Gong Yiqun: Breaking Down Prejudice in Japan’s Rental Housing Market

People Society Lifestyle Work

Despite Japan’s oversupply of rental properties, some groups of people still struggle to find a home, including foreigners, people on low incomes, people with disabilities, and same-sex couples. In her job and pro bono activities, Gong Yiqun works to support such groups and build bridges with realtors.

Gong Yiqun

Born in Shanghai in 1986, and has lived in Japan since she was five. Joined Lifull in 2010, after graduating from Chūō University. Since 2019, she has been responsible for Friendly Door, an introduction and support service helping people who might otherwise struggle to find housing. She is also a director at the nonprofit organization Living in Peace, which works to address poverty in developing countries and supports children in social care in Japan and refugees.

No Foreigners Allowed

Gong Yiqun still remembers the words she spoke at her job interview with the real estate information provider Lifull. “The government’s trying to attract more international students to Japan,” she said, “but unless there’s a system ready to help them find housing, we’re going to end up with a disaster.”

At the time of the interview, a cousin from Shanghai had come to Japan as a student and Gong was trying to help her find a place to live. But even though her cousin had a Japanese guarantor, she was given a brush-off at every realtor she approached. The answer was always the same: No international students. No Chinese.

In 2008, the government announced a program aimed at boosting the number of international students to 300,000 by 2020. But the necessary infrastructure to receive them was not in place. “As a result, there were foreign students all over Japan struggling to find a place to live. There is only so much you can do on a personal level to help these people.” In her interview, Gong outlined her ambitions. “I want to put together a portal site that can support international students and get rid of widespread prejudices against foreign tenants.”

“When I was a student, I was still living at home. So, it was only when my cousin came to Japan that I realized what a hard time many international students face finding a place to live.” But Gong was already familiar with some of the other disadvantages that can come from having the wrong nationality in Japanese society.

Dark Years of Identity Crisis

Gong was born in Shanghai but came to Japan when she was five. Her father had come to Japan alone, one of a growing number of Chinese students to enter the country following the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two countries in 1978. After graduation, he found a job as an engineer. Deciding to settle in Japan with his family, he sent for his wife and daughter to join him.

After a spell in daycare, Gong started at a local public elementary school. At the time, she was the only non-Japanese child in her class, but she soon picked up the language.

“Sometimes if I was on the train with my parents, I would notice the other passengers staring if they noticed us speaking in our mixture of Chinese and Japanese. And at school I always had a sense that I was different from the other kids. But I made friends easily enough, and I adjusted without too many problems in junior high school too. It was at high school that I started to feel confused about my identity.”

Gong spent two months in Oxford, England, on a study program for high school students. It was her first experience of traveling overseas with friends. Apart from her name, there was nothing to tell her apart from the other Japanese students in her group. But it was harder for her to get a British visa than for her Japanese friends. She also needed to get a re-entry permit to return to Japan. The experience brought home to her the fact that she was not Japanese.

On the study trip to Oxford, Gong on the right. (Photo courtesy of Gong Yiqun)

On the study trip to Oxford, Gong on the right. (Photo courtesy of Gong Yiqun)
On the study trip to Oxford, Gong on the right. (Photo courtesy of Gong Yiqun)

“There were students from many countries on the program. One day, a girl in my year from Taiwan told me to my face: ‘I don’t want to hang out with you because you’re not Japanese.’ As soon as I set foot outside Japan, I realized I was being treated differently from my Japanese friends. I started to obsess about my identity. Who was I anyway? Where did I belong? It was the beginning of a dark period.”

Gong had always traveled with her parents to Shanghai once every few years, but felt that having grown up in Japan, she did not belong in Chinese society either.

“For my parents, it was simple. They didn’t feel any conflict about being Chinese. If China and Japan were playing each other at table tennis, for example, they would immediately get behind the Chinese player. But I was different. Even the idea of competing based on nationality made me feel uncomfortable, and I could never really get into things like the Olympics, with all the flag-waving and national anthems. I started to question why people should be defined by something they hadn’t chosen, like nationality.”

Different Answers to the Identity Question

Determined to come to grips with these questions about her identity, she decided to go to China, and spent a year as an international student at Fudan University in Shanghai. There she met several other young people who, like her, had roots in China but had grown up in different countries around the world. She found that they all dealt with the identity question in different ways.

“One person had been born in northeast China but had grown up in Japan. She had naturalized and taken a Japanese name. But at home the family culture was still quite Chinese, and she was struggling to come to terms with that difference in cultural values. One thing that made an impression on me was meeting a Chinese-American student. She had no doubts about her identity at all. ‘I’m American,’ she said, and that was that.”

“I was always trying to see myself from the other person’s perspective, trying to imagine how I might look to this or that other person. But this experience of meeting people from a similar background who all had developed their own diverse ideas and values made me realize that I wanted to make up my own mind and see things from my own point of view for a change. Slowly, I began to pick myself up off the floor.”

After returning to Japan, Gong considered taking Japanese citizenship, worried that having a foreign passport might work against her when she applied for jobs. But when she enquired about starting the process at a local government office, she was turned down immediately, and informed that since she had been out of the country for a year during her studies in China, she was no longer eligible to apply for naturalization.

