Japan has so many vacant homes it's giving them away

Updated 8:29 PM ET, Mon January 14, 2019

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The series on Japan's demographic reckoning is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. None of the material in this series may be reproduced without an explicit credit to CNN and the Pulitzer Center.

Okutama, Japan (CNN)Four years ago, Naoko and Takayuki Ida were given a house. For free.

It's a spacious, two-story home nestled amid trees on a winding country road in the small town of Okutama, in Tokyo prefecture. Before moving, the couple and their children -- two teenagers and a five-year-old -- were all living with Naoko's parents.
"We had to do a lot of repair work (on our new home), but we'd always wanted to live in the countryside and have a big garden," said Naoko, 45.

Naoko Ida converted an old Japanese-style house into a cafe.

It's a popular stop among bikers.

Ida opened her cafe in September 2017.

A free house may sound like a scam. But Japan faces an unusual property problem: it has more homes than people to live in them.
In 2013, there were 61 million houses and 52 million households, according to the Japan Policy Forum. And the situation is poised to get worse.
Japan's population is expected to decline from 127 million to about 88 million by 2065, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security, meaning even fewer people will need houses. As young people leave rural areas for city jobs, Japan's countryside has become haunted by deserted "ghost" houses, known as "akiya."
    It's predicted that by 2040, nearly 900 towns and villages across Japan will face a risk of extinction, according to a 2014 report entitled 'Local Extinctions' published by Hiroya Masuda. And Okutama is one of them. In that context, giving away property is a bid for survival.
    "In 2014, we discovered that Okutama was one of three Tokyo (prefecture) towns expected to vanish by 2040," says Kazutaka Niijima, an official with the Okutama Youth Revitalization (OYR) department, a government body set up to repopulate the town.
    Vacant houses are a common sight across Japan as the country's population shrinks and many young people move to urban areas.