Amidst a declining population, which has become particularly evident in regional communities, the Japanese government is considering plans to encourage the re-use of closed schools and empty buildings in the countryside.
Under the Building Standards Act, changing the use of a building may require that building to meet certain construction standards, such as fireproofing. The proposed plan would be to make some requirements unnecessary if the building meets basic safety levels.
Empty school buildings and shopping malls lined with shuttered stores are becoming a common sight in Japan’s regional areas. To convert an old property into a hotel/inn or a restaurant, considerable expense may be required.
Converting a former school building into an accommodation facility requires fireproof roofing, the use of non-flammable materials in the interior, and a minimum number of fireproof walls based on the total floor area. Some school buildings, however, are on large blocks of land surrounded by open space and would pose a low threat of spreading fire to neighbouring buildings. It can be argued that such buildings should not need to meet such strict requirements.
For buildings, if just one tenant is a restaurant, the entire building must meet strict fire codes, which usually requires some upgrades to the common areas. Restauranteurs and bar owners may find it difficult to find a landlord who either has a complying building, or who is willing to spend the extra money to attract that kind of tenant.
According to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, 5,801 public school buildings across Japan had been abolished as of 2002, and a third of those were not being used for any purpose.
The proposed changes could be implemented by the end of 2015.
There are already a number of formerly empty private and public buildings across Japan that have been converted by NPOs and private enterprises:
^ In Onomichi City, Hiroshima Prefecture, a former warehouse was converted into a trendy boutique hotel catering towards cyclists. Guests can check-in to Hotel Cycle on their bike and hotel rooms have bicycle storage. The warehouse space also has a bakery, restaurant and bicycle repair shop.
^ In Nishi-Izu Town, Shizuoka, an old wooden elementary schoolhouse built in 1907 was converted into an inn several years after the school’s closure.
^ The Oishii School in Hokuto City, Yamanashi, is a former elementary school that has been converted into accommodation facilities with a restaurant and cooking school. The tableware used in the restaurant was originally used in the school in the 1960s. The buildings date from the Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods.
^ Sarusho is a lodging house in Tone District, Gunma, that has been converted from an elementary school that closed in 2008.
^ Healthy Misato is a former junior high school building that was converted into accommodation facilities. The wooden building was renovated and guests have access to onsen water.
^ Sansankan is a lodging and training facility in Minamisanriku, Miyagi. It was converted from a former elementary school.
^ In Otsuki Town, Kochi, a 100-year old beachside school building was converted into lodging facilities. The school was small, with 100 students at its peak.
^ In Imabari City, Ehime, a beachside school was converted into accommodation. The scenic spot is popular with cyclists.
^ Sankikan is a converted wooden school building in Mitsue Village, Nara. It is only open during summer months.
The Nikkei Shimbun, February 3, 2015.
Guesthouse Creator’s Note, September 18, 2014.