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22 October 2015

Out with the old: the ghost homes of Japan

Japan’s shrinking population has produced a different kind of housing problem.

By Roland Kelts

I recently visited Aizuwakamatsu, a ­rural rice-farming region in northern Japan. The scenery was storybook Asia: precipitous hills, dense with greenery, dipping into narrow-cut rice paddies hedged by brooks and streams. At the onset of dusk one evening, our ­minivan rounded a hillside overlooking the Tadami River. A cluster of homes emerged through the mist, pastel green, pink and pale blue roofs huddled on a patch of land jutting from the shore. With the mountains mirrored in the water surrounding it, the village looked as though it were floating.

One of the local guides told me that the coloured roofs were made of tin or aluminium, covering or entirely replacing the original thatchwork, an icon of traditional Japanese architecture. Upkeep had become too expensive, and the risk of fires or snow collapses too much for elderly inhabitants to bear. But what is really sad, she said, is that no one wants to live here any more. Rural Japan is dying.

Japan boasts the highest female life expectancy (86.8 years) and the world’s greatest number of centenarians per capita (the country is home to 61,568 people aged 100 or older): signs of achievements in health care, diet and societal stability. But it is no net positive. The perfect storm of declining rates of marriage and birth – in 2014 only 1.001 million babies were born, the lowest number since data was first collected in 1899 – is such that Japan’s population is not just ageing faster than anywhere else, it is also disappearing.

One consequence is that the country has an estimated three million deserted homes, according to the Japan Times. The Nomura Research Institute projects that a fifth of all Japanese homes will be abandoned by 2023. Nationwide, residential land prices have plummeted for seven years straight.

The impact of Japan’s greying population has been most evident outside its main cities, where the young can’t find sustainable jobs, whether or not they want them, and so decamp in droves for urban centres.

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The opposite is happening in Tokyo, where the population of the metropolitan area has increased for 19 consecutive years, growing by roughly 100,000 in 2014 to 38 million. New high-rise hotels and condos puncture the skyline ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, drawing moneyed young professionals and retirees, as well as free-spending tourists, mostly from China.

But beyond the capital’s glow lies a wasteland of abandoned houses, schools, resorts and theme parks. “The prime reason [abandoned buildings] are legion is because they are in the wrong place,” says Richard Hendy, whose blog Spike Japan documents the decline of the emptying villages and towns. “Emigration to the big cities is the biggest culprit,” he tells me about Japan’s hollowing out. “Absolute household numbers are not expected to peak for about a decade, as more and more people live alone or in one-or two-generation nuclear families with one or no children.”

Hendy adds: “You won’t find abandoned houses in my corner of [Tokyo].”

Cultural sensibilities may also be at play. Japan has long embraced the new over the old. The archetypal Japanese home consists of what westerners would consider transitory materials – wood, paper, straw – not built to last, partly because Japan is buffeted by natural disasters: earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and typhoons.

Every two decades the Grand Shrine at Ise, among Japan’s most sacred, gets demolished and reconfigured. This summer, the destruction of Tokyo’s beloved modernist Hotel Okura, featured in the Bond novel You Only Live Twice, drew howls of futile protest. A new high-rise with 21st-century amenities will take its place.

Many of the structures now abandoned to rot and ruin – “ghost homes”, in the phrase coined by the New York Times’s Tokyo correspondent Jonathan Soble, in an article this summer – were hastily erected during the postwar years, as Japan’s economic juggernaut took flight. A 30-year lifespan was the standard target. It would make more sense, both technologically and economically, to destroy and build anew, meeting the safety specs of the future and keeping the real-estate market humming.

The postwar imperative to build created a property tax that is today completely at odds with Japan’s real-estate crisis: the government will punish you if you demolish a house without building a new one, raising taxes on your empty land up to six times if you leave it that way.

There are marginal efforts under way to turn the emptied houses into living homes. In Kyoto, the “Machiya [traditional wooden merchant townhouses] Machizukuri Fund” has drawn increasing numbers of overseas investors, attracted by the weak yen and the chance to revive the dying art of a Unesco-blessed aesthetic.

Closer to Tokyo, I met Yoshihiro Takishita, a 72-year-old architect, this summer at his restored farmhouse in the seaside city of Kamakura. He has created a career out of dismantling, moving, restoring and modernising the materials and techniques of Japan’s rural builders. To date, he has completed over 30 projects, spanning four countries.

For Takishita, who discovered his love of traditional Japan with his adoptive father, the late American AP journalist John Roderick, the art of keeping old homes alive is more spiritual than practical. “My kind of a traditional Japanese farmhouse is like a Shinto shrine, a shrine to nature,” he says, as we survey the sea from his pitch-roofed balcony. “Young Japanese only want the cheap and the new. But there is a mystery to the spaces inside these homes that has a healing power. It’s very comforting.”

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US” (Palgrave Macmillan). He will be writing regularly from Japan for the New Statesman

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This article appears in the 14 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy