Japan's 'ghost houses' given second life as rural towns fight blight

Nikkei -- May 30
Local governments in Japan have been luring people to take ownership of the country's more than 8 million abandoned homes through a host of incentives, including millions of yen in renovation grants, new zoning laws and even giving away the structures for free.

As Japan's population steadily declines, many communities across the nation are facing a growing problem of empty homes with little prospect of finding new residents. But a close look at housing data shows that some towns and cities have succeeded in turning the blight into a blessing, luring new residents through fresh incentives and reforms to reverse demographic decline.

Roughly 8.49 million homes stood empty across Japan as of 2018, up 3.6% in five years, according to a report from the internal affairs ministry.

Of particular concern are those that are not listed for rent or sale even after their residents have long gone. The number of these unlisted homes, which include old family homes that remain empty after the parents' death, for example, increased 9.5% and make up roughly 40% of all unoccupied homes.

Areas facing steep population declines, like Shikoku and Kyushu in the southwest, have experienced the biggest problem with empty homes. Still, 37% of municipalities across Japan reported fewer empty homes in 2018 than in 2013, thanks to private-sector partnerships, incentives and deregulation designed to encourage more people to move into them.

Mikasa, on the northern island Hokkaido, logged the sharpest decrease in unlisted homes at 11%, defying the stereotypes of decline often associated with old mining hubs. The city's generous subsidies for child care and home purchases have attracted new residents from neighboring communities, many of whom were able to keep their jobs in their old hometowns. Incentives for long-distance commuters have brought in new residents from as far as Sapporo, the island's biggest city.

The town of Fujikawaguchiko, located in the foothills of Mount Fuji, came in second at 8.3%. Roughly 130 properties on the town's database of empty homes sold in the five years, while local residents have banded together to provide advice to those interested in moving in.

The trend has only continued in recent years, with the resort town of Fujikawaguchiko experiencing a net inflow of residents in both fiscal 2019 and fiscal 2020. - Nikkei