lifestyle

Meet the brains of Tokyo's women-only housing boom

58 Comments
By Steve Trautlein

Kana Arai and Kumi Tahara offer a service that women adore and men can only fantasize about. Their real estate agency, Tokyo Girls Fudosan (TKGF), provides stylish female-only apartments at affordable rents in some of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods.

In an urban environment where most young people settle for boxy one-room "apato," TKGF’s accommodations offer the added attractions of space and community. And they’ve ignited a trend — since starting with just a single unit four years ago, the company now operates 10 residences throughout the city, and a host of agencies offering similar services have followed in its wake.

The emergence of an entirely new niche in Japan’s hidebound real estate industry is surprising, but the most notable thing about TKGF turns out to be the two women behind its success. Arai and Tahara are not, as one might assume, members of Tokyo’s old-boy realty network, nor are they MBA-wielding hotshots backed by an army of investors. Instead, the city’s hippest realtors are a pair of former OLs who have built their business with little more than pluck, talent — and a serious aversion to Ikea furniture.

In an interview at an appealingly dowdy cafe near their office in upscale Minami-Aoyama, Tahara and Arai admit that they are unlikely candidates for entrepreneurial success. Tahara, 27, is a former JAL check-in girl who considered giving up her career for the happy-go-lucky life of a grad student. Arai, 32, says she spent so little time studying at Gakushuin Women’s Junior College that she may as well have received a degree in partying. The pair, who met while working in sales for a large real estate agency, say they originally saw each other as rivals. Their business plan was hatched after ditching work one day to enjoy afternoon tea in the lobby lounge of the Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo.

Though their backgrounds are decidedly nontraditional, the two women are remarkably well suited to their roles. Tahara’s training in customer service complements Arai’s decade-long experience in real estate. Both are skilled artisans who do most of their own design work and renovations. And they know how to play the media — not only are Arai and Tahara agreeably photogenic, they require all residents to make themselves available for interviews as a condition of their lease.

400 rooms are in constant demand

TKGF’s business model bucks industry norms by doing away with key money and most other deposits; residents can also move laterally among the agency’s properties. A typical TKGF apartment consists of private bedrooms that link to common areas, kitchens and bathrooms. The smallest unit accommodates four residents; the largest, 10. Rents range from 52,000 yen to 125,000 yen. The formula has proved irresistible — TKGF’s 400 rooms are in constant demand, with a waiting list numbering in the dozens.

All this comes at a time when other Tokyo realtors are struggling with a tanking market and empty buildings. According to economic trends researcher Teikoku Databank, 479 real estate companies around the country went bankrupt last year, including 75 that specialized in apartments. Occupancy rates for many major companies, which as recently as last November stood at around 95%, have plunged below 90%.

In fact, it was the downturn in the local real estate industry that provided TKGF with its opening.

“A landlord we knew was having trouble with unoccupied apartments in his building, and as an experiment, we helped him turn the rooms into a share house,” Arai says. “It turned out to be a big success. The owner introduced us to others, and they introduced us to more people, and — well, here we are.”

TKGF’s business took off in earnest in the wake of last year’s global banking crisis, which resulted in an exodus of highly paid foreigners from Tokyo. Suddenly, the market was flooded with luxury apartments that lacked tenants — and little chance of attracting any among the locals.

“Japanese people usually aren’t interested in those kinds of places, so many building owners found themselves with this problem on their hands,” says Tahara. “We help them out by suggesting to do a share house.”

When TKGF finds a willing landlord — or, as is most often the case these days, when a desperate landlord finds them — Tahara and Arai literally roll up their sleeves and get to work. For larger units, like their properties in Nishi-Azabu and Roppongi, they section off big living rooms into a separate bedroom and lounge area. Western-style master bedrooms are divided into a pair of spaces that Japanese renters feel comfortable sleeping in.

The first step, however, is to devise an appealing interior scheme. Arai and Tahara conceive of and implement designs based around keywords like “Mid-Century Modern” and “Princess Room.” Most of the units’ common areas sport bright colors and offbeat graphical elements — the “House of Koi” in Aoyama, for instance, features a fish-themed, nihonga-esque wall painting. (Koi can refer to both “carp” and “romance.”) Elegant furnishings like claw-foot bathtubs and antique sofas complete the scene.

