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Why Japan is giving away free houses (and how to get one)

A rapidly aging population, plus a preference for new home, has created a glut of abandoned spaces available for free or next-to-nothing.

Why Japan is giving away free houses (and how to get one)
[Photo: Masaaki Ohashi/iStock]

There are some 8 million abandoned homes–or akiya–in Japanese suburbia, according to The Japan Times. And if you’ve got a visa allowing you to live in Japan, some of them can be yours for free or very low prices, and the government may give you a subsidy to renovate one. There are even databases devoted to helping people find these homes, known as “akiya banks .”

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What’s driving the government to give away homes? In part, it has to do with Japan’s aging population: According to the World Bank, the country’s population decreased by -0.2% in 2017 alone, while China and the U.S. slowly grew 0.6% and 0.7% respectively. There are simply fewer people in Japan than there once were–roughly 1.3 million fewer people than in 2010 by one count [paywall].

[Photo: Flickr user Nelo Hotsuma]

But there also other factors at play. In Japan, homes are typically demolished within 20 to 30 years, or risk becoming valueless because nobody wants to live in them. The reasons are many–The Japan Times points out that some may be associated with lonely deaths, murder, and suicides committed in the homes (some of these “stigmatized properties” are listed on a site called Oshimaland). In other cases, as The Guardian explains, the homes are valueless because of aging prefab construction, quickly developed to meet the post-World War II population boom and subsequent housing crisis. Sometimes, new building codes or a lack of maintenance is to blame–why bother, if you know your home will eventually be valueless either way?

So, what do you have to do to claim one of these homes? Move to Japan, for starters, since the only requirement is a permanent resident visa. For that, you’ll just need to be a highly-skilled immigrant or have a job offer. Of course, actually moving is less easy, even if the house is free. For most Westerners moving to Japan will feel like moving to Mars. But for free rent, timely public transport, inexpensive octopus balls, and jiggly cheesecakes, it may just be worth it.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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