Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Four Walls

There was the four-foot-by-eight-foot space that a neighbor lived in that was crammed with piles of magazines and newspapers, all neatly tied with string. When I saw Miyazaki’s Mimi wo sumaseba, a simple and beautiful movie about life in a Tokyo suburb, I noted that level of attention to detail–the old apartments with the metal doors and the piles of magazines and newspapers. I still don’t know why so many people in Japan never seem to throw away their magazines and newspapers, especially given the tiny size of most apartments and houses.

There was the time I was invited to what I thought was a casual dinner party at an embassy apartment, only to be buzzed in and discover a top-floor space that could have housed nine or ten of my own apartments, with massive double doors that stretched several meters over my head, enormous glass windows with a drop-dead view of the city, and uniformed staff passing out drinks to everyone. I had brought a plastic convenience store bag full of juice and canned cocktails and felt utterly mortified.


There was an old friend’s apartment where the walls were so thin that we could hear every word his very lonely neighbor said to his family over the phone. “I’ll see you at Christmas, I’ll see you at Christmas…gotta show you all these pictures I got of these pretty Japanese birds…”


There was the time I missed the last train after a World Cup match in 2002 and had to sleep on the floor at a guy friend’s apartment, and I was terrified because I was only 23 and had never slept in a guy friend’s apartment before. But he was kind and gave me some oversized clothes to sleep in and even though it was strange to be sleeping in a floor space so small that we were practically spooning, I got some sleep and headed out to work early the next morning.

My experiences with Tokyo apartments have been as varied as my experiences with Tokyo food. There’s a sameness to a lot of them, but they vary so much that I never know what to expect when visiting someone’s home for the first time.

As a general rule, I rarely see the inside of my Japanese friends’ homes. The Japanese are not known for entertaining at home–people are self-conscious about messy houses, and spaces can be so small that entertaining more than two or three people at a time is often a challenge (this isn’t so much the case in rural areas, where spaces are bigger). But foreigners, perhaps less embarrassed given that most of us, generally, live in the same tiny, ratty apartments, are happy to share.

Many Japanese apartments are bizarrely designed. Part of this is simply that they’re old, and they were built during a time when most of their occupants wore kimono regularly, slept and ate on the floor, and didn’t own furniture like bookshelves or high tables. But even to my Japanese friends many of the design choices are questionable. I lived in one apartment, for example, that had two entrances. Right next to each other. Perhaps it had once been divided into two apartments. It was weird to sit in my living room and stare at two front doors and two genkan (small entryways), right next to one another. I ended up covering one of the entrances with a screen. The poor postman was always confused when he knocked on one door and I opened the other one.

Many apartments (including the one I live in now) have no closet space higher than three or four feet. Closets are separated by thick boards, meaning that it’s impossible to hang dresses or long coats. Said closets also often have hooks affixed to the back, but I still haven’t figured out how one can access those hooks when there are clothes hanging in front of them. This seems to be a relic of another time, when most clothing (especially kimono) was stored in wide, flat drawers. And many of these closets were (and still are) used not for storing clothes but for storing futon during the day.


Plenty of apartments are full of dead space and sharp angles, the result of trying to build on a miniscule plot of land. There never seems to be a space against which to put a bed or a sofa–in place of walls there are often sliding doors, meaning that furniture ends up blocking entrances. Cable outlets, phone jacks,  and electrical sockets are placed in very random and inconvenient locations.

Long-term foreign residents of Tokyo usually go through apartment stages, beginning with a guesthouse / gaijin house, where they’ll likely live in a tiny room with a bed or futon and a desk, plus a kitchen and showers that they share with fifteen or twenty other people. How long you last in these places can depend on your age (young’uns last longer), your tolerance for noise and messiness (it needs to be high), and your need for privacy (it needs to be low).


After gaijin houses come gaijin apartments, or at least cheap apartments. These will be a small step above gaijin houses–you’ll have your own toilet and shower (often crammed next to each other in a tiny space that can be challenge for foreign-sized men to navigate). If you’ve managed to escape the dreaded up-front costs, the building will probably be old and poorly insulated. But you’ll feel a bit more like an adult.

