Akiya houses: why Japan has nine million empty homes | Japan

AAs the shrinking population continues to take a toll on Japan’s society and economy, the number of vacant houses has topped nine million – enough to accommodate Australia’s entire population of three people per dwelling.

Government figures released on Tuesday show the number of empty houses, known as akiaas of October 2023 has increased by more than half a million since the previous survey in 2018.

At the heart of the problem is the depopulation of rural areas, combined with many of those who inherit such properties being unable or unwilling to live in them, renovate them or even demolish them. Cities are not immune, however, and there are hundreds of thousands of long-vacant homes in urban areas.

This total number of empty homes represents almost 14% of all houses in Japan, although the real number may be higher. The Nomura Research Institute estimates there are nearly 11 million akia and that they could account for more than 30% of houses within a decade.

Abandoned beach house, Uchinada, Ishikawa, Japan. Photo: Toby Howard/Alamy

More than 4.4 million of the properties surveyed are available for rent, but have been vacant for a long time and are mostly far from major population centers. The condition of more than 3.8 million is unknown, and only 330,000 of the 9 million were listed for sale.

Vacant land attracts higher taxes in Japan than land with buildings, increasing the financial burden of demolishing old houses and causing some people to avoid inheriting property.

However, the interest of foreigners in this abundance of empty properties is growing especially chimney (traditional) houses as an option for cheap and unusual accommodation, holiday homes or for renting out to tourists.

Hana Sakata and her husband have been renovating and renting out houses for almost a decade through their venture New Heritage, starting with a vacation home on the Izu Peninsula that was empty and completely run down. They acquired a tradition chimney a house in a village in mountainous Nagano after part of it collapsed under the weight of unremoved snow while its elderly owner was in a care facility.

An empty house in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan. Photo: Toby Howard/Alamy

However, the costs of restoring them to their former glory are huge, warns Sakata, who is still struggling with chimney project.

“Now there is a lot of buzz, especially among foreigners, that these giant farms in Japan are available very cheaply or for free. But it’s a huge commitment and there aren’t many contractors who can fix them – traditional carpentry skills are dying out,” she says. “In 10 years we could see a lot of foreign ownership akia.”

Nevertheless, foreign tourists’ interest in staying in traditional Japanese accommodation is high, with demand currently outstripping supply, notes Sakata.

The yen, at multi-decade lows against major currencies, helped fuel a tourism boom with a record 3 million foreign visitors in March.

Japan is far from the only nation struggling with demographic decline. In neighboring South Korea, the birth rate per woman fell to a record low of 0.72 last year, well below even the figure of 1.26 reported in Japan in 2022. Singapore and Taiwan also fell below one child per woman, while birth rates in the US are also at their lowest level in a century.

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