JAL’s Middle East Adventures

Japan Airlines (JAL) is in the hotel business, and not surprisingly, it wants to get out. As the company seeks to restructure itself into a viable business, one of its plans is to sell its hotel arm, possibly to Hotel Okura. JAL currently owns 41 hotels in Japan and 17 overseas, and those overseas hotels are overwhelmingly in large cities — Beijing, London, Mexico City, Hanoi, Hong Kong, and on and on. Others are in tropical resorts popular with Japanese tourists, such as Bali, Palao, and Guam. There is also one JAL hotel in the Middle East, in a somewhat unusual location.

One of these things is not like the other…

The only JAL Hotel in the Middle East is not in a major city such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha or Beirut. It’s in the tiny emirate of Fujairah, one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, situated not on the Persian Gulf but on the Gulf of Oman. (Don’t rely on the JAL map above for the accurate location — click here for a map that explains where Fujairah is in the context of the other UAE emirates).

The hotel was announced in October 2005 to much fanfare and at that time was scheduled to open in December 2006, with another hotel in Dubai to open in 2007. The JAL Fujairah actually opened in May 2007 — not a bad time lag, actually. The hotel itself is owned by a Kuwaiti company called ACICO — which stands for Aerated Concrete Industries Co., a more old-school construction company that is not a typical player in the luxury hotel business. JAL is the manager of the hotel, and its truly distinguishing characteristic is the cuisine, which is genuinely Japanese and said by some to have some of the best sushi in the entire Middle East. I have heard of more than a few people driving the 2 hours from Dubai to Fujairah just to have a sushi lunch, and then drive home.

Objectively, to international standards, the JAL Fujairah is a beautiful beachside hotel located near a number of other luxury hotels along the Fujairah coast. But locally, I have heard it referred to as a “motel”, and substandard when compared to the other modern luxury coastal resorts in Fujairah such as the Rotana and Le Meridien.

JAL had bigger plans for the Middle East, and was one of countless companies that got caught up in the Dubai property boom and the hotel boom. But they ran into problems. The Dubai hotel originally announced for 2007 was pushed ahead, and when construction was underway on the JAL Tower, built on prominent real estate along Sheikh Zayed Road, across from the iconic Emirates Towers in early 2007, it was at that time scheduled to be opened in 2008. It was also to be followed by the JAL Hotel and Spa Resort Bahrain in 2009. The later project has since been cancelled, and the former has yet to open as of this writing in early 2010.

At this point, the cause of the delay is not clear. The tower had just about been completed when I arrived in Dubai last autumn — check out these photos of the building that were taken shortly thereafter — and as of December 2009 it was scheduled to open in April 2010. But it remains closed, and it has yet to open or announce an opening date, only stating on its web page that it will open sometime in 2010. Something must be planned — last month they hired a new director of finance, and last week they hired a new manager, and their web page says they are hiring. But I would be surprised if they opened anytime during the summer months or during Ramadan in August, which means an opening in September at the earliest.

By that time, JAL Hotels may not be JAL Hotels anymore. With a possible sale of JAL Hotel’s assets to Hotel Okura, the first Japanese-managed hotel in the Middle East could be run by a relatively domestic Japanese hotel business. Dubai’s Japanese are hopeful that they can maintain the best sushi in the region.

Coverage of Yoshida-ryo piece on CNNGo

Reaction to my recent CNNGo photo/article feature about Kyoto University’s famous Yoshida Dormitory has been very positive. I want to thank whoever it was that submitted it to Boingboing, who kindly linked to it as they have several Mutantfrog posts in past years. I also want to especially thank frequent MF commenter KokuRyu, who posted a link to the piece on MetaFilter, where there have been some pretty interesting comments from people who seem to have experience in other cooperative/squat type housing, making some comparisons between them and Yoshida-ryo.

I am also planning on doing a follow-up piece sometime, discussing a little bit more about the history of Yoshida-ryo and the other self-administered dorms at Kyoto University, as well as some of the  “self run” (自治) student activity areas in the university, and the relationship between Yoshida-ryo and the various squatting protests that have occurred on campus over the years, such as the Ishigaki Cafe and the currently still ongoing Kubikubi Cafe. Since CNNGo would not really be an appropriate venue for this sort of piece, I’m hoping readers can suggest or introduce someplace that might be interested!

My photo gallery of Kyoto University’s famous Yoshida-ryo, with article, on CNNGo

Dammit, I can smell the rooms in your pictures, Roy.

Said my friend Jon after looking at my piece just published at CNNGo.

