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Millions of empty homes in Japan are being sold for a song or even given away. Foreigners are taking notice

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“It was the price of a car,” says Stuart Galbraith IV of the house in rural Japan he bought in 2016. “A BMW, but still, the price of a car.”

Built in 1810, the traditional farmhouse languished on the market for six years.

It was one of the eight million akiya or “vacant homes” in Japan, mostly in the countryside, whose owners have died or moved away.

Japan’s aging population is in decline and in 2021, Japan saw its lowest number of births ever. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Jan. 23 that the country is “on the cusp of whether it can maintain its societal functions.”

As younger rural residents leave to find jobs in the city, some towns and villages in Japan are even giving akiya away for free.

The surplus of affordable houses in Japan contrasts sharply with Canada, where the average price of a house was $612,204 last month and an additional 3.5 million housing units are needed by 2030.

“In Japan, you can buy and renovate a beautiful, historic, architecturally significant home for a tiny fraction of the cost in many other parts of the world,” says Galbraith.

It’s an insight shared by a growing number of foreign buyers.

Twenty years ago, Galbraith and his wife, who is originally from Japan, had enough of the traffic and pollution of Los Angeles. They decided to move to Kyoto.

Galbraith set up a thriving Airbnb business and came up with the idea of expanding his offerings to include a traditional farmhouse, called a minka. An online search led him to the perfect place, nestled in the mountains an hour’s drive north of central Kyoto and a 30-minute drive from the nearest grocery store.

Galbraith was somehow able to see past the collapsing floors covered in mouse droppings, the broken glass and the ripped rice-paper screens that formed many of the home’s room dividers and windows. Most buyers would have run in the opposite direction, but Galbraith says it was love at first sight.

For the price of another BMW, he hired a local company to restore the house — and got a discount because the company’s owners hoped to study the traditional carpentry methods used to build the house.

Before buying the house, Galbraith and his family had attended a sports day at the local school and were enthusiastically welcomed by the villagers. Once the renovations were done, they realized they wanted to make the minka their permanent home.

Their decision was difficult for their Japanese friends to understand. Many Japanese shun pre-owned homes, viewing minka in particular as cold, dark and dirty.

“They imagined that we were going to be suffering,” Galbraith says. Visitors are often surprised to find the farmhouse comfortable and cozy.

Hoping to share his passion for traditional homes with other foreigners, Galbraith followed a friend’s suggestion and started a Facebook group, Kominka Japan. For years, there were only nine members.

Suddenly in 2021, thousands of people joined in an explosion of interest that culminated in the Minka Summit, a three-day conference that Galbraith helped organize in April 2022, in Hanase, near Kyoto.

The event featured guest speakers, vendors selling traditional crafts and minka tours. Nearly 400 attendees came from as far away as Poland, a surprise given that Japan was mostly closed to visitors at the time because of COVID. The event was such a success that a second summit is planned for April 2023.

Galbraith attributes the surge in interest to media coverage about akiya and the rise of teleworking during the pandemic.

Australian YouTube star Jaya Thursfield works on customizing a door to fit the entrance of the living room in his 1980s traditional Japanese-style house in Ibaraki prefecture. Thursfield had limited DIY skills before he bought his home at an auction for about $30,000 (Canadian). He was one of only two bidders.

Australian Jaya Thursfield, one of the Minka Summit speakers, adds that social media has played an important role in capturing the attention of people in countries where real estate has become unaffordable. He and his wife decided to settle in Japan in part because they’d heard about cheap akiya.

Thursfield’s YouTube channel, Tokyo Llama, features videos documenting his experience buying and renovating a traditional-style house in Ibaraki prefecture, a mere 50-minute train ride from Tokyo. It has 211,000 subscribers.

His most popular video has had more than three million views, with the United States and Canada being the two most common sources of views. Many foreigners have offered to pay Thursfield to help them find an akiya, but his hands are full renovating his own home.

As is often the case with akiya, the sale price included the contents left by the previous owners. There were still dishes in the kitchen sink and trash piled on every surface. Fifteen television sets, tools, dozens of bottles and various other objects were cleared away. Picture is from March 2019.