The big jump to a “real” apartment doesn’t usually happen for foreigners who stay in Japan less than two years, with good reason–it’s expensive and demoralizing. Numerous landlords simply won’t rent to foreigners (this is perfectly legal, and they’ll tell you “no foreigners” with a smile on their faces). You’ll also have to find a guarantor–a person who will pay your rent in the event that you can’t. A guarantor usually has to be a Japanese family member, and if you don’t have one of those, you’ll probably need to shell out even more cash for a guarantor agency. Finally, there are the ridiculous “key money” and agency fees, sometimes totalling three to four months’ rent. You’ll probably only get 20 or 30% of that back when you move out.

But oh, what a feeling it is to finally have a “real” apartment. I moved into my first (and only) real apartment in 2004, with a Japanese roommate. We had an actual kitchen with space for a dining table. There was a living area with a sofa. We had a separate bathroom area with a bathroom sink and a mirror, a separate toilet and shower, and even a deep bathtub with a little control panel for heating the water. My large tatami bedroom looked out onto a yard with a tree. (A yard with a tree! A yard with a tree! It’s hard to imagine now.) We had people over for dinner. My mother and aunt stayed with me when they came to visit. It was beautiful.

Sadly, it all came apart in the last five months, when my elderly landlady revealed herself to be demented and paranoid. Her constant phone calls and (false) accusations of unpaid rent drove me to such a level of panic that I eventually moved out..and back into a gaijin house. From Level 3 back to Level 1 in the Great Tokyo Apartment RPG. But it was worth it for the peace of mind.

To this day I get a thrill out of visiting other people’s apartments. Sometimes they make me want to weep, because yes, this person has what I have always dreamed of having. It’s neat, it’s cozy, there’s art on the walls, it doesn’t smell funny, it’s warm enough or cool enough, it’s compact but not so small that it’s uncomfortable.

Sometimes I walk through the door and heave a sigh of relief, because some people’s places are sad and cluttered and I feel this momentary glee that at least SOMEONE’s apartment is smaller / older than mine.

Sometimes I’m just in awe. This usually happens in expat apartments, spaces that seem to have been spirited straight out of Texas or Ohio and plopped down in the middle of Tokyo. Huge five-bedroom houses, condos that take up two or three floors. I don’t even feel jealous in places like these, because they represent an entirely different planet of apartment living.

In Tokyo, there are questions that everyone wants to ask about everyone else’s apartment. How much are you paying? (Will I be shocked at how little? Or how much?) Was there key money / an agency fee? How much? How’s the landlord, is he gaijin-friendly? Did you look for a long time? Was finding this place easy, or was it agonizing?

Even the apartments that I’m incredibly jealous of are usually only perfect on the surface, though. They’re beautiful, but the neighbor is psychotic. Or it’s a really, really long walk from the station. Or it’s at the top of a hill (I checked out one apartment that was quite literally a five-minute hike up multiple steep staircases–that, and the fact that I would be sharing the apartment with three self-described “messy” Japanese men, were deciding factors in opting out). Or the rent is crazy high. Or there are two bedrooms, but one of them is through a hole in the floor and is only six feet high. (This is true of a friend’s apartment. She uses the second room for storage and occasionally for get-togethers–people can sit but their heads brush the ceiling when they stand. She doesn’t drink much, so she doesn’t have to worry about falling through the hole when she comes home.) Or the rent is cheap and the location is fabulous, but the building is slated for demolition in two years, so don’t get too comfy. (Also true of another friend’s apartment.)

For the moment I live in a “level 2” apartment, and it’s not feasible for me and my partner to move for a while. But that doesn’t stop me from apartment-dreaming. I look at available apartments on various search engines, where the pictures always make places look newer and more spacious than they actually are. I imagine a space big enough to have more than two guests for dinner, or to at least have two guests sleep over for a few days. I drool over pictures of new shower fixtures. I grow misty-eyed at images of shiny wood floors. (Some people love tatami. I don’t. I think it’s a pain to clean and uncomfortable to sit on. And after thirteen years on both beds and futon, I am definitely in the bed camp.)

Yet even as I dream, I dread. Because searching for a new apartment in Tokyo is horrible. There’s the blatant racism that I can sometimes forget about on a day to day basis, only to have it wallop me on the nose when landlord after landlord refuses to even meet me. There are the costs that balloon. There are the inevitable disappointments when the apartment you had your eye on gets snatched up, or isn’t nearly as nice in person, or the agency won’t accept your non-Japanese-relative guarantor.

