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Racism and Apartment Hunting in East Asia

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Asia Life

Racism and Apartment Hunting in East Asia

Xenophobia makes even mundane tasks difficult for foreigners in countries like Japan and Singapore.

Racism and Apartment Hunting in East Asia
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Atomark

“We are really sorry, but the landlord is not okay with your application for the apartment he is renting out,” the young employee at the local Japanese rental agency explained apologetically. “The landlord says he cannot accept foreign tenants at the moment.  He is just worried that in case of conflicts and emergencies, he will have difficulties communicating with foreign tenants to resolve the problems together. I know you really liked that apartment and I sincerely apologize for the unfortunate result.”  She was quick to offer a deep bow on behalf of the landlord.

Similar situations of foreign residents having their apartment rental applications rejected in Japan are certainly not rare.  The Japan Times cites a recent Justice Ministry survey that showed close to 40 percent of foreigners seeking to rent accommodations have been rejected precisely because they are not Japanese.  Nor is the Japanese situation particularly unique in Asia.  BBC reports that South Asians and mainland Chinese face particular difficulties with renting apartments in Singapore, where more than 140 online postings on one website explicitly state in writing that Indians and Chinese nationals are unwelcome. In more developing parts of Asia, it is understood that certain higher-end apartment units are geared toward being rented out to (wealthy) expats, implicitly meaning that many other more “ordinary” apartments can close their doors on the foreign crowd.

The difficulty certain “undesirable” foreigners are having renting apartments is certainly not due to purely economic reasons.  Given the property construction boom, aging local populations, and often combinations of both, finding an apartment in Tokyo, Singapore, and many other major metropolitan areas in Asia should not be all that difficult.  Any residential area is full of apartment blocks in all forms and price ranges.  Those who seek a new residence only need to look online at any major apartment rental website or go down to one of many physical rental brokers for quick inquiries and will be shown several units of preferable size and price, remotely or in person, in a matter of hours.  The brokers take care of the communication and paperwork with landlords, and the client moves in a matter of days.

But throw in the foreigner factor, and the process is not nearly as simple.  Agencies, making a living on how many apartments they can rent out, are all too happy to help foreigners get the units they want.  But the landlords are frequently not on the same page.  Many fear foreigners who are unable to communicate in times of conflict and violate implicit rules about noise and living arrangements due to cultural differences.  Once the reluctant landlords remove themselves from the running, foreign clients are not left with many choices. Agencies will do their best to argue that their foreign clients are unlike other foreigners, in their superior understanding of local culture and language, often to no avail.  All too often, foreigners are forced to live in limited units in limited areas — neighborhoods that have a long history of accepting foreign residents — not where they prefer.

The assumption of irreconcilable cultural differences between the local landlord and the foreign tenant highlights the perception of foreigners as being fundamentally unable to adhere to local social norms.  Such perceptions, combined with some physically obvious signs of differences, (whether it be unpleasant body odor or differently smelling cooking), leads to the perception that the “undesirable” foreigners in question are simply too “uncivilized” to properly maintain living quarters and neighborly relations on a level that is locally considered to be socially acceptable.  As Quartz notes, a deeper problem is that many locals does not seem to see a problem with this categorization of foreign behavior as “uncivilized.”  Instead, the locals believe they are simply stating what they see as the fact of cultural differences that make foreigners remain culturally foreign in their society.

In the United States, overtly rejecting foreign tenants on the basis of ethnicity or cultural differences is illegal. Explicit legal prohibitions and the American fondness for litigation mean that a foreigner who is rejected by a landlord on the ground of ethnicity can make a great case for racial discrimination, often for massive financial compensation. Precisely out of the fear of being sued, an American landlord would not have the courage to reject an applicant straightforwardly because the applicant is a foreigner, even if the landlord is not so fond of the foreignness.  The potential cost that comes with the convenience of not having to handle cultural and linguistic differences, which Japanese landlords often use as an excuse to not rent to foreigners, would simply be too great for American landlords.

Anti-discrimination laws exist in Asian countries, as they do in the United States, but laws have proved to be wanting in both their terminology and enforcement.  Article 12 of Singapore’s Constitution, for instance, protects only citizens against discriminatory practices based on sociocultural backgrounds, but in the process excludes non-citizens like the Indians and the mainland Chinese who are rejected by local landlords. In Japan, the Justice Ministry is reported to have very little ability to curb the behavior of businesses that put up obvious signs refusing service to foreign clientele. Such legal shortcomings only serve to entrench local perceptions that flatly rejecting foreigners is not only socially acceptable but even somewhat encouraged by local authorities.

The open rejection of foreigners in the real estate business is all the more jarring given the increasing presence of foreigners among some East Asian countries. International hubs such as Singapore and Hong Kong have long hosted a large number of foreign workers. Even in traditionally homogenous countries like Japan, continued calls for a greater embrace of internationalization in some social segments have produced a steady if slow acceptance of more long-term foreign residents.  Yet, landlords and other local businesses can remain openly hostile to foreigners with little local criticism and opposition from local populace or authorities.  Their continued rejections of foreigners for personal reasons are buttressed by lack of a clear legal framework to prevent such open xenophobia.

Certainly, it is difficult to expect Japan or other ethnically homogenous Asian societies to suddenly change in prevailing social attitudes and become completely fine with a foreign presence.  Public awareness, however, is at least the right direction to take as the first step for reducing outright xenophobia.  And it is certainly the hope of many foreigners who are long-time residents of Asian countries that, eventually, there will be greater awareness among the general public of the everyday xenophobia faced by foreigners in situations such as finding an apartment.  Such awareness can push more vocal citizens to call for laws that prevent those with the economic and political power to openly discriminate against foreigners.  With the right legal frameworks in place, enforcement can then gradually change tacit local approvals of xenophobic bias in apartment hunting, eventually making it a social taboo for all.

Xiaochen Su is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tokyo specializing in immigration issues. He previously worked in East Africa, Taiwan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia.