When my partner and I decided to move out from our tiny apartment and into a place that could actually accommodate two people, I thought the hardest thing would be constructing the new IKEA furniture. While that had its own hurdles, navigating the Japanese rental market as a Brit and Spaniard was the real shock to the system.

A snapshot:

Me: This apartment is perfect!

Estate Agent: Ok, let me check if it’s available to view.

(Estate agent rings the landlord of the apartment)

Estate Agent: I have an interested couple, but they are foreig—

Landlord: 駄目dame. (No good. Not allowed.)

My patience wore thin. I didn’t begrudge the estate agent. He’d huff in annoyance and apologise profusely, giving a range of excuses from the reasonable, “They had trouble with a previous foreign tenant,” to the unembellished, “They are all old men.’”

I could make peace with finding a suitable guarantor and paying a deposit and key money (usually one to two months’ rent). But this discrimination towards foreign tenants, I couldn’t grasp. Most of the landlords rejected us purely on the label: gaijin. At least the others heard our countries of origin before following suit.

I talked with a Japanese-Spanish couple who said their apartment search was smooth-sailing, in part because their native-half pretended to live alone. The Spanish companion was not involved in the process. Incognito in his own home. “No dogs. No cats. No foreigners,” he told me.

To find a pet-friendly apartment is just as hard as finding one that’s foreigner-friendly. Imagine the problems that come with doing both. Jon and Hannah are from Korea and America, respectively. They don’t have just one rambunctious animal but three: a dog, cat and bird.

Hannah told me it was easier finding a place for their pets than them. Apartments for animals are openly advertised while the estate agent has to ‘check’ if foreigners are permitted. When she lived alone, Hannah had been heavily vetoed too. She found no credible reason; she spoke fluent Japanese and worked for a well-known Japanese company.

Hannah suggests that this small-scale discrimination comes from the preconception that foreigners can’t follow Japanese societal rules and etiquette. She says she understands this point of view, but Japan is an aging society and help has to come from somewhere.

Japan has its own discrimination laws but they don’t tend to protect foreigners looking for apartments.

To get a complete outlook of the situation, I needed to talk to someone on the inside.

Steven Burson is an estate agent from RELO Japan, a company that specializes in relocating foreigners to Japan and other parts of Asia. He has a unique insight into the market and answered many of my niggling questions.

I was intrigued most of all by the seemingly unregulated power of the landlord and asked him if there are any laws they are beholden to.

“Of course, Japan has its own discrimination laws but they don’t tend to protect foreigners looking for apartments,” said Burson. He elaborated to say a landlord can pick and choose their tenant — regardless of who put in an offer first. There are unwritten ethics in the industry against this, but they are purely guidelines and not enforced by law. Landlords have a lot of rights in Japan, especially until the housing contract is signed.

If that is the case, what reasons may they have for rejecting a foreigner’s application?

Steve told me that there is an assumption that ex-pats don’t know how to recycle or know how to dispose of large-scale items when leaving an apartment. That we are noisier than others, and all this makes the job harder for a landlord or their representative. Of course, this is a problem for Japanese tenants, too. Nonetheless, foreigners tend to be the scapegoat. A lot of it comes down to being scared of any need to communicate with the foreign tenant.

He added that the rental market in Singapore is a lot kinder to non-natives than Japan. This is probably because their ex-pat population is closer to 30 percent, while in Japan it’s around a mere 3 percent. Times are changing and with the imminent influx of overseas workers to Japan, the outdated pattern of rejecting an applicant based on their nationality might change gradually in the future.

It’s not impossible to find an apartment in Tokyo as a foreigner; it’s just harder than we’re used to. Like many things in Japan, the endless rules and regulations of finding a place to live can seem unnecessary to outsiders, with many opting for short-term rentals to avoid the headache.

Foreigner-focused real estate companies tend to be slightly pricier than going through the intricate maze of Japanese real estate. On the other hand, you can save on up-front costs and waiting for a landlord’s approval.

For those looking for an apartment and tired of trying to understand the point of key money, try these estate agents:

RELO Japan: A company well-suited to the corporate assignment in Japan. Their wealth of knowledge and well-thought-out packages are designed mainly for busy expats of various levels that come to work in Japan. They have branches in Tokyo, Nagoya and Kobe (Osaka).

Modern Living Tokyo: If you are looking to socialize, then try a share house. Unlike other companies, Modern Living’s residences are clean, well-furnished and true to their name. Tried and tested first hand.

GaijinPot ApartmentsHaving a comprehensive online database of apartments makes the process a lot easier. If you enjoy spending time searching on your laptop rather than in person, this is the website for you.

AghartAYou don’t need to have a guarantor, or even speak Japanese, to get an apartment with AghartA. Speedy service and glowing testimonials.

IHome: This brand-new estate agency launched in Nakameguro at the beginning of April 2019 and aims to only list properties that accept foreign tenants and buyers.

More on Tokyo apartments and how people make use of their personal spaces