Monthly Archives: July 2009

Deconstructing the Japanese housing statistics

The 2008 Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications housing statistics are out. Read them here, or just read my highlight reel below.

57.6 million homes in Japan and 13.1% are vacant

Anyone who has traveled through the countryside of Japan is probably not surprised at this. Several prefectures are now in the 15 to 20% vacancy range, including Yamanashi (the worst at 20.2% vacancy), Nagano, Wakayama, and all of Shikoku.

Stand-alone houses are in the majority, but high-rise apartments are slowly taking over

Of the total home count, 55.4% are stand-alone houses (一戸建). A dwindling 2.7% are row houses (長屋建), i.e. stand-alone houses clustered together sharing walls. The remaining 41.7% are group residences (共同住宅), like apartments and condos. These form the majority of homes in the Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya metropolitan areas (52.1% of the three regions combined), and 56.4% of the housing stock around Tokyo.

Although the group residences were mostly one and two-story buildings back in the eighties, these low-rise units are less than 30% of the total apartment/condo count now. More than 30% of units today are in buildings of more than five stories, and 12.7% are in buildings of more than ten stories. Both proportions are steadily increasing.

More owners than renters

61.2% of Japan’s homes are owned, while 35.8% are rented (the remainder is “unverified”). About 6% of the total stock is owned by the government (public housing and Urban Renaissance Agency “UR” housing, about which I plan to write more in the future).

Owners have a heck of a lot more space

The average owned home has a floor area of 120.89 m2. The average rented home, on the other hand, has a floor area of 45.93 m2 (494 square feet for our American readers), which I find to be ridiculously tiny for anything resembling a “household.” (It would be interesting to see some more stats, like quintiles or something, or at least median numbers.)

Old people are taking over

8.3% of Japan’s houses are now occupied by single people over 65, and that number is rising (up 22.4% in the last five years). This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, since this is one of the most rapidly aging societies on Earth, but one must wonder who will take care of all these people in the event of a really major disaster. Like an extended LDP administration.

Petition to end HIV ban

I’ve mentioned the US’s HIV travel/immigration ban before, and Andrew Sullivan reminds me that there are still two weeks left to sign the public comment petition, in advance of what will hopefully be the final stage of the repeal of this severely out-dated regulation. Surprisingly, I don’t see any wording that the petition is limited to US citizens as I would expect, so feel free to jump in and add your comments. I had to submit to an HIV text when applying for my Taiwan visa back in 2005 (I think they’ve eliminated it since then) and found it pretty invasive (obviously I was negative since I got the visa) and look forward to this restriction being lifted on would-be US residents.

Time Suck is funny

Let’s close out this intense week on a lighter note:

1. The Time Suck section of Houston-based culture website 29-95.com is hilarious. It’s written by a team of people including Joe Mathlete of “Marmaduke Explained” fame (he now posts his explanations on this site). Here is one video of a “translated” rap battle they recently recommended:

 

2. Mad Men is back for its third season starting August 16 and  I for one can’t wait. It’s turned into a total soap opera but I love it because in a lot of ways the office atmosphere is remarkably similar to the corporate culture at Japanese firms. Here is a photo gallery they posted to help promote the new season (thanks to Time Suck for the link).

mad men

Priests can become jurors, but not lay judges

Asahi Shimbun, 28 July:

According to Peter Takeo Okada, who is president of the [Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan], the lay judge system “does not fit in with the mission of the clergy from the start.”

Okada gives two reasons for the conflict. The first is that the basic thinking behind Christianity is the notion of forgiveness. The clergy must preach that whatever the sin, God has mercy for sinners who repent, and therefore, that mission does not go hand in hand with handing down a conviction in a crime.

The other point is the unique position that bishops and other clergy members hold. Their beliefs are formed around the notion that God alone knows whether a person is guilty of sin. Therefore, the clergy do not judge whether a person is good or evil based on information that person has gleaned.

Officials say it would be difficult for the clergy to shift away from such thinking only while they serve as lay judges.

Further down in the article:
In the United States, which employs a jury system, few states make an exception for clergy and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued no instructions to dioceses.

