Tokyo Despatch | International

For sale: The ‘ghost houses’ in Japan

A man walks past a vacant house in the Yato area of Yokosuka City, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. More than 50 houses and apartments, almost 20 percent of the quaint residential neighborhood of narrow streets and stairway paths leading into green hills, are empty here, an hour's train ride south of Tokyo and 1,000 yards (900 meters) from the Yokosuka naval base, home of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A man walks past a vacant house in the Yato area of Yokosuka City, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. More than 50 houses and apartments, almost 20 percent of the quaint residential neighborhood of narrow streets and stairway paths leading into green hills, are empty here, an hour's train ride south of Tokyo and 1,000 yards (900 meters) from the Yokosuka naval base, home of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg via Getty Images  

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In Japan, even ceramic tea bowls are carefully passed down from generation to generation. Recycling is so much part of the culture that the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games medals will be crafted from the metal of defunct mobile phones. And yet, it is also the norm for Japanese to discard their houses with almost less thought than most people would give to disposing a beloved kimono. Homes are usually built to last only about 20-30 years, giving rise to a uniquely Japanese building culture termed ‘scrap and build’.

The reasons for this phenomenon range from an unstable geography prone to earthquakes making for an architectural context of impermanence to the need for constantly updating building technology as it improves. When combined with shrinking demographics, the result is a housing problem that is the opposite of what most countries face. Instead of a housing shortage, Japan has too many houses that no one seems to want: derelict, ‘ghost’ homes that over time become firetraps, attract vermin, turn into rubbish dumps and diminish the value of surrounding property.

According to the Fujitsu Research Institute, the number of vacant houses in Japan in 2013 reached 8.2 million. They estimate that by 2033, nearly 30% of all houses will lie vacant. Hidetaka Yoneyama, senior fellow at the institute, clarified that the 8.2 million homes divide into several categories, including houses that are only vacant temporarily as owners try to find tenants or buyers. Genuine ghost homes that have been abandoned altogether number 3.18 million.

Japan’s population peaked half a decade ago and declined by almost a million between 2010 and 2015. It is forecast to fall by a third over the next 50 years. Unsurprisingly, homeowners sometimes have no heirs to leave their property to. Those who inherit often do not have the resources to refurbish the house or even to demolish it. A decades-old tax break intended to encourage home construction set property tax rates on vacant lots at six times the level of those on built-up land, a huge disincentive against demolition.

Shortage of buyers

Moreover, many who inherit a house are unable to sell them because of a shortage of interested buyers. The problem is particularly acute in rural areas that have faced decades of depopulation. In 2015, a new Vacant Houses law was passed, rescinding the problematic tax break on built-up properties. It also gave local governments the authority to designate certain homes as abandoned or “akiya”. If repeated attempts to persuade owners of akiya to remedy the situation fail, municipalities now have the authority to tear down the houses and send the bill to the owner. But there are many cases where the owner is unknown or insolvent. In these instances, taxpayers end up footing the bill for demolition.

The problem can only be solved by a mental and cultural shift that would allow for a rapid expansion of the Japanese second-hand housing market, says Mr. Yoneyama. Currently, less than 15% of Japan’s housing comprises second-hand properties, compared to 90% in the U.S. There are some signs that younger Japanese are becoming more willing to accept previously loved homes. A few entrepreneurs have begun to refurbish akiya to sell them on, cheaply. Some municipalities are offering subsidies for trial runs of living in unoccupied homes. Yet, as Mr. Yoneyama says, developers continue to construct more than 8,00,000 new homes a year, while people still believe a house need only last for their lifetime.

Pallavi Aiyar is an author and journalist based in Tokyo

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Printable version | Dec 11, 2019 7:11:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/for-sale-the-ghost-houses-in-japan/article21822927.ece

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