Property Laws Hindering Disaster Recovery
April 30, 2015
Four full years after the “3/11” earthquake and tsunami, recovery efforts in the Tohoku region are mired in legal red tape under a land ownership system that combines rigorous property rights with lax registration requirements. Research Fellow Shoko Yoshihara, an expert in Japanese land issues, shares her insights in an interview conducted by Nikkei Business.
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— We hear a lot about the slow pace of reconstruction in the tsunami-stricken areas—whether it’s a question of relocating homes or building public facilities. What does the land registration system have to do with these delays?
SHOKO YOSHIHARA Simply put, local authorities can’t acquire the land they need to rebuild on safer sites because they can’t identify the owners. And that relates directly to Japan’s land registration system. In Japan, there’s no legal requirement to register or record land titles. If the recorded owner dies, and the survivors never bother to transfer the title, then local records will continue to list the deceased person as the owner. This situation often continues down through generations, and over time the number of direct descendants or other relations legally eligible to inherit the property can multiply geometrically.
— And how does that cause problems?
YOSHIHARA If the owner recorded in the real property registry is deceased, the law requires the approval of all the eligible heirs before the government can make a purchase. In one case, the prefectural government identified something like 150 eligible heirs to a small parcel of land that it needed in order to build a road. Just to establish that they’ve actually identified all the lawful heirs, they have to get copies of everyone’s family register and certificate of residence and draw up a table of consanguinity and get it verified. Then, they have to get all of those people to authorize the transaction in writing, using their registered seals. And they have to follow the same cumbersome procedure for each little parcel of land. As a result, the government can’t acquire the land it needs to develop or relocate to higher ground, and the recovery process has fallen hopelessly behind schedule. The same problem has come up in Hiroshima in the wake of last summer’s landslides.
— Why do people abandon their claim to the land?
YOSHIHARA In many rural areas the price of land, forestland in particular, is so low that the costs of registering and maintaining the title are higher than what one could get by selling it. This may sound unthinkable to people living around Tokyo, but in the outlying regions, the abandonment of forestland has become a major problem.
— But the municipalities levy a fixed-property tax. Aren’t the property owners listed in the municipalities’ tax register books?
YOSHIHARA It’s true that the municipalities keep a list of fixed properties and their owners, which they use to assess the fixed-property tax, but the source they use to update the information is the real property registry, and in Japan the registration of real property is voluntary. That’s the fundamental loophole in the system.
— Why was such a glaring loophole overlooked?
YOSHIHARA In traditional rural communities, it didn’t make much difference whether one registered one’s land title or not. In close-knit, stable communities, everyone knew who owned what piece of land. The landowners were longtime residents of the community. They were the people who managed the land. But then, as more and more young people migrated to the city, communities began to break down, and it wasn’t so simple any more. Since the land was cheap, the property tax didn’t amount to much anyway, so the local tax authorities didn’t think it worth their while to try to rectify the situation.
— Is there a danger of the same problem occurring in more developed areas, now that the Japanese myth of ever-rising land values has been shattered?
YOSHIHARA Absolutely. What started out as a forestland phenomenon has spread to regional cities, and now it’s even begun cropping up in the suburbs of major urban centers. Unclaimed land can’t be put to use. This is a problem not only for communities struggling to recover from a disaster but also for local administrators trying to revitalize regional communities by creating “compact cities” or to promote urban renewal through redevelopment.
— Is anything being done about it?
YOSHIHARA Japan’s ownership and property rights are among the strongest in the world, and any threat to those rights is going to encounter tremendous resistance. Furthermore, as a local issue it only comes to the fore in the wake of some major disaster; it’s hard to get people interested at any other time. But the present system can cause other problems as well. For example, if people take possession of abandoned land with malicious intentions, the authorities have no firm legal basis for evicting them. I think there’s a fundamental need to revisit the Real Property Registration Act and reform the land ownership system.
Interview conducted by Hiroyuki Yamanaka. Translated from “Shinsai fukko o toki seido ga sogai suru,” Nikkei Business, February 23, 2015.