Stigmatized Properties: Low Rent, Prime Location, Haunting for Free?

Society Culture

“Stigmatized properties” are residences where people have died, often in unpleasant or suspicious circumstances. These properties tend to be shunned and realtors often despair of selling or renting them again. This dark corner of the property market has recently been in the media spotlight, and some people are hopeful that social attitudes are beginning to change.

Hanahara Kōji

CEO of the Nikkei Marks real estate company. Born in Toyooka, Hyōgo Prefecture, in March 1977. Joined Daiwa House in April 1999, where he worked until leaving in 2016 to start his own company.

Matsubara Tanishi

Comedian and entertainer. Born in Kobe, Hyōgo Prefecture, in 1982. Moved into his first “stigmatized property” in Osaka as part of filming for a TV series in 2012, and has now lived in 12 of these “scary places” around the country, including in Chiba, Tokyo, and Okinawa. In 2018, his book documenting his experiences in these apartments became a bestseller, selling more than 100,000 copies. The book was made into a film in August 2020, earning more than ¥2.3 billion at the box office. He has since written popular follow-ups to his first book on similar themes.

The Upside to Downside Properties

There’s a phrase that gets used on real estate rental listings: “Details that must be disclosed to any potential customer.” It’s a signal that the property in question is what is termed an “incident” or “accident” property—a jiko bukken in Japanese—a place where a previous resident committed suicide, was involved in a murder, or died alone, especially if the body was not discovered for some time. A strong stigma comes with these properties: people tend to shun them as ill-omened places, and many believe they are likely to be haunted. Most potential renters steer clear as soon as they find out a property falls into this category, and realtors struggle to find anyone prepared to live in them. For the real estate business, these “stigmatized properties” are bad news.

But in recent years, some people have started to look at the upsides of these problematic properties, foremost among them the fact that they can generally be rented much more cheaply than other properties of a similar size and location, “Stigmatized properties” have been attracting more media attention than ever before.

For this article, I spoke to two people specializing in this little-known, but much-feared, area of the real estate business. Hanahara Kōji is president of the Nikkei Marks, which operates a real estate agency specializing in jiko bukken. Matsubara Tanishi is an entertainer and media personality who has built a reputation for himself as “a guy who lives in stigmatized properties,” and has written widely about the phenomenon.

Solving the Problem of Unused Housing

Born in Hyōgo Prefecture, Hanahara was a university student in Kobe when the Hanshin earthquake devastated large parts of that city in 1995. Having seen for himself the life-saving importance of well-built, earthquake-resistant housing, he joined Daiwa House Industry, one of Japan’s largest housing companies, after graduation, and soon became one of the company’s top sales reps.

“Japan’s society is aging, and one of the problems that brings is the issue of abandoned housing,” Hanahara says. “It’s a problem that has become more severe over the past decade or two. I started to feel that by focusing on sales of new homes, at the expense of used properties that could otherwise be occupied again, we were part of the problem.”

In 2016 Hanahara established the real estate brokerage Nikkei Marks. Three years later, he launched his Jōbutsu brand—with a name meaning “ascending to Buddhahood, the release of the soul after death—based on the concept of rehabilitating stigmatized properties and bringing them back into circulation on the property market again.

Hanahara says his original idea for the site was to make it easier “to bring these properties to the attention of people who didn’t mind the negative associations. I thought it might help a little bit to get some of these properties back on the market. But really, I didn’t expect anything more than that.” But the new initiative was widely welcomed by others in the industry, which has struggled for years with these properties, and the site prompted a much wider response than he had anticipated. He has been fielding regular inquiries from the media ever since.

The Power of Taboo

The biggest attraction of stigmatized properties is that their rent, or selling price, is much lower than it would otherwise be. In the case of a condominium, the price is generally so low that there is little risk that the property will deteriorate further in value. Despite these attractions, though, 18 months after launching the site, Hanahara says the market for these compromised properties is made difficult by a host of associated complications.

“There’s hardly any accumulated sales data on these properties, so it’s difficult to know what kind of price they have been going for in the past. This even made it difficult for us to get bank financing for this business in the first place.”

Hanahara Kōji talks about his business. (© Saitō Hayato)
Hanahara Kōji talks about his business. (© Saitō Hayato)

The stigma associated with these properties has proved difficult to shift. People often believe they may be haunted, and this tint of the paranormal makes it difficult to do a fair assessment of their value as real estate.

