Celebrate the Differences (Part 2): What’s a Japanese Apartment Like?

Having a chance to visit the U.S., even though it was just a week, really made me think about how different my life is here in Japan. Different doesn’t necessarily mean better or worse…just different. This spawned the idea to create an article series showing some of the differences between being in Japan and being in the US:

Apartments in Japan can be quite different than what people are used to in United States, but in what ways? Three things stand out in my mind which include (but may not be limited to) 1. size, 2. pricing, and 3. amenities.

Number 1:  Size

In general, Japanese apartments are significantly smaller than those in the U.S.   Why?  Because Japan is a much smaller country, and much more crowded (depending on where you live)…there’s physically just less space for building.  My initial reaction to my apartment in Ibaraki, Japan was one genuine surprise…it was smaller than I was anticipating.  My teaching contract was for one year, and I honestly thought to myself “Is this place gonna work for the whole year?”…that was over two years ago.

**I did some research with move.com and for about the same price that I pay in Japan, the smallest apartments I would find in Georgia are 527 square feet (over twice the size of my apartment in Japan).  It’s crazy, because I am completely comfortable living in the smaller space now.**

Whereas we would measure apartments in square feet in the US, the measuring system is totally different in Japan. Apartments in Japan are usually measured using a tatami mat system.  What is a tatami mat?  There are two meanings actually.  1) A tatami mat, traditionally, is a rice straw mat that was used as flooring material in the homes of Japanese nobility.  Although the tatami term can still refer to those rice straw mats, 2) it’s used as an expression of measurement as well.

A tatami mat measures approximately 3ft by 6ft (18 square feet) or approximately .9m by 1.8m.  Keep in mind that, that tatami mat measurements can vary from region to region (I think Kansai and Ibaraki have slightly different systems), but sizes should still be pretty similar.

Often in Japan, when looking for apartments, you’ll see the abbreviations for apartments listed as LK, 1K, 2K, 1DK, 2DK, 1LDK, 2LDK.  The first number refers to the number of bedrooms, D stands for Dining Room, L stands for living room, and…yep, you guessed it…K stands for kitchen.  Aren’t living, dining, and kitchen English words?  It’s interesting to see how much western culture has influenced Japan.  In the US we use slightly different terminology, but the general idea is the same, right?: BR (bedroom), B (bath), LR(living room), K(kitchen), 1/2 bath (bathroom with a toilet and sink, but no shower).

My apartment is a 12 tatami (about 216 square feet), 1K:

Although my Japanese apartment may be smaller, it’s quite quaint.  Living in a smaller space for so long has also taught me a valuable lesson: you don’t need a humongous space to be comfortable.

Number 2: Pricing

Currently, I pay ¥53,000 yen per month for my 12-tatami 1K, which (at the time of this writing) converts to around $630 per month.  I know that cheap and expensive are relative terms, but the pricing of a Japanese apartment is quite comparable to that of the US.  But I also think in Japan, you can find apartments that are cheaper than you would see in the U.S.-reason being, some apartments in Japan can be REALLY tiny.  Factors that effect apartment prices in Japan are the same as they are in the U.S.: your city, apartment size, proximity to prime locations (train stations, malls, schools, etc.).  For example getting the same 12-tatami mat sized apartment in Tokyo would probably cost me a small fortune each month.

Another major difference with renting in Japan is key money.  Key money (reikin-landlord’s gift) is no joke…I’ll just tell it like it is.  Key money can often cost 2-4 months rent.  This money is paid in addition to your security deposit, and is NON-REFUNDABLE!!  In the US, I remember paying a refundable security deposit that was equal to one month’s rent which is much more more reasonable.  I remember doing job interviews here in Japan, and one of the first mentions at the information session was having at least $1500 set aside for key money alone…SHEESH!!!  When I came to Japan, though, I was set up with a company that took care of the key money for me (maybe something to keep in mind).

Number 3: Appliances

The company I work for provided all of the necessary appliances to live comfortably…a microwave, washing machine, a television, and even a rice cooker.  However, this is not the norm.  From what I understand, when you go into a Japanese apartment for the first time, there is…nothing.  No washing machine, no microwave, no refrigerator…nothing (I think gas stoves are standard).  I’m sure this varies from apartment to apartment, though…so please don’t panic.  But is it really so surprising?  A great example In the US, is the apartment complex that advertises W/D (washer/dryer) connections, they don’t have the washer and dryer, just the connection is provided for you.  Just be prepared for this in advance and you’ll be fine.

(To be continued…)

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Donald Ash is an ATLien expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last six years. While in aforesaid time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator, writer, designer, editor, programmer, and occasional bad artist of thejapanguy.com blog (that's just way too many hats, dude). Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.

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  • Ivy

    Thanks for the video, it really gave me lots of insight to the expat life in Japan.

    You in the bathtub was really hilarious! 🙂

    For some reason I really love your apartment – its really cute, and very intimate. Having a little space of your own where you don’t get too much space but too little – it somehow makes the place much nicer to live in, much more personal.

    Makes me wish I were in Japan, I’d miss lots of things I’m used to back home but the experience of Japan would be something I have a feeling I’ll probably never forget! 🙂

  • Lala

    Thank you for all the info and the videos! They were very comprehensive and fun to watch!

    I also have to say… I love how reasonable you are! You are so right about the size of the apartment being managable and I think it is great that you have found some solutions that suit your lifestyle. (Then again, I am saying this having just graduated from university dorms…)

    Actually, I will be teaching with the same company as you starting in a few months. However, I will be in Tokyo so I can expect an even smaller place! Thank you for giving me an idea of what to look forward to!

    By the way, is it really common not to have aircon already there?

    • Donald Ash

      Hi Lala! Thank you so much for stopping by to posting and for leaving some great feedback. Yeah, the Tokyo apartments are going to be a bit smaller, but you never know. You may be able to spot a good deal or something where it all works out, where you get the location and the space you want. As far as aircon goes, it’s been in the apartments I’ve lived in and even at my school. But it’s not everywhere in the school, only the English room (score for me) and the teacher’s lounge. From what I hear, though, most schools don’t have AC in the vast majority of classrooms.

  • Kayla

    If I wanted to move to Japan to actually live and work there, besides having a passport and a green card, is there anything else I need? Or is it not possible to live and work there, unless I take a teaching job, or something similar to that.

  • Southernjoe

    Funny and informative video. I thought it was very well done. I look at my current apartment in the U.S. and think it’s not so small, now that I’ve seen the Japanese equivalent. Good Job!

  • Where Next Japan

    Great article – I think this is a subject that a lot of people interested in living and working in Japan should know about. We made a video about Japanese apartments too, vaguely in the style of MTV’s Cribz, going around and interviewing different teachers about their apartments and what advice they had for those soon to come. Please check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwZwg0P0Axg

  • woodrose

    Thank you! I enjoyed watching the video. It’s so nice of you to share your apartment with curious people.
    One thing I noticed, your stove doesn’t have an oven underneath it. I had heard before that ovens are unknown in Japan.
    Fun video.

  • There’s some good deals for apartments in Fukuoka Japan… lot less then here in Colorado. Will actually be waaaay less to live in Japan because of that!

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