Enter Parker J. Allen and Matt (The Akiya Hunter) Ketchum, Americans who run a real-estate consulting firm that helps foreign buyers called Akiya & Inaka. Inaka means “countryside.”

Ketchum hails from Pittsburgh. It’s hardly an international destination for music, he says, but during his high-school years, it was an inexplicably popular tour stop for Japanese hardcore punk and metal bands. He was inspired to learn Japanese and moved to Japan to teach English.

Ketchum started a company to gather and share information about the Japanese underground extreme metal music scene, then realized he could apply the same data science methodology to akiya, which he initially began researching as a hobby five years ago.

During the pandemic, Ketchum and Allen noticed that many foreigners wanted to move from their tiny city apartments to the countryside but weren’t sure how to navigate the Japanese real-estate system.

Ketchum brought the idea of leveraging his akiya database to Allen. Originally from Tennessee, Allen is an entrepreneur with previous experience in the Japanese real-estate sector.

Thursfield and his family enjoy the garden outside of their home in August 2021. Part of the reason why they moved to the countryside was because he wanted to be able to have barbecues with friends and family. He also wanted a yard where his kids could play.

Since starting their platform in August 2020, they’ve helped dozens of clients from all over the world, including several Canadians, find their dream properties. It’s not just traditional rural Japanese houses that are for sale. It’s possible to buy Scandinavian-style cottages, apartments in Tokyo, pubs, bowling alleys, churches, ski resorts and government buildings such as schools.

“We have yet to not be able to find even the wackiest of things,” says Ketchum.

Although some clients want dilapidated, free akiya to tear down or fix up, Allen says, “the secret sauce of real estate in Japan is buying existing construction that is in good condition.”

They are “treasure hunters,” looking for the one in 100 akiya that is beautiful but still affordable. Allen estimates the price point for a turnkey property would start around five million yen (about $50,000 Canadian).

It’s more than a business venture, as Ketchum and Allen have personal ties to the Japanese countryside. Allen visited rural Iwate prefecture on exchange as a teenager, and Ketchum was living in the small town of Miyako when the 2011 earthquake struck, forcing him to flee to a hillside temple. The devastation had a profound impact on both of them.

Real estate consultants Matt (The Akiya Hunter) Ketchum, left, and Parker J. Allen of Akiya & Inaka stand in front of a property they were visiting on behalf of a client. Their land inspector stands in the background. Built in 1995 for 250 million yen (about $2.6 million Canadian), the pristine building was on sale for a quarter of the price. Photo taken Dec. 17, 2021.

“We really do want to revitalize the Japanese countryside,” Allen says. He wonders if foreigners buying traditional homes could inspire more Japanese people to do the same.

“Will foreigners solve Japan’s akiya problem? Maybe, maybe not,” says Allen. “But can this lead to a snowball effect that more deeply affects the domestic public psyche? That’s what I’m interested in.”

Robert D. Eldridge, a Japan-based political scientist, says there are many instances where foreign appreciation of various cultural aspects of Japan has led to their revitalization, as was the case with the 20th-century revival of woodblock prints.

“Foreigners can help bring a new angle,” he says.

His upcoming book, “Regional Development and Japan’s Rebirth,” explores how education, volunteerism, entrepreneurship, disaster response and international exchange can aid rural revitalization. The Local Vitalization Cooperator, a government program that matches urban workers with rural communities, is one example.

“It’s like a domestic Peace Corps,” says Eldridge. Foreigners, even from outside Japan, can apply, and in some cases, municipalities have facilitated the visa process for them.

His book contains 30 recommendations, and he emphasizes that the sooner that action is taken, the better. Just as an abandoned home can reach a point where it can’t be salvaged, a community can also become so demoralized that it can’t recover.

“I’m afraid that in many communities, the tipping point has been missed,” Eldridge says.

For his part, Galbraith had always assumed that his daughter would grow up and move to the city, like so many others.

“But she’s told us: ‘When I graduate from university, I plan to come back here and buy a minka down the road,’” Galbraith says. “A lot of the children here feel that way. They want to rebuild these communities.

“That gives me a lot of optimism for the future.”

Liana Hwang is a family physician in Calgary and a fellow in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

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