Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Japanese city responds to population loss with generous offer: Free land

A story in yesterday's New York Times tells of a city of about 6,000 on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan which is giving away land. It is giving away 28 parcels ranging in size from 4,300 square feet to 5,230 square feet -- "very generous by Japanese standards." One third of the parcels are reserved for local residents, but the remaining parcels are intended to attract new residents to the city of Shibetsu, which has suffered a 10% population loss in the past decade. The reason: a "hollowing out" dairy farming and fishing, the city's primary industries.

Here's a quote from journalist Norimitsu Onishi's story:

“If you think of it in American terms, this is like a Wild West town you see in movies or on television,” said Hiroaki Matsui, 50, a truck driver born here. “But even in America’s Wild West, this would be the remotest of all towns.”

Mr. Matsui supported the policy of giving away land but wondered whether newcomers, used to the comforts of modern Japan, were ready to move to an isolated town where winter temperatures drop to minus 4 Fahrenheit.

Providing additional perspective on this offer of free land is the fact that Japan's population is more than 40% that of the United States, but its land area is about the same as that of California. In other words, it's pretty crowded. Those accepting the free parcels must build a home within three years.

The story reports that Great Plains states in the U.S. have similarly been giving away land in recent years, which was news to me, though I can understand the common struggles of these agricultural strongholds in both countries.

Addendum: Professor Anthony Schutz of the University of Nebraska Law School has pointed out to me that his home community in south-central Nebraska, Elwood, is giving away land. He explains that "availability is financed by diverting the property taxes for the lots to fund the acquisition costs and improvements." He notes that the school district, which is primarily funded by property taxes, is not so keen on educating the newcomers' children for free.

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