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As Japan's empty homes multiply, its laws are slowly catching up

Unclaimed land could swell to the size of Hokkaido by 2040 if left unchecked

An abandoned home with an ocean view, Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture. In Kushimoto, more than one out of four houses are vacant. (Photo by Thomas Shomaker)

TANABE, JAPAN -- Outside of densely populated cities characterized by skyscrapers and tiny apartments lies another Japan. In much of this world, akiya, abandoned homes, and akibiru, abandoned buildings, form the backdrop to everyday life -- not a picture one immediately associates with the hustle and bustle of the world's third largest economy.

But if current trends continue, more than 30% of Japan's housing stock -- 22 million units -- will be derelict by 2038, Nomura Research Institute predicts. In other words, Japan has a very large problem with unclaimed land -- one that could potentially reach the size of Hokkaido, the country's second-largest island, by 2040, according to another study, published in 2017.

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