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More people moving to rural areas across Japan as new lifestyles emerge due to virus

In this June 3, 2020 photo, Shuichi Nagao is seen enjoying the view of the ocean during work breaks in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, one of his new homes following the shift to teleworking practices amid the novel coronavirus. (Mainichi/Atsuko Motohashi)

TOKYO -- While teleworking practices and distance learning are becoming normal in Japan amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, more people have been drawn to moving to rural regions away from the capital.

The Mainichi Shimbun examined this new movement of people leaving heavily populated Tokyo by interviewing several people about their experiences.

On a fine weekday afternoon in early June, a traditional cottage was engulfed in gentle sunrays in the city of Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo. The ocean is about a three-minute walk from the Japanese-style house. Shuichi Nagao, 26, lives here and goes down to the beach to enjoy the view of Sagami Bay during his work breaks. His expression loosened and he broke into a smile as he said, "I have more room for comfort in my heart now," regarding this new custom.

Nagao works in the human resources department of a major information technology (IT) firm in Tokyo. Following the company's move to implement teleworking practices in response to the novel coronavirus, he had spent his days continuously alone, shut in an apartment in the fashionable Ebisu district of Tokyo's Shibuya Ward since March. As the stores and shops in the neighborhood had also temporarily closed, he began to feel that "there was no meaning to continue living in Tokyo while paying high rent."

Shuichi Nagao is seen talking and laughing with Takeo Hirai, a long-time owner of a cafe in the local community of Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, on June 3, 2020. The two are on such friendly terms that they occasionally drink together. (Mainichi/Atsuko Motohashi)

Nagao terminated his lease agreement for his apartment in May. His company has maintained its policy of advising employees to work from home, and he does not need to show up to the workplace. Nagao currently uses services offered by Tokyo-based venture ADDress, which allows users to reside in property across Japan for a fixed fee. Nagao currently leads a lifestyle of having multiple residences centered around the Kanto region and switches his place of living once or twice a week. He commented, "I have been able to meet people who I would not have encountered in the city. My outlook on life has changed while I discover that there are these different ways of living."

There are other examples where those prompted by changes in their lifestyles due to the novel coronavirus seek to abandon their lives in the city center and move to rural areas. Shoki Hosokawa, 27, a sales representative of Tokyo-based IT firm Lancers Inc., is considering moving to his hometown in the northeastern Japan city of Sendai. In recent years, he experienced the deaths of close acquaintances back home, and had felt that "it is emotionally difficult to live in a place far away from people who can be trusted and I can feel at ease with."

During the implementation of telework from mid-February, he realized that there are no hindrances in sales wherever workers are based, as long as video calls and chats are used. The number of employees who show up at the office has decreased dramatically to around 10% of all workers, since teleworking practices have become prevalent. The firm has also started to hire regional staff for engineer positions with the assumption that they will work remotely. Hosokawa is preparing to return to his hometown and commented, "I want to take on the new challenge of working from my hometown while being a member of my current company."

But it is not only working adults who are interested in a change of residence. Hinako Seki, 22, who lives in the Tokyo suburban city of Fuchu and attends lectures at a university in the capital to obtain a teaching license for elementary school, has also begun to consider relocating to a different area. The student was born and raised in Tokyo, but felt that the capital had weak ties among people compared to Amami-Oshima Island in southwestern Japan, her parents' hometown where she would visit several times a year.

Distance learning had become available for courses at her university, with the exception of some classes including hands-on sessions, and she also felt that online drinking sessions are sufficient for interacting with friends. She applied for a managerial position at a student dormitory located on an island off the southwestern city of Karatsu in Saga Prefecture by using SMOUT, a matching service that sends users recruitment offers from local governments. Seki decided to use the service with the thought, "My life will become more enriched if I am able to establish roots in the local community and engage deeply with local people." She currently thinks that "I am able to connect better on a daily level with the children than at school in the city."

Interest in moving to regional areas has been steadily increasing. Gakujo Co., a company providing information on job hunting, conducted a survey between April 24 and May 1 on employees in their 20s wishing to change jobs. The survey found 36% of respondents claiming that they wish to get a new job in regional areas, recording a 14 percentage point increase from a survey in February asking the same question. The number of newly registered users with SMOUT in May increased by 50% compared to the previous month. Registered members of the venture service ADDress also increased by more than 1.2 times those of the previous month.

Although there have been waves of people moving from city centers to regional areas in the past, the scope of such a shift was limited as the move required changing jobs. However, the bar has been lowered recently as teleworking and distance learning, among other online shifts, have become a familiar part of our lives.

(Japanese original by Atsuko Motohashi and Daichi Matsuoka, Business News Department)

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