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More real estate agencies working to globalize by catering to foreigner clients

A Global Trust Networks staff member, left, consults with foreign clients in English in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on Dec. 9, 2017. (Mainichi)

One particularly high hurdle for students and other foreign citizens coming to live in Japan is renting an apartment. A survey commissioned by the Ministry of Justice concluded that nearly 40 percent of foreigners in Japan have been denied housing because they are not Japanese. To change these circumstances, real estate agencies that cater especially to foreigners have begun to appear.

    Near the train station in Tokyo's Shin-Okubo district, in an area crowded with Japanese language schools, is a branch of the Global Trust Networks Co. real estate agency, which specializes in rental apartments for foreign clients.

    When the Mainichi Shimbun visited on Dec. 9, 2017, a young male student entered the shop. When asked in Japanese what language he wanted service in, he replied in shaky Japanese that he would like to speak in Korean. A female staff member from South Korea then listened to what kind of apartment the student was seeking, all the while searching rental listings on her computer. She gave detailed explanations of each entry, including whether the buildings had elevators.

    That day, employees from Brazil, Nepal, Vietnam and other countries were all working at the shop. From Portuguese to Hindi, the agency dealt with customers in over 10 different languages.

    Along with introducing clients to rental listing, the company also acts as a consultant for both renter and landlord. The office was alive with the constant hum of conversation as the staff, telephone receivers pressed to ears, recommended plumbers or explained how to sort trash.

    Global Trust Networks, based in Tokyo's Toshima Ward, was founded in 2006. When company president Hiroyuki Goto, 39, was a university student, he encountered many study abroad students who had a lot of trouble renting an apartment. "There isn't an environment to accept the people who come to Japan," he said. So, Goto handed over his position at a marketing research firm he started to another executive and started the real estate company.

    Now, with the growing number of foreign nationals living in Japan, the company's reach is also expanding, doing business with roughly 8,400 real estate firms. Global has even opened branches in Osaka, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

    "There are a lot of cultural differences, so there are cases where foreign nationals cause trouble without any ill intentions," explained Goto. For example, there are many countries where it isn't rare for many people to live in one apartment without telling the landlord when signing the lease. There are also countries where subleasing rooms is common.

    However, the main reason that issues occur is because there are many foreigners who don't understand the content of the Japanese lease document, so Global explains the rules of renting an apartment in Japan in the native language of the renter and acts as an intermediary between them and their landlords. When signing the lease, the firm contacts the applicants' family in their home country to confirm their identity and even offers guarantor services. "I want to help those who want to study or work hard here," said Goto.

    There have been several court rulings declaring that denying foreigners housing because of their nationality impinges on basic human rights. The Osaka District Court decided in 1993 that the practice was illegal because the Constitution guarantees equality before the law. However, in a survey commissioned by the Ministry of Justice, 39 percent of foreign nationals who had looked for housing in the previous five years said they had been rejected for a lease because they were not Japanese.

    Masao Ogino, 63, CEO of real estate company Ichii, which began offering services for foreign nationals at a shop in Tokyo's Takadanobaba district in 1980, said, "In my experience, the number of landlords who turn away foreign applicants on principle has risen. There are many small business operators in the real estate industry, and not having staff that can handle matters in a foreign language is one reason for this." Certainly, looking at last year's real estate industry statistics, businesses with four or less employees made up 86 percent of agencies.

    On the other hand, according to the Justice Ministry, the number of foreign residents in Japan had risen to some 2.38 million people by the end of 2016, 6.7 percent more than the previous year and the highest number since the ministry began tracking the statistic in 1959. By country of origin, those from China, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam account for roughly 70 percent of the foreign population. In particular, the number of students and technical interns has been rapidly increasing.

    The Japanese government is aiming to accept 300,000 foreign students by around 2020. The program for technical interns would span 77 job types, including nursing care, construction, textiles, and farming -- areas shouldering labor shortages.

    "Foreigners are a key presence in Japan with a growing elderly population and shrinking number of young people," points out Ogino, whose firm began operating shared houses where Japanese and foreign nationals live side by side, and writing up multi-language guidelines starting around 2000. "Japanese people have to start globalizing their minds as well."

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