Little known outside of Kyoto is the fact that Kyoto University has the last remaining truly old style dormitory, constructed in the late Meiji era timber construction style. Opened in 1913, Yoshida-ryo (吉田寮) still exists nearly 100 years later despite decades of attempts by the school to raze it and replace it with a less scummy and earthquake-unsafe bland concrete box. A relic in both architectural and social terms, it exists today in a weird nebulous state somewhere between an official school dormitory and a giant squat-house.

When I took our friend, and current CNNGo editor, David Marx on a tour of the campus during his brief visit to Kyoto some time last year he demanded that I do a piece on Yoshida-ryō for him, and we finally got it done. For my 20 part photo gallery and a brief history of the dorm, check out my article at CNNGo.

The history of department stores in Kyoto, and Kyoto in the history of the department store

It was announced on January 28th that the downtown Kyoto location of the Hankyu department store will be closing in autumn. Sales at the store, which opened in 1971, had fallen to a pitiful 1/3 of peak volume, which was reached back in 1991 on the precipice of the bubble. I had originally begun writing a post on the circumstances leading to the closing, the reaction to it, and the possible impact on the area but a planned paragraph on the larger history got out of hand and I ended up with about 2000 words on the history of the department store in Japan in general. Therefore, I have decided to save the discussion of the current events aspect for another post and publish the history piece right now.

Kyoto’s Hankyu Kawaramachi in the 1970s

The store is located on the SE corner of the bustling Shijo – Kawaramachi intersection, just above the terminal of the Kyoto Line of Hankyu rail that links downtown Kyoto with Osaka’s downtown neighborhood of Umeda. (Trivia time: technically the Kyoto line terminates one stop before Umeda in Juso, with service between those two stations technically running over the quadruple track of the Takarazuka line, but this is an internal technicality and for all practical purposes the lines terminates at Shijo-Kawaramachi one one end, and Umeda on the other.) The presence of Hankyu department store above the Hankyu railway terminal is of course no coincidence, as the confluence of private regional railroads and departments stores is a distinctive and rather unique characteristic of the history of both industries in Japan, which had a profound impact on Japanese urban development in the 20th century. Although the Hankyu department store only opened in 1971 and the terminal beneath it had only opened in 1963, their Kyoto Line had linked Kyoto and Osaka for decades before that, with the section between Saiin (西院) Station and Omiya (大宮) Station (which had been the terminal before the Kawaramachi station opened, and had gone by the name of Kyoto Station) having been the first subway train in all of Kansai. (See timeline here.)

The intersection of Shijo and Kawaramachi street (四条河原町) is the heart of downtown Kyoto, which has long been anchored by large department stores – and in fact Kyoto is itself the birthplace of many of the dry-goods stores known as 呉服店 (gofukuten, roughly “traditional Japanese-style clothing stores” as opposed to 洋服店 (youfukuten) or “Western-style clothing stores”) that eventually evolved into the modern department store goliaths. Even department stores that originated in Edo or Tokyo (same city, different times) had strong ties to Kyoto, which was the center of the Japanese textiles and clothing industry until western style clothing took over as daily fashion in the 20th century.

Hankyu is not just one example of the peculiar symbiosis between Japanese railways and department stores, but its originator. Unlike all of the other department stores that I will be mentioning later, Hankyu was a train company first, only expanding into the retail business later on. The predecessor to the Hankyu Railway Company was Minou Arima Denki Kidou (箕面有馬電気軌道), or the Minou – Arima Electric Railway, and called Kiyu Densha (箕有電車). (kidou is a now rarely used word that translates to “permanent way” in English, referring to the physical infrastructure of railway tracks.) Starting in 1906, Kiyu Densha first ran trains between Umeda and Ikeda, Ikeda to Takarazuka to Arima, and to Minou. After some rapid expansion through both construction and acquisition, they changed their name to Hanshin Kyuukou Dentetsu (阪神急行電鉄) or Osaka – Kobe Express Railroad, in 1910. In 1943 they merged with Keihan Denki Kidou (Kyoto – Osaka Electric Railway, 京阪電気鉄道) and changed their name once again to Keihanshin Kyuukou Dentetsu, (京阪神急行電鉄), which meant the Kyoto – Osaka – Kobe Express Railway. In 1949 the union came to an end, with the Keihan unit being spun off once again into the present Keihan Electric Railroad, and finally became the Hankyu Corporation in 1973.

