It’s moving season in Japan!
According to good old Wiki, the population of Japan is about 127 million, whereas Australia has just hit 24 million. Japan’s population is shrinking, Australia’s is growing, and there are problems in both countries associated with these changes. Well, maybe more in Australia than in Japan? Japan has coped – flourished – with a big population for decades, while Australia’s infrastructure isn’t built for the numbers in the cities now. Roads are congested and public transport is at capacity. Everyone keeps moving to Sydney and Melbourne, where property prices and rent keep increasing – and other cities too, to an extent.
So in this post, I look at some of the differences in living situations between Japan and Oz.
If you’ve never been to Australia but you’ve lived in Asia or Europe, the first thing you’ll notice in Australia is that the roads and buildings are all flat and spread out. Well, that’s what I notice when I go home after having been overseas. Also the obesity epidemic and all the ads to do with food, but let’s not go into that here. There is a lot of land and a lot of space in general. Cities in Australia don’t expand upwards as much as they do outwards: in Melbourne, you can go an hour on one train and still be technically in Melbourne. In Japan that only happens on the loop lines. (One of my friends once apparently fell asleep on the Yamanote line and missed his stop, woke up, realised, went back to sleep, went round the whole loop and missed it again.) In Japan, places generally don’t take up a lot of space. Five kilometres, or two, is seen as a long way.
So maybe it’s a space thing, but in Australia, my impression is that most people live in houses or units as opposed to flats/apartments.
As an Australian, if you say ‘apartment,’ my mental image used to be a big, tall building that tens or hundreds of people live in, à la New York or Paris or something – in a big city or at least highly populated area. Of course, not all apartments are like that, and you can live in an apartment in Japan even in the tiniest town.
Houses and apartments
…in Japan are generally kind of flimsy, with very little insulation. I’ve heard that this is to do with the humidity and that apparently the insulation can go mouldy. (But what about other soggy places like the UK? Also, this is allegedly changing in recent years.) I’m not sure what they’re usually made of, but Japanese houses go up – and I do mean up, they usually seem to be 2 storeys – in a matter of weeks or even days. They are definitely not made of brick, though sometimes whatever they are is covered with a thin layer of fake bricks. I was talking with a Japanese person once about Sapporo in Hokkaido, and he said, ‘Did you see the old government building?’ I wasn’t sure if I’d seen it or not, was it special for some reason? Was it very old?
Yes. It was about 100 years old (inaugurated in 1888) and all made of red BRICK!
I wasn’t sure what to say to this, because brick houses are pretty common in Australia and, well, lots of countries. There are also many older buildings (albeit not in Australia). To be sure, the former government office in Sapporo is a nice-looking building and also pretty different from most Japanese buildings.
Another thing that people notice in Japan is that outside of shopping centres and hospitals, there is no centrally controlled heating and cooling – it’s all done in individual rooms with individual heaters, fans and air conditioners. (School corridors are not heated or cooled and can be very uncomfortable places, temperature-wise, in Japan, except the times in summer when they become a pleasant wind tunnel.) There’s a great article about heating a Japanese apartment has helped me out a couple of times, especially in places that don’t allow kerosene heaters.
In both Australia and Japan, families usually seem to live in houses. What that family unit comprises might be different, however, and the house itself is also quite different, as well as the size of the property. But there is a general idea of ‘home’ being a house (or a unit) rather than an apartment. (This might be different in big cities in Japan – I have only lived in ‘rural’ areas in Japan. Please correct me if I’m wrong.)
I don’t know much about owning vs. renting houses in Japan, but my impression is that families generally own their houses. In Australia, I think this has been the case for a long time, or is at least the ideal, but recently and depending on where you live, it’s becoming increasingly difficult/impossible to buy a house. I think some houses stay in families, but sometimes when owners die, their next of kin sell the property and split the money. I don’t know if this happens as much in Japan, because I think it’s likely that the (eldest of the) adult children of said owners are already living in the house. But I don’t know.
In Japan, if you are in a position to buy a place, the thing to do is to buy the property and have the house built. It might mean knocking down an existing house – or maybe that happens before the property is sold. But people don’t generally move into pre-lived-in houses; they build new. A Japanese friend has told me this is because people don’t want to live in a house that someone else has lived in – it seems unclean or somehow undesirable. I don’t know if this idea is the cause or effect of the culture of ‘disposable’ housing, but I found a podcast about it, according to which the frequency of earthquakes might cause people to view housing as impermanent. Not unrelated to the earthquakes, too, building safety regulations are often updated, so old houses won’t have been built according to those regulations and will be seen as unsafe. And if you get a pre-owned house, you might not feel safe because you didn’t see it built yourself.
