Back to the Future: Japanese Youth Flee Cities for the Countryside
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The country’s dying villages are witnessing a revival, with youth returning in search of a quieter life.
Kana Naito had worked eight years at a prestigious American brokerage firm in Tokyo when she decided she was done trying to meet her quotas there. Instead of hunting for another job in the Japanese capital, she spent some time with her family and then drove to rural Yamanashi prefecture, about 100 miles from Tokyo. Now, instead of tracking financial securities, Naito, 33, spends her days tending to peaches and persimmons with her husband.
For years, Japan’s rural regions have battled a double whammy: a rising death rate due to the world’s fastest-aging population and a decades-long outflux of young Japanese to the country’s major cities, mostly the Kanto metropolitan region around Tokyo and the Kansai metropolitan region around Osaka. But growing disenchantment with the fast pace of urban life is slowly pushing more and more young Japanese back to the country’s dying villages.
The Furusato Kaiki Shien Center, a Tokyo-based nonprofit, said it received 33,165 inquiries in 2016 from young people interested in making the transition to rural life, more than 300 percent more than the approximately 10,000 calls it received in 2013. Iketani village in Niigata prefecture saw its population double between 2006 and 2016. Suo-Oshima island’s population has gone up by 8 percent since 2012, as young people have arrived to work in the island’s famous fruit industry. In Nishiawakura, a rural town in central Honshu’s Okayama prefecture, migrants from outside now constitute 9 percent of the population, up from less than 1 percent in 2008.
I have freedom and liberty to do things as I want, a big change.
Yousuke Hirasawa, who left a Tokyo job to migrate to Nishiawakura village
The federal government and local authorities in rural prefectures, desperate to avoid the extinction of Japanese villages, are doing their bit to entice urban youth to the countryside. Urban youth can earn — each year — up to three years’ worth of the salary they earned in their city jobs if they instead go work in rural Japan, as long as their projects are approved by the local administration under a federal program launched in 2009. And the bait of a greener, freer life is working.
“When working in a big company, things had to be done in a certain way,” says Yousuke Hirasawa, 38, who moved to Nishiawakura from Tokyo, where he was working at Dentsu, the country’s largest public relations firm. “[Now] I have freedom and liberty to do things as I want, a big change.”
Usually, the Japanese youth moving to villages are keen to “experience a slower pace of life, or to get reacquainted to ‘older’ forms of community that are believed to live on in the countryside,” says Shawn Bender, an associate professor of East Asian studies at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
The tasks these young men and women take on vary. Hirasawa now works with a local startup that provides consulting services for local governments and projects. Others like Naito start farming. Still others pursue forestry. On the surface, their choices may appear surprising — moving away from the lights and glamour of big cities to rural villages and towns isn’t common for younger people in any society.
But the rural towns and villages most successful in attracting youth from outside aren’t asking their visitors to leave all aspects of their lives behind. In fact, some of them are trying to marry the promise of a quieter, more peaceful life with opportunities for the arriving youth to utilize their skills in helping the village or town develop and thrive.
In 2012, Nishiawakura launched an “Initiative with a 100-Year Vision of Forests.” The initiative is aimed at creating a sustainable local economy built around a combination of exports relying on its abundant forests — which cover 95 percent of the village — and innovation, says Yoshiro Toyohuku, an official with the Nishiawakura village office. Today, Nishiawakura has not only a thriving forestry industry but also a sustainable eel aquaculture farm, a local biomass company, several digital startups and even a plan to launch a municipal cryptocurrency to further fuel investment.
It helps that technology today — especially in Japan — means that the men and women coming to the villages needn’t worry about not being able to speak with their families back in the cities. Still, the transition from cities to small towns and villages isn’t always easy.
Masashi Morimoto gave up a finance job to work as a construction worker in Nishiawakura. He had to use his savings — and had exhausted most of it in his first year after relocating. But he’s happy with his choice. “I’ve made the right decision, and I’m doing what I actually want to do,” he says. He has no plans to return to city life.
It won’t be easy for Japan to replicate across the country the success these initial villages have had, simply because the demographics pose a challenge. Japan’s population, in its entirety, began shrinking in 2011, and the country lost a million people in just five years by 2016. This means there are fewer young people as a whole, likely not enough to make up for the even higher average age and death rates that are common in rural Japan. “I don’t see evidence, so far, that it’s been working to a level that will revitalize broader rural areas in Japan,” says Bender.
But these villages and towns are showing that with leadership, they can at least bridge some of the additional burden these parts of Japan have faced in past decades because of local youth leaving for cities.
Take Taketa village in Oita prefecture, on Japan’s southern Kyushu island. It knows it has a crisis on its hands, with 40 percent of its population over the age of 55. In 2015, the village mayor began a personally led program, inviting city youth, interviewing potential movers and then supporting their plans in Taketa. “The mayor made this his top priority,” says Cornelia Reiher, a junior professor of Japanese society at the Freie Universität in Berlin. Since then, the village of around 4,000 people has attracted at least 49 city dwellers who have relocated. It was just one more symptom of the slow death of rural Japan. Now, Taketa is a symbol of hope — of Japan’s chance to keep its villages alive.