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Old 09-08-2015, 09:18 PM
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Mary Pat Campbell
Join Date: Nov 2003
Location: NY
Studying for duolingo and coursera
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Yokosuka, Japan – Ever since her elderly neighbor moved a decade ago, Yoriko Haneda has done what she could to keep the empty house she left behind from becoming an eyesore. Haneda regularly trims its shrubs and clips its narrow strip of grass, maintaining its perfect view of the sea.

The volunteer yard work has not extended to the house two doors down, however. That one is vacant too, and overgrown with bamboo. In fact, dozens of houses in this hillside neighborhood about an hour’s drive from Tokyo are abandoned.

“There are empty houses everywhere, places where nobody’s lived for 20 years, and more are cropping up all the time,” said Haneda, 77, complaining that thieves had broken into her neighbor’s house twice and that a typhoon had damaged the roof of the one next to it.

These ghost homes are the most visible sign of human retreat in a country where the population peaked a half-decade ago and is forecast to fall by a third over the next 50 years. The demographic pressure has weighed on the Japanese economy, as a smaller workforce struggles to support a growing proportion of the old, and has prompted intense debate over long-term proposals to boost immigration or encourage women to have more children.

For now, though, after decades during which it struggled with overcrowding, Japan is confronting the opposite problem: When a society shrinks, what should be done with the buildings it no longer needs?

Many of Japan’s vacant houses have been inherited by people who have no use for them and yet are unable to sell because of a shortage of interested buyers. But demolishing them involves tactful questions about property rights, and about who should pay the costs. The government passed a law this year to promote demolition of the most dilapidated homes, but experts say the tide of newly emptied ones will be hard to stop.

Japan’s birth rate has been stuck below the level needed to maintain the population since the 1970s, as young people postpone marriage and many women put off having children as they enter the workforce.

Japan’s population of 127 million is expected to drop by a million a year in the coming decades. Efforts to increase its low birthrate have been only modestly successful, and the public has shown no appetite for mass immigration. “We have too much infrastructure,” said Takashi Onishi, an urban planning professor and the president of the Science Council of Japan. The government, he believes, will eventually have to cut services like water and road and bridge maintenance in the most depopulated areas. “We can’t maintain it all. We’ll have to make those hard choices.”
The new national law, which came into effect in May, could help more municipalities cull their vacant houses. Among other changes, it removed a perverse incentive that has contributed to the problem. A tax break introduced decades ago to encourage home construction sets property tax rates on vacant lots at six times the level of those on built-up land. That means that if an owner demolishes a home, the tax rate soars – a big reason many let even crumbling houses stand.

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