“We used to shop at Ikea, but not anymore,” says Arai. “They’re too obvious in their design, and we didn’t want out residents to put up with that.”

“Normal women love our designs, but when a professional checks out our work, we get a lot of negative comments,” she continues. “Like, ‘Why match a leopard pattern floor with a red wall?’ It’s not like we ever studied design at school, and our concepts tend to be open and free. Many of our residents say it puts them at ease.”

With their camera-ready good looks and handiness with power tools, Arai and Tahara have become darlings of the local media. But they owe much of their success to a savvy business insight: female Tokyoites are now ready to accept shared accommodations. This concept is more innovative than it might seem. While Westerners have long been comfortable with communal living arrangements — hostels, guesthouses, dorm rooms and apartments — the notion is still novel in Japan, where the separation between private and public spaces tends to be more distinct.

Alleviates growing sense of insecurity

As is the case with so many aspects of life here, though, these traditional attitudes are beginning to change. One big factor is a growing sense of insecurity — both economic and physical — that afflicts younger Japanese, especially women.

“The fact that there’s always someone there when I come home was one of the things that attracted me to this kind of living arrangement,” says “Yuri,” 29, a TKGF resident who works at a publishing company in Tokyo. “I get to live in a clean place in an area that I wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.”

TKGF’s rivals also emphasize peace of mind. “The residents don’t have to worry about the eyes of men, so they can really relax,” says one landlord at a competing company, who asked that neither he nor his firm be named. “These apartments concentrate on improving the quality of life for women, so there are a lot of benefits compared to residences that allow men.”

Some commentators go even further. Tomoyuki Utsumi, a Tokyo-based architect and an expert on the dynamics of Japanese living spaces, suggests that the newfound popularity of communal habitation represents a deeper cultural shift and a more enlightened approach toward interpersonal relationships.

“Sharing space means that individuals must sense each other’s values and intuitively understand the distance that exists between them — both physically and psychologically,” he says. “This is a new form of social intelligence, and I’d say that women are instinctively much more capable at it than men”.

“Kei,” a Tokyo-based consultant who moved to a TKGF residence from her hometown of Omiya, overcame her initial reluctance about communal living and is now enjoying the benefits of an extended community.

“I was worried at first about sharing a place with strangers,” she says, “but once I actually started living there, it was surprisingly comfortable and I didn’t care at all about the other residents.”

As is the case with any new lifestyle trend, the rise of shared accommodations has brought its share of difficulties. Arai and Tahara say that they visit three or four of residences a day, not only in their official roles as mediators between tenants and landlords, but as peace brokers in disputes among roommates.

“There hasn’t been any big trouble, but we still see a lot of small issues,” says Tahara, repeating a refrain that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever had a roomie. “You can compare sharing rooms with strangers to getting married. Mundane things can lead to arguments, like leaving the toilet lid open or not, or those who clean up after themselves and those who don’t.” The most common complaint? “Hair stuck in the shower drain.”

Yet the zeal with which women have taken to the TKGF concept seems to validate the view of Utsumi, the architect, that shared accommodations can inspire new ways of thinking. By accepting “outsiders” into their space, roommates participate in an exchange that opens them up to the possibility of personal enrichment.

Of course, this being Japan, that enrichment often has a material aspect.

“Living with other girls and learning things like how they do their makeup and wear their clothes stimulates my sense of style,” Yuri says.

Nor is it lost on many residents that Arai and Tahara are the very model of successful and stylish career women that they themselves wish to become.

“I was impressed by the concept and their interior design, and the fact that the two women managing all of this are around my age,” says Yuri. “I’m interested in starting a business of my own in the future, so I’m keen on learning how they came this far.”

For more information about Tokyo Girls Fudosan, see http://tkgf.jp (Japanese) or call 03-5772-6385 (Japanese and English).

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.


58 Comments
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What is with all this women-only thing in Japan? As if Japanese women weren't horribly arrogant enough already

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Safety. Pure and simple.

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One more way of Japanese ensuring their demise.

Let's look at what we read these days.

