A recent tally by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications shows that internal migration into Tokyo topped outflow by 5,433, the lowest figure on record. In particular, people leaving the capital’s central 23 wards outnumbered those moving in by more than some 15,000. This is surely a sign that the concentration of the population in Tokyo is beginning to reverse, and we hope the trend continues.
Before the coronavirus took hold of the country, the pace of depopulation in regional Japan and population increase in Tokyo was speeding up. In 2019, net internal migration into the capital was about 80,000. But in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, that figure dropped to around 30,000. The trend only quickened in 2021.
Correcting the one-way flow of people into Tokyo must be addressed for the sake of crisis management — such as of natural disasters — and maintaining regional societies. The national government has tried to spur “local revitalization,” but can point to no obvious successes. The coronavirus has fundamentally altered the state of play. Factors including deep job cuts in Tokyo’s restaurant and service sector, the growth of telework, and the capital’s persistently high housing costs appear to be driving the change.
However, it’s unclear whether the shifting migration trend will continue. Last year, over 80,000 more people moved into the Tokyo region — the capital plus the neighboring prefectures of Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama — than moved out. If the pandemic is brought to heel, the flow of people into Tokyo could well resume. To make sure this “goodbye Tokyo” trend is not merely temporary, there needs to be an environment created that encourages people to depart.
Using remote work to cut back on live appearances at the office would make it easier for employees to live outside the Tokyo region and only commute in by bullet train from time to time. Starting in April, internet giant Yahoo Japan Corp. will begin allowing its staff to live anywhere in the country. More companies should be introducing similar systems paving the way for their workers to move without getting transferred.
Local government initiatives to secure jobs in their jurisdictions, and dispel inbound residents’ anxieties about starting life in a new place, are also indispensable. For example, Sanjo, Niigata Prefecture, is offering a menu of short-stay options including work experience programs tailored to the interests of people pondering a move. Sano, Tochigi Prefecture, is recruiting new residents with offers of training to carry on the city’s famed “Sano ramen” noodles.
Nearly half of people in their 20s currently living in Tokyo’s 23 wards who responded to a Cabinet Office online survey said that they were interested in moving. We should not nip these shifting desires in the bud, but rather cultivate them carefully until they bloom.