So this may explain why buildings are built so fast and in such a way that they’re easy to take down. Built to last? No. Taken down quickly? Usually. In some areas that are evidently not prime real estate, places are just left to rot.
In Australia, old houses are often seen as having character, and maintaining or renovating your house is quite a popular pastime. Earthquakes are not an issue, though fires, floods or cyclones might be depending on where you live.
People sometimes go to university/technical colleges/apprenticeships near where they grow up, and continue to live at home. But for people who aren’t at a commutable distance, there are a couple of popular choices.
Residential college/dorm accommodation
With meals provided, this kind of accommodation is especially popular with students in their first year out of home because it’s a guaranteed way to meet people and it’s pretty handy not needing to cook, clean and look after yourself as a full-time student. I believe this system is similar to the colleges in the UK, USA and other countries, but it’s not as widely used as in those countries. Colleges have clubs, societies, tutorials and useful things like that. They’re quite expensive because of both their convenience to campus and because of everything being provided – food, internet, laundry service etc. Because of the cost and other reasons, it’s quite common to move out after first year, and into
This is maybe the most popular living arrangement for young people in Australia, not just students. A group of people shares a house, all contributing to rent. Friends, friends of friends, strangers. It can be awful; it can be great. My favourite thing about share houses was when I lived with a friend and could come home and talk about my day, and hear about theirs. Or not. And watch TV together with the cat. And you can share the cooking. And the cleaning, of course. Once I lived with a friend and we did a lot of things like playing chess, drinking tea, and doing the dishes while playing Nyancat videos. It was great. By the way, the term for a person with whom you share a dwelling in Australia is a ‘housemate.’ If you say a ‘roommate’ it sounds like you sleep in the same room – you have a one-room apartment. If you say ‘share mate’ you sound … well, I was going to say non-native, but I think I’ve only heard Japanese people say it. Do other people say it?
There are many ways to find yourself an existing share house. The internet: housing sites, Gumtree, etc. Housing boards in places like universities, outside some supermarkets and well-known bookshops.
To find yourself a share house is usually quite a process – you have to call a lot of places, see if you can go for an inspection and maybe an interview, and then wait to see if they’ll take you. Happening to know people who need a housemate is much easier, though you may be risking a friendship if you move in with friends.
When you move into a share house you pay a ‘bond,’ which is generally the same as one month’s rent. When you move out, if you leave everything as it was when you moved in, you get your bond back. There is a tenants’ association that share houses are supposed to register with, and there are laws about leasing and sub-leasing and probably lots of things. For people who apply for the lease directly from real estate agents, I don’t know if there are extra fees for agents or things like ‘key money’ … like in Japan.
Student housing in Japan:
apartments. This is also true for working singles, people working away from family and home due to company transfers, and young couples without children. Some couples and some (young) families live in apartments, but I don’t think it is often intended to be a permanent for-life arrangement. Other than for couples and families, apartments are inhabited by single individuals; sharing is not a thing, although apparently it’s starting to gain popularity in Tokyo.
It’s quite easy to find an apartment on the internet with sites like Suumo. Finding and becoming able to live in are not the same thing, though:apparently some real estate agents don’t accept foreigners. Also, foreign or not, you have to have a guarantor, which is a party who agrees to pay (a lot of money) if you disappear or damage the place. Some places accept your company as guarantor, but some places require an individual (presumably Japanese..?) person to vouch for you. Tricky if you’re new to Japan, and awkward to ask even if you’ve been around for a few years.
My experience of looking for housing in Australia and in Japan is completely different: in Australia I’ve only looked for existing share houses, and share houses don’t exist here – it’s all done through agents. And there are a lot of costs involved, although sites like Suumo let you find places without some of these: key money (what is this?), security deposit, cleaning fee (obligatory), present to agent… This informative video by Rachel and Jun shows the process and costs of getting yourself an apartment.
So, well, this post has been an introduction to the many facets of housing in Japan and Australia. In doing my research for this scratch-the-surface post, I came across a 2008 study on Japanese housing that is informative and quite readable. If you want to know more about it, have a read.
As always, thanks for reading! 🙂