Abandoned Homes in Japan
Combined with one of the world’s lowest fertility rates and highest life expectancy, Japan has long combatted the issue of its aging population. Along with the struggles to support their nearly 30% of elderly, the decreasing working class also poses a threat to their economy. However, one adversity of this demographic is now showing promising advancements: the increase of rural akiyas–empty homes.
In addition to the aging population, Japan is also facing a rural decline as youngsters leave their rural homes for the city in pursuit of jobs or marriage, leaving the elderly behind. Rural towns such as Tochikubo have been victims of this phenomenon, leaving half of their population ages 50 and up. With these small towns fading away as people move, and elderly inhabitants pass away, the kominkas–traditional Japanese- style houses–are left abandoned.
According to a 2018 survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, there are roughly 8.49 million unoccupied houses in Japan.
Even in cases where kominkas are willed to relatives, an inheritance tax prevents them from claiming ownership. In Japan, the land is 6 to 8 times more expensive than the home, increasing the worth of the property even if the home individually is cheap. This way, the inheritance tax is raised. Along with other issues such as repairs and claiming ownership over the deceased, the process is often not worth it. While some turn to selling, kominkas are concentrated in the outskirts of the cities, decreasing demand. Others don't want to disrespect the deceased by selling and abandoning the home. In any case, they are left akiyas.
However, recently, akiyas have attracted foreign interest. With the multitude of unclaimed akiyas and the problems, they pose such as fires from exposed wiring and the risk of collapse. The government often takes ownership and auctions them for cheap prices.
Originally, there had not been much known about Japan’s cheap akiyas, but since the Minka Summit of 2021, a three-day conference to spread knowledge about owning and rebuilding an akiya, information about them has been spread all over social media.
One Minka Summit speaker Jaya Thursfield runs a YouTtube channel called Tokyo Llama showing the process of rebuilding his kominka. His channel has amassed 224,000 subscribers and 3.9 million views on his most popular video.
“While many Japanese don’t like used homes, foreigners see a house that is cheap and is more willing to reuse and renovate to their tastes and budget,” Chihiro, Thursfield’s wife stated.
While Japanese locals regard these akiyas as dirty and unlivable, many foreigners have fallen in love with the traditional style of the homes and are bringing hope in greatly diminishing one of the overarching concerns in Japan.
By Irene Kim