Unit 04-B： Towards the Relaxation of Regulations on Minpaku in Japan
the Faculty of Commercial Sciences, Hiroshima Shudo University
１． The Hotel Business Act and Minpaku
“Minpaku” is the Japanese term for providing rooms in private houses as accommodation. In itself, minpaku is not illegal. However, minpaku conditions which may violate Japan’s Hotel Business Act are today coming under scrutiny. A period of 30 days represents a yardstick for the Hotel Business Act and the Act on Land and Building Leases: If offering a rental contract of under 30 days’ duration, it is necessary to seek approval from the prefectural governor to operate as a hotel business. The Hotel Business Act defines four categories of hotel business: Hotels, ryokan (Japanese-style inns), budget hotels, and boarding or lodging houses. Minshuku (guesthouses or bed and breakfasts) and weekly apartments are normally classified in the budget hotel business category, for which there are no regulations concerning the minimum number of rooms or the minimum length of stay. In order to receive approval to operate a business in this category, each room must be at least 33m3 , and strict safety and other standards must be satisfied (for example, there must be a reception desk, the walls must be made of flame-retardant materials, and smoke detectors must be installed). Because of this, a significant outlay in investment for facilities and equipment would be necessary for an ordinary house to receive approval as a business of this type. Generally, establishments which receive approval to be operated as businesses are classified as minshuku, and those which do not are classified as minpaku. The stipulations of the Hotel Business Act and the Act on Land and Building Leases are, however, out of step with the present era, and it is time for reconsideration of the acts.
２． The Spread of Minpaku and Regulation
Minpaku is regularly taken up in the mass media, and there is broad awareness of the issue, but this has only been the case for around half a year. Prior to this, the term minpaku would have been understood by most hearers as referring to boarding in a home in the country while experiencing work on a farm or in the fisheries. This “farming minpaku” was advanced as a means of promoting tourism in Japan’s regional areas. At the same time, from spring 2015, minpaku sites began to proliferate, and there was a conspicuous increase in the number of minpaku users. With the tragic death of a Chinese girl staying in a minpaku from a fall in Tokyo in late July 2015, the issue rapidly came to the public’s attention. Looking at Airbnb, the largest service for the introduction of minpaku services, in order to gauge last year’s expansion of the minpaku phenomenon, we find that there were 21,000 properties registered in Japan (an increase of 374% against the previous year), and the number of users reached one million (an increase of 530% against the previous year). Minpaku takes a variety of forms, including homestays, in which the user stays in the landlord’s house, and a type in which the user rents an apartment or house. For tourists, the homestay type offers a unique experience, involving exchanges with locals and cultural experiences; the rental type makes it easy for a family or group to stay multiple nights. This latter type is particularly common in Japan. It is thought that because there are a limited number of extended-stay facilities or facilities enabling users to cook for themselves in Japan there is a demand for this rental type, and that for the renters, it represents an effective use of empty space, while for users renting their own space is a comfortable option in a culture in which shared rooms and share houses are not the norm. Some people fear, however, that this rental type, as opposed to the homestay type, will result in issues such as noise and the violation of community rules, and even create the conditions for crime.
In the US and Europe, people have traditionally travelled while staying with relatives and acquaintances, but from around the mid-2000s, the number of sites offering short-term accommodation in private houses began to increase, and sites enabling direct reservations to be made appeared. This highlighted a variety of issues, including legal problems. Against this background, Airbnb spread rapidly following its foundation in the US in 2008, and new bylaws began to be enacted as a result in numerous US and European cities. As this indicates, unlike Japan, the issue of “minpaku” and responses to it are already well established in the US and Europe.
Given this history, the relaxation of regulations on farm lodgings in Japan and short-term accommodation in private residences in the US and Europe can serve as references in relation to the relaxation of regulations on minpaku in Japan.
Efforts to promote minpaku in farming communities commenced in the town of Ajimu in Oita Prefecture, which has welcomed large numbers of domestic and overseas tourists since it commenced its initiative in 1996. Because Ajimu offers minpaku with meals, as the number of tourists increased, concerns that the enterprise might violate the Hotel Business Act and the Food Sanitation Act were raised. At the time, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries was promoting green tourism (involving city people engaging in leisure activities while staying in farming or fishing villages) as a policy, and encouraged the registration of minshuku enabling guests to experience agricultural and fisheries work to form the core of this effort. However, the barriers to normal houses in fishing or farming villages being granted approval to operate as minshuku were high, and the law impeded the entry of new operators to the market. The authorities ultimately took the experience of Ajimu and the problems of registering minshuku into consideration, and from 2002 relaxed regulations such as standards for minimum floor area in order to promote green tourism. It is interesting to note that minshuku in Ajimu are termed either nohaku (farm stays) or minpaku, and some continue to be termed minpaku even when they receive approval to operate as businesses under the Hotel Business Act.
Turning to the situation in the US and Europe, I would like to look in particular at regulations concerning to landlords seeking to offer minpaku services. In Rome, minpaku is not allowed, and anyone wishing to accept short-term gests must register as a hotel, but most municipalities in the US and Europe offer approval for minpaku when they are notified. In the case of Berlin, however, while the city has a system for granting approval for minpaku, it is prohibited in many of the city’s districts, and numerous actions violate city laws and ordinances. In New York, renting space in an apartment building for a period of less than 30 days is prohibited. In other cities around the world, approval is unnecessary, but other conditions are applied: In London, landlords can rent space for no more than 90 days per year; in Amsterdam, the figure is 60 days, and a maximum of four people are allowed each time; in Paris, the landlord must reside in the residence for at least eight months of the year. In addition to regulations of this type, many cities demand the payment of taxes including tourism tax, short-term accommodation tax, and income tax.