Some suggest that in the United States the clergy have a stronger sense of sharing responsibility as individual members of society.

There’s another major systematic consideration, which Asahi hasn’t picked up on, and which most people overlook when comparing the Japanese lay-judge system to the American jury system.

In the US, a juror’s duty is essentially to look at evidence, to compare that evidence to a list of criteria for legal guilt or liability, and to either decide whether there is reasonable doubt that those criteria exist (in a criminal case) or to decide whether there is a preponderance of evidence that those criteria exist (in a civil case). The judgment of guilt or lack thereof is simply a function of the rules imposed by the system and is not technically up to the juror to decide: the juror is there to decide whether the evidence is credible enough. This is why the judge is generally careful in issuing jury instructions to guide their decision. (Note that, depending on jurisdiction, American jurors can often legally find a “not guilty” verdict if they object to a guilty verdict for any reason, but this ability is disdained by the trial courts and usually isn’t pointed out to the jurors.)

On the other hand, as described in a recent American law journal article (which is horribly edited, confirming all my prior suspicions about Penn kids), Japan has taken a more collegial approach where the roles of judge and jury get blissfully muddled.

At the close of the trial, the panel of judges and lay jurors will retire to deliberate. The Lay Assessor Act provides little guidance for how deliberation should proceed. This question was left to researchers at the Supreme Court. Though every detail is not finalized, summaries of their meetings indicate that some important decisions have already been made. Researchers determined that jury deliberations should open with undirected, free conversation about the trial and evidence, after which judges can clarify disputed points, review the evidence, and explain the law. Great emphasis was placed on guarding against the possibility of judges leading lay jurors to the judges’ interpretation of events. For example, judges will be asked to state their opinion only after the lay jurors have stated theirs. In the case of a disagreement between a judge and the lay jurors, if the judge can recognize the lay interpretation as valid, she should defer to the jurors. Judges should state only their opinion and avoid actively persuading jurors, especially at the beginning stages of the deliberation. However, if a judge cannot compromise on a disputed point, she is permitted to vigorously argue her view.

In short, the professional judges and lay judges (or jurors or assessors or whatever you want to call them) are supposed to be on an even footing in the whole procedure, and they are supposed to reach the decision through a holistic assessment of the situation as a group. In this regard, the lay judges are actually taking a much more active role in administering justice, so it’s little surprise that the Catholic bishops are nervous about subjecting clergy to those duties.

Japan’s Border Towns

Japan is an archipelago and has no land border with any other sovereign nation. However, several towns and regions near neighboring countries play the role of a “border town”—politically, economically, and culturally.

Wakkanai is the northernmost town in Japan and is located just across from Sakhalin island, which today is Russian territory, and which you can see from the city on a clear day. Wakkanai developed a century ago as a port for transportation of goods to and from Sakhalin Island, the southern region of which was once Japanese. Today it serves primarily as a fishing town and regularly sees Russian sailors who bring their catches to Japan.

Tsushima Island is situated between Japan’s Kyushu Island and Korea, between the respective cities of Fukuoka and Pusan. Historically Japanese, it has long been a point of transit for trade between Japan and Korea through the course of many centuries, from lacquerware to cuisine. The island was ruled for centuries by the So clan, which historically even advocated Korean interests in Japan, and the last member of the clain Takeyuki married Princess Deokhye of Korea in 1931.

japan-border-towns1.jpg

I have visited both Wakkanai and Tsushima and noticed that both cities shared characteristics of other border towns I’d seen in such countries as Vietnam, Thailand, China, and America. One clear example of the mild internationalization is road signs. In Japan, all road signs display English letters below Japanese road and place names due to the legacy of the US occupation. But road signs in these two border towns are trilingual—Wakkanai road signs have Russian, while Tsushima road signs contain Korean.

japan-border-towns2.jpg

Relations with the the respective foreigners in both border towns are polar opposites. Tsushima has historically been close to Korea, and today its economy has grown very dependent on investment and tourists from South Korea. In Wakkanai and other parts of the northern island of Hokkaido, incidents of crude or criminal Russian sailors has led to poor relations with Western visitors.

