TOKYO — When the coronavirus outbreak caused rice and instant noodles to disappear from supermarket shelves in Tokyo this year, Kaoru Okada, 36, decided to leave the capital because he was worried about food security.
Okada settled in the central Japanese city of Saku, Nagano prefecture, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) northwest of Tokyo, maintaining his online retail and export business while growing vegetables in shared farms and threshing rice.
"I moved out of Tokyo in June as soon as the domestic travel ban was lifted, thinking now is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Okada told Reuters. "Living close to a food-producing center and connections with farmers give me a sense of security."
As the pandemic has pushed many companies to allow telecommuting, it has also caused population to flow out of Tokyo - the first time that has happened in years, the latest government data showed.
The shift could boost Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who made revitalizing Japan's decaying rural regions a core plank of his socioeconomic platform.
In September, 30,644 people moved out of Tokyo, up 12.5% year-on-year, while the number moving in fell 11.7% to 27,006, the data showed.
It was the third straight month the those moving out outnumbered those moving in, the longest run on record, led by people in their 20s and 30s.
Mizuto Yamamoto, 31, now uses telecommuting to skip Tokyo's jam-packed morning trains.
An employee at staffing firm Caster Co, he moved about 150 km (93 miles) west of Tokyo to Hokuto in the mountainous Yamanashi prefecture last year with his wife and 2-year-old son.
"It was good to move to quiet areas like Hokuto surrounded by rivers, the Southern Alps and Mt. Fuji," Yamamoto told Reuters. "There's no crowd of people, which reduces the virus risks."
NOT CLINGING TO TOKYO
Premier Suga, from rural Akita prefecture in the north, made the revitalization of Japan's countryside one of his key goals.
Despite a lack of jobs and infrastructure to support them, local governments and businesses have been trying for years – largely in vain - to draw more people to rural areas.
Hidetoshi Yuzawa, an official in Iida, Nagano Prefecture, said Nagano is among the most popular places to migrate because of how much support, including mentors, it offers newcomers.
With help from Iida, Mio Nanjo, a 41-year-old pastry chef, is renovating a traditional house into a cafe, which she plans to open in the town of Matsukawa next spring.
A single mother of three, Nanjo moved from an area southwest of Tokyo this summer after the pandemic shut down the confectionery where she was working and her son lost his job at a truck maker.
"The move allowed me to start all over again," Nanjo told Reuters. "There's no point of clinging to Tokyo, where there are crowds and many people commit suicide."
Jobs are also leaving the city.
A major staffing firm, Pasona Group Inc, said in September it would move its headquarters and 1,200 employees to Awaji island off Kobe, western Japan, the home of 68-year-old chief executive Yasuyuki Nambu.
The lockdowns this spring were a decisive factor, Nambu said, adding that the trend would continue as companies and employees changed their mindsets about work-life balance.
"Regional society is stress-free, and you can live a life rich in delicious foods and activities such as fishing and farming," Nambu told Reuters.
Other firms, such as Caster, have already based their business model on telecommuting, making it easy to hire workers by offering jobs wherever they are, said Shota Nakagawa, 34, CEO of the company in the southern Japanese city of Saito.
"Workers can avoid commuting on rush-hour trains and companies can spare transportation costs and reduce office space, all of which will improve profits," Nakagawa said.
But in Saku, Okada, the online business owner, has no intention of living there forever - although that doesn't mean he'll move back to Tokyo.
"As long as I can work anywhere, I will keep hopping to find a place best suited to my life at the time," he said.