Thursday, December 31, 2009
Olivia Burrell, a 32-year-old Canadian gospel singer, was fed up with living in Lilliputian studio apartments in Tokyo where she could see (and smell) her kitchen from her bed.
Three months ago, she took the plunge and moved in with five Japanese women living in a spacious 6-bedroom apartment in Harajuku, a buzzy neighborhood in the city center.
Tokyo Girls Real Estate is turning huge vacant apartments into shared living spaces for as many as 10 renters. The only problem is the sharing part. WSJ's Mariko Sanchanta reports.
But, so far, her roommate experience hasn't quite been the Japanese version of "Friends" she had envisioned. Ms. Burrell walked into the kitchen one evening to find no fewer than eight separate bottles of dishwashing liquid on the kitchen counter, all neatly lined up and labeled with their owners' names.
"My roommates are neat and very courteous," says Ms. Burrell, who has lived in Japan for seven years and who had lived with roommates in Canada. "But this whole concept is new here, and people don't naturally want to share things as much."
Japan has no real tradition of roommates: People have preferred to live in their own tiny places. Now, fed up with a dearth of reasonably priced apartments in desirable Tokyo neighborhoods, a growing number of relatively affluent women in their 20s and 30s have started to create demand for a radical new segment of the Japanese real-estate market: apartments to share.
The timing of the trend coincides with a glut of upscale apartments in Tokyo, which have flooded the market since the collapse of Lehman Brothers last year. Foreign bankers decamped, leaving behind many three- and four-bedroom apartments, popular with expatriates, which have been vacant for months.
Kumi Tahara, 27, and Kana Arai, 32, stepped into the void, founding a real-estate agency named "Tokyo Girls' Real Estate." They persuaded some landlords to let them slice up four-bedroom apartments into as many as 10 smaller rooms, which they then started renting out to young Japanese women. "After the Lehman shock, a lot of gaijin [foreigners] left, and there are some places that have been vacant for more than half a year," says Ms. Arai, who wears a pink sequined bow on her head and favors miniskirts and knee-high boots. "The landlords pay the redesign fees and we're able to increase the rent."
One apartment in Roppongi, the expat mecca in Tokyo, commanded 450,000 yen a month (about $5,000) before its previous tenants left. Ms. Tahara and Ms. Arai redesigned the place, chopping it up into eight small rooms that are about 100 square feet each, which they rented for 80,000 yen apiece. The net result: They increased rental income by 190,000 yen a month, of which they receive a 10% cut.
"The market is improving a little bit, but it's nowhere near as robust as it was before" Lehman's woes says Keiko Matsumoto, a manager at Ken Real Estate Investment Advisors Ltd., an agent that caters to expats and high net-worth Japanese. "I think the idea of facilitating shared housing is very smart in this environment."
In Tokyo, one of the world's most densely populated cities, the concept of having roommates or sharing quarters has never been popular. The majority of young Tokyoites choose to live in cramped, cluttered, soulless studios known as usagi goya in Japanese, or "rabbit hutches."
It has been thought preferable to live in a shoebox than to share a space with strangers. The lack of roommate-friendly apartments was also driven by developers who built up apartment complexes over the decades that were often chopped up into tiny, single rooms to maximize rental income.
Ms. Tahara, a former Japan Airlines check-in attendant, and Ms. Arai met at a real-estate agency and took note of the numerous requests for roommates they received from young, female clients. They sensed there was a business idea in all of the requests and started their company two years ago. Since the inception of Tokyo Girls' Real Estate, they have placed more than 100 women in 12 properties.
Ms. Tahara says the company is profitable. Theirs is the only agency in Tokyo that caters exclusively to working women in their 30s. Other "shared housing" businesses exist, but most handle old buildings in less desirable locations that cater to backpackers, foreigners on a short stay or old people.
Central to the success of Ms. Arai and Ms. Tahara's business is that they redecorate and redesign interiors themselves, adding touches such as claw-footed bathtubs, gold wallpaper, pink rhinestones and disco balls. The uninspiring apartments end up as fantasy playlands. "I used to live in a shared home in Tokyo, but it was so old and falling apart -- freezing in the winter, and sweltering in the summer," says Ms. Arai. "These represent the dreams of these women, transformed into reality. We put lights on mirrors, so when they put on makeup they feel like actresses."
But the newness of this roommate culture in Japan means that many young women aren't prepared for what it's like to share housing. Ms. Arai and Ms. Tahara, who mediate disputes, say one of the biggest issues is hair clogging up the shower drain.
And men aren't ever allowed inside the women's shared homes. Ms. Tahara and Ms. Arai believe that the apartments should be a refuge for women. "If there was some sort of problem, then we couldn't be responsible for it," says Ms. Tahara. "And if a guy ended up staying over a lot and used water and electricity, it would create an unfair burden on the others."
Ms. Arai and Ms. Tahara interview all of the potential tenants before they sign a lease.
Demographic shifts in Japan have created a breed of single women who work late, are often out on the weekends and just want a convenient place to crash. "The average age for marriage in Japan is steadily increasing, and fewer females want to live at home with their parents," says Takanori Nakamura, a senior research and development director at Hakuhodo Inc, a Japanese advertising agency. "Meanwhile, salaries are decreasing and women want to maintain their lifestyles. Rent is the first thing they cut."
Each apartment that Ms. Arai and Ms. Tahara redecorate is done with a concept in mind. The theme of the Harajuku apartment, where Ms. Burrell lives, is "Saturday Night Fever."
"The design here is very cute," says Sachiko Saito, a 28-year-old systems engineer who moved into the apartment last week. "Japanese people aren't used to the idea of sharing an apartment, but I don't think it's very difficult. I specifically looked for places on the Internet that I could share with others."
Ms. Burrell, who speaks Japanese, says she was bummed out at first about the "no men" rule. "I was a little disappointed because I have a lot of male friends, but, ultimately, it makes sense. There are a lot of good things about sharing. After living alone for so long here, I needed to be more conscious of people. I'll learn a lot."