A recent attempt by Kyoto City to save its historic machiya townhouses has only resulted in 5 out of 170 properties avoiding demolition. Back in 2016, a survey found that as many as 800 traditional machiya townhouses in Kyoto were being demolished each year. With an estimated 40,000 machiya in the city, they could vanish within the next 50 years, leaving no trace of the city’s merchant past.

In May 2018, Kyoto City introduced an ordinance that requires owners of traditional buildings in specified districts or with their own individual designations to provide the city with one year’s notice prior to demolition. The idea is that it would give the city a window to help the current owner either preserve the existing building themselves or find a buyer who can. Once the time limit has passed, however, the owner would be free to demolish the historic building without penalty. Approximately 6,000 properties have been given this designation so far.

Since 2018, the city has received 170 notices of demolition of designated machiya. Of those, nine property owners elected to use the city’s help to find a buyer, and just one of those cases was a success. In total, just five of the 170 machiya were saved from demolition – some just temporarily through the city finding tenants rather than buyers.

For the vast majority of historic homeowners, demolition often ends up being the last resort. The reason is primarily the cost of renovations or maintenance involved, especially with the older and larger properties. The land can often be utilized in a more efficient way with a multi-story building replacing an old 2-story home. There are also limitations on how far local governments can interfere with the rights of property owners and their assets. 

The penalty for ignoring the city’s notification requirement is a maximum fine of just 50,000 Yen (US$375). Only three property owners have been subjected to fines to date. 

Source: The Kyoto Shimbun, June 24, 2022.

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