OPINION: Towards an End to the Implicit Racism of Apartment Hunting in Asia

OPINION: Towards an End to the Implicit Racism of Apartment Hunting in Asia
Credit: Reuters / TPG

What you need to know

House hunting can be a deeply frustrating experience for would-be foreign tenants in Asia.

“We're really sorry, but the landlord is not OK 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 has difficulties communicating with foreign tenants to resolve the problems. 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.

Instances 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.

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Credit: Depositphotos
'We're really sorry, but the landlord is not OK with your application for the apartment.'

Nor is the Japanese situation particularly unique in Asia. The BBC reports that South Asians and Chinese face particular difficulties with renting apartments in Singapore, where more than 140 online postings in one website explicitly state in writing that Indians and PRC nationals are not welcome. In more developing parts of Asia, it is understood that higher-end apartment units are geared toward wealthy expats, reducing the supply for locals and consequently the stock of more moderately priced accommodation available to the foreign crowd.

The difficulty of “undesirable” foreigners renting apartments is certainly not down to pure economics. 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. Indeed, at the high-end, some analysts suggest that over-supply in the mid- and high-end of the market is bringing down prices in cities like Singapore.

Those who seek a new residence only need to look online in any major apartment rental websites 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 so 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 for various cultural reasons.

Once the reluctant landlords are accounted for, foreign clients are left with a paucity of options, particularly in neighborhoods that do not have a history of accepting foreign residents. Agencies will do their best to argue that their foreigners are unlike other foreigners in their superior understanding of Japanese culture and language, often to no avail. All too often, foreigners are forced to live in designated units in designated geographies, not where they prefer.

The talks of irreconcilable cultural difference between the local landlord and the foreign tenant obviate 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 a “different” body odor or unappetizing smelling cooking, leads to the perception that the “undesirable” foreigners in question are simply too “uncivilized” to properly maintain living quarters and neighborly relations in a manner that is considered socially acceptable.

As Quartz notes following controversy over an art exhibition in the Chinese city of Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province, comparing Africans with animals native to Africa, local populations often claim ignorance of historical and cultural contexts – though this does not excuse such insensitivity.

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Credit: WeChat
A still from the exhibit 'This is Africa' in Wuhan, China's Hebei Province, before it was taken down following complaints over racism.

From an American perspective, obviously rejecting foreign tenants on the basis of ethnicity or cultural differences would strike one as completely illegal. Explicit legal wordings 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 for 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, as Japanese landlords often use as an excuse to not rent to foreigners, would simply be too great for their American counterparts.

Anti-discrimination laws exist in Asian countries, as they do in the U.S., but have proved to be wanting in both their terminologies 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 Chinese who are rejected by local landlords.

In Japan, the Justice Ministry is reported to have very little ability to curb behaviors of businesses that refuse service to foreign clientele, having conducted a study in March last year that suggests some 6 percent of the foreign resident population had experienced such discrimination.

Such legal shortcomings only serve to entrench local perception that flatly rejecting foreigners is not only socially acceptable but even somewhat encouraged by local authorities.

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Credit: AP / TPG
A visitor touches the screen of a device that recommends beverages in English in Taito Ward, Tokyo. Many landlords in Japan are not nearly as keen to assist foreign residents.

The open rejection of foreigners in the real estate business is all the more jarring given the increasing presence of foreigners in 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 steady if slow acceptance of more long-term foreign residents. Yet, landlords and other local businessmen can remain openly hostile to these potential customers with little criticism or opposition from the 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 their prevailing social attitudes. Improving public awareness is a necessary first step towards reducing outright xenophobia. Such awareness can push more vocal citizens to call for laws to prevent open discrimination 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.

Read Next: Naturalizing East Asians Can Solve Japan and Taiwan’s Population Problem

TNL Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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