Hankyu Umeda Station, ca. back in the day

Hankyu’s entrance to the retail market was driven by the company’s founder Kobayashi Ichizo, which naturally has a page of hagiography to him on their corporate site. Although the Hankyu Department Store (阪急百貨店) proper opened in 1929, there were actually two significant stages before that. The first was in 1920, when the Tokyo based Shirokiya (白木屋) rented the first floor of the Hankyu Umeda Station building, sensing the obvious business opportunity of a store directly connected to a major railway terminal. Shirokiya was founded in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district in 1662, when it was still Edo, and became a modern corporation under the name of Shirokiya Gofukuten in 1919, just before opening their store in Umeda. Shirokiya Umeda sold food and other grocery store items, while Hankyu turned the second floor into a large affordable eatery called the “Hankyu Cafeteria” (阪急食堂). After Shirokiya’s lease ended in 1925 Hankyu booted them out and turned the 2nd and 3rd floor into the “Hankyu Market” (阪急マ-ケット), but it is unclear what exactly replaced Shirokiya. In 1929 this was finally developed into the Hankyu Department store, which is widely recognized as the pioneer of the “railway terminal department store” model that can now be seen throughout Japanese cities. In 1947 the Hankyu Department Store was established as a separate company from the Railway, but they remained under the same holding company, although the names have changed slightly yet again following the recent merger between the Hankyu and Hanshin (Osaka – Kobe) groups.  (See this Japanese language site for a great history of the Hankyu Umeda station, including many old photos and maps.)

The Hankyu Market

Significantly, Shirokiya would  later became the Tokyu Department Store, as Tokyo’s answer to the Hankyu model of retail and railway symbiosis, after being bought by the Tokyo Railway. Presumably this was related to their experience in developing the market in Umeda. Incidentally, although there is no mention that I can find anywhere on official looking pages, I did find a couple of references online mentioning that Shirokiya had originally been a well-known clothing wholesaler (呉服問屋) in Kyoto before establishing a retail store in Edo, a pattern that is seen repeated more reliably in another example below.

The old Shirokiya store.

Hankyu’s retail division was a latecomer to Kyoto, having only opened their store in 1971, but Takashimaya had already had their store on the southwest corner – directly across from Hankyu’s location on the southeast corner – since 1950. The company that would later become Takashimaya was in fact originally founded in Kyoto in 1831 and reorganized as a modern corporation under the name of Takashimaya Gofukuten in 1919, but in 1932 opened their first modern department store in Osaka and made that their corporate headquarters, which it remains to this day.

Just a couple of blocks to the west, along Shijo, one can also find the original Daimaru department store, which like Takashimaya was born in Kyoto, but later moved their headquarters to Osaka. Daimaru was founded in 1717 as the Gofukuten Daimonjiya (呉服店大文字屋), in Kyoto’s Fushimi ward, well south of the current downtown location. In addition to their primary business as a retail establishment they also had a currency exchange counter, which might surprise those who remember that Japan was virtually closed to foreign trade during this period. In fact, exchanged were not being made between foreign money and Japanese money,  but between the Japanese gold, silver, and bronze coins, for which a 1-2% service charge was exacted. Daimonjiya (presumably named for Kyoto’s famous landmark / festival) expanded early, to Osaka’s Shinsaibashi in 1726 and Nagoya’s Honmachi in 1728 (later closed), which is when they changed the name to Daimaru. After reorganizing as a modern corporation under the name of Daimaru Gofukuten in 1908, they opened their first modern department store at the current location in Kyoto in 1912. Although this is the location of their first actual department store, the Shinsaibashi site on which they opened in 1726 is their current flagship store, which is doing well enough to have opened a new annex building directly across the street from the original building just last year.

Mitsukoshi Gofukuten (From this neat blog on Meiji era Japan.)

Next I would like to mention Mitsukoshi, even though it was not exactly founded in Kyoto and does not currently even have any locations in the city. It is well known that the future Mitsukoshi department store was founded by Mitsui Takatoshi as the Echigoya Gofukuten (越後屋) in Edo (now Tokyo) in 1673, and was the first semi-modern retail clothing store, leading the way for those mentioned above. Like Daimaru, they also had a currency exchange window, which developed into the Mitsui Bank and later formed the basis for the Mitsui Zaibatsu / Group. (Incidentally, the Kyoto Hankyu building is actually owned by Mitsui Sumitomo Real Estate, and leased to Hankyu.) Less well known is the fact that Mitsui was at the same time operating a location in Kyoto, but rather than a retail store like the company in Edo was a purchaser/wholesaler (仕入店), and this Kyoto office was apparently considered the headquarters in the early days of the company. It was first located in the Nishijin (西陣) district, which at that time was the center of Japan’s textiles industry on Muromachi Street in Yakushi-cho (室町通薬師町), but it soon moved to the south, and became the first Echigoya retail store in Kyoto. Although Mitsui later sold most of the land after the store closed, they kept a small portion at the corner of Nijo and Muromachi, which is now a memorial park to the old Kyoto store, which appropriately contains a shrine to Inari, the Shinto fox god of wealth. (See Google map below for location, and photos plus more info in Japanese here.) Although I couldn’t find any reference to it online, I believe I have also seen a photograph of an ornate Meiji era style Mitsukoshi store labeled as having been at the very same Shijo-Kawaramachi corner as Hankyu and Takashimaya, on the northeast corner. I think the photo was from the 1920s or 1930s, and that it said the store burned down, without being rebuilt.

