A continuing problem for foreign employees newly arrived in Japan is the issue of getting accommodation. If you're an expatriate and can afford it, of course there are a number of foreigner-specific apartment complex chains in Tokyo such as Homat and Mori. But if you're on more of a budget, then what are the options?
Accommodation for foreigners in Japan seems to go in bands. They start with ultra-cheap "gaijin houses” where you can get a room in a house full of other transitory foreigners for about JPY60,000-JPY80,000 but where there isn’t much security or privacy. Then there are regular Japanese-style apartments ranging from JPY120,000-JPY250,000, but which are hard to get into. And lastly, there are the aforementioned foreigner apartment buildings where rents run from JPY350,000-JPY1,000,0000. In almost all cases, the low end of these price ranges is for older buildings further away from town and the high end is for new or nearly new buildings inside the Yamanote line.
Searching the web, you will quickly find resources for gaijin houses and foreigner apartments, but finding a conventional Japanese apartment can be a challenge. In some areas, such as Hiroo, or in Minato-ku in general, there are plenty of foreigners and so realtors are used to dealing in English and having to explain how things work. So while you probably can get a conventional apartment, the cost is high. However, if you’re looking for something more reasonably priced outside the Yamanote line, and especially if you’re outside Tokyo, there is only ONE way to successfully get an apartment: take a Japanese friend with you. One foreigner showing up alone, unless you’re very, very fluent, will scare off 90% of realtors.
Unfortunately, accommodation is one of those areas where Japan’s discrimination towards foreigners- and surprisingly, to single parent Japanese families too – is worst. So be warned! In this otherwise very hospitable country, expect that you may be rejected by 5 out of 6 realtors for being non-Japanese.
When a Japanese person wants to move apartments, usually they will visit the local train station of the area they want to live in, then start visiting the many realtors clustered around the station (which is where most are located). The realtors typically conduct a simple screening. Some of the questions they ask are quite intrusive-as a result of not wanting to upset landlords with candidates who might be a risk. It is usually at this screening that foreign apartment-seekers get really upset. You may be told outright, as I have been in the past, that there are no apartments for rent - even though there may be 20 or so pasted to the windows outside. Or you may be told more gently, that it will be "Very difficult to help you."
In such cases I suggest that you send a Japanese friend back in to front for you - pretending to be the tenant, then after the apartment has been shown, switching the actual renter to yourself. It`s much harder for a realtor to say "no after he/she has actually shown you a vacant room. OR, if you have a girlfriend or boyfriend, get them to rent in your name. OR, ask your company HR person - preferably a Japanese person, to help. Or, simply go try to find a more sympathetic realtor. There are indeed some nice people in the industry, just you usually have to travel further out of town to find them.
Even after you get past the realtor, there is still the landlord. Just recently in my own company, we had a foreign employee with a Japanese partner, trying to rent an apartment. The landlord got very aggressive and set many unreasonable conditions for the employee. The final straw (he didn’t take the apartment after this) was, when after I agreed to act as "hoshonin" (guarantor) for the employee, as CEO of the company, they rejected me on the basis that I was a foreigner! No matter that I employ 50+ people and have been in Japan 22 years. On hearing the rejection, I simply said to my employee: "Keep looking, there are some reasonable people out there- you just have to find them."
Luckily, he has also been in Japan long enough to know that this type of discrimination exists and not to let it get him down.