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An impending crisis as super-aged Japan struggles with nine million empty homes

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Japan, known for its cutting-edge technology, vibrant culture, and breathtaking scenery, is confronted with an enormous problem: an unparalleled rise in empty houses. Japan has a complex dilemma compounded by its aging population and declining fertility rates, with a startling nine million unoccupied houses—more than the population of New York City.

These abandoned homes, known as “akiya” in Japan, were originally primarily located in rural areas. But now that they are spreading to big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, the government is faced with a serious problem. Professor Jeffrey Hall of Kanda University of International Studies describes this spike in population as a sign of Japan’s population reduction rather than an overabundance of building.

Data compiled by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications shows that 14% of Japan’s residential properties are unoccupied. This includes both second houses and properties that have been temporarily abandoned for a variety of reasons, such as relocation abroad for work. Unlike conventional akiya that are allowed to deteriorate, these empty homes come with a number of difficulties. They complicate efforts to restore failing cities, increase dangers during natural disasters (common in a country with a high seismic activity), and provide safety hazards as a result of poor upkeep.

The demographic changes occurring in Japan are the primary source of this phenomena. As Japan’s declining fertility rates leave them without successors or attraction to younger generations fleeing to metropolitan areas, akiya, who are frequently passed down through generations, fear abandonment. Adding to the problem are administrative bottlenecks that cause properties to be in limbo and impede government programs meant to revitalize rural towns.

The appeal of converting old homes into chic guesthouses and cafes is evident in viral social media videos, but the actual world looks different. Language obstacles and bureaucratic red tape, according to Jeffrey Hall, discourage potential buyers—especially foreigners—from purchasing these properties at deep discounts.

Japan’s birth rate has been steadily declining below the replacement level, making the country’s population reduction extremely visible. The disparity between the availability and demand of housing was made worse by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications’ announcement of a record low in births. Professor Yuki Akiyama of Tokyo City University emphasizes the consequences of unoccupied homes during natural disasters, pointing out that they obstruct evacuation routes and hinder efforts to rebuild after the disaster.

AI systems that forecast regions susceptible to the spread of akiya are among the measures being taken to tackle this situation. But the issue is not limited to Japan; it also affects the US and several regions of Europe. Akiyama highlights the distinctive architectural environment of Japan, as newer homes fetch higher values than older ones, in contrast to the Western appreciation of historical buildings.

Japan faces a difficult situation as a result of its aging population and housing glut. Solutions to this dilemma must be comprehensive and range from encouraging urban-rural mobility to expediting administrative procedures. If the akiya epidemic is not controlled, Japan’s robust cultural legacy that is entwined with its architectural environment would be undermined and additional economic stagnation may occur.

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