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Coronavirus

Over 400,000 flee Tokyo in 2020 coronavirus exodus

Teleworking options and job loss weakens pull of capital city

The Japanese capital has long attracted those seeking jobs, opportunity and excitement, but many are rethinking the choice amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

TOKYO -- A record number of Tokyo residents left the city in 2020, as concerns over the coronavirus pandemic and greater availability of remote work propelled hundreds of thousands of people to seek cheaper and less crowded areas in Japan.

A total of 401,805 people moved out of Tokyo in 2020, 4.7% more than in 2019, according to data published Friday by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication. This represents the largest outflow since comparable data first became available in 2014.

Meanwhile, people who moved in to the capital dropped 7.3% to 432,930, the smallest figure since 2014. Net inflows to Tokyo plunged 62% to 31,125.

Month by month, those moving out of outnumbered those moving in in May for the very first time since July 2013, then again from July to December. 

The trend is largely driven by the coronavirus. A Tokyo-based nonprofit that helps people relocate outside the city experienced an almost 40% jump in phone and email inquiries on the year between June and December. Many were interested in Tokyo's neighboring prefectures, like Kanagawa, according to the nonprofit.

The rise of teleworking has meant many office workers are commuting less. "We've seen more people who want to move to a better environment while still keeping their job in Tokyo," said a prefectural government staffer in Gunma, located north of Tokyo.

Traffic at a government website with resources for prospective residents has surged 50% from a year earlier.

Others have no choice but to leave.

Pay cuts and job losses due to the pandemic have forced some to consider leaving the capital for cheaper, smaller communities. "We guide people in this situation in their job search as well," said the Tokyo nonprofit, adding that those people tend to migrate to smaller cities in areas like Tohoku in Japan's northeast and Kyushu, the southernmost of the country's four main islands.

The Japanese government appears to see the exodus as an opportunity to decentralize more people, money and businesses out of the crowded capital. It will provide up to 1 million yen ($9,550) in assistance to those who continue to work for a Tokyo-based business but move elsewhere. It will also set up a new subsidy for regional governments to build the necessary infrastructure for teleworking.

Many planned moves to Tokyo, either for work or for personal reasons, have been postponed over the pandemic. Whether the trend persists depends on the long-term availability of teleworking and other employment options.

"Tokyo has seen a net inflow of people for over 20 years because of the number of full-time jobs in the city," said Kanako Amano at NLI Research Institute. "Unless more jobs become available elsewhere, it won't be easy to reduce the city's pull."

Tokyo remains an attractive option for women in particular. Last year, 21,493 women moved to the city on a net basis -- more than double the number of men.

"Women have fewer options for work in the countryside, so they tend to be more attracted to Tokyo," Amano said. "Unless more women start back to those areas, they will keep seeing a decline in marriage and birthrates, and won't experience an economic recovery."

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