A similar version of this post previously appeared at ComingAnarchy.com.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Comments are closed—please join the discussion here.

I’ve written several posts this year regarding the absurdity of the foreign policy of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The politicians in the party regularly read off a laundry list of popular positions, with no realistic basis of how these policies would affect Japan’s national interest. This includs the US alliance, Japan’s dispatch of forces overseas, the UN, and relations with Asian neighbors. The cornerstone of this collection of cognitivie dissonance is distancing itself from its primary ally of more than half a century without any alternative security policy—madness, pure and simple.

Here are some examples noted in my previous posts:

We want to move away from U.S. dependency to a more equal alliance… We are only looking for an equal relationship, which we believe the U.S. also prefers.

The DPJ regards the the Japan-US alliance as very important… But we think that Japan should say what it needs to say to the United States. In return, we will be involved at the frontlines in UN activities.

For for all intents and purposes, the DPJ has no foreign policy—only a random collection of popular positions snatched from opinion polls. Yet reality is now catching up to the DPJ as it faces the strong likelihood that it will take power in the election to be held next month. Specifically:

  • The party now calls for strengthening the US alliance without conditionals and hesitations previously held in official party policy.
  • The DPJ is now silent on its previous opposition to maintain naval ships in the Indian Ocean to refuel US warships used for Afghanistan security.
  • Policy concerning the deployment of ships to Somalia remains undecided, but there is no criticism of LDP policy in this regard.

On a sidenote, I also expect there will be a reduced focus on the abstract call that Japan be a more practive “member of Asia.”

Not surprisingly, the DPJ apologist crowd is calling this a welcome move towards realism. I basically agree. But where is this going? More on that as the election date of August 30th approaches.

iPhone その2 (and some ranting about eMobile)

Photo by Diego SepulvedaI am now the second MFT contributor to buy an iPhone. Roy took the plunge a few months ago.

I generally agree with all of Roy’s comments about the device itself. It has a few drawbacks, but it’s a great machine overall, and probably the best solution for someone who wants a multilingual smartphone that doesn’t suck.

There was one point which grated on me, though:

Softbank hates foreigners

If you read Debito’s blog, you already know this. Back in 2007, he reported that Softbank was requiring passports and gaijin cards from all foreigners entering new phone contracts or requesting special services, despite the fact that Japanese nationals could choose from several other forms of ID. Then, last year, he reported that foreigners with less than 16 months left on their entry permit could no longer pay on the installment plan.

I first tried ordering my phone directly from Softbank, in order to take advantage of a corporate discount which my employer has through its relationship with Softbank. The contact at Softbank corporate replied that he would send over the documents, with one caveat:

I apologize for asking, but do you have Japanese nationality and a Japanese [driver’s] license? If you have a nationality other than Japan, an alien registration card and passport (within its term of validity) are required. They must be within their term of validity and you must have a duration of residence of more than 27 months. There must be a photo, address, name and date of birth, and they must match the address, name and date of birth on your application. If your status of residence is “Temporary Visitor” or “No Status,” you cannot apply. You must also pay by credit card.

Those rules sounded silly to me, so I decided to look them up myself. Here’s what Softbank officially says:

If applying by using an alien registration card and passport as personal identification, please be aware of the following.
(1) If your duration of residence is less than 90 days, you cannot apply.
(2) If your duration of residence is 15 months or less from the date of your application, you may not enter a discounted purchase contract. (You may pay by lump sum at the store.)
(3) If your duration of residence is more than 15 months but 27 months or less from the date of your application, you may only enter a discounted purchase contract divided into twelve payments. (You may also pay by lump sum at the store.)
(4) If your duration of residence is more than 27 months from the date of your application, you may enter a discounted purchase contract.

Note that, by the language of those requirements, they only apply if you are using a gaijin card as ID. Softbank has not publicized any documents which say that a foreigner has to use their gaijin card, or that they have to pay with a credit card.

