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Japan's 'ghost houses' given second life as rural towns fight blight

Small communities roll out red carpet for new residents to fill 8m abandoned homes

An empty house in Kawaguchiko: the Yamanashi Prefecture town has seen some of the biggest decreases in the number of empty homes in Japan. (Photo by Takanori Tani)

TOKYO -- Local governments in Japan have been luring people to take ownership of the country's more than 8 million abandoned homes through a host of incentives, including millions of yen in renovation grants, new zoning laws and even giving away the structures for free. 

As Japan's population steadily declines, many communities across the nation are facing a growing problem of empty homes with little prospect of finding new residents. But a close look at housing data shows that some towns and cities have succeeded in turning the blight into a blessing, luring new residents through fresh incentives and reforms to reverse demographic decline.

Roughly 8.49 million homes stood empty across Japan as of 2018, up 3.6% in five years, according to a report from the internal affairs ministry.

Of particular concern are those that are not listed for rent or sale even after their residents have long gone. The number of these unlisted homes, which include old family homes that remain empty after the parents' death, for example, increased 9.5% and make up roughly 40% of all unoccupied homes.

Areas facing steep population declines, like Shikoku and Kyushu in the southwest, have experienced the biggest problem with empty homes. Still, 37% of municipalities across Japan reported fewer empty homes in 2018 than in 2013, thanks to private-sector partnerships, incentives and deregulation designed to encourage more people to move into them.

Mikasa, on the northern island Hokkaido, logged the sharpest decrease in unlisted homes at 11%, defying the stereotypes of decline often associated with old mining hubs. The city's generous subsidies for child care and home purchases have attracted new residents from neighboring communities, many of whom were able to keep their jobs in their old hometowns. Incentives for long-distance commuters have brought in new residents from as far as Sapporo, the island's biggest city.

The town of Fujikawaguchiko, located in the foothills of Mount Fuji, came in second at 8.3%. Roughly 130 properties on the town's database of empty homes sold in the five years, while local residents have banded together to provide advice to those interested in moving in.

The trend has only continued in recent years, with the resort town of Fujikawaguchiko experiencing a net inflow of residents in both fiscal 2019 and fiscal 2020. "We're now seeing more younger families move here while still keeping their jobs in Tokyo, since they have the option to work remotely," said a town government spokesperson.

Daisen in Tottori Prefecture saw the sharpest decline in empty homes overall, at 7.9%. Many visitors were drawn to its scenic landscape -- with a towering mountain to its south and the Sea of Japan to its north -- as well as an up to 2 million yen ($18,200) subsidy for those renovating homes on its empty home database offered through fiscal 2019.

An abandoned home in the town of Okutama in Tokyo whose ownership was transferred for free through a unique program.

In Tokyo, the town of Okutama is going so far as to hand over aging buildings that have deteriorated too much to be habitable to new owners for free. Though located far from the town center and abandoned for decades, all three properties registered for the program so far have been claimed, and are set to be renovated as ateliers, restaurants and other businesses.

"The program not only helps the old owners, who were struggling to utilize the properties and pay taxes, but also for the town by reducing the number of abandoned buildings that could collapse or otherwise pose risks in the future," said a spokesperson for the Okutama government office in charge.

Some of the most successful municipalities in filling empty homes have enlisted help from the private sector. Moroyama in Saitama Prefecture trained appraisers in partnership with Tokyo-based Sanyu Appraisal to triage empty properties and identify the improvements required to bring them back onto the market.

Others tackled regulatory reforms to woo would-be residents. Sayo in Hyogo Prefecture in 2017 lowered the minimum size of agricultural plots that can accompany houses in its empty house databank to 1 sq. meter from 3,000 sq. meters, to better cater to more casual gardeners. Roughly 40% of homes sold since came with agricultural plots, according to the town.

Coordination with greater community development plans is key as well. Many of the best-performing municipalities, like Fukushima Prefecture's Inawashiro, have restricted suburban developments.

Japan has a much higher percentage of empty homes than many other countries at 13% in 2018, compared with 8.3% in France, 2.5% in the U.K. and 6.7% in South Korea in 2016, according to Osaka University of Economics and Law professor Hidetaka Yoneyama. These figures exclude vacation houses and other secondary residences.

There is concern that empty homes if ignored will end up as eyesores or even lead to increased crime rates. In response to such worries that more and more property in Japan could go unclaimed amid a demographic decline, the government has recently introduced a new requirement for owners of inherited property to register with the government within a specified time frame.

Still, Yoneyama says greater changes to Japan's housing policies are needed. "We need a framework to downsize communities to match their population, and to have homeowners put aside the cost of potentially demolishing the property at the time of purchase," he said.

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