The number of vacant houses in Japan has surged to a record high of nine million, surpassing the population of New York City, as the country grapples with a declining population. Known as “akiya,” these abandoned homes are typically found in rural areas but are increasingly appearing in major cities like Tokyo and Kyoto. This trend poses significant challenges for a government already struggling with an aging population and a falling birth rate.

Traditionally, akiya refers to derelict residential homes in rural regions. However, the phenomenon is becoming more prevalent in urban centers, complicating efforts to address Japan’s demographic issues. “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.”

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 14% of all residential properties in Japan are vacant. This figure includes second homes and properties temporarily vacated for various reasons, such as owners working overseas. Unlike traditional akiya, which often fall into disrepair, these vacant homes present unique challenges.

Abandoned homes hinder efforts to rejuvenate decaying towns, pose potential hazards due to lack of maintenance, and increase risks during disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. Akiya are often inherited properties without heirs due to Japan’s low fertility rate. Many younger generations who inherit these homes have moved to cities and see little value in returning to rural areas.

Administrative challenges also arise when local authorities cannot identify property owners due to poor record-keeping. This situation hampers government efforts to revitalize aging rural communities and attract younger people or investors.

Japan’s tax policies sometimes make it cheaper for owners to retain vacant homes than to demolish them for redevelopment. Even when owners wish to sell, they may struggle to find buyers due to the homes’ remote locations, often lacking access to public transport, healthcare, and convenience stores.

Addressing the surge in vacant homes requires comprehensive policy changes and innovative solutions. Efforts must focus on improving record-keeping, adjusting tax policies to encourage redevelopment, and finding ways to make rural living more attractive. With a strategic approach, Japan can turn the challenge of akiya into an opportunity for revitalizing communities and balancing demographic shifts.

By Impact Lab