Women won't marry unless they can get a guy who meets their financial standards. Yet most eligible single men fall well short of those expectations. The rise of so called herbavore men means less guys out there trying to start up reasonable relationships. Everyone is still overworked so no time to meet anyone. And if they do manage to couple up, they don't have kids. Overall decline in verbal personal communication skills is increasingly isolating Japanese people from each other. The whole virtual world that occupies more and more who prefer fantacy partners over real ones. Continued poor birth rate.

Now add in separate living. Maybe separate prefectures would be a good idea too. And even more impossible to meet standards. Result = extinct race once known as Japanese.

This country is becoming very worrisome.

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I read the article in metro. Two very sharp women. Maybe they can redecorate the women only cars on the trains, and let men take a tour of them for a small fee.

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why all the hate? This is the kind of thing you need to be successful. Take an existing set of products (apartments), re-package it without needing to actually produce anything (re model) and sell it to a hot niche (women who want to escape from reality).

Of course, a couple of cute girls selling cheap shared apartments with gaudy interior design to females only will ALWAYS get much more press than the hundreds, if not thousands of landlords who have already jumped on this bandwagon and converted closet space and rented them out to part timers one or two meals way from poverty.

When its done for guys, its necessary, economy, etc.

When a couple of cuties do it its kawaii, cutting edge, brilliant, photogenic, media savvy, etc.

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Sounds healthy to me. Hopefully everyone helps each other out and it does not become a cat house or hen house with people at each others throats. Smart girls who started this and they are doing a real service for society and making money at the same time.

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Fantastic idea whose time has come. I came to Japan during the bubble and was always amazed at how few Japanese stayed at Okubo House (where I stayed for awhile). If the Japanese can accept shared housing, there will be a new boom in select areas of Tokyo. By the way, Japanese guys will do it next. Great work Kana and Yumi! :)

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Good for them!

But its a shame they're cordoning off all the stylish, ambitious career women.

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Hasn't this already been done in the form of having roommates?

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Are they allowed to bring men home after a date? I mean the women only thing may get in the way of that...

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This is a good idea for a TV drama! They even got the title picked out already!

Real estate is famous for its Yakuza ties. I wonder how they "solved" those issues...

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So, if I open a men only golf club, why am I the bad boy?

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I don't think guys are allowed in here. If you wanna hook up take her to your place or find a love hotel you cheapskates!

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why all the hate?

The article itself doesn't exactly come across too positive towards men now does it. That's the author though not the subject.

As an aside, I spent a fair amount of time in communal living situations when I was younger and the consensus amongst residents was that guys are actually much better at communal living than girls.

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As far as I can tell they are just scaling up the western roommate concept. Take some luxury apartments only western expats would rent, repartition it into a larger common space and a bunch of small bedrooms. Collect the profit. When one renter leaves the landlord is only out 1/5 to 1/10 until the new tenant is found.

One of the pluses to this concept in Japan compared to the West is the existence of love hotels. Since a couple can get an hourly room they don't have to bother their roommates.

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One more way of Japanese ensuring their demise.

Hikikomori and parasite singles.
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Oh boo hoo, poor little menz. Here's a tissue.

But what else would I expect? The posters here moan and groan that women! Are going! Out! At night! By themselves! In skirts!! And oh noooo they just can't helllllp committing assault if a woman is wearing a short skirt, and if she has her laundry on the porch she's just ASKING for theft, and if she gets groped, well, she should just get over it, and exploited 13-year-olds should go to jail for tempting the poor little men ...

You guys have such a poor view of men yourselves. Why would women want to share a house with you? And if, as you imply, men are animals with no self-control and women are evil monsters who do nothing but tempt you with their non-male bodies, then why would you want to share a house with us either?

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bamboohat. "This is the kind of thing you need to be successful. Take an existing set of products (apartments), re-package it without needing to actually produce anything (re model) and sell it to a hot niche (women who want to escape from reality)."

Just because something makes good business sense does not mean it makes good social and community sense. Too often people confuse profit making expediency with good. When often there are social, environmental or other consequences that should be considered.

Japan should make it more possible for friends to cohabitate and live as roommates. It is a win win for everyone as it could encourage more people to move out from home and start independent lives while adding new clients to the landlords and fudo-sans.

