don’t let it stop you – not everyone is a butthead.
- Once you do find a place, be ready for anything. I think I have had one conversation with a neighbor in the past two years, and that was only because we were both locked out and in a bind. I try not to take it personally, and you shouldn’t either. There are nice people around, even if they don’t live next door, and they will always say hello.