I recently moved to a new apartment, my sixth since coming to Japan, and I couldn’t be happier. My first place left a wee bit to be desired, consisting of a dreary, small box with alternating views of a machine shop and a cinder-block wall. Well, at least it had two windows, so that was something. In the mornings, the smell of machine oil would mix deliciously with my scrambled eggs. Since then, I’ve been on a mission to consistently upgrade my living quarters.
So when I saw this latest spot, a corner room with a view of a park, I made a snap decision to move. Because Ken Seeroi’s a dude who believes in proactivity. Not that I ever actually get off my ass and do anything, but more in the sense that yep, proactivity does exist.
Another motivating factor was that the new place was being offered by the same realtor as my current spot. They have an office right down the street from me, which is very convenient. So I reckoned it would simplify the rental process. Did I mention I’m also incredibly naive? Yeah, well. So I sent a message through their web site. Interested in Room 507? it said. Click here! Sales agents are waiting! I clicked, and expressed my interest.
Sorry, came the reply, but that property is being handled by our Higashi BumFuck office, so could you please call them?
Making a Japanese Phone Call
Now, if you were to graph me making a Japanese phone call, it’d resemble the U.S. stock market, circa 1929. Which is to say that everything starts out just hunky dory, and then heads south in a great hurry. So I typed a reply.
Sorry, I said, but could you give me their email address?
Sorry, they said, but they don’t have email. Please call them.
Like, who doesn’t have email? Perhaps you’d prefer a papyrus note strapped to the leg of a pigeon? But after walking around town sprinkling salt on bird tails, I finally resolved to ride the train through the mists to Higashi BumFuck and have a word in person.
When I walked in, the entire office stopped typing and stared. No one moved or spoke. I glanced behind me. Nope, no one there either. I’m here about an apartment, I said. A lady walked over and pointed at a chair. I dutifully sat down. She looked at me. Apparently, the people of Higashi BumFuck are a quiet lot. I introduced myself, told her where I worked, and showed her my current rental contract. She nodded and stared at my business card. Then I took out a printout of Room 507, asked if it would be possible to get a tour, and she unleashed the floodgates of hell.
Let’s Speak Polite Japanese
Now, if you speak Japanese, you know that it comes in a variety of flavors, ranging from Normal to Salty to Lady MacBeth. She chose to go full Shakespeare.
“May I enquire as to thine name?” she asked.
I sat up straight and replied, “Kenneth Seeroi, the First.
“Dost thou contemplate relocation within the next full moon?
“I was thinking next month, yes. Ish.
“Sadly, such an event cannot be.
“Well, would it at least be possible to view said domicile?”
“Regretfully, said event is forestalled by this and that.
“This and that?” I asked. “Why would that be as it may?
“One cannot,” she began slowly,” peruse said dwelling as a result of this and that, plus such and such.
“I’d certainly be happy to make a down payment today . . .
“Such,” she said more slowly, “and such. You must wait with great patience for a fortnight plus two risings of the sun.”
“Would that be sixteen days?
“Precisely,” she said.
So I rode the train home in a funk. That night I called my buddy, Sandy. He’s a guy, although he’s got a girl’s name, I don’t know why. Maybe he’s gay. Man, the world’s a crazy place.
“So’d you get that apartment?” he asked.
“Nah, they said I had to wait, because such and such.
“What the hell’s that?
“You know, basically this and that.
“Does that mean, because you’re white?
“No. No way. I mean, no. There’s just, you know, stuff.
“Sure,” said Sandy, “stuff.”
That got me thinking, which I had plenty of time to do during the next sixteen days, then eventually rode the train back through the rice patties to the realtor. She wasn’t in, but I managed to arrange an apartment tour for the following day.
I got to the building ten minutes early and waited outside for her to arrive 15 minutes late. She ushered me promptly inside, and straight up to Room 504. Well, that looked like crap. There was only one window on each end. I could barely see the park.
“Um,” I said, “really wanted to see the corner room, 507.
“The corner room?” she said, like I’d just invented cheese with holes.
“Yes, the one we talked about 17 days ago.
