For years, Japan has tried — without success — to prevent politics, business and its population from being overly concentrated in Tokyo. But it appears the coronavirus pandemic could be a game changer, with many seeing it as an opportunity to rethink their approaches to work and life and move out of the capital to rural areas.
Among them is Kazuki Hanado, 27, who moved to the city of Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture in October 2020. Before the pandemic, Hanado, who was born in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, worked at a luxury inn near the Imperial Palace. But in May 2020, a few months after Japan decided to postpone the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the inn closed down. The hiatus made her re-evaluate her life.
“My salary was being wiped out by the high living expenses, and I was either eating out or eating ready-made meals,” she said. ”It wasn’t the life I had imagined. Tokyo is not the place I want to be.” As if to find a way to fill the void, she searched for a place with abundant food and greenery — and decided to move to Kamaishi. “I had visited Kamaishi on a school trip when I was in junior high school. And my mother, who loves rugby, often told me about the Kamaishi Seawaves, a local rugby team that won seven consecutive Japanese championships.”
When Hanado moved to Kamaishi, she started working at Kamaishi DMC, a tourism promotion company affiliated with the city, where she could use her experience from her previous job. Her new life in Kamaishi was a luxury for her in a different way — eating fresh seafood from Kamaishi Bay and vegetables she grew in a nearby field. “I want to stay here forever, but I wonder if this community will accept me,” she said, concerned she may continue to be seen as a newcomer.
From Roppongi to Sendai
Hanado is not the only one to have sought solace outside Tokyo. In May 2020, Hikaru Kanamori, 27, moved to Sendai, leaving behind his life in the luxurious Roppongi Hills complex, in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, where he had worked for three years. His parents own a long-established sake store in the city of Yamagata. Having seen his father be responsible for both the company and his family, Kanamori had aspired to start his own business since he was in high school.
After moving to Tokyo to attend university, he’d joined an IT venture in 2017. The company, located in Roppongi Hills, was run by an entrepreneur Kanamori had read about in an autobiography he found inspiring. His duties included selling tablet computers together with a system that helped retail operators keep track of sales. Business was good until the government raised the consumption tax to 10% in October 2019. Then the COVID-19 pandemic dealt the business a heavy blow.
On weekdays Kanamori exhausted himself with work, while the weekends were spent catching up on sleep. “I came to Tokyo wanting to start a business of my own, but I didn’t even have time to think what I wanted to do,” he said. “I didn’t like who I was turning into.” In August he moved to Sendai, working four days a week as a member of the city’s community development team that aims to make better use of vacant homes. On his days off, he goes camping with his friends — a peaceful time for him.
Although Kanamori is no longer exhausting himself, he’s not yet sure about his ultimate goal. But he feels he may have a better idea of what he wants to do going forward. “It wouldn’t be a bad idea to start a business here and then go back there (to Tokyo),” he says.
Figures show that more people are looking for new lives outside of Tokyo. According to data from the internal affairs ministry for May 2020, the number of people moving out of the capital outnumbered the number of people moving in by 1,069 — marking the first time outbound migration had surpassed inbound migration since July 2013 when comparable data first became available.
The following month, in June, inbound migration topped outbound migration once again, but from July 2020 through February 2021, more people moved out of Tokyo than people moved in. The trend has continued since then, except for the months of March and April when more people generally move into Tokyo because of starting new jobs or enrolling at university, at the beginning or end of the fiscal year.
The trend is reflected in the number of people that moved to prefectures in the Tohoku region from Tokyo in 2020:
- Aomori: 2,518 (down 11 from the year before)
- Iwate: 2,205 (up 80 from the year before)
- Miyagi: 6,275 (up 31 from the year before)
- Akita: 1,817 (up 96 from the year before)
- Yamagata: 1,856 (up 89 from the year before)
- Fukushima: 4,074 (up 215 from the year before)
The number of consultations at Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Furusato Kaiki Support Center has also increased since the start of the pandemic. “I think it is becoming difficult for people to have hopes that their lives will improve if they stay in Tokyo,” said Ko Takahashi, the chairman of the organization’s board of directors.