As the discussion above has shown, in Japan regulations on minpaku have been relaxed in specific areas and for specific types of enterprise. In the US and Europe, attempts are being made to limit encroachment on residential areas and communities and mitigate the effect on existing short-term accommodation facilities by establishing conditions in specific municipalities and districts to restrict length of stay and the scale of short-term renting. These examples are receiving attention in current discussions towards the relaxation of regulations on minpaku.
３． Discussion towards the Relaxation of Regulations
The Japanese government is proceeding with the relaxation of regulations on minpaku in specific areas, and in October 2015, allowed the provision of accommodation for periods of up to 30 days on the basis of a rental contract as an exception to the Hotel Business Act. Giving consideration to the operation of hotels and ryokan, the exception to the Act stipulates that in principle the rooms should be offered to foreign visitors to Japan for no less than seven days, and include special conditions regarding, for example, the prevention of nuisance to neighbors. Given that the majority of foreign tourists stay no more than six days in Japan, the feasibility of the provision has been called into question, but Tokyo’s Ota Ward and Osaka City, both of which are experiencing a serious shortage of hotel accommodation, have enacted bylaws allowing minpaku. Separately to initiatives in these special zones, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism established the Investigative Commission regarding the Orientation for Minpaku Services in November 2015; the Commission held its fourth meeting on January 12, 2016. As a result of this process, the Investigative Commission has decided on guidelines that would see minpaku accommodation classified as “budget hotels” under the Hotel Business Act, and landlords wishing to offer this type of accommodation required to receive approval from the prefectural governor. Regulations including the standard for floor area have been relaxed in order to make it easier for landlords to receive approval. Therefore, both the administrations of the special zones and the Investigative Commission regarding the Orientation for Minpaku Services are basically aiming towards the promotion of minpaku by means of the relaxation of regulations. The contradiction in the fact that the former recognizes minpaku as an exception to the Hotel Business Act, while the latter situates it within the compass of the Act, has been pointed out. This is because the administrations of the special zones view minpaku on the basis of the Act on Land and Building Leases, and the current policy direction can be seen as a compromise between this Act and the Hotel Business Act. Whatever the case, the two approaches have entirely different scopes of application, with the former focused on special areas, and the latter taking in the entire country.
４．Towards Future Initiatives
Discussion of the relaxation of regulations on minpaku has proceeded on the basis of Japan’s worsening shortage of hotel rooms and with the measures being seen as part of efforts to attract a greater number of overseas visitors. However, if we look at the occupancy rate of rooms throughout the country (in October 2015), we find a rate of around 80% for hotels, around 40% for ryokan, and less than 30% for budget hotels. The occupancy rate for ryokan and budget hotels is around 60% in Tokyo, and only about 50% in Osaka. In addition, foreign visitors represent only around 10% of users of short-term accommodation throughout the country, and in Tokyo, 70% of users are visiting for purposes other than sightseeing. In other words, the shortage of hotel rooms is mainly restricted to the Osaka metropolitan area, and is especially serious for business travellers; however, rooms remain to be filled in small-scale facilities, and the occupancy of facilities in rural areas is in a slump. Given this, promotion of the use of regional accommodation facilities by groups, which are unable to stay in large cities, would represent an opportunity for the realization of regional revitalization.
Two points must be considered in future initiatives towards the relaxation of regulations on minpaku. One of these is the formulation of independent bylaws in regional areas. The circumstances surrounding minpaku differ in different regions. In the special zones designated by the government, there are serious shortages of hotel accommodation; in hot spring areas, in which supervision of illegal minpaku is being enhanced, there are numerous ryokan, but the number of visitors has slumped. It is important that even as the government sets out a direction for minpaku, municipalities and local administrations do not simply wait passively for the government’s guidelines, but formulate their own independent guidelines to enable them to use minpaku in the revitalization of their regions. Removing restrictions on minpaku may be an effective means of promoting the invigoration of tourism in Japan, but the strategy of relying on the rapidly-changing inbound market in order to boost tourism is a dangerous one. Japan will not become the tourism-oriented nation it seeks to become unless it works to promote both inbound and internal tourism. The realization of more widespread minpaku would be desirable from the perspectives of both promoting internal tourism and contributing to regional revitalization.
- Japan Tourism Agency “Statistical Survey on Overnight travel” (http://www.mlit.go.jp/kankocho/en/siryou/toukei/index.html).
- Japan Tourism Agency ‘Minpaku sahbisu no arikata ni kansuru kentohkai (Advisory council on Minpaku service (in Japanese)) ‘ (http://www.mlit.go.jp/kankocho/page06_000093.html).
- the National Strategic Special Zone Council for the Greater Tokyo Area ‘Tokyo-to Toshisaisei bunkakai (dai 8 kai) (Commission of urban renaissance in Tokyo Metropolis (8th meeting))’ R/D (in Japanese).
- The Asahi Shimbun ‘Minpaku wa Kyokasei, Kijunkanwa (Installed a permission system for Minpaku, relax standards (in Japanese))’ (January 13, 2016).
- The Nikkei ‘“Minpaku” kaikin, Seifunai ni mizo (Open Minpaku, still gap within the government (in Japanese))” (January 13, 2016).