Part 1: Bismarck and the Prussian sailors

2019-06-21 16:07 JST

It's been roughly two and a half months since I have arrived in Tokyo, so I figured it is about time I started to write about my first experiences while they're still present in my memory.
I was actually planning to write this a bit sooner, but I've been having doubts whether or not this would even make an interesting read. Most of it is pretty mundane stuff, but hopefully you will still enjoy reading it.

Actually, let's back up a little bit. When you're moving from Germany to Japan, there are a few things you need to get done first. Most obviously you will think about the visa and such. Unregistering your German residence is probably more of an afterthought - at least it was for me. Though I was aware that I needed to unregister at least my secondary residence so I wouldn't be forced to pay for that wonderful quality TV programming anymore. In order to do exactly that, I went to the place where any sane person would have gone: the place where I registered my secondary residence. Easy, right?

Well, it turns out the sane approach is also the wrong one. In Germany, this has to be done at the place of your primary residence. Which, in my case, was at the other end of the country. I also didn't have the time to fly over there before my departure, so I gave them a call instead. The person at the other end of the line was very helpful and told me I could also send a Vollmacht along with a copy of my passport to a trusted person, who could then unregister in my stead. The woman at the other end of the line also took the opportunity to let me know that, if I leave the country for more than three months, I actually need to unregister both residences. This, as I later found out the hard way, will also remove your entry from the Wählerverzeichnis, which means lots of fun if an election is coming up and you were hoping to partake of it. But more on that later.
Also, to unregister with the GEZ, all it took was to show them my plane ticket, and they cancelled my "subscription" without further ado. I was a bit surprised by that, considering how obtrusive they usually are.

Let's get to the part where I'm actually in Japan. The first thing I did upon my arrival in Tokyo (that is, the first thing after checking into the hotel), was to seek out a real estate agent. There are many of them in Tokyo - in fact, so many you don't even need Google to find one. I still looked at Google Maps though, because I felt more comfortable going to a place that I knew had good reviews (which, in hindsight, doesn't necessarly mean all that much).
Now, two things you need to remember about Japan is that foreigners are treated differently than Japanese people (which may be positive, but it may also be the exact opposite), and that in Japanese there are many ways to say no.
The first agency that I went to turned out to be a reminder of exactly that, in so far that they told me they weren't allowed to serve me unless I have an permanent residence and Japanese phone number. At the time I had neither because I was staying at a hotel, and since you can't get a phone contract if you don't have a permanent address.
Slightly irritated, I decided to ignore the agent's advice to try to get the hotel's address registered on my 在留zairyuuカードkaado (the government ID for foreigners) and went on to the next place.
The second agency was only listed on Google, and didn't have the usual 不動産fudousan (literally the German word "Immobilie") sign on the storefront, which is why I was a bit hesitant at first. The agent would later explain to me that this is because they are more focused on customers seeking to buy real-estate, rather than renting it. In hind-sight, the agency seemed to be more focused on customer satisfaction rather than throughput. That's probably also why it didn't resemble the Straßenverkehrsamt (the German DMV) like the other agencies that I visited did.

So, the process of finding an apartment is actually rather easy. You tell the agent what your preferences are (in my case, an apartment close to a place where I could run, and more importantly without cockroaches), what your price range is, and then they will start looking for apartments. Depending on the agent, they might print out and show you a number of apartments that they pre-selected for you, or they might even do the pre-selection together with you. This agency was of the second variety, so I got to see how realtors in Tokyo exchange information about apartments: every vacant apartment is stored in a centralized database and there is a website exclusively for realtors to query this information. Which means, in theory any realtor in Tokyo can show you any apartment. Once the pre-selection has been done, the realtor will call the owners to confirm if and when the apartments can be visited. In my case, this also included asking the owner if they would be comfortable renting their apartment to a 外国籍gaikokusekinokata ("mister with a foreign citizenship"). Fun fact: legally speaking, discrimination against foreigners is not allowed in Japan, which is why about half of the owners didn't decline because of my nationality, but rather because I was unemployed.
Either way, only about fourty minutes after entering the real-estate agency, we were already on the way to 信濃町Shinanomachi, where the first apartment was. Over the next three days, we ended up visiting about half a dozen more apartments, using various forms of public transportation. The agent, who turned out to have a strong interest in history and culture, turned out to be not just well-versed in Japanese history, but also German and — to my surprise — particularly Prussian history.
Thus, our train rides ended up becoming interesting discussions about our countries's shared history (that is, as best as I could in my not-yet-fluent Japanese), and I learned some interesting facts about Japan. For example that during the 明治meiji period, Japan modelled their constitution after the Prussian one, or that Japanese boys' middle-school uniforms are based on those of the Prussian Navy. Japanese people who are interested in history are apparently also fans of Bismarck (that is, this Bismarck; probably not this Bismarck, and definitely not this Bismarck). I can say that I share the fascination, but I'm less enthusiastic about some aspects of his policies. Though I appreciate his aversion towards colonialism.

