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Behind the Scenes / Aging population fuels ‘unclaimed land’ issue

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Land development work is still under way at a site for planned relocation to higher ground in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture.

By Fumihiko Abe/Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterA group of experts has forecast that 7.2 million hectares in the country may lack clear owners by 2040 for reasons such as inheritances going unregistered. The figure is almost equivalent to the size of Hokkaido’s main island. What is going on with land in Japan?

The private group — comprising scholars and chaired by former Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Hiroya Masuda — is studying problems that arise when owners of plots of land are unknown.

How can the owner of a plot of land be unknown? A landowner’s name and address are listed in a real estate register of who has what rights to which plots of land.

After the owner of a plot passes away, its new owner initiates an inheritance registration procedure. However, because this procedure is not a legal obligation, the land register often is not updated. People are free to decide whether and when they will register ownership. As a result, it is becoming more and more difficult to identify who currently owns land.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

According to a survey conducted by the Justice Ministry, the inheritance registration information of 26.6 percent of all plots in small- and midsize cities and mountainous regions across the country has not been updated in more than 50 years. It is very likely that inheritance registration procedures on these plots have yet to be conducted.

Many of these properties are in forested mountain areas or other locations that are exempted from fixed asset taxes. Failing to go through proper inheritance registration procedures for these plots rarely causes an issue.

Additionally, when an owner has moved away or there are many heirs, getting in touch with them for land acquisitions can take time and effort. The study group labels plots as “land with no clarified owners” not only when the owner cannot be immediately found in the register, but also when there is no easy way to contact a listed owner. In these cases, authorities have difficulty acquiring land needed for public works.

“Unclaimed land” is a stumbling block when it comes to the effective use of farmland and forests. The situation also sometimes hinders the collection of real property taxes.

The problem, first raised in the 1990s, has become acute in recent years. First came the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, in which difficulties tracking down the owners of plots caused confusion and delays in the acquisition of land that was needed for reconstruction projects. Virtually abandoned houses nationwide are another problem. Such properties cannot be knocked down if the owner of the plot on which it stands is untraceable.

In cases such as parents continuing to live in rural areas after their children move to cities, bequeathing the land or buildings has few benefits because land prices there are declining. The number of inheritances will increase amid the aging population. The problem could become much worse if plots continue to go unregistered at the current rate.

When the baby boomers enter their 80s starting in 2030, Japan will see an additional 300,000 deaths every year compared to 2015. The study group estimates that if no effective measures are taken, the total area of unclaimed land will increase from the current 4.1 million hectares to 7.2 million hectares by 2040.

“Land has traditionally been recognized as a valuable asset, but more and more people feel little sense of ownership over their land,” said Masuda, who chairs the study group. “Land is the common property of all citizens, and we need to clarify the responsibilities that come with the ownership of it.”

Subdivisions complicate land survey

What problems have been caused by unclaimed land? In the town of Teshikaga, Hokkaido, a “cadastral survey” conducted since 1978 was discontinued this fiscal year. The project aimed to check whether the boundaries between plots match the cadastral maps in the land register.

This land register is like a family register for plots of land. It states information such as the name of the owner of a plot, its address and its size.

Sometimes, however, the boundaries between plots — as indicated by posts or fences — end up deviating from what was registered on the cadastral maps when the plot’s information was first entered. Such deviations can lead to problems when it is time to transfer ownership. The purpose of a cadastral survey is to measure, on-site, the boundaries between plots, then ensure they are demarcated according to the cadastral maps. Municipalities across the country carry out surveys of this kind.

In Teshikaga, 80 percent of the plots initially slated for surveying were measured. However, the town government was unable to complete the survey because it had difficulty gaining approval from the rest of the landowners. A plot cannot be measured without the consent of its owner.

“We found 111 plots that were registered from the 1960s through the 1980s, probably as the result of sales of worthless wilderness properties. We finally concluded that it was too difficult to contact the owners,” an official of the town government’s construction department said.

It appears that developers from outside the town bought land in Teshikaga from residents, subdivided it into plots as small as 100 tsubo each, or 330 square meters, and sold it to urban dwellers with taglines such as “An excellent location with a view of the Mashuko or Kussharoko lakes.”

It is said that a total of 854 hectares of wilderness land is now owned by over 8,000 different people.

Completing the cadastral survey would enable the town to more easily use the land — as a site for temporary post-disaster housing, for example.

When records are certified by a town, private companies can make land transactions with confidence. However, Teshikaga decided to shelve the survey after considering the cost and effort it would take to complete it.

Regisration issues hinder tsunami recovery

The town of Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, suffered major damage in the Great East Japan Earthquake. Projects to “promote group relocation for disaster preparedness” have aimed to clear higher ground for the construction of residential areas. However, problems with unclaimed land have caused significant delays. The town initially planned to complete the housing projects on higher ground by the end of fiscal 2015, but some remain under construction.

“Land negotiations took time as well, but we experienced delays in acquiring land because there were plots for which proper inheritance registration procedures had not been completed,” Nobuhiro Ota, a town official in charge of land negotiations after the earthquake, recalled.

The register included a plot for which the only information was the name of one land owner with the remaining owners cited as the “four others.” That information was entered during the Meiji period (1868-1912). When the plot was examined, a gravestone with an engraved date from the Edo period (1603-1867) was also found. Even people who lived in the neighborhood could provide no clues as to whom the plot belonged.

Otsuchi is not the only town to have this problem. According to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, by the end of fiscal 2016, there were 603 cases in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures — areas severely affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake — of local governments changing the destinations of group relocation projects after negotiations over the initially planned plots broke down due to difficulties acquiring them.

“Municipalities should prepare for disasters by investigating where they can rebuild residential areas, and then checking the status of those plots in their registries,” said Otsuchi Mayor Kozo Hirano.Speech

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