San Francisco’s Airbnb Looking To Fill Japan’s Abandoned Houses

Akiya house

San Francisco-based Airbnb is joining other companies and individuals who have been looking at the increasing number of empty houses in Japan and thinking either a new, cheaper place to live or a great investment opportunity.

According to Japanese government statistics, there are about 8.5 million abandoned homes – known as akiya – in Japan. The Nomura Research Institute projects that number to rise to 23.03 million by 2038, representing 31.5% of all houses in the country as Japan’s population ages and shrinks. (The number of Japanese is expected to decline from more than 125 million people to 87 million within 50 years.)

“Many of (the akiya) are too good to be abandoned. There are also safety risks if they are left unkept,” Airbnb's head of Japan, Yasuyuki Tanabe, told Nikkei.  His home-sharing company hopes to partner with businesses and local governments to encourage homeowners to invest in renovations.

Government Pushes Countryside Living

In January, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration launched a program that offers families relocating from Tokyo to the countryside 1 million yen (about $6,775) per child. There are also tax breaks related to buying housing in rural areas and homes there that cost as little as $500.

Like many others looking into housing in Japan, Airbnb is especially interested in kominka or wooden traditional houses. Tanabe said the company is “deepening ties” with an association that preserves these homes and has donated about $1 million to the organization.

“Many of these houses have been left for different reasons, though the catalyst is often the original owner dying. Sometimes an heir refuses to accept the home their families left behind. Others do not name an inheritor, or relatives who have been passed the home don’t need it but don’t want to sell family land out of respect,” Katherine McLaughlin wrote in an April 25 article in Architectural Digest.

“In any situation, the result is often the same: an empty house left to sit and deteriorate,” she said.

Kazunobu Tsutsui is a professor of rural geography and economics at Tottori University in a city of about 184,000 on Japan’s main island of Honshu.

Tsutsui lives in a renovated akiya built more than a century ago.

“In rural areas, there is a long history of ancestral owners of akiya living in the houses and on the land,” Tsutsui told the New York Times, “Therefore, even after moving to the city, families will not give up their akiya easily.”

International Buyers Thinking Akiya

But the market for those willing to sell has a growing number of would-be buyers as well as the suitors at Airbnb.

Matthew Ketchum, a Pittsburgh native and co-founder of Akiya & Inaka, a Tokyo-based real estate consultancy, said his firm is now fielding about five times the number of inquiries as when it began in 2020. “At first, we were getting most of our inquiries from Japan residents, Australians and Singaporeans,” he said.

“That has changed now, with the vast majority of our international clients being based in the U.S.”

Author: Richard Pretorius