Last month my husband and I signed our 10th contract with our one and only landlord in Japan. In the past, I've mentioned how incredibly helpful, kind and patient both the landlord and his wife have been to us. To us, they represent all the good traits stereotypically assigned to the Japanese and none (or very few) of the negative ones.
Rent contract signing in Japan is usually a bit more complicated than the process we go through since the real estate company was dropped from the equation after our third or fourth contract (thereby saving us from having to pay them a fee with each renewal) but two points always remain the same. One is that we have to get the equivalent of a co-signer who agrees to assume any expenses we fail to pay in accordance with our contract. Typically, employers will sponsor you in this fashion but it can also be an individual. For foreigners, who have few contacts they may know well enough to impose upon in this fashion, companies are the logical choice.
During the past decade, my former company had signed off on our contracts because I was the only one permanently employed. As of the contract we signed last month, my husband had to have his company do it. When he asked the big cheese of his school about it, he said that he typically will not sponsor rent contracts for employees unless they have been working in the school for three years but he'd make an exception in my husband's case because he felt he was trustworthy.
I'm uncertain as to whether or not the head honcho's claim was true in regards to only signing contracts if a teacher has been there for an extended time. If you come here and work and your company won't sign, your options for finding a place are even more limited than usual for a foreigner (some Japanese landlords specify that they do not want foreigners so your options are reduced right there). This situation made me wonder if the president of my husband's school was just trying to make it clear that this isn't something he's doing lightly.
While it may seem a bit lame for the president to make a point of not signing for just anyone, there are reasons for the "co-signer" to have concerns. One of my husband's former co-workers, an American who actually served for a time as manager at the school he worked with, skipped the country while still owing his landlord 100,000 yen ($822) for damaged property. The former co-worker disputed the value of the items that were destroyed (though he didn't contest the fact that he was responsible for their destruction) but rather than pay even a portion, he left his company stuck with the entire bill.
The extent to which Japanese companies fret about foreigners possibly stiffing them is over-rated but it certainly does happen on occasion. A lot of gaijin who do these types of things justify their behavior by saying that, if they are going to be regarded as irresponsible, untrustworthy and more likely to commit crimes and as a result be denied services or benefits, then they might as well go ahead and act in accord with the prejudices used against them. This is, of course, a pathetic justification for behaving immorally.
The second point of signing a new contract which is always the same for us is that we have to fork over one month's rent as mandatory "gift" money to thank the landlord for permitting us to continue to pay him rent. This is common practice in Japan, and though not all landlord's require it, many do. While I find this somewhat galling each time, my husband is more philosophical about it. He figures it's like paying 5000 yen ($41) more per month than we do and, if we didn't pay it, the landlord would probably increase our monthly rent to make up for the loss. The main difference is that this is "payment in advance". If you divide it out over two years, it's a small amount more per month. If you don't remain for the duration of the entire contract, it's a good deal more.
Apparently, some people can get their landlords to stop charging this fee if they negotiate. My former boss got his landlord to stop charging this after 3 years by saying that he felt that it wasn't really right to keep charging after a certain point. Given that his rent is a bit higher than mine, I'm wondering if it's easier to get this "custom" set aside if your landlord perceives it'll be more difficult to fill any vacancy created by a tenant moving out.
Today I went over to the landlord's house and paid the first regular month's rent on the new contract. As always, he was very friendly but this time his grandson, who looks about 2 or 3 years old, was with him and totally terrified of my foreign presence. He kept hiding behind his grandfather's legs and became more frightened every time his grandpa encouraged him to speak to me in English.
It wasn't until I told the landlord that my husband had been to the U.S. and had brought back a box of his favorite chocolates as a souvenir gift that the grandson came out of his shell. As I stretched out my hand to give the box, he practically exploded from behind his grandfather's legs and took hold of the box then went running back to his grandmother at the back of the house with his prize. After the rent was paid and the page in the book properly stamped as proof of payment, the little boy came running back out with the plastic cover the book is kept in and handed it to me very earnestly. It seems that chocolate calms all fear of foreigners.