Shared housing and communal mealtimes

I think many people still have hang-ups about living in shared housing, but there are an awful lot of benefits I’d like to discuss if you follow some basic advice. Let me first state that when I say “shared housing” I do not mean the gaijin houses that seem to proliferate the cheaper areas of town with tiny rooms, generally poor conditions and horrendous landlords – instead I mean getting together with a group of friends and finding a nice big place to live in. This can especially work out well if you’re entering into your 2nd or 3rd year on the JET programme and are sick of the rat-cage your B.O.E. arranged for you when you first arrived. I spent my entire university career living with up to 8 other friends in some really impressive houses, and I’ve lived in a few shared houses in Japan, so I have had just every kind of issue and argument that can arise.

First though, Why live in shared housing?

  • You will save a lot of money by cooking in larger amounts, not to mention you will be taking it in turns so you no longer have to cook every night of the week.
  • You will become a better cook, because your house mates will tell you when your cooking sucks and will help you to improve
  • Internet connections nowadays are fast enough (in Japan at least) to support up to around 10 simultaneous users and no one will experience any reduced speed. Our connection costs ¥4,000 a month, so by splitting between 4 of us, we save ¥36,000 every year. That’s enough to buy an Xbox360, so you can all game together!
  • Movie nights. Every movie is better when you watch it with a friend, so cut all the hassle of arranging to have friends over by just living with them~ make every night a movie night!
  • Don’t underestimate the power of having an on-hand support group to get you through those depressions that most foreigners in Japan get to at some point.
  • Shared furniture and appliances. What a better way to show you’re now a non-consumer than by using someone else’s couch or widescreen TV!
  • Especially for couples, living with other people can really help to defuse heated situations and give each a break occasionally. It’s a great half-way point between living by just the two of you and living separately.

But in order to make it all happen smoothly and to successfully stay friends with these people, let’s have a look at some of the issues involved with shared housing, specifically in Japan but these could equally be applied anywhere.

The only real downside that so many are keen to point out is the lack of privacy. In my experience, this has never been an issue in the slightest. As long as you move in with close friends only and keep it that way, along with some ground-rules, this really shouldn’t arise. I have been living in a house of 4 for over a year now, and not one of our bedroom doors has lock on it – this is the norm in a typical Japanese house. This simply hasn’t bothered any of us, including the girls. The most important thing is trust and a basic common courtesy – knock and ask politely before opening a door, don’t go into rooms without permission etc. It’s really not that big a deal among friends, but I think some people need to get over their ingrained idea that everything needs to be locked to be kept safe.

Noise issues:
Again, this is a basic common courtesy issue and more or less about choosing your friends wisely. Japanese houses are especially vulnerable to noise pollution, so you need to be more considerate than ever. I used to live next-door a to a South African (next-door, not even in a shared house), and the screams the girl made when they were… really, just unbelievable. I swear they left their balcony door open on-purpose so we, and the whole world of Japanese passers-by could hear them getting some. It’s these kinds of people you probably don’t want in your shared house. Not just couples though – if you have a friend who tends to go out and pick up random j-girls in bars a lot, you might want to talk them about the benefits of a steady relationship.

Some people can never been convinced to wash their dishes right after dinner, but it doesn’t have to be a big issue. That’s how I am anyway. But I do more than my fair share by going on cleaning sprees on the occasional free morning or while something is simmering etc. My general rule is that instead of being picky about only washing up your own dishes, just do everything that’s there when you have a little free time. If you’re going to wash your own bowl anyway, it really doesn’t hurt to wash a few more that are just sitting in the sink and it will keep the kitchen clean and avoid arguments. As for cleaning the rest of the house (toilet, bathroom etc), that’s something I have yet to sort out efficiently (in over 4 years of various shared houses). As a general rule: avoid making a mess in the first place, then you’ll only have to do a communal “big clean” every couple of months.

Split the utilities bills equally:
…and don’t take any discussions on this. “Waaa~ you’ve been using your heater all the time, I don’t think I should pay for as much as you!” – avoid this kind of whinging by agreeing upfront to just split equally, regardless. If everyone is environmentally mindful of their own energy usage, the bills should be reasonable anyway and this will never become an issue. Even better though is to have one person in charge of all the bills each month, and for them to privately sum and divide everything and just tell one figure to the rest of the house – don’t be specific about water or gas or electric amounts etc. – just sum and divide!

Charging for meals:
Don’t get into the habit of charging for communal meals. In my adventures so far, I have found that Americans tend to do this the most (my apologies if you are American and the idea of charging for a meal you have made appals you). I have never met a British, Canadian, or Australian person do this, even when the meal was obviously expensive. After cooking a meal for everyone, the culprit will charge a couple of hundred yen to cover the cost of ingredients, but will remain suspiciously quiet if anyone else doesn’t afford the same treatment to them. If you’re living in a house with solely Americans perhaps this won’t be an issue – but for every other culture I have ever come into contact with, this is just considered downright rude. I’m British myself, and I would never even dream of doing this. In a house of mixed cultures, this kind of money-collection will simply breed disdain with everyone. Anyone who is fundamentally against this kind of thing will either be financially out of pocket every time they cook for the house, or the house will simply stop eating together. You need to sit that person down and have a friendly talk with them. Generally the best argument to go with is that over time – taking the cooking in roughly equal turns – it all works out as equal anyway. Perhaps I spent 400 yen more than you on dinner ingredients this week, but then you spend 600 yen more the next week – after a period of months, it works out as really about equal. If you really want to squabble over a hundred yen difference in 6 months worth of nice friendly shared cooking, knock yourself out. Literally, please, it will do us all a favour. Of course, for this to work you will all need to be reasonably good and be prepared to cook, so help out and teach those who are still living in the last century.


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