“Oh,” she said. We walked down the hall and she made a great show of being unable to unlock the door, then finally opened it. I looked around. It had lots of light, a couple of closets, and a nice view of the park. I loved it. She didn’t say a word.
“I love it,” I said.
“ ,” she said.
I’d like proceed with the rental process, if possible,” I continued. “Are the terms the same as on the website?
“There is an additional security deposit,” she replied.
“Security deposit,” I repeated.
“And a cleaning deposit. And key money, an agency fee, two months of rent in advance, some fee I just made up, the usual first-born child agreement, a guarantor, and two blahblahblahs.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “blahblahblahs?”
I have the fast-draw reflexes of a gunslinger, and had my electronic dictionary out in a flash. I swear I don’t know how anybody survived Japan when paper was the only option. The word that came up on screen was “undertaker.”
“So I need two . . . undertakers?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied, “of ages between 20 and 60, residing within the current vicinity.
“You know I’m moving, so I wouldn’t know anybody here, right?
“You make take possession of an application, if you wish, and complete it in triplicate,” she said. “Of course, we’ll also need to seek approval from the building proprietor.
“Well, just assuming I can meet all conditions, when would it be possible to move in?
“Timing presents a variety of obstacles,” she responded. “I will need to consult the Oracle of Delphi.”
Which I thought was a strange thing for a Japanese person to say, but whatever. I gave up. 11 years studying Japanese, down the drain. I’d managed to acquire 5 apartments, 14 jobs, 196 girlfriends, 3 tutors, 1 scooter, 1 car, 5 bicycles, and a fridge full of fish cakes and beer. But at this, I was beaten. Hey, you can’t fight City Hall. Maybe that’s not relevant, but anyway I couldn’t get an apartment either. I slunk over to the HR department of my work.
The Japanese HR Department Will See You Now
“Afternoon, Ken,” said Ms. Wallace. She’s a very nice Japanese lady who I assume is married to someone named Mr. Wallace, although I could be wrong. “What can we help you with today?
“Well, see,” I said, “I’m trying to get a new apartment, and the real estate agent is being, how can I put this, somewhat unhelpful.” I looked at the carpet, which was a wonderful shade of burgundy. I’d never noticed that before.
“Unhelpful?” she said. And Ms. Wallace’s eyes lit up with a burgundy fire.
And I explained the basic situation.
“Let me take care of it,” she said simply. But the way she said it conveyed the feeling that Ms. Wallace was about to tear someone a new asshole.
Renting a Japanese Apartment
Exactly twelve minutes later the phone rang.
“Mr Seeroi?” said a man speaking the friendliest Japanese imaginable. “I’m Yamashita, and we’d be delighted to assist you with the rental process. Would it be possible to kindly drop by our office so we can arrange everything?
“Uh, sure,” I said. “I could go to Higashi BumFuck this evening.
“Oh no, that won’t be necessary. Please just come to our office which is conveniently down the street from you.
“Oh,” I said. “Okay, thanks.”
So after work, I brushed my teeth and threw on a fresh shirt, then walked to the realtor’s office. The moment I opened the door, everyone stood and shouted irrashaimase. I was like, is this a surprise party, for me? You shouldn’t have. A smiling lady brought me a cup of tea and Mr. Yamashita explained every detail of the rental contract in careful Japanese detail.
“Of course, there is a cleaning fee,” he said apologetically.
“I understand there’s also a security deposit, key money, half a dozen other crazy fees, and that I need two undertakers?
“Oh, no, no,” he said. “We can dispense with all of that. Given that you’re a current customer and work for a valued company, we’ll waive the security deposit, key money, agency fee, and all that other shit we made up.
“I certainly appreciate that,” I said. “When could I move in?
“When would you like to?” he replied.
Ah, Japanese politeness, now, that’s what I love about this country. That, and the view of the park and the sound of birds in the morning. Well, there’s also the loudspeaker reminding everyone that it’s 7 a.m., Wake up! on Sunday mornings, but that’s merely a bonus. I sure do enjoy my new apartment. I really ought to have the Wallace’s over for curry and beer one of these days.