Regional Japan cities promoting ‘trial moves’

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Takashi and Mari Hatano, center, are shown around by municipal government officials on a shopping street in Matsuyama.

MATSUYAMA — With more people interested in living in regional cities amid the coronavirus pandemic, municipalities with shrinking populations are increasingly trying to encourage people to move there on a trial basis.

Some are offering significant incentives, such as having municipal officials show people around and subsidizing accommodation and transportation costs.

“If they come, they’ll understand the beauty of our city,” a municipal government official said.

On Nov. 22, Takashi Hatano, a 54-year-old company executive in Kawasaki, and his wife Mari, a 49-year-old company employee, were eating at the long-established Kotori udon restaurant in central Matsuyama. They were having nabeyaki udon noodles served in an aluminum pot, a specialty of the city.

“The sweet flavor of the broth is unique to Matsuyama,” said Shusuke Shiraishi, 38, a municipal official who was showing them around. The couple replied that the food was delicious and they liked the mild flavor.

The Hatanos were participating in a tour to sample life in Matsuyama that the city government started in fiscal 2020. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Matsuyama has not been able to hold traditional bus tours to guide a large number of people hoping to move to the city. It therefore started a “concierge service,” in which two municipal government officials accompany and guide each group of potential new residents.

The tour is an overnight stay in principle and participants can decide where to go. The municipal government provides up to ¥50,000 to subsidize accommodation, airplane tickets and other expenses. Visitors can also use a taxi to travel around the city for free.

Mari’s parents live in Tokyo and are now elderly. When the couple started planning to live with them, they came up with the idea of moving to Ehime Prefecture, where Mari’s parents come from. They were also encouraged by the fact that Mari is now teleworking.

“We were able to learn things that would have been difficult to find out on our own. The city is compact and it seems easy to live here,” Mari said after visiting a shopping street and a supermarket.

Matsuyama’s population has continued to decline after peaking at 517,411 in December 2010. It has since dropped by about 12,000 to 505,131 as of November 2021.

“Matsuyama is not too urban or too rural. We want to emphasize a convenient life in a balanced environment,” Shiraishi said.

More and more people are interested in moving to regional cities, partly due to the spread of teleworking.

The monthly magazine Inaka Gurashi no Hon (Book for living in rural areas), which has been published since 1987, introduces properties in regional cities and the lives of people who move there. Monthly sales of the magazine jumped by 20-50% from a year earlier in each month of 2020. The digital edition launched in December 2019 is also popular, and the number of readers has grown to five times the initial level.

Also on the rise is the number of people moving to regional cities. Many municipalities saw a record influx in fiscal 2020 when the coronavirus spread. Kagawa Prefecture saw 2,721 people move there in fiscal 2020, up 751 from fiscal 2019. Ehime Prefecture welcomed 2,460 people, up 551 from the previous fiscal year, and Fukui Prefecture took in 1,004 people, up 184.

In contrast, Tokyo’s population declined by 39,000 over the period from April 2020 to October 2021.

Avoiding mismatches

Some municipalities are working to avoid mismatches in which new residents lament the gap between reality and the life they envisioned. There are people, for example, who are taken aback at being asked to participate in local events or find that the agricultural work they’ve newly begun is tougher than they expected.

Since April 2018, the city of Kochi has been calling for “two-phase moves,” in which potential new residents first live in relatively urban cities in the prefecture and then find their final homes in other parts of Kochi Prefecture. This is intended to get people used to life in regional cities.

The Kochi municipal government has created videos on this issue and posted them on YouTube.

Kochi provides subsidies of up to ¥200,000 for the cost of moving to the city and up to ¥20,000 to cover rental car fees to look around. As of October this year, 232 people in 131 groups had received the subsidies. Some families raising children moved from Kochi to surrounding municipalities, as they felt that the entire community there would watch over children.

Since fiscal 2018, the Wakayama prefectural government has conducted a program under which participants stay one to five nights in the prefecture and experience various jobs such as farming mikan mandarins, making washi paper by hand, and brokering tuna.

Currently, 152 businesses are registered with the program, and some people have found a job after participating, according to the prefecture. Wakayama Prefecture also has a system to allow potential new residents to talk with people who have already come to the prefecture and ask about their concerns.

“We want to help potential new residents understand life in Wakayama Prefecture and resolve the gap between reality and their imagination, so they can settle here easily,” said a prefectural government official responsible for the program.

Furusato Kaiki Shien Center. a Tokyo-based certified nonprofit organization, helps people move to regional cities.

“When it comes to living in regional cities, many things are unclear until people actually start to live there,” said Hiroshi Takahashi, the director of the nonprofit organization. “So, it’s important for them to take careful steps such as ‘trial moves.’ Municipalities also need to provide information on both the positive and negative aspects, so that people hoping to move to their cities can consider whether they’ll fit in there.”