I would recommend a couple of strategic points for others who want an iPhone, don’t have enough time left on their permit and don’t want to lose a lot of money:

  1. Don’t go directly through Softbank or a Softbank store. Go through a third party, like an electronics store. They are less likely to care about Softbank rules and more likely to care about getting you out the door with a new phone.
  2. Don’t use a gaijin card as ID if you don’t have the necessary period of residence left. Use another form of ID, and be sure to point out that the 27-month rule only applies if you are using your gaijin card as ID.
  3. If you still can’t get the right deal, go to another store. If you ask to talk to a manager, they will probably waste your time calling Softbank corporate and getting a stone-wall answer.

The really odd thing about these requirement is that other acceptable forms of ID do not prove Japanese citizenship or lack thereof (e.g. health insurance card or chipped driver’s license), so if you say you are a citizen, Softbank really has no way to prove you wrong (unless they can bribe their way into government databases).

But that’s enough about Softbank. Let me complain a bit about eMobile before signing off.

Why I switched from eMobile

Readers may recall that I adopted an eMobile phone about a year ago, mainly because I was moving to a new apartment with no existing internet connection. I didn’t want to wait a month to wire the place for high-speed internet, so I decided to get an eMobile phone that would tether to my PC for free.

This turned out to be pretty good for most purposes—fast enough for web browsing and even for BitTorrent. The biggest drawback was ping time. Since the connection had to go through my phone, through the air and through a bunch of 3G routing equipment, it often had crappy latency, which made it hard to use Skype, online games and other connection-intensive software. Even YouTube gave me problems at times.

After a few months of that, I had optical fiber installed, and then the drawbacks of my eMobile phone became more and more apparent. The Windows Mobile OS was buggy and often locked up, requiring a restart in order to use the phone. Some third-party software kept activating my 3G connection even when I didn’t want it activated, which severely ran up my phone bill on a trip to Taiwan.

Then came the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. One night last week, my phone just stopped working. Internet use gave me a “modem connection error,” and calling out gave me a message saying my phone wasn’t activated.

I emailed customer service, and got a reply the next day which said that my phone had, indeed, been deactivated. This was because the contact phone number I gave at sign-up was no longer active. This, in turn, was because it was my old deactivated Docomo phone, which the eMobile store said I could use as my conact number.

Rather than help fix the problem, the online customer service agent told me I had to call eMobile. I called, got an annoying voice prompt, and eventually found my way to an agent, who took down all my personal information and then immediately told me I had to call someone else (at a local Tokyo number, no less). I called the new number, was placed on hold again, and got another agent, who told me that the one person who could help was assisting someone else and would call me back “in a few minutes.” A few hours passed without a call-back, and that was enough for me to put in my MNP application online. My new iPhone was up and running on the same number just a couple of hours later.

Nemutan’s revenge – some fact-checking and reaction to the NYT story on anime fetishists

The New York Times has an article in its Sunday magazine section by Tokyo Mango author Lisa Katayama about a “thriving subculture” of men who prefer “2D women” to real women, sometimes engaging in serious relationships with anime characters. On the website, the story is billed under the tagline “Phenomenon” which would give readers the impression that this sort of thing is common in Japan.

Seeing as it comes from America’s most prestigious and influential news outlet, the article has already been widely read (see here for a Japanese translation of a Korean-language summary), and reactions have ranged from uncritical acceptance of the reporting (wtf is wrong with Japan?!) to absolute incredulity (she just ripped off an Internet meme and borrowed from WaiWai so this “phenomenon” is completely overblown and is an example of the NYT exploiting Japan for cheap thrills).

Responding to the reaction, Katayama said on Twitter, “imho, responses to my 2D article reflect readers’ biases + issues more than the offbeat situation of story subjects.” So at the risk of revealing my biases plus issues, I am going to respond to this article.

But before I get to my overall thoughts, I want to point out what appear to be two small but important factual errors. While the article focuses on profiling individuals who are either examples of the “2D love” phenomenon or who promote the concept, at one point she cites some government statistics to bolster her claim that there is indeed a thriving subculture of men who literally think a pillow is their girlfriend:

According to many who study the phenomenon, the rise of 2-D love can be attributed in part to the difficulty many young Japanese have in navigating modern romantic life. According to a government survey, more than a quarter of men and women between the ages of 30 and 34 are virgins; 50 percent of men and women in Japan do not have friends of the opposite sex.

