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EconomyJapan's Depopulation Drives Urbanites to Seek Solace in Rural Living

Japan’s Depopulation Drives Urbanites to Seek Solace in Rural Living

The declining Japanese population is prompting a surge in urban dwellers purchasing affordable vacant homes in the countryside.

Tokyo, Japan – Reiko Ishimoto and her partner Allen Lindskoog could never have imagined their current tranquil life in the countryside during their busy days in Tokyo.

Sitting on the porch of their beautifully restored wooden farmhouse, with its sweeping tiled roof, sturdy stone foundations, and serene bamboo garden, their sense of contentment is palpable.

“I was tired of working in the city until 10 or 11 o’clock and taking crowded trains every day,” Ishimoto shared. “I love nature, so I thought it was a great idea to have a house in the middle of the mountains.”

Lindskoog, who previously resided in New York before moving to Tokyo, wholeheartedly agrees, stating, “The difference is night and day. Living in the city, you start to realize it’s not natural.”

The couple is part of a growing trend of buyers, including many foreign nationals, who are investing in abandoned homes in rural Japan, reported Al Jazeera.

This phenomenon is occurring simultaneously with Japan experiencing a significant population decline. The current population of over 125 million is projected to dwindle to 87 million within the next 50 years.

The shrinking population in rural areas, coupled with an influx of residents to major cities, has resulted in numerous “ghost villages” scattered throughout the Japanese countryside.

To counteract this trend, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration launched a program in January, offering families relocating from Tokyo to rural areas 1 million yen per child. However, many have expressed skepticism about its effectiveness in enticing individuals to leave the capital.

Official statistics indicate that Japan has approximately 8.5 million abandoned homes, known as “akiya,” but estimates suggest the actual number may be closer to 11 million. As the population continues to age, it is projected that akiya will comprise 30 percent of the entire housing stock within the next decade.

After searching an official database of abandoned homes, Ishimoto and Lindskoog discovered a property in Nirasaki, a small municipality located approximately 130 kilometers west of Tokyo. The house, built around 80 years ago, lacked basic amenities such as a shower or toilet, and the front garden was overgrown with weeds. However, after a few visits, the couple recognized its potential.

“The condition of the house was surprisingly good on the inside,” Ishimoto shared. “It was almost ready to live in, even though it had been abandoned for 20 years.”

In August 2022, Ishimoto and Lindskoog purchased the property for less than 10 million yen ($70,000). Since then, they have invested approximately $15,000 in renovations.

Lindskoog acknowledges that their project is ongoing, stating, “You’re never quite finished, so you’ve got to love the process.”

Fragmented Real Estate Market

Japan’s real estate market is fragmented, with rural properties managed by agents in the cities, various market players with competing interests, and akiya banks that often lack comprehensive information. Complicating matters further are family disputes over inherited home ownership, which frequently complicate transactions.

To address these challenges, American business partners Matthew Ketchum and Parker Allen established Akiya & Inaka, a consultancy group.

Working with real estate agents, legal representatives, licensed building and land quality inspectors, and architects, the company aims to level the playing field, enabling everyone to have the opportunity to own a piece of rural Japan, regardless of their familiarity with the domestic real estate market.

Ketchum explains, “The current model for managing real estate in Japan is primarily focused on Tokyo and does not work well with properties outside the city. We’re flipping the script to facilitate the meaningful pursuit of these properties.”

Foreign nationals possess the same rights as Japanese citizens and residents when it comes to property ownership. However, due to the vast number of houses on the market, it can be time-consuming and resource-intensive to find a suitable property.

“The sad reality is that most of the available houses across the country are not worth the investment required to make them habitable,” Allen remarks.

He further explains that the best investments in Japan are existing constructions since wood-framed buildings are often considered valueless after 20 years, regardless of their quality and durability.

As a result, akiya are often sold at prices that do not reflect their size and potential. Some properties can be acquired for as little as $10,000 or $20,000, while larger properties requiring fewer renovations can be purchased for around $60,000. With the average price of a condominium in Tokyo reaching a record 62.88 million yen ($484,300) in 2023, and rising real estate prices in major cities worldwide, the allure of the rural Japanese market has grown.

Akiya & Inaka now receive dozens of inquiries daily, with an increasing number coming from international buyers. Factors driving this trend include the weak yen, fascination with Japanese culture, the easing of COVID-19 travel restrictions after more than two years, and individuals seeking a stress-free lifestyle.

“There is a limited number of well-maintained houses in attractive areas with natural beauty and convenient access,” Allen adds. “If someone has the means to purchase property in Japan, the opportunities are abundant.”

Some communities, like Osakikamijima, a small island off the coast of Hiroshima Prefecture, actively encourage inbound migration and akiya purchases.

The local government of Osakikamijima established it as an “education island,” complete with an international school and a small university, resulting in an increase in foreign residents.

Welshman Simon Whalley and his wife Kaori, who are climate activists, purchased an akiya after Whalley secured a job at the local international school. Their concrete home, built in the 1970s, required minimal renovations.

The accompanying 0.6 hectares (1.5 acres) of land, however, was densely overgrown and necessitates continuous upkeep. Whalley hopes their efforts will attract tourism to the island, explaining their plans to farm and grow their own vegetables, convert an old mikan storage facility into an Airbnb, and promote the island as a vegan-friendly destination in Hiroshima.

Whalley also emphasizes the warm welcome they received from the local community, saying, “They’re really happy to have a child here because they see the problem: that everyone’s leaving for Hiroshima or Tokyo, and there aren’t many young people left.”

Jason Lawrence, a New Zealander who relocated to Osakikamijima in 2021 with his wife Miki and their two children, was drawn to the island’s leisurely pace of life and robust education infrastructure. After exploring the local akiya bank, they decided to purchase land instead.

“The key for us was that there is temporary accommodation available for people who want to move here,” Lawrence shares. “Every day we spent on the island, we learned more, met more people, made more friends, and that made the decision much easier.”

Lawrence believes that the trend of white-collar workers exchanging urban life for a rural one is here to stay.

“More and more people are seeking freedom from the rat race, the hedonic treadmill, and a closer connection to real food,” he remarks.

“For a long time, I’ve dreamed of building my own home, but that has become increasingly difficult where I come from. Here, things are a little more relaxed.”

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Qamar Munawer
Qamar Munawer
Associate Editor at The Eastern Herald. Ar. Qamar Munawer is currently at Brandenburgische Technische Universität Cottbus-Senftenberg in Germany.

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