Some people like crowds. Whether you do or not, in Japan, you learn to live with them. You have no choice. Mountains confine the habitable regions of a country narrow enough even without them. Modern urbanization depopulated the countryside, swelling Tokyo in particular. Economically, politically, culturally, Tokyo is the place to be if you want to be part of what’s happening – and the place to escape if you don’t.
“U-turns” and “I-turns” come and go. Urban workers fed up with the grind give it up and return home to their country roots. That’s a “U-turn.” Urban workers fed up with the grind with no rural home to return to relocate to the country anyway, in pursuit of country-style living. That’s “I-turning.”
The first noted “turn” wave was in the early 1990s, when the bubble economy collapsed. Since then it’s ebbed and flowed, promising at times the possibility – still unrealized – of easing both urban congestion and rural depopulation. The government, meanwhile, talked off and on about relocating some of its functions to different parts of the hinterland. Nothing much came of that, either.
Could COVID-19 change that? Spa! (June 2) thinks it might.
It’s changed first of all, possibly for good, our view of crowds. The throng squeezing you in the train, choking you in the street, trespassing on your personal space almost everywhere, is now more than bothersome. It’s infectious. Who’s breathing what germs on me? You never know. “Goodbye to Tokyo and its crowds!” Spa! headlines.
It offers no figures in support of its suggestion of a significant outward migration, but the anecdotal evidence is that at least some people who had never before thought of leaving the city are thinking of it now.
A young man in his 20s, about to graduate college, accepted a job offer from a leading advertising firm. He was very pleased. His life’s course seemed set. The stability he craved – and after the hiring freeze of the ’90s and 2000s forced much of an entire “lost generation” into a lifetime of dead-end part-time jobs, stability became something worth craving – seemed assured. The coronavirus gave him second thoughts. “Out,” he thought. He called the company and canceled the arrangement. He was off to the country, he said. He didn’t know where. Somewhere.
A similar epiphany struck a certain Mr Ikeda of Okayama. He’ a 44-year-old restaurant owner, doing reasonably well until COVID-19 forced him to temporarily close in March. It got him thinking. He’d always loved the country, being partial to wildlife. Maybe now was the time? Scanning the net, he came across the Inland Sea island of Suo Oshima, population 17,000, in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
Should he? He collected information, spoke to locals – yes! He would! He’s now liquidating his resources, due to move later this month.
What will he do when he gets there? His plans are incomplete but he’s unlikely to be at a loss for long. Both housing and jobs are abundantly available, say local authorities – and that applies not only to Suo Oshima but all over the rural map. Housing? Empty abandoned houses dot the countryside nationwide. By 2033, calculates the Nomura Research Institute, 30 percent of all Japan’s housing will be in that condition.
Jobs? No problem – “as long as you’re not particular,” says a local advisor. Suo Oshima’s main industry is tourism. Short-staffed ryokans, minshukus and restaurants are eager to hire. And of course there’s farming.
Locals accord newcomers a warm welcome – aging communities grateful for an infusion of youth – also, notes Spa!, for potential successors to owners of small enterprises threatened by a perennial concern of rural business people and farmers: the unwillingness of their own children to stay home and take over the family concerns.
COVID-19 may change that too. Once the big city symbolized the good life. Now, its overriding image is contagion. That may fade with the crisis. Or it may not.© Japan Today