Q: Jane decided to move to an apartment near her new office. By luck, one of her friends was moving out of an ideal apartment and Jane did not hesitate to take it. A few weeks after she moved in, on a hot summer day, the air conditioner installed in the room broke down. What can Jane do?

A: She should ask her landlord to fix the air conditioner or, if that would take too much time, have it repaired and charge the cost to the landlord. Article 606 of the Civil Code states that a lessor is responsible for repairing the object of the lease.
In addition, Article 608 states that if a lessee has disbursed any necessary expenses for the object of the lease, the lessee can demand reimbursement from the lessor.
The legal precedents, however, do not require the lessor to lie responsible for negligible defects that do not affect the lessee's living conditions. It is difficult to draw a clear line between what is negligible and what is not, and it is often dependent on other conditions of the lease, such as rent.
If the rent is kept low, the scope of the lessor's responsibilities tends to be less broad. As to the air conditioner, a court would most likely decide that the lessor is responsible for its repair.

Q: What if the lease agreement said that the lessee should be responsible for the repair?

A: Many lease agreements do have provisions on the lessee's responsibility to repair the home and its fixtures. The Civil Code's articles mentioned above are not mandatory pro-visions and the parties to the lease can agree otherwise.
Even when there is an agreement making the lessee responsible for repair, the court tends to interpret the agreement as requiring the lessee to repair only small defects. Generally speaking, defects in the structure of the building and damage caused by acts of God are considered the responsibilities of a lessor regardless of any special agreement to the contrary.
The breakdown of an air conditioner would probably be considered a small defect and it would be difficult to force the lessor to make the repair. In any event, it is advisable to specify in the lease agreement the scope of responsibilities of the lessor and the lessee.

Q: In Jane's case, the lease agreement says that the landlord is responsible for repair of the air conditioner. If the landlord refuses to fix the air conditioner, can Jane withhold her rent payment?

A: It is possible for Jane to demand a reduced rent. She may not, however, suspend payment of the rent or reduce the rent unilaterally without a court ruling. She must pay the rent in full until she obtains such a ruling, otherwise, she would be in breach of the lease agreement.

Q: Let's suppose that Jane’s lease agreement did not have any provisions on repair, but a separate booklet given to Jane specified the items whose repairs are the responsibility of the lessee. Is Jane bound by this booklet?
A: Generally, no. Under Japanese contract law, a "meeting of the minds" is required to form a binding contract. If Jane was not aware of the booklet when she signed the lease agreement, there was obviously no meeting of the minds with respect to the booklet.
This is true even when the lease agreement referred to the booklet (which was given to Jane after the agreement was signed) as a part of the agreement. If Jane did not have a chance to read the booklet, she should not be bound by it.
Things get complicated if the booklet was given to Jane together with the lease agreement if the landlord did riot explain the nature of the booklet when the lease agreement was signed, Jane may successfully assert that. it is not binding. Please note in this connection that the landlord has the right to establish administration regulations (kanri saisoku) setting forth flues on use of the apartment (e.g. where to put. garbage).
Q: What if the air conditioner was installed by Jane's friend and Jane knew it?

A: In that case, the landlord is most likely not responsible for the repairs. In the absence of any specific agreement among the parties involved, it would probably be considered that Jane received ownership of the air conditioner from her friend. Under the circumstances, Jane would not only be responsible for its repair, but also be required to take the air conditioner with her when she moves out of the apartment.

The author, Jun Norisugi, is a practicing lawyer at Norisugi & Associates and specializes in international business affairs.