Tackling the Abandoned-Land Crisis: A View from the Front Lines of Farmland Reform
By Kota Iizuka
An official involved in land-policy offers an insider’s perspective on reform of Japan’s land ownership system and calls for a national conversation on the balance between private property rights and the public interest.
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Communities all over Japan are grappling with the problem of abandoned and unclaimed land. As the government sets about tackling the crisis with a combination of stopgap measures and fundamental reforms, I would like to discuss the progress made to date in the area of farmland from my own perspective as a government official who has been engaged in this policy area.
Farmland is obviously one category of land, and the much-discussed issue of idle land with missing owners pertains to farmland and nonagricultural property alike. Initially, however, government efforts to tackle the problem through legislation and other policy measures targeted farmland specifically. There are two major reasons for this.
The first is the special legal status of farmland. To be sure, such basic civil statutes as the Civil Code and the Real Property Registration Act govern agricultural as well as nonagricultural land. But a number of special laws pertaining to agricultural land per se establish specific requirements and procedures for the ownership and transfer of farmland. For example, under the Agricultural Land Act, the sale or lease of all farmland must be approved by the municipal agricultural committee. The basic rationale for this special treatment is that agricultural land is a finite resource required for the production of food and thus more deeply linked to the public good than other categories of land.
The second is that most farmland is located in rural areas, where the problem of unclaimed land first surfaced with the aging and dwindling of the population. The agricultural land reform carried out after World War II granted millions of tenant farmers ownership of small plots, but rapid industrialization and urbanization thereafter resulted in a shortage of heirs willing to take over the family farm. This in itself was not seen as a problem, as a decline in the farming population was consistent with the government’s policies for encouraging aggregation of agricultural land, shifting ownership of more and more farmland to absentee owners and nonfarmers. These factors (combined with a lack of economic, social, and legal incentives for registering ownership) created a situation in which a growing number of plots lay idle and unclaimed, their registrations out of date and their rightful owners unidentified.
While the issue of abandoned farmland was the first to come to the public’s attention, measures to address this problem, unfortunately, have not made any more headway than those for other types of land.
Policymakers recognized that any reforms that facilitated public management of abandoned private land would involve some weakening of protections for private property rights. To justify such legislation, the government had to make the case that the contribution to the public welfare outweighed the weakening of individual rights. It was easier to make this case in regard to farmland, particularly after the landmark 2009 revision of the Agricultural Land Act. Article 1 of the amended ALA stated that “agricultural land, as the basis of domestic agricultural production, is a finite resource vital to the current and future welfare of the nation,” and it redefined the law’s purpose as the institution of “measures to secure the use of farmland for agricultural purposes . . . thereby helping to secure a stable food supply for the nation.” This is the main reason that legislation targeting farmland preceded more general reforms to facilitate the use of abandoned land of unknown ownership.
A Government Program’s Limitations
The revised Agricultural Land Act of 2009, which included the first-ever statutory provisions specifically concerning farmland of unknown ownership, was a major overhaul of the rules governing the ownership and use of farmland. The amendments included not only a new statement of purpose, as noted above, but also the addition of provisions specifying the duties and responsibilities of landowners. A brand-new framework for dealing with idle farmland of unknown ownership was established at this time.
Five years later, that system was substantially modified with the establishment of a farmland banking program in 2014. Under this program (originally designed to promote aggregation of farmland), a prefectural governor could grant the prefectural farmland bank temporary land-use rights over idle parcels of land deemed to be of unknown ownership after public notice had been posted for a period of six months. The lease was limited to five years, and funds equivalent to a reasonable rent had to be deposited in a special account to reimburse anyone with a valid claim who might appear subsequently.
In the following year, 2015, the government set up an inter-ministerial panel to study policies for dealing more generally with land of undetermined ownership. As a technical officer in the Land Policy Planning Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, I was assigned to conduct a detailed survey to assess the utility of the existing system for dealing with unclaimed farmland. We found that the pre-2014 mechanism was put to use just once, while the modified, post-2014 system had yet to be applied a single time.
