The empty house problem

The empty house problem

As of 2020, there are predicted to be 10 million empty homes across the archipelago according to the Japanese economist and real estate consultant Tomohiro Makino.

Akiya, the Japanese word for empty house is the focus of this analysis in his book “Akiya Mondai”.[1]  Although this term refers to all types of housing Japan, when focussing on the traditional minka type, the number is much less but still a staggering amount.   A report by the Development Bank of Japan counts 211,437 empty minka in 2015 and this number is steadily rising.[2]  Some of the most iconic machiya are in Kyoto due to their density and proximity to famous temples.  The wooden architecture from the Edo period captivates the imagination of millions of tourists.  As one of the top visited cities in Japan, Kyoto offers a unique experience hard to find anywhere else conveniently in Japan. Despite this, even the iconic homes of Kyoto are under risk of demolition.



Financial, regulatory and maintenance issues have been ravaging the upkeep and use of the Kyoto town house.  In a survey conducted by the Kyoto center for community collaboration in 2003, almost 13% of machiya in Kyoto between 1996 and 2003 were reported to be destroyed.[3] With an additional 13% of homes in Kyoto empty, including thousands of machiya , this situation poses a serious problem.  Japanese homes although popular abroad, are often neglected in Japan, with preference driven toward western style, modern, convenient and low maintenance homes. Post-war, cheap and convenient apartments in the city have overtaken the minimalist, wooden appearance of minka


In an interview with the award winning Japanese Architect Tetsuo Furuichi, he despaired about how “Nearly all of our great native architecture has vanished. What people want now is European-American style.” In reference to his large book about Traditional Japanese Houses, he comments that “Most of the houses depicted in this book, which records our best old homes, have gone for ever.[4] Why this trend is occurring is important.  Mitsumura Shuiko Shoin identifies a number of reasons in his book ‘Machiya Revival in Kyoto’, through an attempt to revive them.  The key factors are:

  1. Cost of maintenance and renovation
  2. Earthquake renovation
  3. Outdated life-style
  4. Surrounding high rise cause problems
  5. Upkeep costsb
  6. Difficulty in renovation
  7. Inheritance tax

The survey in the book revealed that over 40% of machiya residents said that being surrounded by high rise buildings caused difficulties.  This issue was surpassed by the cost of renovation and earthquake resistance/ fire proofing, whereby 50% of those survey complained about this.[5]   In an attempt to tackle this issue, the government is trying to deal with disappearing towns, villages and homes through various groups, charities and local communities.  This work by promoting the preservation and use of these old town houses to prevent their destruction and offering subsidies and incentives.  One example of such an organisation is The Kyo-machiya Development Fund.  The aim is to promote the preservation, restoration and utilization of machiya through private donations.   If a resident wishes to renovate their machiya instead of destroying it, they are given a grant.  This public-private cooperative agency set up in 2005 has been working ever since to save as much of Kyoto heritage as possible.





[1] Jones, Colin. “Perfect Storm Of Factors Conspires To Empty Japan | The Japan Times”. The Japan Times.
[2] Alexander, Lucy. “Japan’S Traditional ‘Minka’ Homes Gain A New Following”.
[3] Shoin Suiko Mitsumura. “Machiya Revival in Kyoto.” 2009 Edited by Kyoto centre for community collaboration: . Asano Yasuhiro,. p
[4] Fitzpatrick, Michael. “Property Overseas: On A Mission To Save The Japanese Minka”. N.p., 2017. Web. 5 July 2017. “
[5] Shoin Suiko Mitsumura. “Machiya Revival in Kyoto.” 2009 Edited by Kyoto centre for community collaboration: . Asano Yasuhiro,.

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