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The last traditional department store that deserves mentioning is the one with the least history in the city, despite being one of the most visible today. I speak of course of JR-West Isetan, located in tower of the Kyoto Station building. WEST JAPAN RAILWAY ISETAN Ltd., as the company is properly called, is 60% owned by JR West and 40% owned by Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd., but was founded in 1990 before the Isetan / Mitsukoshi merger, and so was originally a joint venture of JR West and Isetan. Remember that since privatization JR West is no longer government owned, but publicly traded on various stock markets. Isetan was itself founded Tokyo in 1886 as yet another gofukuten, and like the rest of the big ones evolved into a modern department store in 1930 when they opened their flagship store in Shinjuku. Isetan never had a store in Kyoto until September 11 1997, when the JR West Isetan department store opened along with the brand new Kyoto Station building itself, which had been newly erected to replace the bland concrete building that had been constructed as a temporary station to replace the classic style station building that had been lost to fire in 1950. For whatever reason, JR West did not partner with a department store chain that already had ties to Kyoto (maybe they tried and failed, I really have no idea), but regardless, the idea that a full size department store was an essential anchor to a new, modern  station building reinforces the long union between railways and department stores in 20th century Japan, started at Hankyu Umeda 70-odd years earlier.


Renting in Japan vs America – Part 2

Last week I began this series with a post detailing my experience, and what I know about the system of renting a place to live in the US, mainly focusing on details that are of particular note for a comparison with Japan. I then followed up with an interlude on anecdotes of racial discrimination in the American housing market, as discrimination in apartment rental is widely discussed in Japan. I had intended to continue sooner, but we’ve had so much active discussion on the blog over the past week that I decided to hold off for a bit longer. In this post, I will describe what I know about the process of renting a residence in Japan, explaining the peculiarities of the fee structure and the search process, but not getting much into the actual laws or regulations. I decided to keep these separate as I believe it is important to first discuss the reality of the system before trying to analyze how it compares with the letter of the law. In the next post I will describe my own experiences in searching for and renting here in Kyoto, as well as providing the details of my current contract as a case study.

In Japan, the vast majority of rentals go through real estate agents, and direct rentals from a landlord are quite rare without a personal connection of some kind. A typical rental process goes as follows:

You go to a real estate agent, tell them what you’re looking for, they show you information on some potential rentals, you pick ones you want to see. This process may begin online, and there are plenty of websites for browsing real estate, but once you indicate your interest and head over to the office, things are pretty much the same.

The agent will first call the party responsible for the property, be it the actual landlord, management company, or another real estate firm to check availability, verify conditions, and arrange a viewing time. As rental units are often cross-listed with multiple agencies, they need to coordinate schedules to make sure prospective renters don’t run into one another, and that the key is available. Once one or more viewings have been arranged, the agent will then drive you around in the company car to view the properties. They will show you as many as you like without complaint, and without expecting any charge, as these services are all provided for by the introduction fee paid upon completion of a rental lease.

Once you pick one you like, they sit you down, read and explain the contract clause by clause (apparently a legal requirement) and then you sign/stamp it, pay them, they hand over the key and documents related to required disaster insurance or activation of utilities, and get to move in. After moving in, you never have any dealings with the real estate agent again, but instead usually deal with a management company (管理会社), who actually accepts rent on behalf of the owner, and fields any questions you have regarding repairs etc.

When moving in, one usually has to pay first months rent, key-money, security deposit, real estate agent fee, and an insurance fee. The monthly bill may include a ‘common maintenance fee’ (共益費) to cover costs relating to the common areas of the building, usually a few thousand yen a month (compared with a typical rent of tens of thousands yen). In the US, condo or coop residents pay a similar maintenance fee, but for rental units it is subsumed into the general rental fee. As far as I can tell, there is no logical reason for this separate fee, except to make the advertised rent look smaller than it really is.

