According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT), approximately 41,000 square kilometers, or 20% of privately-owned land in Japan is owned by unidentifiable or missing owners.
A missing owner is defined as someone who has either passed away without the property title being transferred to the heirs, or an owner who has since moved but has not updated their address details on the property title. Generally speaking, there is no legal obligation to update a change of address or inheritance on property titles.
Of the land, 14% is building land, 18.5% is farmland, and 25.7% is forestry. The MLIT reported that 19.8%, or 930,000 hectares, of Japan’s agricultural land has property titles that have not been updated in over 50 years. Some local governments have found property titles showing the owner’s address as Manchukuo – a short-lived pre-war puppet state located in northeastern China.
The Ministry of Justice estimates that 6.6% of land in city areas has missing owners, while the figure increases to 26.6% for land in regional areas.
There are many cases where the original owner passed away but the heirs have not recorded the inheritance on the property title. There is no obligation to record the change of ownership of real estate that has been inherited. The paperwork and fees involved often mean that the heirs simply do not bother, especially when the land is in a remote location with little-to-no value. Selling the land may prove close to impossible, so there is little benefit for the heirs to update the property records. Registering the inheritance of the property would incur real estate registration tax as well as annual property taxes, which is another burden for land with no market value. As time passes, the number of rightful heirs to the property increases to a point where it is almost impossible to track them all down, meaning the property cannot legally be sold.
- Heritage sites cannot be maintained or protected if owners cannot be contacted to obtain permission.
- Urgent repair work to prevent landslides cannot be done if the owners are unknown.
- Prefectural roads cannot be completed if one of the landowners is missing.
- Property boundaries cannot be confirmed if neighbors cannot be contacted.
Otsuchi Town in Iwate Prefecture lost 70% of its buildings in the 2011 Tohoku Tsunami. Land is slowly being bought up by the town as part of their reconstruction and re-housing efforts. Progress has been stuck at 90% due to a number of properties having unknown or unreachable owners. Some property records have not been updated since the late 1800s, and others have upwards 20 ~ 30 heirs – all of whom must be contacted to sign off on the land sale.
Japan has approximately 230 million land titles.
Wedge Infinity, March 8, 2017.
Lifull Home’s Press, May 11, 2017.
The Asahi Shimbun, June 26, 2017.
Jiji Press, June 26, 2017.