As the problem of abandoned homes grows more serious across Japan, innovators are devising methods to repurpose aged wood from Japanese-style homes and rundown merchant buildings to give it a second life as modern timber products.
A think tank in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, where industry flourished in premodern times thanks to shipping trade and mining operations, has embarked on a project to make practical use of the quality wood used to construct many houses in the region.
The company, called Everyplan Co., is involved in revitalizing western Japan's Chugoku region by demolishing old traditional homes to prepare the wood for processing. Japan faces major issues because of its aging society and population drain in rural areas.
Inside a vacant house in the mountain town of Kawamoto, a two-hour drive from the prefectural capital of Matsue, Motoki Moriyama, 41, of Everyplan looks up at the sturdy pine beams supporting the ceiling. "You can no longer get something of such quality," Moriyama said.
Despite this, the house itself is in ruins, with part of the roof caved in. "We must hurry with the demolition. If the house collapses, we won't even be able to reuse the timber."
Everyplan began the initiative as a project to "revive the value of vacant houses" while subsidized by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry at the end of last year.
In Shimane and other areas, forlorn grand old houses remain as vestiges of the prosperous shipping and mining industries along the Sea of Japan route built during the Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods. After tearing down the houses, Everyplan sells the beams, pillars, floorboards and other wooden structures.
Millions of yen are needed to demolish an old house. Everyplan pays a portion of the costs, depending on the quality of timber, which is processed into furniture and modern interior building materials. In general, the large pieces of timber are sold as is, and it is still rare for the wood to be milled for ease of use. The company intends to exhibit the products at domestic and international trade fairs and sell them to construction companies.
Everyplan sees opportunities to popularize the use of old timber, which was considered expensive until the surge in prices of imported lumber from the so-called "wood shock" caused by a global decrease in supply in recent years.
With an initial capital investment of 30 million yen ($214,000) including the ministry's subsidy, the company has targeted 20 million yen in sales in fiscal 2023.
"Good Japanese traditional houses collapse while studies are being conducted on how to utilize them. I thought I should do something to prevent this," Moriyama said.
Born in Oda, Shimane, Moriyama majored in architecture at Kyoto University and became an assistant professor at his alma mater after conducting research about the traditional townscape of the ancient Japanese capital.
He also studied towns in Shimane and recognized their value. Alarmed by the ever-advancing decay he saw, he quit the university and joined Everyplan in 2018 in a bid to build a business that addressed the problem.
Participants in the project include Hajime Wilds, a 32-year-old furniture worker born in the city of Izumo, who works with Moriyama on conjuring up ideas. Wilds learned furniture design in his father's native country, the United States.
"In reality, it would be best if people continue to live in the houses, but as they are now, they're just rotting away," Wilds said.
Moriyama hopes that his project will serve as a catalyst to rethink the tendency to build and tear down homes in Japan. "A long passage of time makes towns and architecture attractive. I want to help lots of people recognize the value of tradition," he said.