• Opinion
  • January 8, 2019
  • 9 minutes
  • 1

Ghost towns in Japan: a different kind of housing crisis

Opinion: Population decrease in rural towns is posing challenges for housing policy

housing policy

This piece was written by Rosalind KennyBirch. For more like this, see our rural newsfeed.


 During Professor Masuda Hiroya’s 12 years in office as governor of Iwate Prefecture, his greatest concern was not crime, infrastructure or poverty. Rather, it was a declining population and the resulting issue of marginal settlements.

The total population in Iwate, a rural northern jurisdiction in Japan, was 1,419,000 in 1995. When Professor Hiroya left office in 2007, it was 1,363,000. Now, the population estimate is just 1,240,522.

He says that a declining population not only lowers the functions of regional communities like Iwate, but also makes it difficult for them to maintain key services like medical care and education.

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Iwate is not alone in this dilemma: Okutama, a town known for its timber supply, has seen its population plummet from 13,000 residents in the 1960s to only 5,200 today due to liberalisation of imports and falling demand for timber.

To spur people to populate these rural regions, Japan has adopted a radical solution: giving away homes for free, or at extremely low prices. An increasing number of unoccupied properties around the country are being listed for sale on online databases known as “akiya [vacant house] banks”.

Significant government subsidies are available to those who agree to buy and refurbish abandoned properties, turning them into community assets. To receive a subsidy, one must fulfil certain conditions which vary by local government. Flat 35 Mortgages, fixed interest loans with terms of 35 years, are one popular option offered by most Japanese banks with low interest rates.

Many are still reluctant to uproot their urban lives

Yet even with these policies, many are still reluctant to uproot their urban lives, even by moving to towns just an hour’s drive from megacities like Tokyo. In addition, the Flat 35 Mortgage scheme is typically only applicable for homes built to post-1981 earthquake standards, problematic because many akiyas were built before these measures were introduced.

The spread of “ghost houses”

Many empty homes have been inherited by Japanese who do not want them, but have difficulty selling the buildings because there is not sufficient interest from buyers. The development of sturdier homes, whilst beneficial for home owners, has also amplified the problem of “ghost houses”.

Hidetaka Yoneyama, a housing specialist at the Fujitsu Research Institute think tank, said that until recently, “homes in Japan were built to last only about 30 years, when they were then expected to be torn down and rebuilt”. This is no longer the case, and abandoned homes are left to rot. “Building quality is improving,” Yoneyama adds, “but the market for second-hand homes remains tiny”.

He also notes that despite the many empty homes left standing, developers have continued to build more than 800,000 new homes and condominiums a year. Meanwhile, abandoned houses are vulnerable to vandalism, receive less tax income and devalue.

What makes a house a home

Home ownership is an aspiration for people across countries. But the attraction of home ownership is not simply to lay claim to a building; it is also to fulfil the desire of integrating into a community with nice neighbours, good schools and job opportunities. This is the problem Japanese authorities have faced: “depopulated areas need a sustainable economic development plan and community building activities between locals and newcomers if they are to thrive”.

Some locales believe this means creating smaller urban centres. But this ignores the factors that may drive workers to move out of the city and into a rural area in the first place. They may want to raise a family away from a polluted city centre, grow their own vegetables or simply escape the relentless pace of a conurbation. The key is to create a balance of opportunities for residents to thrive whilst retaining a town’s culture.

Tourism doesn’t create staying power

Converting abandoned spaces into shops and businesses can encourage people to visit or commute to an area. But sometimes, trendy places cater more to passers-through than to those considering putting down roots in the area.

The Ida family in Okutama tried buying and converting a second-hand kominka (a Japanese house over 100 years old) into a roadside cafe “catering to roving hikers and bikers”. The café is filled with local artwork and antiques.

Naoko Ida explains that “some people like this culture and really like old things but they hesitate about committing to rural life”. In fact, Naoko explains her eldest daughter “can’t wait to leave home and rent a place of her own in the city”.

Therefore, whilst renovations of empty buildings are welcome, a careful balance of leisure and entertainment venues with new businesses and start-ups should be implemented. A town strategy, rather than the somewhat random creation of new ventures which are not well-linked to each other, is needed.

New kinds of neighbours

In addition to providing free or low-cost homes, more incentives are needed to encourage people to move to more remote regions of Japan. However, given that homes are literally being offered for free, or on next-to-nothing interest rates, one has to wonder what further incentives could be given to people, other than a radical overhaul of specific towns.

In confronting an ageing and increasingly urban population, Japan may need to consider new policies in other areas, like immigration and infrastructure, to tempt people back to rural areas.

It can seem as if there are simply not enough people in Japan to occupy abandoned homes

It can seem as if there are simply not enough people in Japan to occupy abandoned homes and revitalise neighbourhoods in rural areas. But what if the Japanese considered providing stipends or incentives to immigrants who wish to move to Japan?

The Government could make it a prerequisite that to move to the country an immigrant family must commit to spending a certain number of years living in, and working to revitalise, a rural area. However, the Japanese remain suspicious of immigration and society remains highly homogenous. The ethnic Japanese population sits at approximately 98.5% as of the 2015 census.

The Japanese approach to housing offers lessons for countries which confront increasingly urban and ageing societies. For example Germany, which has an ageing population, should monitor the Japanese approach as it unfolds, to see how successful the policies are overtime. The US could emulate Japan’s housing policy to lure people who have deserted towns in the Great Plains back to their home states.

But as the Japanese case study shows, the free housing policy is not a panacea for rural towns: it must be coupled with community-wide economic and cultural incentives. — Rosalind KennyBirch

(Picture credit: Flickr/BongGrit)

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