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Real estate agencies in Japan struggle to protect female workers from customers

This photo provided by N-Asset, a real estate company based in the Kanagawa Prefecture city of Kawasaki, shows a security buzzer that the company has employees carry when they show customers around property.

YOKOHAMA -- The real estate industry in Japan is struggling to bolster security measures after several cases where female employees became victims of physical assault or sexual harassment in confined spaces while showing customers around property.

A shocking incident for the real estate industry occurred on April 25 when a 23-year-old female employee at a realtor in the eastern Japan city of Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, became the victim of robbery and attempted murder. At around 2 p.m., she attended to a 25-year-old unemployed man of no fixed address, and was stabbed with a knife from behind in the second apartment they visited that day. Although the employee fell unconscious and was in critical condition, and was robbed of her wallet and a vehicle for showing clients properties, her life was spared.

According to Kanagawa Prefectural Police, the arrested suspect stated, "I did it to steal money. I had no intention of renting property." He said that although he hesitated at the first apartment, he waited for the right opportunity and committed the crime at the second property.

Following the incident, a national association of real estate agencies consisting of around 6,100 companies sent out an email message to its members that warned, "There has been a case where a female employee who was showing a customer around property was stabbed by a man who planned to rob her. Please review once more your company rules for guiding customers around property."

This image shows a room during an online home tour provided by Tryell, a Tokyo-based firm that supports real estate business operations. The company offers a live streaming service where staff members visit and show the interior of properties to customers on appointed days.

The association also gave specific examples of security measures, such as to verify individuals who wish to look around property by having them present identification, avoid having female employees show customers around by themselves as much as possible, leave the front door open when showing customers around the interior of apartments, and have employees frequently report back to the company. The secretariat of the association commented, "We would like for employees to take self-defense measures as much as possible."

More real estate agencies are incorporating systems using virtual reality and live streaming technology that enable customers to view properties online, as well as self-guided apartment tours where agents are not present. Reducing the amount of time employees meet with customers may lower the risk of assault and harassment, and the association of real estate agencies also urges companies to make use of such tools.

Tryell, a Tokyo-based firm that supports real estate business operations and has a partnership with the national association of real estate agencies, launched an online home tour system in 2014 where customers can view the interior of properties in real time on the internet. After receiving reservations, staff members visit properties and show them via a live broadcast. Due to the impact of the move to refrain from going outdoors amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, the number of online tour users between April and May this year rose by about seven times from the previous year.

However, the number of home tours that take such a form remains very low, and workers in the field voice difficulties in responding to the issue.

Anna Hori, manager of the Takatsu branch of N-Asset, a real estate company based in the Kanagawa Prefecture city of Kawasaki, commented, "I feel that the potential risks are extremely high for our line of work."

There were cases of sexual harassment against employees of N-Asset in 2015 and 2018, including an incident where a male customer touched the body of a female staff member as she was showing him around a property. After these incidents, the company created rules such as having staff carry around security buzzers and leaving property doors open if anything feels suspicious.

However, it is not easy to detect malicious customers or their true motives at the real estate office. It is not practical to request all customers show their identification, and even if IDs are checked, it is apparently difficult to discern if they are authentic. Hori pointed out, "It is possible to reduce risks, but ultimately it is no more than just that."

"I thought that this kind of incident could happen to any of us (in the industry)," commented the president of With Corporation, an agent that mediates and manages rental property in Yokohama, while reflecting on the incident in April where a female employee was stabbed by a customer. He explained the difficulties in preventing such crimes, saying, "Employees accompanying customers on tours around property cannot be avoided. This business is a community-based endeavor, and it is necessary to communicate what kind of person will be living in the property to maintain a relationship of trust with the landlord and community residents."

(Japanese original by Nami Takata, Yokohama Bureau)

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