 After I asked the author via Twitter where she got the numbers, she helpfully directed readers to “the gov’t agency that monitors population and social security” which in proper noun terms means the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

So I looked around to find where she might have gotten the information. The results? I could find nothing to credibly back up either of those statements, but there are survey results that show similar but critically different results. Let’s take them one by one.

Friends of the opposite sex

First, the good news – there is rough statistical backing for the claim “50 percent of men and women in Japan do not have friends of the opposite sex.” A 2004 study “The Japanese Youth” conducted by the Cabinet Office shows that only 43.7% of Japanese youth aged 18-24 reported having friends of the opposite sex.

The only relevant figures from the population institute I could find were from its most recent survey from 2005, which state that around half of unmarried men and women are not currently dating anyone of the opposite sex as friends, as a serious boyfriend/girlfriend, or as a fiance.

Still, both figures are much different from saying that half of all Japanese people have no friends of the opposite sex. As kids grow up they are much more likely to have platonic friends, though it’s true that this is less common than in the US. But that in no way backs up the argument that men and women are isolated in Japan. And as for the stat on single people dating, it really is a coin flip whether a person surveyed will be dating someone or not at the time. And it’s completely irrelevant to the “2D Love” story.

Are a quarter of Japanese 30-34 year-olds virgins? No way.

Now let me repeat the other claim: “According to a government survey, more than a quarter of men and women between the ages of 30 and 34 are virgins.”

Think about those numbers for a minute – if true they would be staggering news and quite possibly a major cause of Japan’s demographic problem. Yet in all I have read about the topic this article marked the first time I have ever seen that claim made. (Mostly it’s attributed to long life expectancies and low birth rates caused by late marriage, quality of life factors, etc.). 

It turns out that the real statistic from population institute states that around 25% of unmarried 30-34 year olds are virgins. It doesn’t say anything about the population as a whole. Note that a separate survey finds that around two thirds of men and women have lost their virginity by the time they are in university, so I find it very hard to believe that another 15% or so won’t have met someone special in the intervening 10 years.

I’ll admit that I have not scoured the entire Internet, so there may be a survey that I just didn’t come across. So to give her the benefit of the doubt, let’s see if this claim is even close to realistic. According to the institute’s 2005 survey (PDF in English, page 15), single people with no kids aged 30-34 (defined as one-person private households) make up 34% of all households in the age group.  On the other end, 54% of private households whose head of household is in that age bracket are married. That means in order for more than one quarter of all Japanese adults aged 30-34 to be virgins, one of the following must be true:  either a) almost all unmarried people at that age are virgins (and we already know that’s wrong); or b) even a good portion of married people fail to consummate their marriages several years into their lives together. And that I am afraid is next to unfathomable.

The WaiWai Connection?

So what happened? Some have accused the author of using the notorious WaiWai as a source. WaiWai is a discontinued feature of Japanese national daily Mainichi Shimbun’s website that specialized in creative translations of Japanese tabloid articles. It was taken down in 2008 after angry Japanese internet users discovered it and found scores of misleading, exaggerated, and false stories depicting Japan as a perverted and even deranged society.  

Katayama has claimed that the government reports were her sources and specifically denied using WaiWai. But thanks to James at JapanProbe, I have found the following June 2007 article that contains a passage very similar to one claim made in the NYT story: 

 The Japan Cherry Boy Association is facing a crisis after the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research revealed that almost one in four Japanese men aged 30 to 34 remains a virgin, according to Weekly Playboy (7/2).

Obviously I wasn’t there when she wrote the story, so I can’t tell where that number came from. But it could easily have come from this source as it makes the same mistake of omitting the key fact that the survey in question only covered unmarried men and women.

Getting facts like this wrong can lead to some unfortunate consequences. Already, the Korean daily Joong Ang Ilbo has posted a summary translation of the article in Japanese (and presumably Korean), complete with a verbatim repetition of the claim “more than a quarter of men and women between the ages of 30 and 34 are virgins.” Without a correction, this idea is likely to spread and might end up becoming a commonly cited myth about Japan, much like the similarly unrealistic but widespread claim that over 90% of Japanese women in their 20s own a Louis Vuitton handbag.

