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.

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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