The “custom” myth

Today we wrote a letter to the Japan Times about an article they printed last week about rentals for foreigners. Here it is:

In the May 15 article “Housing glut opens door to foreign tenants” Takahide Ezoe of the Shinjuku Japanese Language Institute states that “Japanese…know that you don’t usually get the amount of deposit back” when they move out of a rental property, and thus potential foreign renters have to be made to understand this point since, According to Ezoe, “to foreigners, a deposit is something that will be returned fully.”

In principle, the purpose of a security deposit, or shikikin, is to provide reserve funds in the event that the tenant is delinquent with his or her rent. However, many landlords consider it money that can be used after the tenant moves out for repairs and maintenance. In most developed countries, landlords are legally responsible for normal wear-and-tear on a rental property, not the tenant. Foreigners who have not caused any unusual damage to their residences should by all rights expect to receive their security deposits in full when they leave, as should Japanese tenants. In fact, many Japanese have sued landlords to recover their security deposits and won.

As the article points out, potential renters should read their contracts. If they don’t understand the security deposit issue then they should have it clarified by the landlord or agent. When they move out and do not receive their deposits back, they should confront the landlord and demand an explanation. Many landlords use security deposits, key money (reikin), and contract renewal fees as tools to gouge tenants, whose rights in these matters are not clearly defined by Japanese law. To call these conditions “customs,” which is what realtors tend to do, is to obfuscate their questionable legality. They are certainly unethical.

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