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A Sprawl of Ghost Homes in Aging Tokyo Suburbs

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Despite a deeply rooted national aversion to waste, discarded homes are spreading across Japan like a blight in a garden. Long-term vacancy rates have climbed significantly higher than in the United States or Europe, and some eight million dwellings are now unoccupied, according to a government count. Nearly half of them have been forsaken completely — neither for sale nor for rent, they simply sit there, in varying states of disrepair.

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 work force 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 in 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? …

yokosuka-3-master675-v2“Tokyo could end up being surrounded by Detroits,” said Tomohiko Makino, a real estate expert who has studied the vacant-house phenomenon. Once limited mostly to remote rural communities, it is now spreading through regional cities and the suburbs of major metropolises. Even in the bustling capital, the ratio of unoccupied houses is rising. …

There is even a sprawling art project, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field, which has taken unoccupied buildings in a cluster of towns northwest of Tokyo and turned them into contemporary artworks. Visitors can spend the night in a “Dream House” designed by the performance artist Marina Abramovic, with coffin-like beds and tinted lights designed to elicit dreams, or tour other buildings that have been intricately carved, painted or filled with sculptural installations. …

Hidetaka Yoneyama, a housing specialist at the Fujitsu Research Institute, a think tank, said that until recently, homes in Japan were built to last only about 30 years, when they were then expected to be torn down and rebuilt. Building quality is improving, but the market for secondhand homes remains tiny. Developers are still building more than 800,000 new homes and condominiums a year, despite the glut of vacancies.

“In the high-growth era, everyone was happy with this arrangement,” Mr. Yoneyama said. But in 20 years, he calculated, more than one-quarter of Japanese houses could be empty. “Now the tables are turned. The population is declining and no one wants to live in these old houses.”