Help Public Understand the Need for Registration of Unclaimed Land

Is it possible to put a brake on the increase in the number of land plots that lie unclaimed? To realize this goal, it is essential to create an effective system and gain the understanding of the public.

The Justice Ministry’s Legislative Council has submitted to Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa an outline of recommendations for legislation to resolve the issue of unclaimed land. The ministry plans to submit bills to revise the Civil Code and the Real Property Registration Law to the current Diet session. One of the main pillars of the bills is to seek mandatory registration of land inheritance.

The biggest reason for the increase in land whose owners are unknown is that registration does not take place at the time of inheritance.

This is apparently because the decline in land prices following the bursting of the bubble economy has diminished the benefits of land ownership, while even low-value land comes with the burdens of management and taxes in some cases. There seem to be many cases in which, after land-owning parents living far away die, the inheritance of the land was not registered and the land remains abandoned.

According to a survey conducted by the central government, about 20% of land nationwide now lies unclaimed. As of 2016, such land is estimated at about 4.1 million hectares, which is larger than the area of Kyushu, and it is projected to reach about 7.2 million hectares, which is close to the area of Hokkaido, by 2040.

In many cases, land with unknown ownership makes land acquisition difficult and hampers public works, redevelopment and disaster reconstruction. There also have been a number of cases in which unclaimed land has become the site of illegal garbage dumping or other annoying behavior, causing trouble for those living nearby.

In the council’s outline, when landowners die, their family members who become their heirs are obliged to complete land inheritance registration within three years after they become aware of acquiring the land from the deceased owners. Such inheritors are also required to give notice of a change of addresses if they move, and a fine should be imposed if they fail to complete these procedures without a valid excuse, according to the outline.

As long as the government intends to impose a heavy burden on the people and even establish penalties for them, it must explain in detail the necessity of the new system so that many people can accept. Thorough discussion of the issue is needed through Diet deliberations and other means, covering aspects such as whether to introduce penalties.

To improve the complicated registration procedures, the outline calls for the establishment of a new system in which it would suffice for just one of the heirs to register, in addition to the usual registration procedure that requires such documents as official copies of family registers for all the heirs.

To facilitate smooth registration, it will be necessary to drastically simplify procedures. It costs a lot of money to complete the registration of land ownership, such as fees for a judicial scrivener, as well as the payment of the registration and license tax. Reducing the tax burden is also among the issues worth considering.

The outline calls for newly establishing a system to allow people who do not want to inherit land to relinquish it and let it be nationalized. Under such a system, conditions would include that there are no disputes over land ownership rights or soil contamination, and that an amount equivalent to 10 years of land management fees would be paid.

The outline proposes allowing courts to select an administrator for land that is already unclaimed and allowing the administrator to sell it on behalf of the unknown owner. It is important to identify practical issues and steadily address them for the effective use of Japan’s land.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Feb. 24, 2021.