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Can You Jointly Own Japanese Real Estate?

Japan has always fascinated James. In his bedroom, he has a giant reproduction of Hokusai’s “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” on his wall. He spends his free time reading about the great daimyō (feudal lords) and samurai of the Japanese feudal era. On weekends, he practices kendō (traditional Japanese swordsmanship). One day, while procrastinating prior to washing his kendō uniform, he has a sudden moment of inspiration. He knows that in Japan, foreigners can own both land and buildings without restrictions. He Googles “how to buy an island in Japan,” and is surprised by the search results. There are so many small Japanese islands for sale! Then, a particular island catches his eye:

Komariyajima. It’s subtropical, with white sand and green pine trees. There’s only one problem. The price is nearly $1.4 million. James takes a walk, lost in deep thought. He doesn’t have $1.4 million; he only has $350,000, but… What if he could get his Japanophile friends, Oliver, Jack, and John on board, as well? If all four invested $350,000, could they jointly own the land? It’s indeed an interesting legal question:

  • Does Japan allow people to jointly own land?

Harry and Yui are a happily married couple. They’ve been living in an apartment for a while, but want to buy a house. They want to own it jointly.

  • Does Japan allow a husband and wife to jointly own property?

Robert and Amelia are two retirees. They’ve always enjoyed spending time in Japan since Albert was stationed here with the Navy in 1979. Now they’re both free to travel the world, and they’ve been wondering: Can they buy a timeshare in Japan?

  • Does Japan allow timeshares?

Jacob has been living in Japan for a while. He currently rents an apartment, and feels his rent is too high. He has been thinking about buying for a while now, but he can’t afford a free-standing house. In his home country, individual owners could own individual units in a larger building. They could joint-own part of the building together with many, many other owners. Is that possible in Japan?

  • Does Japan allow individual unit owners to jointly own parts of a building? 

So…Can You Jointly Own Japanese Real Estate?

laws regulations ownershipIn a word, “yes.” It’s possible to own Japanese real estate jointly. However, the rules may differ from your home country’s. In the four scenarios above, three of them are possible. One of them is not (although there is a workaround for it).

In Japan, the Civil Code governs real estate transactions. Real estate property rights are in Book 2 of the Civil Code. There are several different terms: joint ownership (gōyū), shared ownership or co-ownership (kyōyū), and individual unit ownership (kubunshoyū). Each has its own rights and restrictions.

Things You Can Do

Joint Ownership Of Land Or Buildings

Take Scenario 1, with James, who wants to buy an island with Oliver, Jack, and John, and own it jointly. Yes, it’s possible, using either joint ownership (合有, gōyū) or shared ownership/co-ownership (共有, kyōyū).

Both are similar in that multiple people own one piece of real estate. However, kyōyū gives more freedom to each individual than gōyū does. In gōyū, each person is not free to dispose of their part of the property. “Dispose” is ‘legalese’ that basically means “own and/or transfer the rights to another person”. Another limitation of gōyū is that one cannot seek division of the property that he or she owns jointly. In kyōyū, though, both things are possible. Make sure to think long and hard before committing to one type of ownership.

A Married Couple Owning Property Jointly

Take Scenario 2, with Harry and Yui wanting to own a house jointly. Yes, it’s possible, though special rules apply to spouses owning real estate jointly that may differ from Harry’s home country.

You see, perhaps in Harry’s home country, if a husband and wife with children own property jointly, the law entitles the surviving spouse to the piece of real estate. However, in Japan, this is not the case. In Japan, if Harry passes away, Yui won’t inherit his share of the property. Instead, his children will inherit it (because they’re his heirs). If Yui passes away, again, the same thing will happen; Harry won’t inherit Yui’s portion of the ownership.

This differs greatly from common law countries such as the US, the UK, and Australia. In those countries, both spouses are legally “joint tenants.” When one dies, the surviving spouse inherits from the deceased spouse.

Joint Ownership Through Individual Units In A Shared Building

Take Scenario 4, with Jacob wanting to own part of a building in the form of an individual unit. Yes, it’s possible. Japan recognises the ownership of individual units through the “Law for Condominiums”. The Civil Code also recognises them. They call this form of ownership kubunshoyū (区分所有).

How You Do It

In order to own property jointly, you will need a shihō-shoshi (司法書士). What exactly is a shihō-shoshi? Well, various translations include “judicial scrivener” or “public solicitor”. Perhaps “document lawyer” is the simplest way to explain their role.

A shihō-shoshi can help a married couple file for joint ownership. He can help people file for kyōyū, gōyū, and kubunshoyū.

What You Can’t Do

In Scenario 4, sorry, Robert and Amelia, but Japan does not allow ownership for one or two weeks a year. Someone either owns a piece of real estate, or they don’t. Therefore, in the strictest sense, timeshares in the American sense are not possible according to Japanese law. Good news, though: timeshares are possible as long as the joint “owners” are not really “owners,” but “users”. They can draw up a contract in which each person has a “use right” for 1~2 weeks per year.

Jointly Owning Real Estate In Japan: Conclusion

Yes, joint ownership is legally permissible in Japan, though the rules may differ from your home country’s. Various forms include joint ownership between a husband and wife. There are kyōyū (shared ownership/co-ownership), gōyū (joint ownership, stricter in its rules), and kubunshoyū (for individual units). Talk with your friendly real estate broker or your financial planner to find out which one is best for you. Regardless of which one you choose, you will use a judicial scrivener’s services. This requirement is no different from when you buy any other type of property in Japan.

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