Why you should care
Because in Tokyo, renters will put up with almost anything for a great deal — even a ghost.
Japan ain’t cheap. And Tokyo consistently ranks in the top 10 for the world’s most expensive cities. As in, if you’re traveling through you might find yourself spending an affordable night in a room the size of a coffin. But for a longer-term stay, there may be a solution. Unfortunately, it has a ring of death to it. According to executives at Japanese real estate companies:
In surprisingly superstitious Japan, apartment hunters can save 50 percent by renting “incident houses” — properties where a death has occurred.
In Japan they’re known as jiko bukken, and the law actually recognizes them. Any property in which an occupant has died of unnatural causes — suicide, murder or neglect — means it has a defect that must be explained to the consumer. So if a gruesome murder-suicide occurred in an apartment, it’s against the law to conceal that information from prospective renters. In a country abounding in superstitions about death, this transparency leads to a significant drop in demand. And so to get a property moving, the price is often reduced. A lot. There is a loophole, though: Only the first tenant after the incident needs to be notified. And then the price is likely to zoom back up to Tokyo standards.
Sei-ichiro Ishimaru, president of a Japanese real estate company in Tokyo, says that his company has been approached about selling incident houses. “Japanese people hate jiko bukken,” he says. “It is a ghost problem.” But his company is honest, telling prospective buyers what happened. For example, when renting out an apartment in 2015 in the Shinjuku-ku area of Tokyo, Ishimaru’s sales agents told the client about the single man who had killed himself there. And then they offered a 30 percent discount on rent. He says that owners often perform cleansing ceremonies to try to prevent “incidents” from happening again. “Ceremony is not terribly expensive. Renovation is expensive,” Ishimaru explains.
It’s really the murders where the price needs to be cut in half. Those are the spirits Japan fears most.
The death stigma of apartments likely has a real effect on Japan’s elderly. The country has the fastest-aging population in the world — 40 percent are projected to be over age 65 by 2050 according to the International Longevity Center–Japan. With a modern cultural change away from close family living, it’s led to an epidemic of so-called lonely deaths for elderly single Japanese. Owners don’t like renting to that demographic, says Ishimaru. It’s really the murders — though few and far between in relatively safe Japan — where the price needs to be cut in half, he says. Those are the spirits Japan fears most.
It’s not unique to Japan to stigmatize property associated with a death. Phillips Stevens Jr., an associate professor of anthropology at the University at Buffalo and an expert on spiritualism and superstition, says there are a couple of reasons why people generally shy away from such places. There’s the ghost factor. “In some cultures the mood of the ghost might depend on the way he died,” Stevens explains. “A murdered person might be angry, wanting revenge; a suicide might be profoundly depressed and be dangerous for that reason.” Also, death could be seen as “polluting,” making the space “unclean.” That’s the basis for folklore and haunted places, Stevens says.
For those interested in finding or avoiding jiko bukken, a handy site called Oshimaland maps such properties (started in Tokyo, it is now global). But there’s still one potential loophole. Airbnb recently entered Japan. Yoshikuni Fujita, who also works in Japanese real estate brokering, says the laws are too new to know whether Airbnb hosts must disclose any “incidents” that took place in their homes. Just something to keep in mind if an Airbnb deal seems too good to be true.