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Generous financial aid and telework accelerate migration out of Tokyo sparked by COVID

Near JR Sakudaira Station in the Nagano Prefecture city of Saku, apartment buildings and commercial buildings are under construction, as seen on Jan. 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Mari Sakane)

Internal migration statistics for 2021 released by Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications on Jan. 28 showed that people moving into Tokyo outnumbered those leaving by 5,433 last year, down 25,692 from the previous year -- the smallest margin since the current aggregation method including foreign nationals began in 2014.

    The migration figures, based on Basic Resident Registers, made clear that the trend toward excess concentration of people and industries in Tokyo is slowing to a crawl. The Mainichi Shimbun spoke to a few people who decided to move away from the greater Tokyo area.

    A 31-year-old web engineer moved from Kanagawa Prefecture south of Tokyo to Saku, Nagano Prefecture, central Japan, in 2021. He says that as a freelance programmer, living away from Tokyo has caused him no problems getting work from companies. "When my work went full-on remote due to the coronavirus pandemic, I realized there was no need for me to keep living in the Tokyo metropolitan area, where rent is expensive." The Saku Municipal Government distributes grants to people who migrate there to work remotely, among others. The man received about 150,000 yen (approx. $1,300), which he used to pay for furniture and other items.

    "The generous support also factored into my decision to move here. It lowered the bar for me," he recalled.

    People board the 7:05 a.m. Shinkansen bullet train bound for Tokyo at JR Sakudaira Station in Saku, Nagano Prefecture, on Jan. 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Mari Sakane)

    The Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train stops at JR Sakudaira Station in the city. Taking just over an hour to get to Tokyo, it's considered "within commuting distance." There are more than a few people who now have to go into their place of work less frequently, and therefore commute by bullet train when they need to from Saku. The area around the station is booming, with apartment buildings and commercial facilities under construction.

    A 47-year-old company employee whose family of four lives in Tokyo's Chuo Ward will be moving to the Nagano Prefecture town of Karuizawa, known as a summer resort, this spring. For both him and his wife, work has almost completely gone remote, which prompted them to prioritize raising children in an environment surrounded by nature, rather than proximity to their workplaces. They will go from living in a one-bedroom home to at least three bedrooms. The man is excited, saying, "We'll be able to give the children their own rooms."

    The regional cities and towns where people are moving to are also preparing to accept an influx of people. In the Gunma Prefecture town of Minakami, a powdery snow was falling on the night of Jan. 27. Town official Kazami Nakayama, 35, who oversees migration promotion, was fielding questions online from someone who was considering moving to Minakami.

    In 2017, the town government converted an unused kindergarten into a teleworking space by installing internet. That may have contributed to the fact that, while there were four households totaling nine people who moved to Minakami pre-COVID, in fiscal 2020, 18 households totaling 50 people migrated to the town. Most of the people were in their 20 to their 40s, and couples who are raising children pointed to the difficulty of life in urban areas where there were large numbers of coronavirus infections as being the decisive factor. One such couple said that in Tokyo, it was hard to let the children play outside and that they refrained from going outside themselves.

    Kazami Nakayama, who works at the Minakami Municipal Government in Gunma Prefecture, fields questions online about moving to the town, on Jan. 27, 2022, in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture. (Mainichi/Tomokazu Komaki)

    Nakayama said, "The coronavirus pandemic has strengthened people's motivation to move. We see this as a good opportunity to attract young people here."

    In 2021, the Cabinet Office surveyed people who migrated. Those who said that they decided to move because of "the implementation of teleworking" was 35.4% before the pandemic. The current figure is at 47.9%. Yutaka Murayama, a director general at the Cabinet Office said, "People who already had an interest in moving out of the city were prompted to move by the fact that the coronavirus pandemic made teleworking in regional areas possible."

    (Japanese original by Mari Sakane, Nagano Bureau, and Tomokazu Komaki, Regional News Department)

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