Sunday, 23 September 2012

Empty Houses 空き家 and 廃墟

When we were looking for a house to move into a friend suggested an “aki-ie”, or “empty house”. At first I wasn’t sure on the distinction between an aki-ie and a haikyo, but it turns out that Non-Profit Organisations manage the renting of aki-ie and very low rates in order to prevent them from becoming haikyo. Let me explain that in a little more detail. Traditional Japanese houses are a little like hosts who require symbiotic parasites (humans) to reside in them in order to live. Or, if I absolutely have to avoid parasite analogies, Japanese houses need a lot of upkeep. Without occupants they very quickly become uninhabitable. This wasn’t an issue when they were first designed and people lived in extended families working the same land for generations. These days, however, young people tend to prefer to live in nuclear families and many (most?) leave the ‘family’ home to find work. They may then marry and start their own families living near their workplace. The result is that rural Japan is full of huge old houses which their very elderly residents struggle to maintain. When it becomes impossible (and there are a lot of volunteer services that work to try and help the elderly stay in their own homes as long as possible), the houses stand vacant. In time they begin to crumble away, sometimes still fully furnished and waiting for a son or grandson to “come home” (which he may have no intention of ever doing). I say son or grandson for a reason, but the primogenitor system of inheritance belongs in another post.

Haikyo make for some amazing and creepy photography subjects. There's even a hobby called haikyo that involves exploring them. Check out the gorgeous pictures at and and a website about the hobby at

Enter aki-ie. NPOs find tenets to move into the empty houses for a nominal rent so that they are maintained. At the very least the tatami will be aired and the house will be heated in winter. An example is
Look at the gorgeous old houses standing vacant

Photo taken from
Although it seems strange that renting the house out is a last, desperate resort, there seems to be a great deal of reluctance to open the family home to strangers. There are a few houses on the regular rental market, but none of the ones we looked at seemed to have been family homes. The house we are currently renting was built as a rental, and the owner has never lived here. A friend who has been living in Kyushu (for work reasons) for the last three decades recently told me that she was going “back” to Nagoya (her hometown) to clean her house before her daughter moved there. It took me a while to understand that for the last thirty-odd years they have maintained a house in Nagoya that no-one was using, while also renting an apartment down here. Apparently when her husband retires they will move back to Nagoya, despite all of their friends and the families their children grew up with being down here. Can you imagine sitting on an asset with the value of a house in Australia for thirty years and doing absolutely nothing with it? I don’t even know if I will ever be able to afford my own house, let alone have one and then rent another just because.  
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  1. So here is my question to you. My daughter and I plan on moving to Japan in about 2 yrs and I rather live in a house than apartment, plus I have a kitty that will be coming with us. And want to live in rural Japan outside tokyo. How do I go about finding a place ect? I getting my BA then was going to try to get a teaching job in Japan. We are learning to speak Japanese

    1. Many teaching jobs will either set you up with accommodation, but if you are looking by yourself just tell a real estate agent you are looking for a house (or search for houses online, ie The NPOs that rent out akiya tend to be locally based, so once you know where you are going you can contact the City Hall and ask what is available in that area. Many apartments will allow cats though, jsyk ^_^


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