Japan's Million Empty Homes Reflect a Unique Housing Crisis. It Even Has Its Own Word: 'Akiya'

  • Demographics, culture, and economics explain a trend that has already prompted authorities to take action.

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The Japanese government recently published a survey revealing that there are approximately 9 million vacant and unused homes in Japan, which are called “akiya.” That’s a lot of unoccupied properties, and the numbers haven’t stopped increasing over the past few decades. To be precise, in the last 30 years, the figure has doubled. And last fall, there were an additional 510,000 vacant homes compared to 2018.

This makes the akiya an important challenge.

What are akiya houses? Akiya refers to unoccupied homes in Japan, although this is a much broader phenomenon. In fact, the U.S. has over 16 million vacant homes, according to a 2022 LendingTree study. The issue is that unused buildings have become so prevalent and entrenched in Japan that they're now frequently addressed in the media. Furthermore, this has made officials introduce measures to counter the trend, such as the akiya banks. These banks operate at the local level to rescue empty homes, renovate them, and then sell them.


9 million homes and counting. The akiya homes aren't a new phenomenon. Japan has known for year that it has a significant number of akiya homes, which affects the country’s real estate market overall. However, the challenge of tackling the problem is far from being resolved. The latest updated census on empty homes in the country, released by the Japanese authorities at the end of last month, confirms that there are around 9 million akiya across its territory.

This statistic is surprising for several reasons, the most obvious one being that it accounts for 13.8% of all homes in Japan. To put this into perspective, assuming that each of these homes can accommodate three people, they would be enough to house almost the entire population of Australia. The Nomura Research Institute has conducted its own calculations and estimated that there are actually almost 11 million akiya. In a decade, the amount could represent more than 30% of homes in Japan.

Twice as many as in the 1980s. The survey results also demonstrate a concerning trend that has set off alarm bells and spawned headlines, both inside and outside Japan. Nine million homes is a lot. It's an increase compared to 2018, the year the previous housing census was taken, when there were about 8.49 million. This means the stock of akiya residences increased by 510,000 properties in just five years.

According to the outlet Asahi Shimbun, the number of empty homes in Japan has been increasing since 1973 and has doubled in just three decades. Plus, in some parts of the country, such as Wakayama and Tokushima, the vacancy rate is as high as 21.2%.

From homes… to risks. Official data from the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs reveal that of the 9 million empty buildings, more than half (4.76 million) are available for rent or sale. Plus, around 380,000 of them are holiday homes or buildings used for seasonal or occasional purposes.

Beyond the homes in buildings, there are still millions of unoccupied and abandoned residences that pose a challenge for authorities, given that they can become landfills, fire hazards, and, in some cases, even collapse. Per the Asahi Shimbun, abandoned homes without any foresight of use have not only increased in number but are also the most challenging type of property. The latest survey shows that there are 370,000 more of these akiya houses than the previous census in 2018. This has increased the stock of such homes to a record 3.85 million.

Demographics. To better understand the akiya phenomenon, we must take into account several factors, but one that stands out is Japan’s demographic crisis. The country's population is decreasing. It's also aging.

As a result of both trends, the number of empty and abandoned homes is on the rise. These properties remain vacant after their elderly occupants pass away or move to nursing homes. It’s estimated that by the end of this century, Japan’s population will decline to around 53 million, less than half of the 128 million that lived in the country in 2017.

A matter of culture and costs. Several other reasons explain why the number of akiya homes has been increasing in Japan. While some of them are related to cultural and social changes, others are economic in nature. For instance, the Japanese tend to prefer newly built homes over used ones, and many of the akiya were built before the Building Standard Law was updated in 1981. This can make new buyers wary of their structural safety. In addition, it can be difficult to locate the heirs of these properties. And even if they are located, they may not be able to come to an agreement on what to do with the property.

Moreover, it’s not cheap to demolish or remodel an old building. As The Guardian states, many fees associated with vacant lots can make it difficult for families to tear down their old properties. In some cases, heirs may choose not to accept the old buildings—and the costs that come with them—at all.

Depopulating the countryside. Many homes in Japan, particularly in rural areas or suburbs, are being abandoned. It’s becoming a major problem. “The population outside Tokyo is falling rapidly, especially in areas such as Tohoku and Hokkaido, and old people are simply abandoning their homes,” Seth Sulkin, founder of property developer Pacifica Capital KK, told to South China Morning Post.

Furthermore, this creates a vicious cycle where having many akiya houses in a town or neighborhood can discourage potential buyers from purchasing property there. Chris McMorran, a Japanese studies expert and professor at the National University of Singapore, explains that “people don’t want to live in a terminal village surrounded by ‘ghost houses.’”

The role of authorities and foreigners. Vacant homes are a serious enough problem in Japan that the government has already taken necessary action and introduced measures to prevent their abandonment or encourage their rehabilitation or sale. Japanese authorities have several fiscal resources in place to achieve this goal.

Another phenomenon in Japan is foreigners’ interest in buying property in the country at a reasonable price. The objective is to have affordable accommodation, a vacation home, or to rent it out to travelers in a country experiencing a real tourism boom. In March, in fact, Japan broke its own monthly record with three million visitors.

Image | Bethom33 via Flickr | Boccaccio1 via Flickr

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