- With the vast majority of people choosing to live in cities, disused derelict houses are increasingly becoming eyesores in suburban and country areas
When Mitsue Nagasaku was a child, the three small flats in front of her parents’ home in the Negishi district of Yokohama were occupied, and the owner of the largest could often be seen tending the vegetables in her garden.
The last of the three residents died about a decade ago, and the flats – despite being in a desirable district with direct railway links to central Tokyo – have since remained empty.
While other old houses have been pulled down and new homes have sprung up, these three have slowly fallen into disrepair. Creeping vines can be seen on the inside of the grimy windows, metal roofing sheets have come loose, and the postman has long given up putting circulars in the rusty letterbox.
According to a report by the Japanese government, 8.46 million homes lie empty across the country, about 260,000 more than in a previous survey conducted in 2013. The latest figure accounts for 13.6 per cent of Japan’s total housing stock.
Of those empty, 4.99 million properties are still registered with local authorities as residences, and the owners say they plan to redevelop the sites or sell in the future. But the remaining 3.47 million have simply been abandoned, and that figure is up a steep 9.7 per cent since the previous study.
“These abandoned properties are largely in rural parts of the country, which have seen large-scale migration to the cities over the last few decades as people look for better work opportunities and the ‘bright lights’,” says Adam German, vice-president of business development for Tokyo-based property agency Housing Japan. “And when parents or the last in the family line die, the house is left empty.”
Typically, there are a number of scenarios in this situation, he says. Often, none of the children want the old house so it falls into disrepair. Alternatively, the descendants disagree over who should inherit the property, or, if it is shared equally between two or more children then they disagree about whether to keep it or sell up, leading to an impasse in which nothing is done.
German adds that Japan’s complex and confusing rules on inheritance, as well as high death taxes, are an additional layer of difficulty.
In other cases, when a person dies, there are sometimes no relatives and no way of passing the property or land on to anyone else. As a result, the site is left in limbo and the local authority has no right to either sell the site off or redevelop.
Japan’s falling population also means there is less urgency to redevelop hundreds of thousands of properties in areas that a generation ago would have been considered prime targets – such as the flats in Negishi.
There are 126 million Japanese today, but the figure is in decline and is expected to contract to a mere 88 million by 2065. The vast majority will choose to live in the cities, with empty houses increasingly becoming eyesores in suburban areas.
“You do not have to go very far beyond southern Yokohama or parts of Saitama prefecture to the north of Tokyo to find this problem creeping in,” German says. “This is just beyond what many people consider to be a comfortable commuting distance, but the basic problem in society here is that people are not getting married and having children.
“Instead of living in family homes in the suburbs, they’re staying single and renting one-room flats in districts close to their places of work.”
An average of 37,500 people live in every square mile of Tokyo – one of the highest urban densities in the world – and the government has finally accepted that something needs to be done to ensure the nation’s countryside is not completely denuded of the people that make up its communities.
In December, authorities announced plans to offer up to 3 million yen (US$27,400) for anyone who agrees to swap life in the congested capital for a home in the countryside. The grants are designed to help cover the costs of moving house, finding a new job or setting up a company.
Some may even choose to invest the money in buying a ramshackle property and renovating it, turning it back into a comfortable family home.
Back in Negishi district, Nagasaku hopes the derelict flats on her street will receive such treatment.
“The building is dangerous because it is beginning to fall down,” she says. “It would be nice if the owner did something with the land as it looks ugly, but it has been so long that maybe they have forgotten about it. We don’t know.”