If you take away the quakes, Tokyo is an awesome place to live

It may be pricey, crammed and situated on one of the world’s most unstable seismic zones, but Tokyo has its benefits, namely being one of the safest, cleanest cities to live

David McNeill, who has been living in Tokyo for 20 years, with his wife, Nanako, and son Luka

David McNeill, who has been living in Tokyo for 20 years, with his wife, Nanako, and son Luka

Thu, Jul 3, 2014, 01:00

At first blush, Tokyo is hardly the most welcoming property market for renters, or buyers. The city is home to hundreds of thousands of cramped buildings wedged together in crowded neighbourhoods that appear to heed few standard rules of urban planning. Houses are pricey and don’t hold their value. The whole edifice sits atop one of the world’s most unstable seismic zones: Japan’s government estimated recently that a strong earthquake directly under the city would destroy 610,000 buildings.

Europeans used to having more space – and living on solid ground – often find these conditions trying. Then there are the odd rules of the rental market. A long-standing and idiotic tradition obliges tenants to pay “key money” to landlords on the signing of contracts, along with a renewal fee every two years. Add in a deposit, often equivalent to two months rent, furniture and appliances and the cost of moving into a new one-bedroom apartment in Tokyo can approach an eye-popping $10,000.


Other quirks lie in wait for foreign visitors. Landlords typically demand Japanese-only guarantors, who must foot the bill if the tenant hops it. Many landlords prefer not to go there at all.

My first, brief encounter with a real estate office, in Tokyo’s northern suburbs, ended when a clerk looked up distractedly from a file and barked: “No foreigners.”

Blow-ins from abroad, I learned, are too much trouble because landlords assume they break the rules, don’t pay their bills and won’t speak Japanese.

Perhaps Nigerian or Polish immigrants looking for flats in Dublin can tell similar stories. In any case, things have improved. Japan’s government is trying to ensure that Tokyo lives up to its rhetoric as a global city ahead of the 2020 Olympic games.

More companies have sprung up to cater to foreigners who want to rent or buy. For a fee, they’ll negotiate with landlords or banks and vouch for the client. Some will waive the demand for that infernal key money.

The good news is that Tokyo’s reputation as the world’s most expensive city has taken a pounding. The nearly two decades of deflation that followed the 1980s bubble economy sent prices of land and property plummeting in some places by up to 80 per cent. Meanwhile, Asia’s booming hub cities, notably Hong Kong, Singapore and even Beijing, are catching up.

Even Ireland’s capital can give Tokyo a run for its money these days – the average price of a city centre apartment in Tokyo is about €4,290 euro per square meter, within shouting distance of the €3,248 demanded in Dublin, according to cost-of-living database Numbeo.com.

Why live here?

Irish people often ask me why I live here. The fact is, put aside the odd, nerve-jangling seismic event and Tokyo is for its mammoth size (33 million people, if you include the greater urban area) a pleasant, remarkably well-functioning city. Neighbourhoods are generally clean and safe. Street crime is lower than any comparable urban centre, and certainly lower than Dublin.

Hundreds of thousands of children ride the public transport system alone every day to schools across the city. There are no sink-estates, drug corridors or no-go areas to dodge on the way home.

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