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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Dealing with discrimination against the elderly in Japan's real estate market

Kota Iida

Oct. 2, 2017

The number of elderly people is continuing to rise in Japan. Many are finding that their age is an obstacle when it comes to renting homes. A young entrepreneur has begun offering rentals exclusively to people aged 65 or older.

83-year-old Takashi Ookawara is moving to his new condo in central Tokyo from the suburbs. But it wasn't easy for him to find a new place that he could rent. He visited several real estate firms with no luck. "I stopped by a real estate firm but they refused to help me, as I had expected. They said it's hard to offer housing to an 80-year-old man like me," he says.

Ryo Yamamoto, who's 27, found Ookawara's new home. He runs a real estate firm, R65 inc., that helps customers aged 65 and up. He used to work for another real estate agency where he saw senior after senior rejected due to age. "A woman in her 80s came and said it was the 5th firm she had visited. I was surprised and felt it was necessary to start a business," he says.

He receives many requests from senior citizens to help them find properties. He finds a listing on an industry website that looks like it may accept senior citizens, and calls the owner. "Will you accept a married couple in their 80s?" Yamamoto asks. "Difficult? How about if their daughter signs a contract for them? Still difficult? All right. Thank you," he says. He's rejected upon mentioning their ages. "Impossible. There seemed to be no chance at all from the beginning. This happens a lot," he explains.

Yamamoto often asks property owners to give consideration to the elderly. "I think it's imperative to increase properties that rent to seniors," he tells the audience at a gathering. Property owners express various concerns. "I prefer a younger person," says one. "I am worried about what will happen if they die without family around," says another.

An industry association surveyed property owners and found more than 60 percent said they feel reluctant to rent to senior citizens. This month, the infrastructure ministry will start listing properties that are open to older customers. But Yamamoto says that isn't enough to deal with the issue. "Property owners will continue to worry. I think it's crucial that private businesses provide support," he says.

Yamamoto had the idea of using technology to deal with the concerns of property owners. "I think it's a good idea to offer properties equipped with modern systems," he says. He co-developed a device that helps monitor senior residents and assists them with communication. When the tenant turns the light on or off, the system sends a message to the property's owner. It's aimed to keep tabs on people who live alone.

Yamamoto is also considering encouraging senior residents to engage in social media. He is working with an instructor who teaches computer basics. If the seniors could connect to each other through online networks and share their activities daily, they'd quickly notice if something happened to another member.

Yamamoto thinks this kind of interaction will help ease the anxieties of property owners. "I think there are various reasons why owners are reluctant to rent to senior citizens. I want to work with them to find out why they are worried. It's my goal to reduce the number of people who can't rent property," he says.

Senior citizens are struggling to rent, even as the number of vacant housing units for rent in Japan tops 4 million and is growing yearly. As Japan continues to age, urgent steps are needed to resolve this mismatch.