Property borders: Where to draw the line

Some years ago we lived in western Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, in a neighborhood that clung to the contours of a hilly terrain. Many of the streets were just dirt and gravel, even though the area was fully developed. Neighbors told us that they had been trying to get the local government to pave these roads, but the work never proceeded because the authorities claimed they couldn’t gain permission from the owners of some of the adjacent plots. Any roadwork ran the risk of intruding on private property, so nothing was ever done.

We never quite understood why it was so difficult for the city to get the permission it needed until two years ago when we purchased land in northern Chiba Prefecture. We asked the real estate company who sold us the land to put kui (markers) in the ground to indicate our property lines.

They did it, but pointed out that the south and east boundaries of our land ran along roads — one paved, the other not — controlled by the city. Some of our land, in fact, overlapped with the city’s. In accordance with so-called setback laws, we could not build or otherwise use this overlap portion, which was fine with us, since it wasn’t very much. But even those boundaries were not legally fixed, and if we ever had a dispute with either the city or the owners of the vacant lots on the other side of the roadways — whose borders weren’t fixed either — we would have to have a formal survey conducted.

Undetermined property lines remain an issue throughout Japan and have been a concern ever since the government started registering land titles during its first push for tax reform in 1873. Land was surveyed and maps were drawn up for the tochi-daicho (land registry), but precision in setting borders was sacrificed for the need to collect revenue, and what was registered didn’t always match the real situation on the ground in terms of who was using or occupying a particular piece of land and where they thought the borders were.

Landowners understandably shortchanged their holdings to authorities so as to pay as little tax as possible. This flawed process had unfortunate consequences. Later, whenever a local government needed to plan and construct infrastructure, or a developer wanted to build housing or commercial structures, there were often conflicts with existing property owners who had different ideas about where their land began and ended. In addition, if someone wanted to sell their land, the sale could be held up for years if property lines were not set to neighbors’ satisfaction.

It wasn’t until 1951 that the government enacted a land-registry inspection plan to formalize property lines nationwide. As of 2013, only 51 percent of Japan’s land had been surveyed. At that rate, it will take at least another 50 years for the survey to be completed. More significantly, the survey rate in major cities is only about 20 percent complete owing to greater density and other factors.

According to a recent article in the Asahi Shimbun, the lack of progress in surveying land in the Tokyo metropolitan area has become a serious problem as local governments compile countermeasures for the inevitable major earthquake predicted to hit the city. In Tokyo, Saitama, Kanagawa and Chiba Prefectures, only between 13 and 31 percent of the land has been properly surveyed, according to the land ministry.

If a disaster strikes before the surveys are completed, it will make it that much more difficult to carry out reconstruction since property lines could be in dispute. This is what happened in Kobe following the Great Hanshin Earthquake. The land in the city was divided into small, expensive parcels, and it became difficult to rebuild roads and structures because the local government had yet to carry out a formal survey. This same problem has contributed to the reconstruction delay in the three northeastern prefectures affected by the March 2011 disaster, even though the formal survey has been completed in 61 to 90 percent of the area’s municipalities.

One of the main obstacles in big cities, according to the land ministry, is that for each piece of land there is often more than one stakeholder. The titleholder may have died generations ago and his or her heirs never bothered to re-register the land under their names, since in order to do so they would likely have to carry out a survey to determine the borders.

When the authorities carry out their own survey, they have to contact all the people who have a legal claim to the land, and that could take a lot of time if the titleholder has died and he or she has children or grandchildren, all of whom have a legal claim on the property. If the value of the land is high, which is usually the case in big cities, negotiations become even more fraught with disagreement, because the survey may find that the size of the plot isn’t as big as the stakeholders think it is. In addition, the local government may decide to take a piece of its own in order to widen existing roads or add new infrastructure.

Another problem is that it is local governments who are supposed to carry out these surveys, and since the inspections require manpower and funds, they aren’t high on their list of priorities. The central government makes it easier by bearing half the cost of the surveys up front. The remaining half is split between the prefecture and the municipality, but even that burden has been lightened since they can receive up to 80 percent of the funds needed for the survey through a special land tax levied by the central government.

Nevertheless, localities are reluctant to shoulder even the remaining small portion. As of 2013, 439 of the 1,700 local governments have told the land ministry that they have not carried out any surveys so far and have no plans to do so. Many, it seems, don’t really understand what they have to do or why they need to do it. And since property owners are not necessarily eager to have lines drawn that may end up reducing their land size, they feel it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.

We found this out ourselves. After the realtor explained the vagueness of our property lines we called our city office to ask when they thought they would get around to surveying our land, and they told us frankly that there was no plan to do so — ever.

“We have no budget,” was the official’s explanation. If we wanted to have a survey carried out, we could arrange for it ourselves, but we would have to pay for it. Moreover, we would have to invite both a city representative, because of the roadways, and the owners of the properties adjacent to us. All the parties would have to approve the survey’s results before the new borders could be registered, but if neither the city nor the other property owners responded to our request, then we wouldn’t need their approval.

Right now there’s no pressing need for us to establish legal borders, so we’ve dropped the matter. It’s obviously more trouble than it’s worth.

Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku blog about Japanese housing at

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