Will The Coronavirus Pandemic Boost Rural Relocation in Japan ?

Rural Japan has long been trying to attract big-city dwellers to relocate to the countryside. A current wrinkle on these efforts is whether coronavirus pandemic is spurring urbanites to move to rural Japan. With teleworking practices and distance learning gaining traction, Japan’s depopulated rural regions are drawing more people away from the densely populated capital as they look to forge a new work life balance.

This new movement reflects a ‘corona shift’ in Japan’s outdated corporate office culture. For many, the once-vague awareness of teleworking from home has been replaced by the abrupt adoption of remote interaction in reaction to the spread of coronavirus. A Gakujo Co. survey of workers in their 20s in April found that a little over one-third expressed interest in getting a new job in a rural area – a 14 percent increase compared to last year. After all, why pay high rent and be a shut-in in Tokyo when there are more attractive and spacious options?

Aside from the recent coronavirus-induced attitude and general migration shifts, “rural relocation” has a contemporary history in Japan. The term “U-Turn” has been used to describe the pattern of leaving one’s rural hometown for the big city, only to make a U-turn and return at some later point in life. The term was first introduced into the lexicon of Japanese migration research in the late 1960s and by the 1990s, a reversed I-Turn pattern emerged whereby an urbanite makes a one-directional exit from their city locale to a rural one. While the pattern is a minor movement against the dominant Tokyo-centered migration pattern, a 2018 Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport study of 5,000 respondents confirmed the growing shift, finding that approximately one-quarter of those in their 20s wanted “greater government promotion for relocation to the countryside.”

One-quarter of those in their 20s wanted greater government promotion for relocation to the countryside

However, picking up and moving from urban convenience to an unfamiliar remote town with new customs can be a daunting first barrier to making the relocation leap. In the city of Kochi, home to 330,000 in the southern island of Shikoku, a relocation campaign focused on bridging the transitional gap by depicting locals as aliens in the eyes of an urban migrant while also contrasting the newly-arrived Tokyoite as aliens in the eyes of the Kochi local. The campaign devised a two-step relocation process involving a temporary trial stay in Kochi city to allow potential new residents to not only acclimatize to new surroundings, but also to explore municipalities within Kochi which may better suit their needs. In the second step, the city offers a subsidy of ¥200,000 to help with initial moving and setting up costs. The campaign successfully attracted 290 new residents from outside the prefecture in 2018 – a significant increase from previous years. But even so, Kochi data also revealed that one in six relocations are unsuccessful, resulting in families packing up and leaving.

Similarly, Hirosaki City, in far north Tohoku, followed a similar approach announcing 24 comprehensive relocation support initiatives for 2020. The Hirosaki City relocation webpage outlines 24 specific relocation support initiatives for 2020: two for relocation, four for housing, 13 for family life, and five for job hunting and business start-up. Hirosaki also offers a “test house” along with information about the Akiya Bank system and rental subsidies for different family types (singles, couples and those with children). Twelve of the thirteen life support programs are directly related to childcare and education issues. Perhaps most importantly, the job hunting and business start-up activities detail various information sources, office support resources and business creation subsidy and loan options that are available. Hirosaki city has showcased the lives of 14 new residents who have taken up farming, launched small businesses, or joined local companies. While Hirosaki city has touched on the richness of family life and the benefits and beauty of the local climate, nature, and traditions, rural municipalities are yet to capitalize on the rise of remote work.

Indeed, the psychological, behavioral and socioeconomic factors that influence migration are quite dynamic. Growing environmental awareness and health promotion are significant motives when considering rural migration, along with spiritual growth and employment status contributing to its successful transition. This is cast as an information puzzle: people at different stages of the migration decision process require different kinds of information. This means that portrayals of rural places as environmentally sustainable, with evidence supporting how such sustainability contributes to healthy living, must be coupled with a path to the realization of a purposeful and virtuous life, whether gained through interaction with nature or through meaningful employment.

Environmental awareness and health are significant motives for rural migration, with spiritual growth and employment status contributing to a successful rural transition

When it comes to local employment opportunities, although each prefecture offers job consulting alongside private recruitment firms, the quality of promising, long-term and stable employment across rural locations varies. As Tokyo is a migration magnet nationally, the prefectural seat is the magnet in most prefectures, meaning that the current migration trend is less a pattern of expansive and uniform relocation than a highly-concentrated pattern of those moving to a single major city.

As Japan comes to terms with a new coronavirus normal, the possibility that the current crisis will alter the dynamics of a long-term trend toward rural relocation are increasingly real, even if the end result is unknown.

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Anthony S. Rausch is professor at Hirosaki University, Japan. He has a PhD from Monash University (Australia) in social sciences. His research focuses on the social science dynamics of rural Japan. He is author of Japan’s Local Newspapers: Chihoshi and Revitalization Journalism (Routledge), Cultural Commodities in Japanese Rural Revitalization (Brill), and editor of Japanese Journalism and the Japanese Newspaper: A Supplemental Reader (Teneo Press). His wine of choice is an elegant Pinot Noir from Volnay.

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