October 03, 2011


A recent Heritage Foundation study counters a U.S. Census Bureau claim that "over 30 million Americans are living in poverty," by pointing out that

most of the persons whom the government defines as "in poverty" are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term. The overwhelming majority of the poor have air conditioning, cable TV, and a host of other modern amenities. They are well housed, have an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food, and have met their other basic needs.

In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson responds that critics have pointed out that "many families in poverty rent apartments where fridges and air conditioning units come automatically" while conceding that the "ubiquity and affordability of consumer technology is an astounding testimony to productivity in the electronics sector."

What caught my attention in this case are the assumptions about what comes "automatically" with an unfurnished apartment.

Port Town in Osaka is the kind of high rise, middle-class, high-density planned community that urban planners dream about. It really is a great place to live: modern, safe, clean, convenient, with two tram stations and two shopping centers within walking distance, lots of parks, trees, space and a nice view of the harbor.

For a sense of the size, the "green" spaces are the bedrooms. Each rectangle is a tatami mat approximately three by six feet (the number indicates the number of tatami mats, a common way of describing room area). By comparison, this apartment is at least twice the size of Shizuku's danchi apartment in Whisper of the Heart.

My apartment there was the largest I'd ever had in Japan, a 3DK. Here's what a nice unfurnished apartment in Japan doesn't provide: no refrigerator, no stove, no heat, no air conditioning, no phone (back in the day, a dial tone from the NTT monopoly cost you a $500 security deposit). Barely any insulation. And no lights.

No lights!

Well, there was inset lighting in the foyer, over the sinks in the kitchen and vanity, and in the bathroom. But in the dining room and bedrooms, just the ceiling jacks. You had to buy the whole lighting assembly and snap it into the jack. Very clever and very inconvenient. I spent the first night there wandering around in the dark.

The rooms had connections for a heat pump, but it had to be purchased separately.

Probably the worse aspect of renting in Japan is "key money." Key money is the product of a tight housing market and well-meaning legislation that makes it difficult to evict tenants. Landlords calculate how much they stand to lose--half a year's worth of rent--and demand that much up front. It doubles as a legal bribe.

Since the housing bust in the 1990s, more and more landlords are offering to waive key money.

For foreigners, key money is usually a non-issue because few landlords will rent to non-Japanese without a Japanese guarantor. As a result, specialized real estate companies have sprung up in big cities that buy properties and then sublet apartments--high and low end--on the same terms you'd expect to find in the U.S.

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