Trends in Japan

Life in the Country Beckons Urban Dwellers

JULY 1, 1996

(Photo: Recruit Co.)
"U-Turn, I-Turn employment fair" in Tokyo enjoyed more than 4,000 visitors.

A growing number of people are leaving the cities in search of a better life in the country. The mini migration, which has gathered force over the past few years, has been named "I-turn" to contrast with an earlier phenomenon called "U-turn." The difference is that the current flow does not represent a backtrack to hometowns, as was the case with the U-turn, but a single-directional push out of urban areas.

New Farming Schools a Hit among City Dwellers
Hoping to lure urban white collar workers to farming occupations, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries recently established eight agricultural vocational schools in Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka. The curriculum features a basic course on farming that meets once a month for half a year and a course on methods for cultivating specific crops that meets four times a month for a quarter or half year.

The schools have proved immensely popular among people from all walks of life, from young men and women to middle-aged businesspeople and homemakers. Total enrollment is already as high as 2,000. Students comment that the schools have made farming an option for them, even though they live in a city.

Meanwhile, in May about 4,000 people, many of them young, turned out for a "U-turn, I-turn employment fair" in Tokyo organized by an employment information company. About 200 small-town firms were there to distribute corporate brochures and employment applications, but the real focus of attention were the booths for farming and dairy farming. Among the people gathered there, some explained their interest in farming as an escape from the rigidities of a job in the city, and others said they wanted to be near nature for the sake of their children's health.

Golden Opportunity for Depopulated Areas
At the end of 1995 the National Institute of Japanese Islands, composed of island cities, towns, and villages, organized a fair in Tokyo to provide information on settling in the country's outlying islands. The two-day event drew an estimated 9,000 people and prompted the creation of an organization for people interested in such a move. In the short time since its inception, 660 people have registered as members.

In response to the burgeoning interest in country life, depopulated cities, towns, and villages have hammered out policies aimed at encouraging urban dwellers to relocate. In the fiscal 1995 year ending March 1996, 469 subsidies for constructing homes or outright offers of housing in these areas and 285 employment-related subsidies were made available, according to the National Land Agency. Reportedly, the number of people receiving such subsidies through such routes has shot up four- to six-fold in the past two years.

Employment Changes Enhance Attractiveness of Country Life
Behind the recent popularity of life in the country is the growing concern about preserving the environment, a desire to be near nature, and a heightened concern about maintaining health. However, an equally important factor is the growing belief that life in the city is not worth putting up with for the sake of a job.

One of the main reasons for this is the deterioration of employment opportunities in the wake of the post-bubble recession. Because of the caps companies have placed on new hiring, a growing number of young people have not been able to find work. According to a Ministry of Education survey of students graduating from junior college and universities and looking for work, 10.6%, or 76,000, had still not found a job as of March 1, just before graduation. This was 4,000 more than the preceding year.

The breakdown of traditional employment practices is another factor. The Japanese employment system, distinguished by such policies as lifetime employment and seniority-based pay, set the stage for the post-World War II period of rapid expansion. However, slowing growth, an aging population, and a stronger yen have caused personnel costs to spiral, thereby eating away at profits. Faced with this situation, companies have been forced to reexamine their employment systems, and the upshot has been the spread of early retirement incentives, the increasing elimination of age-based pay raises, and a growing move toward downsizing. And this in turn has shaken the belief that security lies in working for a big company in a big city.

Meanwhile, depopulated towns and villages have realized the limits of their revitalization policies, which until now have been aimed at bringing back residents who moved to the cities. As a result, they have shifted toward welcoming all people, regardless of whether they are from the locale or not.

Such trends have had the combined effect of increasing the flow of people from the cities to the country. However, only time can tell whether the flow will turn into a flood or peter out. A desire to take refuge from the city and live in an idyllic country setting does not guarantee success. A host of issues confront the I-turn crowd in their new homes, including job satisfaction, adequacy of income, and, not least of all, whether they like and can win acceptance by the local community.

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