She found that her Chinese nationality did sometimes count against her when she started looking for jobs. Determined to stay optimistic, she applied for jobs with trading companies, in the hope of strengthening ties between Japan and China through business, but was passed over in the final round of evaluations with the big company she had set her heart on. She was beginning to think she might be better suited for life in a start-up, when her cousin’s struggle to find a place to rent spurred her to apply for a job with Lifull (then known as Next), which was growing rapidly at the time.

“To illustrate my understanding of the issue in concrete terms, I went to around ten realtors near Kawaguchi Station in Saitama Prefecture, where I lived at the time, and asked them why it was so difficult for foreigners to find a place to rent. In most cases, the answer was that landlords didn’t like to rent to foreigners.”

Landlords were afraid that foreigners might not follow rules about how and when to throw out their garbage, that they might make noise late at night, or that problems with language and cultural differences might lead to problems after a foreign tenant moved in.

Linking Up with Experts

Not that she was able to do the work she wanted to do as soon as she was hired. “It was a roundabout route. I was in a sales position for a while, and it was nine years before we established Friendly Door.”

Friendly Door is a website that puts people in touch with real estate companies that are welcome to people who may have difficulty finding suitable properties. This includes not only foreigners, but also members of the LGBTQ community, the elderly, single parents, evacuees from disasters, and people with disabilities.

Part of what opened the path to the kind of work she really wanted to do was her experience working as one of the founding members of a company committee for performing community work. Through such activities, she formed a connection with Moyai, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless and underprivileged people to find guarantors and start a new life in decent housing.

This experience opened her eyes to the wider reality. It was not only foreigners who struggled to find a place to live.

“From talking with Moyai, it became clear that the reason why some people found it difficult to rent—foreigners, people on benefits, whoever it might be—was pretty much always the same. Landlords are basically worried. They’re afraid of the problems that might arise after the person moves in—the tenant might be late with the rent, or cause problems with the neighbors. In the case of an older tenant, there’s the worry that the person might die alone, leaving the landlord to deal with the aftermath. I wanted to try to give landlords and owners a better idea of what the real risks were, and to show them the measures they could take to reduce those risks.”

Lifull has conducted seminars for real estate companies and landlords in an attempt to address some of these fears. In its attempt to share knowledge and insights that match real-life needs it has collaborated with NPOs and similar organizations. As well as Moyai, these collaborations have included real estate groups with particular expertise, including R65, which specializes in housing for elderly people, Iris, an LGBTQ-friendly realtor, and the Make Home Group, which supports people with disabilities. The aim is to use this specialized knowledge to provide practical, real-life support. In the case of people on income support, for example, a basic understanding of how housing benefits work can make it easier for landlords to get a realistic idea of how much rent a person might be able to afford. And if a system is in place to keep an eye on an elderly tenant and warn relatives if anything seems unusual, this can go a long way to reducing the psychological burden on the person letting the property.

Lifull also provides real estate companies with checklists to use when working with clients like same-sex couples, people with disabilities, and foreign nationals. These provide useful relevant information and points to bear in mind. On the checklist for foreign applicants, for example, the checklist provides basic information on various categories of residence status, as well as a checklist of things to check when a non-Japanese person is looking for a place to rent, and advice on points to keep in mind during the move and after.

The initial aim is to increase the number of real estate companies that understand the difficulties some people face in looking for a place to rent, and that are prepared to negotiate with landlords. When Friendly Door was initially launched, there were around 400 businesses on the registered list of realtors. That has now increased to 4,400. Gong has ambitious plans to increase the number to 6,000 in the near future.

“Many of the people who face this type of discrimination are not struggling financially. There are around 8.5 million empty houses and apartments nationwide. It’s a wasted opportunity. Rather than allow these places to remain empty, it would surely be better to carry out a proper risk assessment, take appropriate steps, and let the property out to some of these people who are struggling to find a decent place to live . . .”

Pro Bono Activities

Meanwhile, rising prices and inflation during the COVID-19 pandemic shed new light on the serious difficulties facing poor and disadvantaged members of society.

“There are more people applying for public assistance for livelihood protection now than during the global financial crisis in 2009. Although there are systems that provide benefits and other kinds of support to help people with the rent, it’s nothing like enough.”

One particular concern is the problem of poverty among young people. The Moyai Support Center distributes food to the needy in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in Shinjuku every Saturday. “There are now more than 700 people using this service, and I understand that increasing numbers of them are young people.”

Friendly Door is also looking to broaden its services so that it can help other groups of people who struggle to find a place to rent, including young people who can’t rely on their families for support and freelancers.

Besides the company’s main business, Gong also works pro bono, using her expertise and experience to help people in need at no charge. In 2015 she joined the NPO Living in Peace, and in 2018 she launched a new program to assist refugees, for which she acts as representative director.

“At the NPO, we support the children of refugees, helping them to learn Japanese and find jobs. Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Friendly Door has collaborated with Make Home and other groups to set up a service that helps refugees and evacuees to find a safe place to live. My main job and pro bono activities reinforce each other and produce synergies.

“A home is fundamental to human life. My dream is that one day no one will struggle to find a decent place to live.”

Gong pictured at the Lifull offices in Chiyoda, Tokyo.
Gong pictured at the Lifull offices in Chiyoda, Tokyo.

(Originally written in Japanese by Itakura Kimie of Nippon.com. Banner photo and interview photographs by Ōkubo Keizō.)

China housing international students poverty identity single mothers LGBTQ