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Sharing Economy

Airbnb axes thousands more illegal lodgings in Japan

Hosts use fake registration numbers to dodge new law

Tourists visit Kyoto's Kiyomizu Temple. The historic city remains home to at least 2,000 illegal Airbnb listings.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Airbnb still faces demands from the Japan Tourism Agency to take down unregistered lodgings that violate the country's new home-sharing law a week after it took effect, despite having removed thousands of such listings already.

"We have been removing illegal listings as we find them, whether they were automatically detected by our system or reported by local authorities," Mika Yamamoto, Airbnb Japan's public policy manager, told reporters on Thursday. Since the law took effect on June 15, several thousand additional lodgings have been taken down from Airbnb's website.

Japanese officials have high hopes that home-sharing would help sustain and grow an inbound tourism boom that the country has been enjoying over the past several years. Yet it is becoming clear that some home-sharers are dodging the new law by using fake registration numbers, which has made the government nervous about the spread of the sharing economy. 

Under the new law, people who rent private homes to travelers in Japan must notify authorities. Airbnb Japan requires hosts to provide a confirmation number to show that they have completed this process. 

In early June, the site stopped displaying offerings that did not have a registration number or meet existing rules on lodgings, which the new law was meant to clarify. By the day the law took effect, Japanese listings had fallen to about 27,000 from a peak of around 62,000 in spring.

Some localities have notified the tourism agency of unregistered Airbnb listings. Kyoto, a major travel destination, found at least 2,000 illegal rooms on Airbnb as of Thursday, according to the city.

Airbnb's automatic checks apparently failed to catch fake confirmation numbers that mimicked the pattern of the letter "M" followed by nine digits. Though some of these cases may result from simple typos or system problems, others likely involve hosts deliberately entering fake numbers -- possibly to keep their lodgings available amid delays in the registration process.

The San Francisco-based company also let some hosts continue to operate even without legal permission if they provided justification. Airbnb says it soon will eliminate that back door, citing widespread abuse.

This month's law lets the Japan Tourism Agency hit Airbnb and other booking sites with orders to shape up and requires that they report on their listed lodgings every six months. The agency has demanded reports on the overall state of their listings and other information by the end of June.

But the law does not require home-sharing platforms themselves to confirm the validity of listings' confirmation numbers and other documentation in detail. Some sites do carry out those checks, but Airbnb does not, with Yamamoto citing insufficient staff to examine its many listings. Concerns also exist that removing illegal listings could strand some travelers, driving them away from home-sharing.

In San Francisco, Airbnb teams with local governments to filter out unauthorized properties at the listing stage. That system appears likely to serve as a model for Japanese operations.

Critics of the home-sharing law say it imposes complicated procedures on hosts, a situation exacerbated by local ordinances seeking to further regulate the practice. But one woman, who has cleared the notification hurdle for her home-share in downtown Tokyo's Shibuya district, said she wants others in the business to play by "fair and impartial rules."

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