But another trending dorm type situation just adds one more stone on the grave of Japan's social systems. In a society with the social problems of this country encouraging more separation of men and women doesn't make good long term social sense. It adds one more way for people to fail to pair up. And it makes one more group of weak insulated communities unable to deal with the reality of life.

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You guys have such a poor view of men yourselves. Why would women want to share a house with you? And if, as you imply, men are animals with no self-control and women are evil monsters who do nothing but tempt you with their non-male bodies, then why would you want to share a house with us either?

Calm down, have a cup of tea and an aspirin.

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A typical TKGF apartment consists of private bedrooms that link to common areas, kitchens and bathrooms. The smallest unit accommodates four residents; the largest, 10. Rents range from 52,000 yen to 125,000 yen.

Oh! A gaijin house, except for Japanese single women! Starting at 5-man and going up to 12-man and I get to share the kitchen, bath and toilet? Wow, to live in such an age. I think they better go back to Ikea, judging by the 'design' I see in this photo.

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Leo Palace and most of the temporary apartment companies offer women only residences. Mind you, you wouldn't want to take pictures of their presidents.

This is a real fluff piece and ignores some very fundamental points like one of the partners is from Gakushuin. No she doesn't have serious contacts that most people could only dream of....

My favorite quote:

“Living with other girls and learning things like how they do their makeup and wear their clothes stimulates my sense of style,” Yuri says.

Hmm..

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Okay, it's a bit fluffy and kawaii but overall I think it's a good idea. I don't think it will result in any more separtation between men & women than there is now. If anything, it will encourage young women to move out on their own, become independent and confident and will probably make dating easier. (since they won't have mom and dad breathing down their necks) Now they just need a few of these for the guys and voila...we have lots of mature adults, living on their own which will probably lead to more healthy relationships in the future.

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ha ha ha now there is no need to put the toilet sit up,huh!

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I think it is a good idea. Now, it would be a great experiment to give one apartment to a man and see if the women´s behavior changes.

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I do agree with dolphingirl, its good to get people out into the real world, integrating into social communities, and the good and the bad that comes with it. You can't live in a glass shell all your life until you get married.

This is a good option for recently graduated women that want to keep their independence. If it was a coed setting I guarantee you that most parents would not approve.

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real world

now there's a great idea for a reality show. Stick a camera in one of these places and show it to all the asiaphiles back west. They'll at it up.

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Yes, discrimination is alive and well and in your face in Japan. Discrimination-lite, I guess, in this case. Anyway, more importantly what is the deal with that choice of the word "fantasize" in the first sentence of this article. Is it about some fantasy of men, especially regarding the young lady in pink (with boots in background) with her bottom suggestively directed toward camera in the lead photo? Or is it the fantasy of men to have their own men`s only TKBF??

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kyolicious at 10:43 AM JST - 12th November Oh boo hoo, poor little menz. Here's a tissue. But what else would I expect? The posters here moan and groan that women! Are going! Out! At night! By themselves! In skirts!! And oh noooo they just can't helllllp committing assault if a woman is wearing a short skirt

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Men just get free company housing where people cook/wash for them instead...

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It always surprises me that students here tend to live in 6 mat rooms by themselves, instead of getting together in a group and renting a bigger flat. Sitting by themselves in a tiny room every evening can't be good for mental health. I much prefer living with other people.

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Good for them! Sounds really convenient for single women looking for a nice, safe place to live for not a whole lot of money. With more women working and less money being made from the poor economy, it sounds awesome! If I go back to Tokyo, I may have to check out these places myself...

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If I go back to Tokyo, I may have to check out these places myself...

Foreign women aren't allowed

Just kidding!!

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Seriously though, I wonder what their policies on foriegners are...

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Discrimination never end in Japan only when they do not have to eat nohting then they will welcome to chinese because they are now getting wealthy and letters are almost same.

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... ignores some very fundamental points like one of the partners is from Gakushuin. No she doesn't have serious contacts that most people could only dream of....

Bingo!!

Modeal airheads for a probably male run business.

As for the roomate comment, could you imagine a bunch of Japanese students living together. They'd all sit there and play games and not speak to each other. Or the girls could trade make-ups tips all night long to stimulate their brains. Gag.

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Did I miss something? Where did they get their capital from? Daddy? They have a good business model/idea but any good idea requires capital.