Without these numbers, the background for this story becomes somewhat undermined. While the isolation between men and women in this country is commonly cited by both foreign and Japanese observers, this gap tends to be reflected in the different ways adult men and women spend their time, particularly married couples. For some fascinating anecdotes on the gulf that opens up between housewives who never leave their neighborhoods and their husbands who never leave the office, read this fascinating interview with author Sumie Kawakami.

 

Overall thoughts

Aside from the statistics issues, I think Katayama and NYT did readers a disservice by making Nisan the focus of the story, because that turns the real story on its head.

Yes, there is a subsection of otaku who are unapologetic about their dedication to anime porn and proudly wear their virginity on their sleeves. But it’s a stretch to characterize all moe anime fans as walking a blurred line between normalcy and 2-D Love, and it’s even more of a stretch to equate all 2-D Lovers with Nisan, who is clearly in a class by himself. It would have been much fairer to start with the Okayama character. He is a collector of body pillows but isn’t public about it, which is far closer to the typical consumption pattern for these products, though even he is on the extreme side. Most American men have seen porn, but you know you’ve lost your way if you buy one of those fake rubber vaginas. In Japan, most men are probably more like economic commentator Takuro Morinaga who grew up on a diet of anime and maybe even dabbled in some “2D Love” content but never made the plunge into Nisan territory (btw, Morinaga is not one of “Japan’s leading behavioral economists.” He teaches at Dokkyo University but only has his bachelor’s and is best known as a populist TV pundit who commonly makes no sense).

It’s also important to note that since at least Evangelion in the late 1990s there’s been an element of eroticism present in most popular animated series aimed at teenagers and adults, and in general sexual content in manga and anime is much more common and accepted in Japan than it would be in the US. So most otaku may in fact own things Americans might consider erotica such as sexually explicit manga or suggestive figurines (not exactly 2D), but that does not make them Nisan- or Okayama-style 2D Lovers nor even place them outside the mainstream. The US and Japan also have the first and second largest live-action pornography industries in the world, so I think that makes both populations rabid 2D Lovers in their own ways. The key difference is the preference in Japan for underage girls (both real-life and 2-D) as objects of desire, a topic that’s not discussed in the article but deserves its own investigation.

To the extent that 2D love is a real phenomenon, it is driven by pop culture and consumption preferences led by people like Toru Honda and Momo who have books and pillowcases to sell. The market for this stuff is a relatively small niche of the overall otaku market, and I don’t see much of a serious ethos that goes far beyond a kind of brand loyalty (but please by all means prove me wrong; you could say the same thing about NASCAR fans but no one doubts NASCAR’s importance and influence on the identity of certain subsections of the US). And yes, the erotic body pillows are a popular accessory among that demographic. But Nisan and the few people who have an abnormal attachment to their pillows are merely the extreme example of what is largely a story of private porn consumption. And while I have never met or spoken with Nisan, how much do you want to bet he carries his pillow around either as an elaborate joke or to prove his otaku street cred? The whole idea of a proud life-long virgin has the air of a joke about it, and you can read any 2-channel thread on the topic to get an idea of how common it is for people to riff on this meme.

I want to be clear that I am not necessarily against this type of reporting. Far from it, I would say that all weird stuff everywhere should be documented and presented to the world. It’s an amazing world out there with countless stories waiting to be told. Lisa Katayama wrote an interesting story in her field of specialty, so I don’t hold it against her for publishing this article or trying to entertain by finding interesting aspects of Japan to present to the world. And as someone who loves to dig through government reports, I hereby offer that the next time she wants to write a story she is more than welcome to enlist my help if she wants to know what government studies are actually saying about Japan. It’s just in this case she got a couple of facts wrong and mischaracterized what I see as the real situation.

