Thanks in part to its aging population and the general preference for new houses, Japan has literally millions of empty, old properties. Ten million of the 60.6 million homes in Japan are considered to be vacant or abandoned and the problem is only getting worse. It’s estimated that by 2033, 30 percent of all homes will be empty.

Empty houses, or akiya, dot the landscape all over Japan. They are most common in isolated mountain villages in rural prefectures like Okayama on the Inland Sea and Kumamoto in Kyushu, at the southern end of the Japanese archipelago. But even Tokyo is not immune to the blight. In the apartment-dominated capital, one in 10 homes has been abandoned to the elements.

Putting akiya to good use is no easy task. In many cases, the heirs to the properties have moved to big cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka to find work. Particularly in rural areas where demand for homes is already weak, empty houses are worth so little that estate agents don’t want to take them on. They can’t make money from fees, which are calculated as a percentage of the property value.

Another factor in explaining the number of akiya in Japan is that the heirs to these properties often abandon them because they don’t want to pay the property tax. Many heirs don’t even want to admit ownership of akiya, and this creates problems for local municipalities, which eventually have to pay to have them demolished.

One municipality trying to address the problem is Fukuroi in Shizuoka prefecture. On the face of it, Fukuroi is a prosperous town. It has grown over the last 50 years, going from 48,000 inhabitants in 1960 to 88,000 today. Yet in spite of population growth, signs of the town’s eventual decline can be seen in the abandoned houses dotted around its suburbs.

But the situation is far from hopeless. Determined to stop the blight of akiya, the authorities in Fukuroi have established a “counselling centre” for homeowners worried about what to do with their unwanted property. As of April 2nd, owners of unoccupied houses can get free advice and guidance from a dedicated team of experts from Fukuroi’s Vacant House Countermeasures Council, a body made up of local estate agents, builders and legal experts.

The authorities in Fukuroi are hoping that owners of akiya will either renovate and refurbish their properties or have them demolished. Homeowners who would like to keep their properties can get advice on how to renovate them with a view to selling or renting. The authorities say that with appropriate renovation, many of the town’s empty properties could be rented out to young couples or converted into studio apartments.

Homeowners can also find out how to check their properties for structural damage caused by earthquakes and how to carry out the remedial works needed to minimize earthquake damage in the future. If all else fails, the team at the Fukuoi-Sumai consultation centre can also give advice on how to have the property pulled down.

The Fukuoi-Sumai consultation centre is open on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 8:30 am to 5:15 pm. For more information, call 0538-44-3321, or email (Japanese only)

By - George Lloyd.