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Towns with Shrinking Populations are Attracting New Residents and Workers with Multiple-Job System

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Koya Shimizu,left, puts labels on sake bottles for shipment in Oguni, Yamagata Prefecture, on Nov. 20. He works at a ryokan inn in summer.

More and more rural regions with shrinking populations are setting up a special cooperative to increase their working population by providing employment through seasonal jobs throughout the year for each worker, in hopes that new people will eventually settle there.

The number of co-ops was 5 in 4 total prefectures in fiscal 2020 when the system was inaugurated. As of Dec. 1, 2023, there are now 92 co-ops in 35 prefectures.

Mainly in mountainous areas and on remote islands, these co-ops give work to new residents by employing and dispatching them to different workplaces seasonally, like brewing sake in winter and working at a local ryokan inn in summer.

The special cooperative system was established based on a relevant law that was put into effect in June 2020. Each co-op is set up with funding by small and midsize companies which pays the salaries to its employees. As a special measure, they are exempt from requiring central governmental approval, which is usually required under the law for temporary staffing services and can dispatch employees by notification alone.

Jobs in busy seasons

At the snowy town of Oguni, Yamagata Prefecture, the local special co-op Oguni Multi Work Jigyo Kyodo Kumiai, was established in 2021 and currently has 17 member businesses, such as a ryokan and a ski slope operator. It has employed nine people, including new residents, each working at two or more workplaces during their busy seasons.

On Nov. 20, Koya Shimizu, 27, from Gunma Prefecture, and Kunihiko Tada, 38, from Yamanobe, Yamagata Prefecture, were working at the Sakuragawa Sake Brewing Co., putting labels on sake bottles and cleaning containers in preparation for shipment.

They engage in sake production in winter, while in the summer Shimizu works at an inn and Tada helps with sake rice farming. Both say they want to contribute to producing quality sake and are considering settling in the area.

Indefinite employment

Yuto Yoshida, 29, the co-op’s representative director, is also a new resident of Oguni. Originally from Saitama Prefecture, he lived in Tokyo as a university student and company employee before becoming interested in the town’s sake rice farming and the “matagi” bear hunters of northern Japan. He was active from 2018 for three years as a member of a local revitalization team under the nationwide system called Chiiki Okoshi Kyoryoku-tai.

The town’s population is about 6,800 — half of what it was about 50 years ago. After completing his three-year term, Yoshida decided to stay, saying “If there are fewer people, there are fewer jobs, and if there are fewer jobs, there are fewer young people, which makes it harder to create new jobs. I want to break the negative cycle,” and worked to set up the co-op.

While the revitalization team system provides fixed-term employment of up to three years, the special co-op system offers indefinite employment. In addition, half of the operating and personnel costs are covered by central and local governmental subsidies.

“We want to have more member companies from various fields [in the co-op] so people can have more job options,” Yoshida said.

Subsidies for 92 cooperatives

The system is based on a project run by the tourism association of Ama, a town located on one of the Oki Islands in Shimane Prefecture.

The project attracted attention with its solution to a local labor shortage: providing new residents with jobs in different busy seasons, such as working in ryokans and fishing. The project was also approved as a co-op when the system was established by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry in fiscal 2020.

“We want more people to maintain their ties with our town after visiting or living here, in addition to attracting new residents,” said Misaki Tejima, 23, an employee at the co-op office.

According to the ministry, 421 people were employed through the co-op system nationwide by Oct. 1, of whom 60% are in their 20s and 30s, and 70% are new residents.

In fiscal 2023, as of Dec. 1, 92 of these co-ops received a total of ¥431.8 million from the central government for operational and personnel costs.

The system also aims to have new residents eventually be employed as full-time workers by local companies or start their own businesses.

The ministry’s regional development office says it hopes to “create a cycle in which human resources settle in each region.”

Prof. Tokumi Odagiri, a specialist in regional governance, of Meiji University’s School of Agriculture, said: “It is important not just to treat them as workers, but also to show them the appeal of each region and encourage them to contribute to its revitalization.”