Regional Areas Lose Demographic Tailwind as Pandemic Fades

The Yomiuri Shimbun

COVID-19 prompted a significant number of people to move away from Tokyo to avoid the close human contact of big-city life, effectively tapping the brakes on a long-term trend of population concentrating around the capital. But with the pandemic fading, the old population trend is reasserting itself as people return to Tokyo, according to a government survey.

The impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus disaster on population was clearly seen in Yamanashi Prefecture, a mountainous area that neighbors Tokyo to the west.

According to a survey based on Basic Resident Registration records by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, Yamanashi Prefecture had negative net migration in 2018 and 2019, meaning the number of people moving out of the prefecture exceeded the number of people moving in. In each of those years, the net outflow was about 2,000 people. However, that number declined to 809 in 2020, when COVID-19 began to spread in Japan.

The prefecture had a positive net inflow of 345 people in 2021, but it again had a net outflow of 75 in 2022 as the pandemic waned.

Growing increasingly concerned about the crisis, the prefectural government issued in June a declaration to break through the population decline crisis.

Tochigi Prefecture also saw negative net migration of 182 in 2020, only about 5% of the previous year’s figure, but it experienced a larger net decrease of 1,727 in 2022.

Similar trends were observed in Gunma and Shizuoka prefectures.

The net influx for Tokyo was 12,841 in 2021, and 31,083 in 2022, showing an increasing surplus of new citizens over those departing.

However, the figures have not reached the level of 2018 and 2019, when the number was greater than 80,000. “The situation is not completely back to where it was before the pandemic,” a ministry official said.

Local governments are expected to focus their efforts on attracting companies to their regions.

According to a tally released by private research firm Teikoku Databank Ltd. in March, 335 companies relocated their headquarters from the Tokyo metropolitan area to regional areas in 2022, making the net outflow of companies from the metropolitan area 77, the largest in the past two decades.

“As the trend of companies moving to rural areas may continue, rural areas have opportunities,” a Teikoku Databank official said.

The reality is that Japan’s low birthrate means its overall population decrease has not been halted.

According to the survey, people aged 14 or younger now account for 11.82% of Japan’s population, the lowest level ever, while those aged 65 or older account for 29.15%, the highest level ever. This reflects a gap that widens every year.

According to the ministry’s population movement report, women have outnumbered men in population inflow to Tokyo and the three neighboring prefectures of Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama for 14 consecutive years from 2009 to 2022. In the past decade, women have outnumbered men by 30%.

Conversely, men now outnumber women in rural areas. If this situation is not improved, the declining birthrate in rural areas will become even more serious.

“Rather than competing with cities for population, it is necessary for each municipality to create an environment where people can have and raise children and work in the community,” Tsuru University Prof. Takehiro Suzuki said.