Declining Population and Urbanization leads to Japan's Vacant Housing Crisis

Declining Population and Urbanization leads to Japan's Vacant Housing Crisis

The number of vacant houses in Japan has surged to a record high of nine million, more than enough for each person in New York City, as the East Asian country continues to struggle with its ever-declining population.

Abandoned houses, known in Japan as “akiya,” usually refer to derelict residential homes in rural areas. However, an increasing number of akiya are being seen in major cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto, posing significant challenges for a government already grappling with an aging population and a declining birth rate.

“This is a symptom of Japan’s population decline,” said Jeffrey Hall, a lecturer at Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba. “It’s not really a problem of building too many houses but a problem of not having enough people,” he added.

According to figures compiled by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 14% of all residential properties in Japan are vacant. These numbers include second homes and properties left empty for other reasons, such as temporary vacancies while owners work overseas. While not all these properties are derelict like traditional akiya, their growing number presents various challenges for the government and communities.

Experts highlight that abandoned houses can stifle attempts to rejuvenate decaying towns, become potential hazards due to lack of maintenance, and pose risks during disasters in a country prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. Akiya are often passed down through generations, but with Japan’s plummeting fertility rate, many are left with no heirs or are inherited by younger generations who have moved to cities and see little value in rural properties.

Local authorities often face difficulties in identifying property owners due to poor record-keeping, making it hard to rejuvenate aging rural communities and attract younger people or investors. Japan's tax policies can also discourage owners from demolishing vacant homes, finding it cheaper to retain them. Additionally, many akiya are located in areas with limited access to public transport, healthcare, and other amenities, making them unattractive to potential buyers.

Trending videos show people, mainly foreigners, buying cheap Japanese houses and converting them into stylish guesthouses and cafes, but Hall warned it's not as easy as it seems. "Most of these homes are not going to be sold to foreigners, and the amount of administrative work and rules make it challenging for those who don't speak or read Japanese well,” he said.

Japan’s population has been in decline for several years, with the population shrinking by more than 800,000 in 2022 to 125.4 million. In 2023, the number of new births fell for the eighth consecutive year to a record low. Japan's birth rate has hovered around 1.3 for years, far from the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications recently reported that the number of children under age 15 dropped for the 43rd straight year to a record low of around 14 million as of April 1.

This ongoing demographic shift means the problem of too many homes and too few people is set to continue. Yuki Akiyama, a professor of architecture and urban design at Tokyo City University, highlighted the dangers posed by vacant houses during disasters. For instance, the 7.5 magnitude earthquake that hit the Noto Peninsula in January caused significant issues due to the concentration of akiya, which posed risks to residents and challenges for post-earthquake reconstruction.

“In an earthquake or tsunami, vacant houses can block evacuation routes as they break down and get destroyed,” Akiyama said. After the earthquake, unclear ownership complicated efforts to clean up damaged properties, hindering reconstruction.

In rural areas with many vacant houses, akiya stall development. “The value of the area decreases because you can't buy and sell properties properly or undertake large-scale development,” Akiyama explained. He noted that homes in Japan are not valued for their longevity, unlike in the West, where historical buildings are often prized.

Akiyama has developed an AI program to predict areas most vulnerable to akiya, but stressed that the problem is not unique to Japan, as similar issues have been observed in the US and some European countries. However, Japan's architectural history and culture make its situation particularly severe, as newer homes tend to be valued higher, diminishing interest in older properties.

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