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Tokyo population growth flattens as telecommuters exit

Pandemic spurs drop in foreign population on travel ban

A work space in the resort town of Karuizawa operated by Mitsubishi Estate. Karuizawa saw an net population increase of 595.

TOKYO -- The population growth in the greater Tokyo area slowed significantly in 2020, government data released Wednesday shows, as the spread of remote work kept people away from the capital and other big cities in Japan. 

The combined population of Japan's three big urban areas of Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya fell last year for the first time since data was first released in 2013. The three regions totaled 66.4 million people as of Jan. 1, just over half of the nationwide population.

The greater Tokyo area grew by just 26,323 for a gain of 0.07%, down roughly 110,000 from a year ago. The Nagoya area and the Kansai region -- which includes Osaka, Kyoto and nearby prefectures -- both saw larger declines than in the previous year.

The decrease reflects economic and social changes wrought by the pandemic as people embraced telework. Japan had seen a rapid concentration of people and resources in the capital in recent years, though whether the shift proves to be lasting or just a blip remains to be seen.

Japan's total population declined by nearly 500,000 last year to 126.65 million, as the number of foreigners shrank for the first time in seven years. The drop was the steepest since foreign nationals were added to the survey in 2013.

Tokyo remained one of only five prefectures that gained Japanese national residents in 2020. The capital's three neighboring prefectures of Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama also produced increases, as did Okinawa, which logged the steepest rise at 0.35%.

In previous years, net migration by Japanese citizens into Tokyo offset natural declines in the capital's population. Those migration gains for 2020 shrank by 27,000, or roughly one-third. Japan's internal affairs ministry, which released the data, attributed the drop to changing lifestyles as an increase in telework spurred people to relocate.

Many of those steering clear of Tokyo amid the pandemic settled far outside urban centers. The mountain resort town of Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture added 595 people via migration, the largest increase of any town and the second highest in percentage terms.

Towns such as Minamiminowa in Nagano, Hisayama in Fukuoka Prefecture and Kikuyo in Kumamoto Prefecture gained Japanese nationals for a third straight year, thanks to factors including policies and facilities to help parents raise children and efforts to attract companies.

"If outlying areas want to attract transplants, they need to take medium- to long-term measures such as expanding child-rearing and health care [support], and partnering with companies to support remote work by employees," said Mitsu Inagaki of Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

Japan's citizen population shrank for a 12th straight year to 123.84 million, though the drop was smaller than 2019's record fall. Net migration of Japanese nationals into the country clocked in at an all-time high of about 102,000 as outmigration fell by half from the previous survey.

But 300,000 fewer foreigners moved into the country in 2020 than in 2019, which the ministry chalked up to pandemic-related entry restrictions and avoidance of travel.

Only 13 of Japan's 47 prefectures added more foreign residents, compared with 46 a year earlier. Resort areas that employ many foreign workers, such as the town of Kutchan in Hokkaido and village of Hakuba in Nagano, saw their populations shrink as the pandemic crushed the tourism industry.

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