Japan is paying families ¥1 million to move to countryside – but it won’t make Tokyo any smaller

By Peter Matanle
The Tokyo skyline Photo: REUTERS file

The Japanese government has announced a fresh round of incentives for people to move out of the Tokyo region. From April 2023, families seeking a new life in greener pastures will receive 1 million yen per child. This represents an increase of 700,000 yen on previous such payments.

Once the whole benefits package is included, the maximum amount a family will be able to receive is 5 million yen. Five million yen might sound like a lot of money. However this will be quickly used up in relocating to a new home, job and community, and reduced incomes.

The main purpose of the scheme is to contribute both to easing overcrowding in the Tokyo region and revitalizing more rural and remote areas of Japan with an injection of youth and entrepreneurialism.

It is significant that this new scheme was announced in December, ahead of the new year holidays when many urban dwellers return to their rural roots, and conversations inevitably turn to what the future holds.

Even more significant is the fact that this is not the first time the government has launched such a scheme. In fact, successive Japanese administrations have tried – and largely failed – to stabilize rural prefectures’ populations and reduce urban overcrowding for 70 years.

Attempts at counter urbanization

The scheme concerns residents from the 23 wards of Tokyo proper, as well as commuter cities in neighboring Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa prefectures, seeking to move to one of 1,800 provincial municipalities. The government hopes that around 10,000 people annually will take advantage of the offer.

There are conditions, of course. At least one earner in each household must either set up a business in their new locale or take up employment in a small or medium sized enterprise there. And the family must stay for a minimum of five years. Failure to do so may result in having to repay the whole amount.

Japan is not the only country where governments pay people to relocate to the countryside. In 2021, Ireland started to move up to 68,000 government workers out of Dublin in its Our Rural Future plan.

Many countries have taken similar advantage of the increased flexibility of remote working the pandemic has stimulated, such as with the so-called “Zoom towns” in rural U.S. Other examples include Albinen in Switzerland, various Spanish villages and Presicce in Italy, which is offering £30,000 to buy an empty dwelling and take up residency.

There have been a long list of such measures in Japan since World War II. As detailed by German geographer Thomas Feldhoff, starting with the 1953 Remote Island Promotion Act, most of them met with only marginal success.

In the early 1970s, Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei’s government invested in huge infrastructure development programs in Japan’s provinces. This was partly in an effort to boost employment and stabilize populations.

Tanaka was so ambitious that he wrote a book about it, Remodelling the Japanese Archipelago, which was published in 1972. And his plan did work for a while. However, it generated enormous environmental damage in the process, with which Japan is still coming to terms.

In the 1980s, the Isson Ippon, or One Village One Product movement, as it is known in English, was launched in Oita Prefecture in Kyushu. It provided a gentler alternative, which is still being promoted internationally by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, as part of Japan’s overseas development activities.

More recently, research I have undertaken with my colleague Yasuyuki Sato has shown how rural municipalities have resigned themselves to ever reducing populations. In an attempt to take control of such futures, they have begun instead to focus on the health, wellbeing and living conditions of those people who remain.

A global concern

Urban sprawl and rural emptying are two sides of the same 21st-century coin, and are global in their extent. In the 19th and 20th centuries, as populations across the world grew exponentially, urbanization processes didn’t necessarily affect rural regions negatively. Some communities benefited from younger people moving out to seek employment, education, and marriage in nearby cities, as families often had more children than they could adequately support.

In the 21st century, however, as family size has shrunk dramatically nearly everywhere, the so-called demographic dividend – that is, the benefits of a growing population – has come to an end in developed countries.

Japan has led the way in East Asia. In 1974, the Japanese total fertility rate fell below the population replacement rate of 2.1. Demographers would have known then that, should conditions persist, the country would eventually slip into depopulation. Sure enough, conditions did persist, and in 2008 Japan registered its first peacetime population decrease.

Although Tokyo’s population is now 13 million, the Kanto region of which it is the core boasts more than 37 million people – 30% of the whole population of Japan. Elsewhere in the country, hundreds of rural hamlets and villages face imminent extinction.

Japan is not unique. Greater Seoul has around 25 million people, nearly half of South Korea’s population in one urban area with the rest spread out across the rest of the country. And in China, the Pearl River delta area, which encompasses Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Macau and Guangzhou, counts 100 million people living within it, while the wider country now boasts 155 cities with more than 1 million population.