“Plenty of people die in suicides or other train accidents at certain stations, or in homes for the elderly, so in that sense those places are ‘stigmatized properties’ too. But for some reason, incidents like that don’t result in those places losing their value. People continue to use a station the day after an incident, and elder-care facilities often have long lists of people waiting to get in. I wish more people would see these properties as places with real and ongoing value as real estate, rather than just thinking of them as spooky, scary places that might be haunted.”

One reason why so many people tend to shun properties where people have died suddenly or in somewhat gruesome circumstances has to do with the deep-seated cultural view of death as something that pollutes, and is therefore taboo. To try and combat these beliefs, Matsubara put together a special squad of cleaning staff who carry out a range of purification rites on properties where a previous resident has died. In addition to the usual deep-cleaning any property would get before being put on the market, Matsubara has his team perform Shintō-style purification rituals and Buddhist ceremonies to pray for lost souls. The company then issues a certificate stating that the deceased has found peace and no longer poses any threat of paranormal unrest. By paying the highest respect to the spirit of the person who died in the property, the company tries to lower the psychological barriers for prospective new residents.

The company is also developing plans for ways to make the most of the relative cheapness of these properties by planning tie-ins with artists and home improvement specialists. Ultimately, Matsubara hopes that these efforts will help to establish a more positive set of associations in people’s minds of these properties as stylish, value-for-money places.

Who you gonna call? Jōbutsu Estate’s “special team” of cleaners ensures that properties are swept clean of any paranormal contaminations. (Courtesy Jōbutsu Estate)
Who you gonna call? Jōbutsu Estate’s “special team” of cleaners ensures that properties are swept clean of any paranormal contaminations. (Courtesy Jōbutsu Estate)

The Struggle to Change Social Views

I had imagined that Matsubara Tanishi must have helped drive up the popularity of these properties with his bestselling book, Jiko bukken kaidan kowai madori (Strange Tales of Stigmatized Properties: Floor Plans of Fear), especially after it was made into a film. But it turns out things are not so straightforward. “Unfortunately, that hasn’t really been the case,” Hanahara says.

“I suppose to some extent it is true that interest in these properties has increased, thanks to Matsubara-san and a few other people like him. But you have to remember that this is an increase from a level where these properties might as well have vanished from the face of the earth. The recent publicity has made it clear that there are two groups of people in society: those who are all right with these tainted properties, and those who just can’t stand their idea at all. That in itself is a big step forward, I suppose.”

Hanahara says there is still a long way to go before the stigma attached to these properties fades away.

“On the whole, people in Japan are still attached to the belief that newly built properties are the best. But stigmatized properties have a number of factors that make them attractive, not only for people looking for a cheap place to live, but other groups like foreigners and the elderly, who often find it difficult to find rentals on the conventional market. The hurdles are much lower than with normal properties. I think that it’s wrong to regard these places as some special category of real estate that needs to be handled differently from everything else. Ideally, I’d like to see it become just another characteristic of the property, alongside other details like distance from the nearest station, number of bathrooms, and all the rest of it.”

“Haunted? I Hope So!”

Next, let’s meet the bestselling author Matsubara Tanishi, who has made a name for himself as a media personality who lives in stigmatized properties.

It all started, he says, when he agreed to live in one of these places for a TV series featuring real-life “true horror” stories of paranormal events. I asked Matsubara if he personally believes that these properties might be haunted.

“I do think that ghosts exist. But more than that, I actually want there to be ghosts. There’s so much depressing news these days, and it’s so easy to get hold of information. There’s something dispiriting about the way we can find answers so quickly to all our questions. It sometimes feels like there’s no mystery left in the world to thrill or scare us anymore . . .

Matsubara hopes for the paranormal in his everyday life. (© Saitō Hayato)
Matsubara hopes for the paranormal in his everyday life. (© Saitō Hayato)

“So in that sense, with ghosts . . . well, there’s no scientific proof one way or the other, is there? It’s something unknown, unexplained by science. And ghosts feel closer to us and our daily lives than something like UFOs. It’s something that people experience on an individual level. And even if you think they might be lying, or hallucinating, the fact remains that there are people who say they have seen ghosts.”

There are some things we just can’t explain, says Matsubara. “So maybe ghosts really do exist. I like the idea that there are still some things we don’t know. I think it’s a kind of hope and encouragement for the deflated and somewhat banal world we live in today.”

