You don’t have to live in Tokyo.
That seems too obvious to require emphasizing, but demography suggests it may not be. From the way Tokyo gains population and the rest of Japan loses it, you’d almost think Tokyo was the only place in Japan worth living in.
People are starting to discover otherwise, however, says Josei Seven (July 25). It’s a slow but sure process, spurred by various factors ranging from a growing exhaustion with the congested, hyper-competitive Tokyo lifestyle to the liberation from physical space made possible by virtual space – the internet.
For now, Tokyo remains the center that sucks the life out of the periphery. Its population grew in 2018 by almost 140,000 – the 23rd consecutive annual increase – while 72 percent of Japan’s other municipal jurisdictions declined. One might conclude from that – wrongly, says Josei Seven – that a government initiative begun in 2014 aimed at reversing the Tokyo-bound flow has been a failure. The initiative includes funding and tax breaks for entrepreneurs starting new businesses, and families raising children, in the hinterland. Results are visible. But it’s a slow process.
The Tokyo-based NPO Kaiki Shien Center, which supports migration to local regions, tells the story in numbers. In 2008, says director Ko Takahashi, the center fielded 2475 inquiries; in 2018, 41,518 – a 20-fold increase. Ten years ago, 70 percent of inquiries were from people over 50 thinking about retirement; now, 70 percent are from people aged 20 to 50 and thinking about working. The former image of the countryside was romantic: gardening on sunny days, reading when it rained, surrounded by nature, dining on the fruits of the earth, and so on. Now it’s more likely to be about building a first life rather than a second one.
In 2014, Josei Seven says, citing Meiji University research, 11,735 individuals left Tokyo for the regions – four times the 2009 figure.
“U-turners,” they’re called, suggesting life going back where it came from – the countryside. Let’s meet one of them. Tomi Kawasaki, 39, worked in retailing in Tokyo. It was interesting work and it paid well, but constantly running against the clock, meeting quotas and deadlines, was making her ill. She wasn’t sleeping, she felt rundown all the time; she began wondering whether there were ways of making a living that didn’t destroy you in the process.
In 2016 she made her move – to rural Tottori Prefecture. The local government runs an Abandoned House Bank. Abandoned houses abound in the country. The occupants die or move away, there are no heirs to take them over, and they just sit there. The one that drew Kawasaki had nine rooms; the bank was offering it for 30,000 yen a month. Why not? she thought. She didn’t need nine rooms, but the excess space did no harm. She’d always been interested in product design. She could launch her own freelance business, working from home.
Settled, she decided, after due deliberation. She earns significantly less than she did in Tokyo, but then again she spends a lot less. The main thing is, she’s a lot happier.
From the southwest, Josei Seven takes us northeast – to the central Hokkaido village of Higashigawa. Its population in 1993 was 6,000; now it’s 8,300 – a startling increase amid overall decline. More than half the population is comprised of newcomers. Three hundred of them are foreigners – students at Japan’s first rural Japanese language school, founded in 2015. The rest are people like Hiroshi and Nao Sekima, 44 and 36 respectively.
Eight years ago the couple had been scrounging for a living in Kanagawa Prefecture, scrambling to raise a family on part-time work. It wasn’t working. Their eldest child happened to be allergic to wheat flower, which got them thinking: Why not open a restaurant that specialized in cooking free of that ingredient? Curry, for instance.
Maybe the idea never would have got off the ground if not for the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. Catastrophes set people in motion. They found Higashigawa on the net, fell in love with the place, and off they went. Their restaurant is a success. Tourists especially like a certain quality it has, best describable as exotic© Japan Today