Further afield, at 1.7 million, the city of Auckland comprises nearly a third of New Zealand’s population. Only 1.2 million people, by contrast, live in all of the South Island.

The spatial impacts of this demographic transition have been felt most deeply in rural regions of the Asia-Pacific. These grew most rapidly in the 20th century, and now face almost as rapid a depopulation in the 21st. Entire communities are disappearing. Land and housing are being abandoned. Infrastructure is decaying.

As the rest of east and southeast Asia follows in Japan’s footsteps, the archipelago is to some extent a laboratory for devising effective policies for dealing with the socioeconomic and environmental outcomes of depopulation, a phenomenon which will increasingly be felt globally.

Peter Matanle is a senior lecturer in Japanese Studies at the University of Sheffield, England.

The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.

© The Conversation

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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If some people leave Tokyo, it's more Tokyo for meeeee...

Tokyo best city of the world !!!!..

-17 ( +2 / -19 )

1 Million Yen = USD$7,800. Is that enough to pay the moving company...

14 ( +15 / -1 )

Tokyo,it not the best city in the world,if you do have the money, especially for Gaijin

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

I think they're going about this the wrong way. They need to incentivise businesses to move to the country side. People go where the jobs are. Taxes breaks for businesses with offices in a rural area would be a great start. And it's already cheaper out there. University campuses can bring jobs and working students as well.

13 ( +13 / -0 )

Why would politicians want people to leave Tokyo?

They wouldn’t

It is a massive tax base and the trend is to squeeze in more and more people into smaller spaces thereby increasing the tax base

This is why whatever ideas and schemes are mooted; they are all destined to failure (intentionally)

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Whoever came up with this "1 mllion yen" policy must be getting nonstop high-fives in that government office. It has grabbed all the headlines and got people talking about it and not all of the other problems that Tokyo has or the countryside has. Hardly anyone will actually use the scheme, which is a tiny sticking plaster on a morass of different issues.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Japan is paying ( **rich well off....who have the ability to work from home ) families ¥1 million to move to countryside – but it won’t make Tokyo any smaller.**

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

Tokyo’s populAtion is declining and will decline further rapidly because of a shrinking population overal in Japan and less migration from rural areas to Tokyo as less people there. And no real immigration growth. So it is a no brainer that the Kanto population will decline but of course the useless government will claim success for this useless non-policy in a few years as numbers will inevitably keep declining. Depopulating the useless Diet would make more sense.

my wife and I left as I moved my company to Singapore because of taxes, increasing racism and xenophobia, corruption and lack of policy. 2 down for Tokyo

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

Money to leave Tokyo and at the same money to have more children in Tokyo lol you couldn’t make this up.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

This is ridiculous.

Japan is paying 1 million to move to countryside while The Tokyo metropolitan government has decided it will provide free childcare for a second child aged between 0 and 2 for all Tokyo households from fiscal 2023,

Politicians have no idea what they are doing.

I say, Looting looks easty but isnt for idiots. After all, who needs to get creative about it, you just Loot on auto repeat, flush and fill. Gettin Tokyo votes prob break the ol bank book, less bang for yens and prob looks like real work to get those.

Why work hard when keep enough tax cash flowin back to my smalltown GoTos and more works way cheaper? Think Nursery rhymes for kids. Probably singin it to theirs at as we speak… here a vote there a vote (inakas cheap) they give me votes votes!

And good plan or bad plan, whose payin for it? Mori?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Unless Government agencies are moved and some companies also relocate, residents have no reason to move either.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I am with you Tokyoliving. Number one city. Now see who gets the most downs. With a pending immigration between city and rural living and from overseas it will only get bigger and better which NY can not being island and easy target to cause massive economic havoc and lacking a decent air defense.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Sure....but then you have ridiculous work practices that require people to commute into the city for work when they could easily do it at home....dinosaurs running these companies will pay lip service to remote working but in reality are forcing people to commute. I actually work in a rural area, commute out the city for 2hrs door to door, for a class schedule that is extremely light.....I have to go in every day though, despite not having anything to do. I could easily plan all my lessons and materials at home, negating the long commute and saving the school the travel expense....but no. Common sense does not prevail and of course I'm expected to be at my desk everyday from 8:20 to 4:30 (where they also complain that I should stay later)...

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Well, if the pursuit of Mammon is your goal, inevitably you will be drawn into living in concrete jungles like Tokyo. If, however, you value less materialistic things in life, you are much more free to live in rural areas.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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