There is an estimated 4.1 million hectares of property whose owner is not known — larger than the total area of Kyushu — according to a recent study by a private-sector group. The presence of such tracts of land not only thwarts collection of fixed asset taxes by local authorities but could hamper public works construction and other government projects like farmland consolidation.

Measures need to be taken to reduce or prevent the anticipated increase in such land plots.

Some registries of privately owned land plots do not bear the names of owners, making it difficult for authorities to identify or get in touch with them.

According to the study group, headed by former internal affairs minister Hiroya Masuda, the owners of 20.3 percent of the nation’s total registered land plots are not known. The ratio differs depending on the type of land — 14 percent for residential property, 18.5 percent for farmland and 25.7 percent for forested areas. Masuda warns that the number of land plots with unknown owners will likely increase with the decline and graying of the nation’s population.

It is not legally required for private owners to register their land. When Japan’s population was on the rise and the utility value of land was increasing, people who inherited land handed down by family members were conscious of the importance of officially registering their plots.

But in the postwar years, the mass exodus of workers from rural to urban areas led to a decline in the price and utility value of farmland and forested areas — a trend now exacerbated by the fall in the nation’s population. People’s attitude toward inheriting land has been changing. Some tracts are left deserted when their owners pass away, while some people who inherited such plots did not bother to register themselves as the new owners. Some landowners are believed to avoid registration to escape the burden of related taxes.

Various problems have grown out of this trend. Municipalities are unable to collect property taxes on land plots when their owners cannot be identified. When local authorities have to deal with such tracts for road construction, redevelopment of towns, consolidation of farmland, logging in forests and post-disaster reconstruction, efforts to identify and locate the owners often take vast amounts of time and resources. Such troubles can either delay or stall such projects, or force the authorities to change their construction plans to get around the plots.

Problems stemming from unknown landowners will likely grow worse when in coming decades urban residents who own land they inherited from their relatives in rural hometowns in turn pass it on to their heirs — who may not bother to register their ownership of the properties for the above-stated reasons.

The national government needs to quickly work out an effective plan of action. For example, local authorities could urge people to register the land they have inherited when they come to municipal offices to submit obituary notices for their relatives. One option may be lowering the associated land registration tax. Another option may be making land registration mandatory and punishing those who violate the rules. The government should carefully weigh these and other possible measures. It should also consider introducing a system under which registered land that remains unclaimed by heirs and land whose owners are unknown can be placed under the control of local municipalities or residents’ neighborhood associations.

A special law enacted to cope with the growing problem of vacant houses allows municipalities to identify owners of such properties by using the records of property tax payments — since some people pay taxes on the properties they have inherited even though they never bothered to register as the owner. A legal framework will be needed to allow other administrative organizations or different sections of municipal governments to look into the property tax records as they try to track down the unidentified landowners.

It should also be remembered that there are ways to push through public projects even when owners of land plots to be affected are not known. In the reconstruction of areas devastated by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, court-appointed property custodians were given powers to engage in transactions involving plots needed for infrastructure and residential land development when owners of the plots or relatives who inherited them could not be located.

Apart from land registration under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry, the farm ministry, the Forestry Agency and the internal affairs ministry separately control information on land depending on the types of properties and the purpose of land use. Integrating such information for easier access will be important.

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