The apartment that I ended up applying for was finished only shortly before my arrival in Tokyo. Because of that, and the fact that it's not far from 上野公園Ueno Kouen, one of the bigger parks here, and that it is very convieniently located for public transit, made me worry that I could actually get accepted.
The realtor explained to me that apartment owners are always very careful about who they are renting to because the rent here never goes up. That means, when an apartment is new, that is when the owner will get the most money out of it. So the best situation for the owner is that the apartment remains in a good condition, which means not renting to dubious people.
On the other end of the spectrum, if a tenant commits suicide, the value of the apartment plummets and, because many Japanese people are superstitious, finding a new tenant might take a long time. There is even a law requiring owners to disclose if someone committed suicide in an apartment. In other words, it may not happen a lot, but frequent enough for owners to be concerned about it and for law-makers to pass such a law.
That is why, upon receiving my application (or any application for that matter), the landlord and the insurance company each perform a 審査shinsa (background check). I'm not sure how and what exactly they checked, but I gave them an outline of my previous work, my income during the previous year, and a copy of my bank statement. It turns out I was worried for no reason whatsoever since the whole process went through without a hitch (it took two days though, which apparently is longer than usual), and we arranged an appointment to sign the contract on the day after we heard back from the owner.
The signing of the contract is also a rather simple procedure. We went to the offices of the owning company in 練馬Nerima, where we started out with the usual introductions and a cup of お茶o-cha (green tea), whereupon an employee asked me for my passport and 在留カード so he could make copies. A few minutes later, another employee sat down with us and placed two copies of the contract on the table, one in front of me, and one in front of himself. After a quick clarification of the procedure, the employee went on to read the contract out loud, occasionally asking if there were any questions about the terms.
Since my written Japanese is much better than my spoken one, I usually ask people how they write a word if I don't understand, which is why I sometimes think about how much simpler it would be if people had subtitles (Japanese subtitles, that is), so I could resolve homophones much easier and figure out unknown words by looking at their 漢字kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese). So this was one of the scenes that I'm really glad that it came with subtitles.
After everything had been made clear, the signing procedure followed. Though "signing" is somewhat of a misnomer, since the Japanese don't sign contracts. Instead, everyone has an 印鑑inkan, which is a small stamp that carries the 漢字 of one's name. I bought one the previous day, and since I am a foreigner, mine doesn't have 漢字, but instead it carries the 片仮名katakana (one of the four writing systems used in Japan) of my last name.
During this process, both parties place their stamp on every page where modifications have been made (e.g. where you wrote your name and address), as well as the last page of the contract. Finally, both parties also put their stamp on the binding of the contract, to make sure that pages can't be easily swapped or replaced. Once that was done, it' was time to make the first payment.
The initial cost to rent an apartment in Japan usually consists of several things:

There may be more that I'm forgetting, because I didn't have to pay for all the things that are usually necessary. For example, there was no key handling fee involved for me, since the locks didn't need to be replaced. Since I was also signing up for an insurance at the time of the signing, I didn't have to make a safety deposit. The realtor's warning that the initial cost may be up to six times the monthly rent turned out to be a gross overstatement. In my case, it was somewhere between two and three times the monthly rent, so I was more than happy.
As soon as the payment process was completed, I was handed the keys to the apartment as well as a generous welcome gift. It was big relief to finally have the apartment situation figured out.

There were still a couple of things left to be figured out though: I needed a bank account for the payment of the rent, and I needed to register my address with the local authorities. Since I didn's fancy having ice-cold showers in the morning, I also needed to get the gas set up. Especially the bank account turned out to be quite a hurdle, so I consider myself lucky that the realtor offered me his help to get everything set up.
The registration with the authorities was the first thing we did, and it was a very smooth process. I needed to fill out a few forms (I also took that opportunity to register my 印鑑 with the authorities), and a few minutes later I received the 住民票juuminhyou, which is basically the Japanese equivalent of a Meldebescheinigung. This needed to be sent to the apartment owner to confirm that I have moved in. At that opportunity I was also made aware that I needed to join the Japanese health insurance system. To this day I don't know why I was made to get a German Auslandskrankenversicherung as a condition of the visa if I had to get a Japanese insurance anyway. However, compared to the German insurance, the Japanese one is laughably affordable. The monthly fee depends on the income, and since I don't have any income yet, it comes in at around ¥1500 (roughly €12). Furthermore, I have to pay 30 percent of the bills myself, which amounted to another ¥1500 for my recent flu-related trip to the doctor. Of course, I can also forward these bills to the German insurance, but it might take a while to exceed the €750 Selbstbeteiligung. Maybe I should take the opportunity to get a general health check-up.
Regarding the bank account, as one might have expected, you can't just walk into a bank and open up an account. There is a law to combat money laundering that says that foreigners can't open bank accounts unless they have lived in Japan for at least six months. At this point, the realtor came up with the idea to try to apply for a 郵貯yuucho account, which is essentialy a savings account with the Japanese post. Since you are more limited with a 郵貯 than with 銀行口座ginkoukouza (an account with a regular bank), the restrictions are more lax and I could get one more easily. Nevertheless, the procedure at the post office once more made it clear how important it is to have employment in Japan (and indeed, how uncommon it is not to) - in order to open an account, I was expected to be employed. Luckily, the realtor figured out that I could also use the more flattering euphemism "freelancer" to describe my job situation. At this point I feel that I need to stress once more how helpful it was that the realtor assisted me with all these things. The N2 certification definitely does not prepare you for the vocabulary that you are going to encounter at a bank (or even at a real estate agency), and the vocabulary is also quite different from that in books, anime, or dramas that one might employ to practice Japanese.

The last thing that was on the todo list before moving in was to get things for the (mostly) empty apartment. Again, the realtor helped me by showing me shops where I could get most things to get started. I ended up ordering a 布団futon along with some other basics at a store called ニトリNitori (I surmise this is supposed to mean "neatly"), which would ship everything to the apartment two days later - perfect timing, since that was also the day I was checking out of the hotel.

The above roughly sums up the first ten days of my stay, so it's by far not everything — but since I'm very picky with my writing I will leave the rest for another post!