Japan’s shrinking population offers escape from hectic city life

A shrinking Japanese population is fueling a trend of urbanites buying up cheap vacant homes in the countryside.

japan home
A growing number of people in Japan are buying abandoned homes in rural areas as a way to escape city life [Courtesy of Allen Lindskoog]

Tokyo, Japan – When Reiko Ishimoto and her partner Allen Lindskoog were doing the daily grind in Tokyo, they never envisioned a quiet life in the countryside.

But as the couple sits on the porch of their renovated wooden farmhouse, with its sweeping tiled roof, cyclopean stone foundations and bamboo garden, their sense of contentment is palpable.

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

“The difference is night and day,” agreed Lindskoog, who lived in New York before moving to Tokyo. “You start to realise, [living in the city] is not natural.”

The couple are among a growing number of buyers, many of them foreign nationals, purchasing abandoned homes in rural Japan.

The trend has coincided with Japan facing a severe population decline: The number of Japanese is projected to shrink from more than 125 million people at present to 87 million within 50 years.

The shrinking population in rural areas coupled with brain drain to the major cities has left behind numerous “ghost villages” scattered throughout the Japanese countryside.

The Japanese countryside is littered with vacant properties due to the declining population [Courtesy of Allen Lindskoog]

In January, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration launched a programme that aims to revitalise rural areas by offering families relocating from Tokyo to the countryside 1 million yen per child. Though many have questioned its ability to lure people away from the capital.

According to official statistics, there are about 8.5 million abandoned homes – known as akiya – in Japan, but estimates suggest the true number could be closer to 11 million. Akiya are expected to become only more common as the population greys, with the government projecting them to make up 30 percent of the entire housing stock within the next 10 years.

After scouring an official database of abandoned homes, Ishimoto and Lindskoog found a property in Nirasaki, a small municipality located about 130km west of Tokyo, that was built about 80 years ago.

While the house lacked basic amenities, including a shower or a toilet, and its front garden was drowning in weeds and overgrown flora, the couple saw potential after a couple of visits.

“The condition of the house was super good inside,” Ishimoto said. “Almost ready to live in, even though it had been abandoned for 20 years.”

Ishimoto and Lindskoog purchased the property for less than 10 million yen ($70,000) in August 2022. So far, they have spent about $15,000 on refurbishments.

“But it’s an ongoing project, and you’re never quite going to finish, so you’ve got to love the process,” Lindskoog said.

Fragmented 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. Family squabbles over inherited home ownership often complicate transactions further.

American business partners Matthew Ketchum and Parker Allen established Akiya & Inaka to address these issues.

The consultancy group works with real estate agents, legal representatives, licensed building and land quality inspectors, and architects throughout the acquisition process.

Ketchum and Allen said their goal is to level the playing field so that everyone has the opportunity of owning their own slice of rural Japan irrespective of their knowledge of the domestic real estate market.

“The model that runs big real estate in Japan is perfectly tooled to not work well at all with anything outside of Tokyo,” Ketchum told Al Jazeera. “We’re flipping the script so that we can facilitate the meaningful pursuit of these properties.”

Allen Lindskoog and his partner Reiko Ishimoto purchased a property in Nirasaki last year for less than 10 million yen [$70,000] [Courtesy of Allen Lindskoog]

Foreign nationals have essentially the same rights to own property as Japanese citizens and residents. But with the sheer number of houses on the market, it can take significant time and resources to find something that suits a buyer’s needs.

“The sad reality is that most of the available houses across the country are just not worth the investment it would take to make them liveable,” Allen said.

“The best investments to make in Japan are existing constructions because wood-framed buildings are considered valueless after 20 years. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been beautifully constructed and built to last.”

Because of this, akiya are sold at prices that can belie their size and potential.

Some properties go for as little as $10,000 or $20,000, while larger properties with fewer required refurbishments are available from around $60,000. With the average price of a condominium in Tokyo rising to a record 62.88 million yen ($484,300) in 2023, and ballooning real estate valuations in major cities globally, interest in the rural Japanese market has grown in lockstep.

Akiya & Inaka now get dozens of enquiries daily, with an increasing number coming from international buyers, according to the company.

Ketchum said the weak yen, interest in Japanese culture, the opening of Japan’s borders after more than two years of COVID-19 restrictions, and people seeking stress-free lifestyles are among the factors driving the trend.

“There’s this limited number of good, well-maintained houses in attractive areas with natural beauty and decent access,” Allen said. “If someone has the means to purchase in Japan, the waters are ready.”

Simon Whalley says he has been welcomed into the community since buying an abandoned property in Osakikamijima [Courtesy of Simon Whalley]

Some communities, such as Osakikamijima, a small island off the coast of Hiroshima Prefecture, are actively trying to encourage inbound migration and akiya purchases.

Osakikamijima has seen an uptick in foreign residents since the local government established it as an “education island,” opening an international school and a small university.

When Welshman Simon Whalley landed a job at the local international school, he and his wife Kaori decided to buy an akiya. As climate activists, the move suited their vision of a self-sufficient lifestyle.

Their home, which cost around $25,000, was built from concrete in the 1970s, meaning it needed few renovations.

The property’s accompanying 0.6 hectares (1.5 acres) of land, however, was an “impenetrable wall of jungle” and requires continued tending to keep at bay.

Whalley said he hopes their efforts will encourage tourism to the island.

“We farm and grow our own vegetables,” he told Al Jazeera. “And we want to turn the old mikan storage facility into an Airbnb, and try to market it as a vegan-friendly place to visit in Hiroshima.”

Whalley said the warm welcome from locals has also helped them feel at home on the island.

“They’re really happy to have a kid here, especially, because they see the problem: that everyone’s going off to Hiroshima or Tokyo and there’s hardly any young people left.”

Allen Lindskoog and his partner have spent about $15,000 refurbishing their akiya [Courtesy of Allen Lindskoog]

Jason Lawrence, a New Zealander who moved to Osakikamijima in 2021 with his wife Miki and their two kids, was also taken by the leisurely pace of island life and its solid education infrastructure. But after looking at the local akiya bank, they decided to buy a plot of land instead.

“The key for us was that there’s [temporary] accommodation set up for people who want to move here,” Lawrence told Al Jazeera. “Every day we spent there, we learned a bit more, we met more people, we made more friends, and that just made the decision a lot easier.”

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

“More and more people are chasing freedom from the rat race, the hedonic treadmill, and moving closer to real food,” he said.

“For a long time I’ve dreamed of building my own home, and it’s very difficult to do that any more where I come from. Here, things are a little more relaxed.”

Source: Al Jazeera