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Well if you can afford Gakushuin I assume yes, daddy. Or a sugar daddy.

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The fees for Gakushuin Women's College are no higher than any other private college, unless you opt for the English Communication course which involves extra fees for a 6-month home stay abroad.

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Did I miss something? Where did they get their capital from? Daddy? They have a good business model/idea but any good idea requires capital.

Yeah, I think you missed this part- A landlord we knew was having trouble with unoccupied apartments in his building, and as an experiment, we helped him turn the rooms into a share house,” Arai says. “It turned out to be a big success. The owner introduced us to others, and they introduced us to more people, and — well, here we are.

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the best / most innovative article on JT in a long time bravo!

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Good for them a little entrepeneurial spirit and they've got a success on their hands. That said, my wife would never have opted for one of these back in the day "talking about makeup and clothes" would probably stimulate her to a homocide.

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Great article, this is definitely a good alternative to people living alone in tiny apartments. Probably also good for mental health, it's surprising how many people live alone.

Lots of very sexist comments here by people who couldn't read the article. They are service based and didn't need much capital to renovate an existing apartment into a share house. That landlord then referred them to others. Sexists.

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tmarie,

Bingo!!

Modeal airheads for a probably male run business.

You hit the nail on the head. Just take a look at the company's registration documents.

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evaganda at 01:02 PM JST - 12th November

"ha ha ha now there is no need to put the toilet sit up,huh"!

The reason the seat is up, is one of the new tenants is a guy in drag! You can see dozens everyday on TV.

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I'd say boys can get much better together than girls. In every communal living situations I've been (even living next doors to girls rooms), girls used to fight and have conflicts much more often than us, boys...(that is, no one cares about the toilet seat or the hair in the shower and when we clean the rooms (once a week usually) everyone gives a hand...

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Isn't this housing discrimination, oh wait this is Japan...

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Seriously though, I wonder what their policies on foriegners are...

I remember passing by temp apartment residence where there was a dispute between the residence and the owners. There was a posted placard indicating the problem:

The residence had been marketed as "women's only" but the owner had reneged and allowed "men and foreigners" to rent some of the rooms.

I am not making this up, that is exactly what was posted.

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I shall check out my Tom Hanks collection and watch his old TV show "Bosom Buddies" <nudge, nudge> for some hints.

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A house full of just girls?????what a nightmare, seen that disaster scenario many a time. Shared apartments work well mixed or just guys but only girls is volatile proposition, well western women anyway!

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So... the conclusion is...? "Western girls can't stand each other!"

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"Seriously though, I wonder what their policies on foriegners are..."

I would guess so long as they are willing to pay 125 man a month then the owners aren't going to complain.

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I would guess so long as they are willing to pay 125 man a month then the owners aren't going to complain.

If it were only that simple...

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Lots of very sexist comments here by people who couldn't read the article.

Not half as sexist as running a business that excludes half the population because they weren't born female. An estate agency that excluded foreigners in this way would be pilloried, andrightly so.

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The fees for Gakushuin Women's College are no higher than any other private college, unless you opt for the English Communication course which involves extra fees for a 6-month home stay abroad.

That's nice but do you think they let just anyone in here? They don't . You need to come from certain families to get in unless things have changed in the past few years.

Moderator: Back on topic please.

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do you think they let just anyone in here?

No, you have to pass the entrance exam, just like anywhere else (Unless your name is Something no miya).

You need to come from certain families to get in unless things have changed in the past few years.

Then things must have changed in the last few years, because my friend's son went to Gakushuin (not the women's college, obviously), and they're a pretty ordinary family. Nice people, but not Something no miyas.

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I realize that Tokyo Girls Fudosan is filling a niche market, and their innovation regarding shared residences is innovative, but the women-only policy isn't far removed from the disgraceful "Whites Only" and "No Coloreds" signs seen in the West within living memory. If many more real estate agents also refused to accept one gender as customers, it would become a serious social problem -- TKGF is profiting off the egalitarianism and lack of discrimination shown by other agents.

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Sounds like it'll attract creeps and predators and losers that only look at women or girls in conbini mags.

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hey do you think they could do a no black and no gays set of rooms? Oh and no gingers either, but luckily there arent many of their kind in japan. Got to keep the riff raff out you know !!

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