Why do Tokyo residents say sayōnara to the Japanese capital? | Japan

Ohen Kazuya Kobayashi decided to leave Tokyo to pursue his dream of running his own ramen restaurant, Sano was an obvious choice. As well as being the spiritual home of Japanese cricket, the prefectural city of Tochigi is famous for its ramen shops, many of which are struggling to find successors.

“The coronavirus arrived and my wife is medically vulnerable, so it seemed like a good time to move,” said Kobayashi, who hopes to open his own restaurant next year.

The 40-year-old is not the only one who wants to bid sayonara to the most populous city in the world, a megalopolis of 13.9 million inhabitants with a GDP greater than that of the Netherlands.

The capital’s population fell in 2021 for the first time in more than a quarter century, with a net loss of 48,592 from the previous year, according to a recent metropolitan government estimate.

The number of people seeking advice on starting a new life beyond the concrete sprawl of Tokyo has increased dramatically over the past year – a trend that experts say has been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic and the advent teleworking.

A government project launched in 2015 to revitalize the regions of Japan is paying off, according to Hiroshi Takahashi, president of the Hometown Return Support Center, a nonprofit that helps people move from the Tokyo area to rural areas.

The center received nearly 50,000 consultations last year from people wishing to leave greater Tokyo, more than 70% of them from people under the age of 50. The most popular choice of new home was Shizuoka – a prefecture on the Pacific coast reachable by high-speed train in around an hour – but second place went to Fukuoka prefecture, 550 miles southwest of the capital. .

Although Japanese companies have given a cautious welcome to remote working, the pandemic has proven that it is possible for people to limit their time in the office and still be productive.

People on the famous Shibuya crossing in Tokyo in January 2022. Photo: Kiichior Sato/AP

But according to Takahashi, candidates for emigration from big cities more frequently cite quality of life, childcare services and the cost of living than teleworking to explain their desire to rebuild their lives in the regions.

Changes in Japan’s economy have encouraged more people to leave the capital, he said. “During the post-war years, people dreamed of living in Tokyo,” he said. “Japan has achieved its economic transformation, but since the bubble burst 30 years ago, life is more uncertain and Tokyo has lost some of its appeal. Now more people dream of leaving.

Takahashi thinks the “goodbye Tokyo” trend will continue long after the pandemic is over. “In the past, only work mattered, but today families also think about their living environment. People’s values ​​have changed.

This view is supported by a recent Cabinet Office survey, which found that almost half of people in their twenties living in central Tokyo said they wanted to move.

Sano has capitalized on its association with Japan’s favorite comfort food to attract would-be chefs like Kobayashi. Two years ago, he launched a “Ramen Migration Project” that provides training in everything from noodle-making to management and bookkeeping. The local government also offers financial aid and helps match newly qualified chefs with ramen shops.

“I’ve worked in restaurant kitchens in Tokyo and always wanted to run my own restaurant, so when I saw the ramen project on TV, I decided to apply,” said Kobayashi, 40. years, whose wife is expecting their first child. “I spent 15 years in Tokyo and enjoyed it there, but the cost of living is much lower here and people come from all over to eat Sano ramen, so it makes financial sense.”

The Nikkō Shrine in Tochigi Prefecture, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in 2013.
The Nikkō Shrine in Tochigi Prefecture, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in 2013. Photograph: Christian Kober/Alamy

Sano has started offering incentives to new residents in an attempt to stop depopulation, according to Mitsuru Ozeki, an official with the city’s emigration division.

“We wanted to find a way to set Sano apart from other places and its ramen connection was the obvious way to do that,” Ozeki said. “We offer incentives for young people to buy houses here, and there are other financial benefits. The rents are low, the air is clean, and the food is delicious.

Last April, Gakuto Nishimura, a born and raised Tokyoite, quit his job selling mobile phones and set off for the mountainous idyll of Chichibu, a town of 60,000 people a two-hour drive from Tokyo.

“I had been thinking about changing jobs, and the pandemic pushed me to make a decision,” said Nishimura, whose interest in Chichibu had been piqued by his appearances in animated films.

Chichibu officials say they are receiving an increasing number of inquiries from young people. To encourage them to take the plunge, the city offers money to renovate unoccupied houses or to buy a car, and the opportunity to live in a local house for up to a week to get a feel for life there. low.

Nishimura, 24, now organizes events targeting other Tokyoites who are considering following suit.

“I tell them about the nature here and the low rents, but also how much easier it is for young people to get around these days, because many of them are in jobs that they can do remotely” , said Nishimura, whose apartment is considerably larger and cheaper than his former place in Tokyo.

“I have no regrets about leaving Tokyo, and even though it’s my hometown, I have no intention of going back.”