Our interviews had confirmed the need for such a mechanism, but various factors were preventing local authorities from making use of the system. First, while the burden of idle and abandoned farmland falls on municipalities, only the prefectures had authority to override private property rights, and the prefectures were extremely cautious about exercising their discretion. In some cases, they insisted that the municipal authorities undertake a thorough investigation and provide written proof that the plot in question met the legal definition of “land of unknown ownership,” that is, land with so many legal heirs that it could not be determined that any one party had valid claims to more than half of the lot. In cases of long-abandoned property, with heirs having proliferated and scattered around the country, such an investigation could take years. And even if the municipality succeeded in securing the prefecture’s approval, land-use rights would be limited to just five years.
Another problem we uncovered was a lack of communication between local communities and the central government. We asked prefectural governments to collect case studies of farmland of undetermined ownership from the municipalities under their jurisdiction, but almost none were reported to us. This stemmed in part from the fact that many local administrators did not view the farmland issue as a topic of public policy but as a private matter (since much of the unclaimed land was actually being cultivated under individual leasing or outsourcing arrangements).
With this in mind, we decided that the first step should be a nationwide program to raise awareness of the current system and provide guidance on its application. These efforts began to pay off when, in February 2017, the governor of Shizuoka Prefecture granted the Shizuoka farmland bank the first lease on abandoned farmland under the 2014 system. As of March 2019, a total of 16 parcels of land, covering 7.3 hectares, were being put to use under the 2014 program.
Meanwhile, a 2016 national survey shed further light on the confusion surrounding the ownership and use of farmland in Japan. It found that a full 20% of all agricultural land in Japan—934,000 hectares—was registered under the name of people who were no longer living, the heirs having neglected—for the time being or over many years—to register their inheritance. The survey also determined that only 54,000 hectares of that land was lying idle; the rest was under cultivation, meaning that someone, somewhere was managing it. But this was understood to be a provisional situation. As demand for farmland continued to fall, securing and keeping tenants would become more and more difficult. Under the circumstances, the number of idle and unclaimed plots was sure to rise rapidly, and the slow-moving 2014 system would never keep up.
Reforming the Reforms
With these concerns in mind, the government revamped the system in 2018. The 2018 amendments to the Agricultural Management Framework Reinforcement Act and the Agricultural Land Act streamlined the procedures for appropriating abandoned farmland while permitting the land banks to assume control of such land for a substantially longer period. The key points of the reform are as follows.
(1) Authorities are required to search only for the deceased owner’s immediate heirs, that is, the spouse and children. If no one with a valid claim can be located as a result of that search, then the six-month public notice can be posted. (2) Any heirs who do not come forward during that six-month period are deemed to have agreed to the lease of the land, with rent to be paid in a lump sum to a designated representative. Finally, (3) the period of the lease has been extended from 5 years to 20 years.
The system is also considerably more flexible in its application than its predecessor. Under the new program, a de facto inheritor who had failed to register his or her inheritance could nonetheless lease the land to the farmland bank (after the prescribed public-notice period), just as if he or she were the legal owner. This is expected to encourage more reluctant heirs to come forward.
In the short time between November 2018, when the new system came into effect, and April 2019, local authorities posted 18 public notices regarding abandoned farmland under the provisions of the amended laws. It seems clear from this that the latest reforms are addressing a genuine need.
Since then, measures have been introduced for the public use of nonagricultural land as well, and a review has begun of basic civil statutes in an attempt to advance more fundamental reforms. The revisions enacted in 2018 focused narrowly on facilitating the fuller utilization of farmland, so efforts to address the broader, systemic factors behind the proliferation of unclaimed plots would be a welcome next step. The Ministry of Agriculture should be doing everything it can in support of such efforts.
At the same time, sweeping changes should only be undertaken after a thoroughgoing national debate, since they would mean curtailing private property rights on the understanding that land is vital to the national interest. Can the principles that were applied to farmland be extended to other types of land? Now is the time for a broad-based discussion on the best way to balance private rights and the public interest in the use of our nation’s land resources.
The opinions expressed in the text are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any ministry of the Japanese government.
 Is deputy director of the Material Industries Division in the Manufacturing Industries Bureau, Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. Formerly was deputy director of the Agricultural Land Policy Planning Division in the Management Improvement Bureau, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries.