National | KANSAI PERSPECTIVE

Kansai uses subsidies to fill empty homes, but persuading aging population to pull up stakes remains a challenge

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

For the casual visitor to one of Japan’s crowded megacities — and even some natives who rarely see the rest of the country — it’s easy to assume housing demand is high nationwide.

But with over 8.2 million homes nationwide now vacant due to an aging population, declining birthrate and mass migration of younger workers to megacities, some rural regions, and even some cities, are struggling to deal with the abandoned homes, called akiya, which are not only eyesores but also fire hazards.

In the six major prefectures of the traditional Kansai region, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Hyogo, Shiga and Wakayama, the problem is not as acute as it is elsewhere. But prefectures like Hyogo, and even cities like Kyoto and Nara, are increasingly adopting measures to reduce the number of vacant homes, including via subsidies for owners.

A 2013 survey by the central government showed 18.1 percent of Wakayama Prefecture homes, including apartments and condominiums, were officially considered empty — the highest percentage among Kansai’s six prefectures. In Osaka Prefecture, 14.8 percent of homes were empty, while the figure for Nara Prefecture stood at 13.8 percent. This was followed by Kyoto at 13.3 percent, Hyogo at 13 percent and Shiga at 12.9 percent.

By contrast, 11.1 percent of homes in Tokyo were empty in 2013 and the national average of the 47 prefectures was 13.5 percent.

Hyogo has been particularly busy in working to fill their abandoned homes.

Those who remodel empty houses there for living, businesses or community exchange purposes, including educational exchanges, and agree to use them for at least 10 years are eligible for subsidies.

These funds can cover anywhere from one-third to one-half the costs of a basic renovation, depending on the purpose of the remodeling. For residential or business purposes, this would mean up to an estimated ¥3 million in subsidies. For community exchange purposes, the funds could amount to as much as ¥1 million. The money can’t always be used as the owner wishes, but is intended for specific remodeling work such as installing modern toilets and for weatherproofing.

Other conditions include guarantees that owners will follow laws and regulations.

If, for example, they open a restaurant or a store selling local produce, a strict adherence to the agricultural law is required.

Following the Hotel Business Law to a tee is another requirement for potential owners after the nationwide emergence of illegal minpaku facilities, where guests, especially from abroad, stay in a residence either because they couldn’t find or didn’t want to stay in a licensed hotel or inn.

In the city of Kyoto, surging tourist numbers combined with a hotel shortage have kick-started the minpaku business, legal and illegal. This has been partially due to an ample supply of empty houses and apartments in some wards that lets the area meet the growing demand for short-term stays.

In the city’s Higashiyama Ward, an area that includes popular tourist destinations like Yasaka Shrine, the traditional Gion district and Kiyomizu Temple, 22.5 percent of apartments and homes were officially listed as akiya in 2013, the highest percentage in the prefecture.

While Kyoto has long had various forms of assistance for those looking to relocate to traditional machiya townhouses, problems associated with tourists staying in officially empty homes and apartment buildings is causing headaches. And while the city has begun to take countermeasures, the problem shows no sign of abating anytime soon.

“At present, of 118 apartment realtors that are members of our organization, about half manage homes and apartments that are only for residential purposes,” said Chiaki Tanigaki, who represents a Kyoto-based nonprofit organization formed to promote better management of housing facilities in the Kyoto and Shiga areas.

“Recently, a number of them have been used as private lodging facilities for visitors, especially those facilities located near famous shrines and temples that draw a lot of tourists. Many of the owners, be they foreigners or Japanese, don’t actually reside in the apartments, and advertise them as minpaku on the Internet,” Tanigaki said.

Elsewhere in the region, local governments, mindful of Kyoto’s minpaku experience, are looking at Hyogo’s akiya policy and beginning to offer detailed proposals to fill the empty homes and spur community development.

Under a new plan announced at the end of last month, the city of Nara will provide financial assistance of up to ¥4 million to those who wish to remodel empty homes and facilities for the purpose of aiding community redevelopment.

The money is not to be used for individuals seeking their own homes. Instead, Nara is offering the subsidies in hopes of creating more lodging facilities, restaurants or shops that sell locally produced food, as well as sports facilities, art galleries and hands-on learning centers, especially those centering on children’s activities.

“A city survey last year showed there were 2,722 empty houses, not including deserted apartments,” said Hitomi Hirata, an official with the city’s brand promotion section. “We’re now in the process of accepting applications from those applying for the funding, and will make a decision on who gets how much by November.”

As a study last year by Nomura Research Institute predicted that the number of empty homes and apartment buildings nationwide would skyrocket to 21.5 million by 2033 from the 8.2 million in 2013, competition to fill the sites is likely to be fierce both in Kansai and elsewhere.

Perhaps more daunting may be the challenge of persuading a shrinking and aging population to pull up roots and move from the cities they’ve lived and worked their entire lives into the growing number of abandoned homes.

For those with sufficient capital who are willing to relocate, this could well prove to be a buyer’s market.

However, whether increased financial assistance and other measures will be enough to lure sufficient numbers of people out of the megacities and spark local economic revitalization is another question altogether.

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.

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