The situation today would have been unimaginable back in Japan’s postwar rapid growth period, when a steep population increase and development boom generated robust demand for land across the country. An increase in the number of land plots whose ownership is unknown, along with a sharp rise in vacant housing, appears to symbolize the state of Japanese society today with its rapidly graying and shrinking population. The government plans to take steps to remove obstacles to the use of such private land for public works projects. But there should be broad-based discussions involving various sectors to reach fundamental solutions that are capable of resolving the problem of unclaimed land plots, and can facilitate the use of such properties.
The ownership of land plots becomes unknown when the original holders die and nobody inherits them, or when heirs do not transfer the ownership either due to the cumbersome procedure or to evade fixed-asset taxation or the financial burden of managing the land. The registration process is not mandatory and entails a fee, and is often shunned when plots are deemed to be of little value or when the new owners have no immediate plans to sell them.
Such properties have expanded across the country as the value of land in many rural areas dropped with depopulation and the exodus to urban areas. In a sample survey by the land ministry in 2016, land plots whose owners could not be confirmed in real estate registries account for some 20 percent of the total. A private think tank estimates that the total area of such properties is already greater than the size of Kyushu — and warns that their combined area could grow to 7.2 million hectares — or an equivalent of 90 percent of Hokkaido — by 2040 if no action is taken. It’s feared that the problem will get worse in coming years when members of the postwar baby boomer generation pass on their land assets to their children.
With the passage of time, deserted residential plots, farmland and mountain estates can pose obstacles to public works projects such as road construction and redevelopment because it takes time for the government to identify the owners and buy the plots from them, often delaying the completion of the projects. The presence of unclaimed land plots hindered the construction of seawalls along the coast of Tohoku areas devastated by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and the relocation of tsunami-ravaged communities to higher grounds.
The government is said to be preparing several measures to eliminate such obstacles. A bill planned by the land ministry to be submitted to the current Diet session will simplify the procedure for national and local governments to acquire such plots for public works projects and rent out the land for public purposes over a certain period of time. The agriculture ministry is also readying a scheme to permit the use of farmland and forestry properties whose owners cannot be identified.
While these steps may facilitate the use of those land plots for public purposes such as road construction and redevelopment projects, they will have no effect in stopping the number of properties of unknown ownership from increasing. The Justice Ministry, meanwhile, is considering making it mandatory for people who inherit land plots to carry out the registration procedure.
That should indeed help compel people to register of the land they inherit, but if it is going to become binding, the government should consider simplifying the procedure or reducing the related tax burden. Given that people may reject inheriting the properties in view of the burden of fixed-asset taxation or the expense of managing the land, a scheme should be developed that would allow such land plots to be donated to municipalities or community organizations, which would then manage them.
Over the postwar period, cities in Japan have grown larger and larger to accommodate the surging population and rural flight. Today, however, even cityscapes are increasingly dotted with vacant plots and uninhabited houses. The number of vacant houses has increased by 80 percent in just 20 years. As of 2013, the number hit 8.2 million units, accounting for 13.5 percent of the total nationwide. Deserted houses not only turn into eyesores with the passage of time but also begin to pose safety hazards as their structures decay to the point of collapse or they become fire traps — conditions that can also increase the damage caused by natural disasters. While efforts are gradually afoot by municipalities to use their powers to facilitate the demolition of hazardous properties, measures should also be taken to promote the use of properties that are in better condition, such as listing them on the secondhand housing market.