Out-of-date land titles slowing down redevelopment in Tohoku

Otsuchi Town Iwate

Reconstruction and relocation efforts in the disaster-hit areas in Tohoku are being stalled as out-of-date property records are making it close to impossible to locate landowners. 

In the town of Otsuchi in Iwate Prefecture, over half of the homes were either severely damaged or completely destroyed in the 2011 disaster. Barely any progress has been made on reconstructing the town and almost 4,100 residents (40% of the town’s population) are still living in temporary accommodation. 

The majority of the town’s area is covered in forest and flat building ground is scarce. The town’s reconstruction efforts require building seawalls and relocating residential areas to higher ground. However, the town planning department has hit a wall of their own – they are unable to locate the owners of land that they want to acquire in order to build new neighbourhoods.

Many cases involve land that was never transferred to the heirs of the estate. In one example, a block of land was found to still be registered to an owner who was born in the 1860s, which would make him 150 years old if he was alive today. Another property title showed a mortgage dating from the 1910s ~ 1920s that had never been erased and a claim by four creditors was still held over the land.

Some old titles are short on details, only listing the name of one owner with a note saying ‘plus four other owners’. The town cannot purchase the land unless they receive approval from the ‘four other owners’ or their heirs.

A recent survey by Iwate Prefecture found that 20% of the planned property acquisitions had stalled due to issues with shared ownership, liens, owners that cannot be contacted or owners that cannot be identified.

Land expropriation

In one case, the original land register from the Meiji period listed one landowner along with ’40 others’ who were unnamed. After looking through family registers, officials found 601 descendants of the original landowners. They made efforts to contact each person, although several hundred could not be reached. None of the descendants were able to produce documents to prove their current ownership of the land.

In this example, Iwate Prefecture determined that expropriation was the only way they could resolve this ownership issue. An absurd amount of time was devoted to this particular case, and it is cases like these that are slowing things down.

On April 23, the government revised the law to speed up the process of land expropriation in disaster-hit areas. Previously, the land to be expropriated had to be large enough to allow space for at least 50 homes. This has now been revised down to a minimum of 5 homes.  Construction can also begin before compensation has been paid to the original landowners.

The Tokyo Foundation recently estimated that the total area of land across Japan with unknown owners could exceed 3 million hectares (30,000 square kilometres) over the next 30 years. That’s about 10 times the size of the Tokyo metropolitan area. The land is expected to include:

  • 1,700,000 hectares of privately owned forestry
  • 1,000,000 hectares of shared forestry
  • 400,000 hectares of farmland

In some cases, especially with forestry, the costs involved with inheritance and transferring land titles can often exceed the value of the land. There is no legally enforceable requirement to update property titles, so many heirs leave the land as is.

The Foundation warns that with the ageing population, the number of land with unknown owners is only going to increase and are urging the government to find a way to tackle the problem now before it gets out of hand.

Toyo Keizai, April 19, 2014.
The Chunichi Shimbun, April 23, 2014.
The Kahoku Shimpo, April 28, 2014.

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