Nestled in the mountains on the border of Hiroshima and Okayama prefectures is Takahashi, a city of about 31,000 people which lies 30 minutes by train from the popular international tourist destination of Kurashiki.

Home to Bitchu Matsuyama Castle, built in 1240 on top of a 430-meter high mountain, and numerous examples of Meiji Era architecture, Takahashi is also known for its Bitchu pottery and for its numerous hiking trails favored by nature lovers.

But about a 10-minute drive west of Bitchu Takahashi Station lies a small and neglected man-made pond that has come to symbolize a growing problem nationwide, and one to which the central government is now seeking solutions — abandoned property whose ownership is unclear.

The Takahashi pond had long been used as a community water source even though it was never clear who owned it. That became an issue in April 2017 when part of the levee broke, creating a leak, and the city decided to drain the pond and develop the land.

“Takahashi was created following its merger with four smaller towns in 2004. It wasn’t clear whether the pond had belonged to one of the pre-merger towns, in which case it would have become Takahashi’s property, or whether it had been private property,” said Yoshio Ishida, a member of the Takahashi Municipal Assembly.

“It was thus not clear who’s in charge of maintaining the land or whether somebody could develop it,” added Ishida, who was compelled to seek answers to those questions.

City officials were shocked when they checked the property register.

Official records showed no change in ownership since 1886, the year the pond was likely created. Who might have inherited the property from the original owners was unknown.

“The impetus for my raising the problem of unclear ownership of the pond has to do with the fact that Takahashi has a number of small ponds with such concerns. In the past, farming communities took care of them, using them as a communal water source. But now that the population in rural areas is declining, it’s not always as clear who is responsible for their upkeep,” Ishida said.

Takahashi officials contacted other Okayama cities to gauge the extent of the problem. Responses came in from seven cities, which cited examples of public works projects being delayed or canceled because nobody could find the land owners, whose permission was needed to complete the work.

“We heard of one case where a road project was canceled because a piece of land needed for it first required the consent of more than 50 heirs of the original owner, but the whereabouts of one heir could not be confirmed,” said Takashi Nishimoto, a Takahashi city official.

What’s happening in Takahashi is not unique, and it’s affecting municipalities nationwide.

Loose laws that do not force inheritors of land to formally register their property have long been a concern in rural areas. Younger heirs leave for the big city and then can’t be located by the towns or villages of their parents or other ancestors when their permission is required for a public works project to go ahead.

The Diet was jolted when a fiscal 2016 land ministry survey of 558 cities, towns and villages showed ownership for 20 percent of the land was unclear. The survey divided the land into urban, residential, farm and forest. In densely populated areas with more than 4,000 people per square kilometer, 14.5 percent of landowners were unclear, the survey revealed.

In residential areas, that figure was 17.4 percent, and for farmland, it was 16.9 percent. Ownership was unclear for over a quarter of designated forest areas (25.6 percent).

A similar report was released last year by a study group led by former internal affairs minister and Iwate Gov. Hiroya Masuda, who warned in 2014 that many rural areas would face extinction due to population decline. Masuda’s group estimated that in 2016, ownership of some 4.1 million hectares of land, an area nearly the size of Kyushu, was unclear. And it could get worse.

“Left unchecked by policy measures, the amount of land with unclear ownership could expand to 7.2 million hectares by 2040,” the report predicted. That’s not much smaller than Hokkaido, which is nearly 7.8 million hectares.

The economic losses deriving from unused land with unknown owners by 2040 could reach ¥6 trillion, the report added. Of this, about ¥3.6 trillion was due to the degradation of farmland and forests that weakens their abilities to help prevent flooding and erosion. Another ¥2.2 trillion was estimated in the form of opportunity loss by delayed or canceled public works projects, and a decline in agriculture because nobody can figure out who owns the land or find the heirs of the original owner.

Over the past year, the government has taken steps to address the problem and Takahashi’s pond became the subject of reference in official debates on the need for change. A bill under discussion would make it easier for private firms and towns and villages to more easily use land with unclear ownership for public purposes, such as parks or parking lots.

“In the case of road construction that requires purchase of land, unless a lot of real estate is secured, it won’t advance. The bill we’re discussing includes measures to address this problem and can help shorten the amount of time needed for completion,” Hirofumi Kado, a Liberal Democratic Party member of the Lower House, said earlier last month at a committee meeting to discuss the bill.

For those who remember Japan’s asset-inflated bubble economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the trillions of yen poured into rural construction projects that lined the pockets of corrupt officials but turned out to be white elephants, it’s natural to be concerned over attempts to allow private firms and local governments to use unclaimed land if their project meets the somewhat vague definition of “public purpose.”

But Shoko Yoshihara, a research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research and author of a 2017 book on Japan’s land problem in the age of population decline, said that while public purpose is difficult to define, the bill is the first step in the legal process.

“The purpose of the bill now being debated is to first decide the larger framework. Once it becomes law, the government will then sequentially create basic policies and guidelines. These will be more specific in terms of what is meant, under the legal rules, by ‘public purpose,'” she said.

Some regional governments like Takahashi are doing what they can within existing laws to determine ownership, such as sending notices with property tax invoices to ask people to ensure their land is officially registered or to register the names of their heirs.

But many who have moved away don’t want to bear the costs of registering and maintaining their property, especially if it is isolated. This has led to growing tension between mayors and village heads and the central government over who should pay up when abandoned land causes local economic harm.

“Protection of the plains and mountains is for preserving national water sources as well. If the land falls into ruin, the risk of damage due to natural disasters grows. Do local governments, with dwindling populations, have to bear the burden of protecting and maintaining this land?” asked Takahashi Mayor Takanori Kondo.

With their populations aging and shrinking, a number of cities, towns and villages are adopting local revitalization plans that encourage resettlement from more rural and isolated parts of a city to its densely populated areas, often in and around major train stations, in order to more easily and cheaply respond to social welfare and emergency needs.

Takahashi has adopted a “compact city” plan to accomplish this goal. Assemblyman Ishida said one way Tokyo could work better with local governments in addressing the problem of land with unclear ownership is to think more logically about where their elderly residents are likely to be living in the years ahead before determining land boundaries.

“The central government decides property lines based on a national survey, which prioritizes those living in mountainous and more rural areas within the city limits. In fact, there is land in many urban districts that can’t be developed because ownership is unclear,” Ishida said. “By 2040, many baby boomers will be over 80 years old and will have many heirs, and nobody is likely to be living on the land the government has surveyed and marked,” he added.

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