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.

Apartment dwelling in Japan

Apartment dwelling in Japan: where I lived in Gifu.

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.

View from my 3rd Japanese apartment: rice paddies, other apartment buildings and laundry pole

View from a previous apartment: rice paddies, other apartment building and laundry pole

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?

Sapporo former government building. Image: Japan Visitor

Sapporo former government building.
Image: Japan Visitor

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.

Family housing

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.)

A brick house in Dandenong North, Melbourne. Image:

A brick house in Dandenong North, Melbourne. One-storey houses like this, with a garden too, are common in Australia. Image: realestate.com.au

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.

Walked past this on the way to the station. A not uncommon sight.

Walked past this on the way to the station. A not uncommon sight.

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.

Student housing

…in Australia

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

Share housing

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.

The housing ad window at Readings book shop near Melbourne University. Image from

The housing ad window at Readings book shop near Melbourne University. Image from Adam C on Yelp.

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:

The notoriously thin-walled Leo Palace chain is often used by ALTs and other temporary workers.

The notoriously thin-walled Leo Palace chain is often used by ALTs, students and temporary workers.

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! 🙂

8 thoughts on “Housing

  1. i was told that insulation is a risk during earthquakes – not sure how true that is. But the moving might, i dont know, ignite it? lol doesnt sound likely. Everything is Japan seems so temporary, they build apartment blocks with the plan to pull them down one day and rebuild, so why bother making them sturdy or warm?? It’s so freaking cold in the winter in the apartments you’d think they’d have worked something out!


  2. I read Shogun a couple of years back, and there was a long passage about the way dwellings were built in rural Japan. It suggested that the houses were designed with minimal, light materials that could be sourced locally and cheaply, ideally harvested from the surrounding land. The idea was, that when an earthquake happened, the houses would collapse, but because of the flimsy materials, would be less likely to harm people or damage belongings. They also inevitably caught fire because of the oil lamps being used for heat and light, and I presume that less rubble and a quicker burn would be beneficial as well.
    The key though, was the ability to rebuild in a matter of days. The book made a particular note of the oiled paper screens used in traditional building (is it shoji?) and how they also impacted the concept of privacy.

    Shogun is fiction of course, but it certainly makes sense, and perhaps those attitudes towards building have remained throughout the years?


  3. “ie”, means both a house and a family itself, not just a property, through generations. Yet this idea would be disappearing. The government advises to rebuild old houses, before 1980s, by changing the construction rule reflecting the earthquake. It is true that after WWII for a rather long period, we’d just built a house “ame tsuyu o shinogu”, just a shelter off the rain drops. And still partly we build it as much as we can afford it. Unlike our house, the modern construction provides comfortable environment.
    My husband, two sons and I started to live first away from home as students in dormitories, prepared by schools or the local govern. Recently young people like to live in “a share house”. My first son lived in a nice house with two classmates. The third son lives in an ordinary room called an “apartment” in Chiba, but the owner requested just a rent. That might be because the population is shrinking, while the old rooms are not popular.


  4. I am really curious about the reasons behind all of this. Does it just come down to cost? If you insulated the house to keep the cold and heat in then installed central air conditioning, its not like you have to use it 24/7. Wouldn’t the home stay cooler/warmer longeImr and use about the same amount of electricity? (not to mention keeping the mold out of your home in the summer)

    I’m getting ready to build a house in Japan with my husband who is Japanese and weve been debating back and forth over this. He is just convinced that its because central air is outragously expensive, but Im pretty sure it wont be too much more expensive (aside from the installation cost) The newer systems that they have now are suprisingly good on electricity, some even better than the window units ive seen.

    I guess it’ll be a lot of research and maybe even contacting some american builders to see what they think. I’m also planning on having a fireplace, which my husband seems to want as well. If it comes down to spending double on my electric bill in the end to have a nice warm/cool home Ill just pay it. xD


    • Yeah, I don’t know exactly. But according to Rachel and Jun, they have started making houses with more/better insulation. With heating and cooling, I think cost comes into it but also the idea of being ‘eco’ (environmentally friendly): only heat/cool the room you’re using. That being said, in big houses, you might have air conditioners in every room and sometimes they’re all running at once. With your husband’s idea that central temperature control is expensive, maybe it will just take a while for the mentality to change! Good luck with your research and your house 🙂


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