To be honest, if I didn’t notice the potentially groundbreaking statistics, I don’t think I would have bothered to write about this story. The “weird Japan” theme in the English-language media is what it is – viewed from the outside a lot of what happens in Japan does seem odd. And the New York Times is in the business of presenting the world to Americans in an entertaining and digestible manner. Producing stories that cast Japan as a backward country that got modernization wrong lets the readers feel better about their own country and confirm the basic rightness of the American dedication to social progress. But Japan is interesting enough without having to resort to exaggeration.

(Thanks to James at Japan Probe for help with some of the research in this post)

Renting in Japan vs America: Interlude on discrimination

In my post on how renting works in America I included the following paragraph.

I should also add that exclusion by race or nationality is highly illegal, to the point where realtors are legally prohibited from even discussing the racial makeup of the neighborhood, should the renter be trying to, for example, avoid living near black people. This is very strictly enforced (at least in some states.) My mother had a good friend who worked as a realtor, who told me that the New Jersey state board of real estate (or whatever the official name is) actually sends undercover inspectors to do random checks of real estate agents and make sure they are following the discrimination guidelines. Realtors who break the rules lose their license.

I should add that despite being highly illegal this kind of discrimination is far from gone.One of my relatives emailed me the following anecdote, which I have edited to anonymize.


I didn’t want to post this in a public place, but just thought it would interest you. Somebody, can’t remember who now, asked [my partner] and I if—in selling our house—we would give preference to someone Jewish. We were amazed that anybody would ask us such a dumb question. First of all, selecting on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity would be illegal, but furthermore, it never entered our minds. So here we are in the 21st century and many people are still mired in the 1950’s—when this truly did happen on Long Island on a regular basis (and probably everywhere in the USA), and was still happening well into the 1980’s (even tho’ illegal).


I grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, which while today has a moderate Jewish population, until a few decades ago reputedly had an unofficial policy of excluding Jews. Montclair has also always had a large black population, but there has certainly been a history of anti-black racial discrimination in the real-estate market. For example, a brief 1909 item in the New York Times states that “The colored residents of this town are agitating a movement to erect a hotel for negroes in Montclair. The leaders of the negroes here say that such an establishment has become a necessity.” Although I have no other information, this certainly suggests to me that the black community has having a difficult time finding permission to construct the hotel, and furthermore, the very idea of a “hotel for negroes” suggests that they were being excluded from the hotels for whites, despite New Jersey being a Northern state, allegedly free of Jim Crow type discrimination.

Accusations of real-estate related racism today, however, allege a far more subtle manner. In the case of anti-black racism, there has been criticism of such things as the gentrification of neighborhoods in the South End of town, historically where the less wealthy blacks in Montclair have lived, near the train stations whose desirability has increased following rail service upgrades.

As for antisemitism, there was the case of B’nai Keshet, the Reconstructionist (which basically means leaning more towards culture than religion) synagogue that I and my family belonged to until I gave up on religion at age 11. From a 1996 NYT article on the phenomenon of minority religious groups suffering discrimination under the guise of legitimate zoning concerns (they have many other worthy examples in addition to B’nai Keshet):

In Montclair, B’nai Keshet, a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation, ran into tremendous opposition to its plan to move into a former art school. After many contentious hearings, the township ultimately approved the plan. But then the neighbors sued, and incensed synagogue members with comments in the local press likening the group to the cultist Jim Jones, said Susan Green, a past president of the congregation.

I remember this controversy actually going on for years, with B’nai Keshet moving around to a couple of temporary locations before they finally located a building, but I must admit that having quite years earlier, I paid little attention and don’t even remember where they ended up. However, while I may have found them boring, they were about as non-cultish as a religious group can be. A lawyer quoted in the article makes an important point:
‘’Churches no longer carry the cachet that they once did, that they sweep away for all citizens all opposition, and that’s particularly true when it comes to smaller or less established churches—which means new immigrant groups or smaller denominations,’’ said Marc Stern, a lawyer with the American Jewish Congress. ‘’Sometimes it’s flat-out bigotry masquerading as zoning.’‘

While explicit discrimination in real estate is illegal in the US and there has been much success in eliminating it from the residential real estate market (although I’m sure this varies greatly by region), it persists in more subtle ways, particularly in commercial real estate involving stores or religious/cultural institutions where minority ethnic or religious groups will gather.