Much as I want to move, I’m also shocked to discover that I’m happy in my forty-year-old gaijin apartment. I hate the bathroom, and I hate that I don’t have a bathroom sink. I hate the gaping hole in the oven-fan in the kitchen which basically makes it feel like we’re living in a tent. I hate that the circuits blow whenever I use the heater and pretty much any other appliance at the same time (or just whenever the circuits feel like blowing). I hate not being able to have more than two people over for dinner. I hate telling overseas friends that I want them to come see me, but unless they’re coming solo they can’t stay with me.

And yet this place is home, and I get fucking pissed off when people disparage it (as a co-worker did after seeing some photos). I can bitch about this place, dude, but don’t you DARE.

This is where I get creative with cooking, because I have to, with limited space and tools. This is where my bookshelves just fit. This is where the air always feels so much warmer as soon as I walk in the door, even if it’s a challenge to get the temperature up beyond 19 degrees Celsius. This is where I eat meals on a folding table that we store in a corner most of the time, because otherwise we’d be tripping over it. This is where I have just enough closet space for my clothes and his, and for a few random boxes of notebooks and machines and things that couldn’t be thrown away. This is where I crank the hot water heater manually and relish the feeling of a hot shower in winter and a cold one in summer.

This is where I live. And I’ll miss it when I finally do upgrade.

5 comments on “Four Walls

  1. Jordan
    January 29, 2014

    It’s like you read my mind. Since I got a job I have been more seriously looking at apartments, but whenever I start adding up the cost of moving, not to mention the hassle, not to mention considering all the unknowns, I start thinking, “Well my sharehouse isn’t too bad, it’s quiet and clean enough and cheap and well located. Why rock the boat? Why not just stay and save money?”

    And then on other days I go to one of those above-mentioned embassy parties or I’m at an expat’s apartment and I hate them and hate everything and want to steal all their worldly possessions, or ask them to let me move into their closet because it is bigger than my bedroom anyway.

    Seriously though I think Embassy staff should have a host family program for students from their countries. I could live in the U.S. Ambassador’s house and we would never bump into each other in that cavernous space.

  2. gradland
    January 30, 2014

    Yes, yes–though I love all my friends who live in above-average apartments and homes, it also makes me crazy to visit them. Particularly with Embassy people or people in expat housing, I wanted to shake them and be like, “Do you have any idea how the rest of us live?!!!” (And even as I write that I’m cringing, because heaven knows we still live better than a huge chunk of the planet.)

    Share houses are a really mixed bag. I lived in one for over a year that was awful, but then this one couple moved out, and I realized that 90% of the reason it had been awful was because of them. Sometimes share houses can be great places to meet people and watch movies and cook together. And saving money is a good thing.

    I am all for Embassy staff renting out their closets. I see a startup website, something along the lines of AirBNB, but for closets.

  3. Anonymous
    January 30, 2014

    Truly baffled by remarks such as “the Japanese are not known for entertaining at home” that just sound like one of those typically stereotyping, exoticizing, and, in fact, orientalist remarks that only distant observers and casual travelers would usually make. You also wouldn’t know words such as 宅飲み and 鍋会 which anyone living in Japanese society today uses on a regular basis to the extent that they are not uncommon at all.

  4. gradland
    January 30, 2014

    I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that people in Japan aren’t known for entertaining at home. Maybe I should have rephrased it as “the Japanese often prefer to have their parties in izakaya or restaurants instead of in their homes.” I didn’t mean to imply that home entertaining never happens, or even that it’s weird, but my 13 years of experience in Tokyo has been 80% parties in izakaya and restaurants and maybe 20% parties at home. I don’t think this is “exoticizing” or “stereotyping,” it’s just a reality of a city where a lot of people live in small spaces. I’ve certainly been to nabe parties and “home parties,” they just haven’t been the majority of the get-togethers I’ve attended.

  5. Jamie
    March 26, 2014

    Beautifully framed post! Your descriptions were so well-written, that, along with the pictures, I could really imagine myself in those homes and rooms. Keep writing. This was a pleasure to read. And good luck in gradland. I, too, am on the look for my next opportunity….

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This entry was posted on January 29, 2014 by in Japan and tagged , , , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

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