Telling It Like It Is

The publication of his first book on his experiences with these properties made Matsubara better known than ever. But he says his position remains unchanged.

“I’m not trying to expose these properties or increase their value, or anything like that. All I’m doing is publishing stories about some of the things that have happened in these places. I don’t think anything I’ve done would have caused unpleasantness for the owners.”

Despite these protestations, some people argue that by treating these properties in terms of the occult, Matsubara has only made the stigma attached to these properties worse than ever.

“I think everyone looks at these places according to their personal standpoint. Owners want to get rid of the negative taint of the jiko bukken label as soon as possible. Bereaved family members don’t want you to make a big deal out of the fact that their loved one died there. The person renting the property now might not want to think about the property possibly being haunted. By the same token, though, that’s exactly what people who are interested in the occult want to hear: stories about paranormal activity and hauntings and things that cannot be explained. We all have our different perspectives.”

Matsubara retains a neutral stance, though. “I’m not really on the side of the occult fans either. Most people who are into the occult probably want there to be ghosts in every property like this. But I’ve always said that there are some places where paranormal events take place, and others where nothing unusual happens. Really, I’m not on anyone’s side. I don’t have a dog in the fight. My mission is just to learn more about these places: Are they really haunted? Do ghosts really exist? What kind of places are these accident properties? Those are the questions behind everything I do.”

Hoping for the Day When Only Ordinary Properties Remain

Matsubara analyzes the recent increase in interest in stigmatized properties in the following terms.

“Well, first of all, you can’t deny the impact of the Oshimaland website, which contains a searchable map of these properties all over the country. And I think social changes have put renters in a stronger position. As society ages, and the population starts to decline, it’s become harder for landlords and realtors to conceal the truth about a property’s past.”

Matsubara says the fact that he has lived in a succession of stigmatized properties for more than a decade is proof that living in these places does not automatically mean you will experience suspicious accidents, meet a gruesome death, or otherwise find your luck deserting you. Nevertheless, he admits that his interests are not always well received by those around him.

“It’s only since I started living in one of these properties myself that I’ve come to understand just how much things like bad omens mean to some people. I know that some people deliberately avoid me now, just because of where I live. So that would be my advice to anyone considering living in one of these properties: Make sure your friends and other people are on board with the idea before you move in!”

Finally, I asked him about his hopes for these properties. What did he think would happen to them in the future? His answer was something quite different from what I had imagined before the interview.

“I’d like them to become accepted as just something normal. They’re easier to find now, but I’d like the view of them to change so that people no longer think of them as something scary or spooky. I hope that they will become just another type of normal property—that the stigmatic side of things will be just another characteristic of the property. After all, anywhere can become a property like this. The place where you live now might become one tomorrow, for all you know . . .”

Matsubara Tanishi with the second volume of his account of living in “floor plans of fear.” (© Saitō Hayato)
Matsubara Tanishi with the second volume of his account of living in “floor plans of fear.” (© Saitō Hayato)

“I think that in many cases, this taboo avoidance of places associated with deaths that have happened in the past is a way for Japanese people to avoid confronting their own fear and unease about the idea of death in general. But we all die eventually. Rather than trying to avoid death, I think we should try to come to terms with it. Our aim should be to find a way of dying that we can be satisfied with, or at least accept. If we can change the way we think about the end of life, I think that people will come to see these properties in a different way, too.”

The Future for “Accident Properties”

In closing, I’d like to consider some of the reasons behind the recent rise in interest in these properties. The first thing to note is the impact of the well-known website mentioned by Matsubara, Oshimaland. This is the top hit for a web search for jiko bukken in Japanese.

I think social changes are also a factor. As the problem of unused properties becomes more severe, realtors and owners are coming under increasing pressure to disclose more information about their properties. And I think it’s fair to say that Matsubara’s book and the film made of it have also contributed to the rising interest in this murky area of the property market.

At the same time, as Hanahara told me, it is probably also true that although these properties may be attracting more attention than before, it would be a stretch to say that they have become more popular. These properties are stigmatized and shunned because of their associations with death. As Matsubara also said, it is likely to be a long time before we can speak of them as truly “popular.”

Come to think of it, the very fact that I was able to pitch an article on these properties is itself a reflection of the current reality, and the way in which they are still seen as something dark and mysterious. If society came to accept these homes as just another ordinary type of place to live, the subject would no longer be worth writing about. Perhaps that is the kind of society we should aim to achieve in the future.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo © Pixta.)

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