Renting in Japan vs America – Part 1

Inspired by the news the other day that a Kyoto district court has rules that housing rental contract renewal fees are a violation of consumer rights, I thought I would write a brief introduction to how renting works, based primarily on my own experiences.

I have rented twice in America, three times in Japan, and one time in Taiwan, with an asterisk. As this post was getting quite long, I’ve decided to split it up into three pieces. Since I want to go in chronological order, I’ll first discuss America with a brief mention of Taiwan, then part 2 will discuss how it works in Japan, and finally in the third part I will break down my actual housing contract as specific examples.

I went to college at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, in the small city of New Brunswick. After two years in various dorms I decided to move out, and went looking for a house or apartment to share with a friend or three. The Rutgers campus is surrounded by a zone of houses (with a very few apartment buildings) which are occupied almost entirely by students renting from year to year, formed as if the city were insulating itself from the campus in much the manner of an oyster generating a pearl to protect its soft, fragile body from a piece of grit. Since houses in the area are almost entirely for students, landlords can advertise directly to them quite easily through the housing office bulletin board etc, so there is no need for anyone to involve real estate agents. In most cases, the owner of the house rents directly to students, and are usually very amateurish about arranging repairs etc. The security deposit is equal to 1.5 months rent, as specified by city ordnance, and must be kept in a special bank account which may be used only to store the security deposit. When first moving in, the only thing you pay are first month rent, last month rent, and the security deposit. There is no “renewal fee” or anything similar, and in ordinary circumstances, most of the security deposit is returned.

This is pretty much the procedure throughout the US. While houses may be rented directly by the owner or through a real estate agent (who I presume earns some sort of fee), one often has contact with the landlord (i.e. the actual owner) after moving in, but owners of multiple properties may hire a company to deal with residents for them. Large apartment buildings generally have a superintendent who manages building, particularly construction, although I am somewhat vague about how small apartment buildings generally work. Security deposit is usually legally restricted to an amount of 1.5 or 2 months rent, and contract renewal fees are illegal. There is one big exception in the case of ‘key money’, which I will discuss later.

I should also add that exclusion by race or nationality is highly illegal, to the point where realtors are legally prohibited from even discussing the racial makeup of the neighborhood, should the renter be trying to, for example, avoid living near black people. This is very strictly enforced (at least in some states.) My mother had a good friend who worked as a realtor, who told me that the New Jersey state board of real estate (or whatever the official name is) actually sends undercover inspectors to do random checks of real estate agents and make sure they are following the discrimination guidelines. Realtors who break the rules lose their license.

I lived in one such house for a year (actually the first story of a two family house, as many houses are in the area), went to Japan for two years, where I lived in school dorms, and then returned for my final year at Rutgers, where I shared a second-story apartment of a different two-family house, which had been arranged while I was away by the girlfriend of a good friend (the girl being Jess Rees and the friend being Brian Cervino, both members of the band Huma whose music I recommend), and another guy that she knew. I’m afraid I forget now exactly what the rent was, but it came out to somewhere between $300 and $400 per person, plus some more for utilities. The security deposit in New Brunswick is set by law at 1.5 months, and in both cases most of it was returned, although well after the 30 day window required by law. As a student with no independent source of income, the landlords also required parents to co-sign as a guarantee. This is common in the US in such situations, but is not usual for renters who actually have a stable job. In both cases, everyone living in the apartment signed the lease, but the room and rent allocation was not explicitly spelled out, which in retrospect might have been a good idea, as there were some minor arguments in that area in the first house (although none at all in the second.)

I next went to study in Taiwan for a few months, where had arranged no housing in advance aside from a one-week reservation in a youth hostel, but almost immediately found a promising room advertised on a bulletin board at school. This experience gets an asterisk because as a subleter I never signed, or even examined, a contract and know relatively little about the local procedures and laws. My general impression, however, is that it works more or less the same as in most of the US, with no ‘key money’ or renewal fees, and only moderate security deposits. It seemed to me that rentals often go through agents (at least in apartment building-dominated Taipei) but perhaps in smaller cities/towns there are more landlords renting directly.

Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow.