Over 100,000 houses in central Tokyo currently sit empty, a 40% increase over the previous decade. Many are in decrepit condition, causing problems for neighbors and city administrators alike.
The details of this program, originally broadcast Jan 22 on NHK, appear in Takarajima (April).
The reporters visited one such house, occupying some 60 tsubo of land (about 220 square meters) in a quiet neighborhood in Suginami Ward. Its shutters were closed and dead leaves were piled up so high its doorknob was no longer visible.
"The wall around the house is crumbling, and if you give it a push, pieces fall off. I suppose if left that way long enough, it will eventually topple over," said a concerned neighbor.
"I've seen suspicious people climbing over the wall. That's worrisome," remarked another.
"I worry most of all that someone might flick a cigarette butt into those piles of leaves, and the whole place would go up in flames," fretted a third.
Actually, Takarajima notes, ample cause exists for such concerns. Last year in Tokyo's Minato Ward, 13 homes and shops were destroyed in a fire that occurred when an empty residence was torched by a suspected arsonist. Just one day before the blaze erupted, a local resident had appealed to the police to boost patrols in the neighborhood.
Such homes often deteriorate into eyesores due to illegal dumping of rubbish. A certain house in Suginami Ward, vacant for over five years, has accumulated piles of refuse, said to be crawling with vermin and producing noxious smells.
"According to the ordinance, the responsibility for management of privately owned property lies with the owner," Ichiro Nakamura, manager of the Environment Department of Suginami Ward, tells the magazine. Nakamura cites the ward's "Safety and Beautification Ordinance" enacted in 2003.
Unfortunately, Suginami's law imposes no penalties on violators. To enter such property without permission from the owner is trespassing. Even the snipping off of an offending tree branch can get someone slapped with a charge of damaging private property.
The local government office and police are left with no recourse except when dealing with a clear violation, such as arson or unlawful entry.
Working from a list of 103 vacant houses, the NHK team set out to trace some of these absentee owners and ask for an explanation. In 46 cases, the owner had passed away and willed the property to their offspring, and of these, 24 had already sold the property to third parties living somewhere else.
Typical excuses given for neglecting the houses included, "It's far away from where I live and I have neither the time nor the money to take care of the place," and "If I were to sell it now, I'd lose money." Yet in 27 of the 103 cases, the vacant owner was registered as an occupant of the house -- even though they clearly were not.
What is causing this emptying out? One factor appears to be that during the period of rapid economic growth in the 1970s, many of what were formerly farms and empty fields in Setagaya and Suginami wards had been subdivided into homes for salarymen. Now 40 years later, the population of elderly over age 65 has tripled, from 6% to 18%.
When, after a two-month hunt, the reporters traced the owner of one house, they were told by her son, "My mother has been sick, and is in the hospital." He added that the house would remain vacant until she could be discharged. "But why has the building been left is such a decrepit state?" they asked. "I have nothing else to tell you," came the reply.
In the meantime, the number of vacant houses in Tokyo continues to increase at the rate of 3,000 units per year.© Japan Today