The term ‘key money’ is the standard translation of the Japanese term reikin (礼金), which literally means something like money given in thanks, or as an obligation.  According to Wikipedia, reikin actually started as a gift given to the landlord by the family of a young student or single worker who moved from the country to the city, in exchange for the landlord watching after the naive new arrival. This gradually became institutionalized, and over the decades shifted from being a payment intended to cement a two-way social obligation (as the word implies) to a simple up-front fee paid to the owner when renting a place to live. Today, reikin equal to 1, 2 or even 3+ months rent is ubiquitous, although apparently common in some regions than others.  Unlike a security deposit, reikin is never returned, regardless of how long one stays in the place, and the amount is also unrelated to how long one intends to stay. The legal status of  has always been ambiguous, generally assumed to be technically illegal, but with no clear guidelines or alternative to paying it.

Key money does exist in the US, but is both explicitly illegal and quite rare. The only place I am aware of it being common is Manhattan, where building superintendents are known for requiring a cash bribe in exchange for leasing a desirable apartment, particularly those with rent-controlled below market-rate rent, although it probably exists in other markets as well. The two big differences are that reikin in Japan is both clearly advertised, and grudgingly tolerated, while key money in Manhattan is always an under the table cash, due to its status as a clearly illegal bribe, and that in Japan reikin always goes to the landlord, while in Manhattan it often goes to the super instead. In recent years, there has been an increasing trend to offer reikin-free apartments in exchange for a slightly higher monthly rent, which is obviously superior for anyone who isn’t completely sure they will be staying in the same place for many years, or who lacks enough savings to easily spare the hundreds or thousands of dollars (equivalent) that one has to piss away on reikin.

Security deposits (shikikin – 敷金) are also standard in Japan, and usually equal one or two months rents, as in other countries. Supposedly, landlords in Japan are far more likely to con you out of your security deposit than in most other countries, but I am told that if you press hard enough you can usually get most of it back. A good contract will specify that certain accouterments, such as the tatami mats, wallpaper, fusuma (wooden/paper screens) are “disposable” items, damage to which shall not be charged from the deposit.

Sometimes, the reikin and security deposit are combined into a somewhat bizarre ‘guaranty money’ (hoshoukin – 保証金), in which one pays a certain large amount, from which a certain smaller amount may be returned at the conclusion of the lease. This is functionally identical in every way to having a separate reikin and deposit, except that by using a different fee structure the real estate agent can disingenuously advertise the unit as ‘no reikin!!!’ while in reality being just as bad. Hoshoukin is usually 2-4 months rent, or equal to the amount that reikin and security deposit would be combined.

As I mentioned earlier, there is also a fee paid to the real estate agent, usually equal to one month rent, but sometimes companies will offer a fee equal to 1/2 month rent. Disaster insurance is also mandatory, at least when renting a house (I don’t recall for apartments), but is not particularly expensive, perhaps in the range of ¥10,000-20,000 per year.

The last fee that needs mentioning is the ‘renewal fee’ (更新料). Most apartment leases in Japan are for one or two years, after which one generally has to pay a renewal fee, usually equal to one month rent per year of lease. In Japan, one can generally cancel a lease with no penalty by giving only one month notice, which is actually one of the reasons that landlords had been hiking up the reikin for so many years-to compensate for the possible loss of income due to a very short-notice vacancy. (And also just because they can get away with it.)  The renewal fee is essentially interim reikin, discouraging tenants from making an unscheduled move in the middle of their lease, and helping to prevent loss of long-term rental income to the landlord.

While not a fee exactly, I can’t end this post without discussing the guarantor system. When renting a place in North America, ones credit worthiness is based on the credit score, which is ultimately derived from one’s entire financial history. The landlord checks the customer’s credit score, perhaps also looking a recent tax statement for proof of current earnings, and then allows them to rent if they seem sufficiently trustworthy. Generally, a co-signer or personal guarantor is only needed in cases where the renter hs no credit history or income, such as the case of the college student I mentioned in the first post. In Japan, there is no personal credit score, with personal guarantors required for and and all rentals. The guarantor (hoshounin – 保証人) the guarantor co-signs the lease with the renter, and is therefore legally on the hook should the renter skip out on rent, or refuse to pay for damages in excess of the security deposit. The guarantor’s creditworthiness is generally based on proof of income, and can be anyone that makes enough money. Foreigners can actually serve as guarantors, although permanent residency may be required. For renters who don’t have a relative, boss, teacher, or well-off close friend to serve as a guarantor there are also companies that provide guarantor services-essentially rent insurance-for around ¥50,000.

So, there you have a general overview of some of the unique properties of Japanese rental arrangements. I’ll move on to my personal experience in the next part, but I’m sure everyone will bring some corrections/additions/information on local variance to the comment thread below.

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.