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Cheap rural homes come at a price
BY PHILIP BRASOR AND MASAKO TSUBUKU
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ARTICLE HISTORY MAR 6, 2015
Though the hollowing-out of population in regional areas in Japan has become
a major issue for the central government, it’s been a problem for regional
governments for more than three decades. Twenty years ago there was a
popular promotional method called “I-turn,” devised as a supplement to the
“U-turn” movement. This latter scheme lured people who lived in cities back to
their hometowns. The I-Turn scheme, however, targeted people who grew up in
cities but perhaps had some romantic longing for rural life.
At the core of both plans were employment fairs, which were held in major
urban centers by employment information agencies with booths manned by
local governments promoting potential job opportunities and emphasizing
carefree commutes and stress-free working conditions.
It didn’t work, partly because there weren’t enough jobs to attract enough
people to make the scheme successful.
The central government’s more determined policy right now is to decentralize
over-concentrated urban centers such as Tokyo by offering tax incentives to
companies that decamp to the countryside and subsidize medical and
educational systems in regional areas to make them more attractive. It is also
trying to create a national database of vacant homes that can be purchased or
rented cheaply. This plan has two important functions: It provides people who
want to move out of the city with inexpensive housing choices, and it helps
local governments solve their “abandoned house” (akiya) problem, which is
continually worsening.
According to the most recent land ministry survey conducted in 2013, there are
8.2 million vacant residences in Japan, 39 percent of which are designated as
“abandoned,” meaning they are not for sale or rent. The portion of abandoned
houses found in the previous survey, conducted in 2008, was 35 percent, and
since 200,000 houses are demolished every year in Japan, the increase in the
number is actually steeper than the percentage difference would indicate.
More local governments are subsidizing the demolition of abandoned houses,
and the central government has proposed its own subsidies as well as changes
to eminent domain and property tax laws that would make it easier to tear
down derelict structures. A more constructive measure is “akiya banks”—lists
of available empty houses that are still habitable.
Two years ago, a nonprofit organization called Furusato Kaiki Shien center
opened an office in the Yurakucho district of Tokyo that provides information
about various regional akiya banks, in addition to offering job counseling for
people interested in moving out of Tokyo. The people who work at the Center
told us that interested parties have to check each akiya bank to find something
they might want, as there currently is no online database that centralizes all the
akiya bank information nationwide. The interior ministry, however, is
apparently working on such a system in coordination with the land ministry.
The Furusato Kaiki Shien Center carries out an annual survey to determine
which areas potential migrants are most interested in. Last year, Yamanashi
Prefecture topped the list, supplanting Nagano, which had held the summit
three years running. The reasons for Yamanashi’s popularity are its proximity to
Tokyo and its natural environment, but those tend to be factors in most of the
popular prefectures.
Yamanashi, we were told, has been more aggressive in providing “detailed
information” about its housing situation. Last year, 3,253 people sought
consultations regarding housing in the prefecture thanks to the local tourist
bureau’s efforts to promote its akiya bank. According to the Asahi Shimbun, the
bureau has prioritized housing to attract new households rather than focus on
employment.
Some municipalities looking to boost the influx of new residents fix up vacant
houses to rent out on a trial basis, so that people thinking of relocating can get a
sense of the region. Okayama Prefecture has had good results with this method.
All nine of its temporary, fully furnished “test houses,” which rent out for
¥10,000 a month, are occupied, and there’s a waiting list.
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Nevertheless, there is a sizable gap between the number of people who express
interest in relocating to regional areas and the number who actually do.
Hidetaka Yoneyama of Fujitsu Research has written that while most local
governments who actively promote migration have reported an increase in
inquiries in recent years, the number of home sales or rentals has remained
small, despite the fact that many back up their promotion with money. It’s
common for local governments to partially subsidize renovations for homes
bought by people who plan to move in from another region.
Local governments are also beginning to understand that they have to target
more specific demographics. Professor Yosuke Hirayama of Kobe University,
Japan’s foremost scholar on housing and social policy, recently told Tokyo
Shimbun that because of the changing employment environment, young
workers are not in the same financial position to buy homes that their parents
were in at the same age. They can, however, afford akiya and would probably be
willing to move if the incentives were right.
But while many local governments would prefer young families to shore up
their tax base, it’s difficult to expect couples who already have children to
uproot themselves. There’s also the problem of moving into an established
community and adjusting to that community’s way of doing things, which is
why Tokushima Prefecture has had success with its Green Valley project,
basically a brand new community made up of newcomers.
Retired people would seem a more promising target, but those with money
have recently demonstrated that they prefer moving deeper into urban areas
because of the greater availability of medical facilities and public
transportation. Most of the new luxury condos in Tokyo are being bought by
people over the age of 60.
The city of Saku in Nagano Prefecture anticipated this trend and opened a
medical center that specifically caters to older people. Saku also partially
subsidizes bullet train commutes for people who still work in Tokyo. The results
have been good. Contracts for more than 280 homes in the city have been
finalized through its akiya bank.
But there are limits. Several years ago we were house-hunting in Isumi, a city in
rural southern Chiba Prefecture. Isumi’s program is aimed at people who work
from home but still need to, once or twice a week, go to Tokyo — a 90-minute
express-train ride away. A realtor told us that the local government couldn’t
promise potential migrants jobs so they narrowed their target.
In any case, Isumi has lots of empty houses, and the ones we saw were not
attractive. The reason so many vacant houses in Japan are not on the market is
that realtors know they can’t sell them. Despite the dirt-cheap prices and the
subsidies, most of the vacant houses being pushed by local governments are
not marketable — even if they are technically still habitable. There’s just too
many of them, and not enough people to want them.
For more information about individual local government promotional
programs, visit ⤢ furusatokaiki.net.
Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku blog about Japanese housing at
⤢ www.catforehead.wordpress.com.
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GBR48 • 3 years ago
Excellent piece. These activities clearly need to be brought together using the internet to develop an
on-going set of best-practice initiatives for local government to take their ideas from.
Every week we hear how Japan needs more of that scariest of resource, the foreign worker. These
properties would be perfect for rental and purchase by immigrants. I wonder how many local
authorities are seeking to market them to immigrant labour to come, singly or as a family, to work and
to settle?
One thing that all non-urban communities suffer from is a lack of amenities. In Japan, I suspect almost
everywhere has konbinis, but schools, medical facilities and fast internet are a requirement to make
anywhere desirable as a place to settle.
A micro-infrastructure needs to be devised, that can be implemented relatively cheaply and inserted
into communities, using a mixture of existing amenities and new, subsidised resources. This would
ensure that all the boxes are ticked for healthcare and education in any area. Once this guaranteed
support structure was in place, an area would become far more viable for incomers.
The 'Northern Exposure' option would allow local authorities to financially support medical students or
trainee teachers, in return for them spending a period of time working in a more rural area after they
see more
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Starviking > GBR48 • 3 years ago
Some interesting ideas. There certainly is a need for rationalization in the Inaka. Sadly, the
government's desire for everyone to hold a deep and professed love for their 'Furusato' get in
the way of that.
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GBR48 > Starviking • 3 years ago
I have to admit, I miss mine, Starviking. Many would find it difficult.
△ ▽ • Share ›
Starviking > GBR48 • 3 years ago
That's the problem. Many would find it difficult. I would find it difficult, save that I
have a young family - a family whose needs cannot be addressed by 'love for the
furusato'. We pay large health insurance to pay for the care of our local
pensioners, have virtually no facilities for children, and no doctors for our
children either.
△ ▽ • Share ›
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