Vacant homes are a pressing problem in Japan. The number of vacant homes in the country has risen 50 per cent in the past 20 years. There are now approximately 8.49 million such homes and it is estimated that in 15 years, one in every three homes will be vacant.
We first turn the spotlight on Akiya Katsuyo Co Ltd, a venture capitalist firm in Tokyo which specialises in redeveloping vacant properties. It has 15 employees and its president is Takamitsu Wada. It gathers information about vacant homes throughout Japan and introduces them to prospective buyers and renters. It organises tours for investors of homes. These investors purchase vacant homes, retrofit them and bring them to market as rental homes. One of the areas the company focuses on is Setagaya Ward in Tokyo. Its population of around 910,000 is the highest among Tokyo’s wards. There are around 50,000 vacant properties in Setagaya Ward.
Mr Wada started working as a property agent in 2000 and founded Akiya Katsuyo in 2014. He is now an expert in the field of redeveloping vacant homes and works in tandem with 16 municipal authorities across Japan. His network includes about 80 contractors and companies in Setagaya Ward. For example, Setagaya Ward’s Department for Combatting Property Vacancy and Dilapidation works with Mr Wada. It is headed by Taeko Chiba and she collaborated with Mr Wada to create the Setagaya Akiya Katsuyo Usage Navigator. This initiative is a public-private partnership. Expert vacant home advisers provide consultations and comprehensive support to citizens, while Mr Wada’s company designs solutions for them.
In August 2022, Ms Chiba and Mr Wada visited a site in a three-storey building, at the request of Rie Oki. She and her older brother occupy the first and second floors. Their parents used to live on the ground floor, but it is now vacant as they have both passed away. The ground floor has three bedrooms and Ms Oki wants to renovate the space and rent it out for residential use. Mr Wada used his network to create a tailored plan for the Okis. It included organising the affairs and things of Ms Oki’s late parents. A company chosen by Mr Wada helped Ms Oki categorise the items over eight sessions. This whole process took one and a half months, after which the renovations started, led by a contractor with a history of fitting out 140 homes yearly. After nine months from the time of the consultation, the whole project was completed. The total cost came up to 6.3 million yen, with a service charge of 6 per cent going to Akiya Katsuyo. The ground floor was rented out for 220,000 yen.
In Hachioji City, Tokyo, the price of real estate is not as high as in central Tokyo. This makes vacant properties in suburbs popular with investors. The vacant homes are bought and sold through tours. More than 1,800 such properties across Japan have been revitalised. These tours are set up by the general incorporated association, the National Council for Promoting the Restoration of Old Houses (NCPROH). Its board chairperson is Shigeyuki Okuma. The NCPROH also organises investor tours in rural areas. If an investor buys the property through the NCPROH, engineering works are carried out using local companies.
We next move on to MUJI, a popular brand known for stylish furniture and daily necessities. It has also entered the vacant home sector and renovates homes. It leverages its different lifestyle products in the revitalisation projects. It sees Japan’s vacant property sector as a huge market for the company. One of its staff involved in such projects is Ayumi Nomoto. She hails from MUJI’s parent company Ryohin Keikaku’s Space Design Department. The department is not only in charge of outfitting MUJI’s own stores but also provides design services to other companies’ stores and public facilities.
Ms Nomoto undertook a vacant home renovation project in Shimizu Town, Hokkaido. This rural town is located in the subprefecture of Tokachi, with a population of roughly 9,000. She was contacted by Makoto Maeda, Head of the Shimizu Commerce and Industry Tourism Division. He sought her help in renovating a vacant home originally inhabited by teaching staff. Built 25 years ago, the three-bedroom home has Japanese- and Western-style rooms. It was vacant for four years and Shimizu Town wanted to short-let it to people considering moving to Shimizu. It engaged MUJI to transform it into a home designed to appeal to people from Tokyo and other big cities. Ms Nomoto chose furnishings from MUJI’s Ariake Store, Tokyo for the Shimizu project. She also selected some kitchenware. She engaged a local carpentry store to design an eye-catching piece of furniture for the renovated home.
The mayor of Shimizu and officials from local public offices visited the renovated home. They were given a tour of the property by Ms Nomoto. They were shown a workspace, where the centrepiece is a specially commissioned desk made by local carpenters, featuring Hokkaido wood. So the home was “reborn” with MUJI’s sense of style. A press conference was held on Jan 13 to officially mark the opening of the revamped home. It costs 12,000 yen a night or can be rented for 100,000 yen a month.