Japan: Tokyo is so crowded that the government pays families to leave


Japan is offering to pay families to leave its overcrowded capital, in a bid to revitalize rural towns and spur a declining birth rate.

From April, families in the Tokyo metropolitan area, including those headed by single parents, will be able to receive 1 million yen ($7,700) per child if they move to less populated areas of the country, according to a spokesman for the central government.

Incentives apply to children under 18 or dependents 18 and older if still in high school.

It’s not the first time the government has tried to use financial incentives to entice people to leave, but this plan is more generous at three times the amount currently on offer.

For decades, people in Japan have migrated to its urban centers in search of job opportunities. Tokyo is the most populous city in the country, with approximately 37 million inhabitants.

A crowd outside restaurants near Tokyo's Miyashita Park on May 22, 2022.

Before the Covid pandemic, the number of people moving to Tokyo outnumbered those leaving the city by up to 80,000 each year, according to government statistics released in 2021.

But this pattern of migration, combined with Japan’s rapidly aging population, has left rural towns with fewer and fewer people, as well as millions of unoccupied homes. More than half of the nation’s municipalities, excluding Tokyo’s 23 wards, are expected to be designated as underpopulated areas in 2022, according to a national census.

Meanwhile, in major cities, space quickly ran out and prices soared. Tokyo is still one of the most expensive cities in the world, ranking fifth in the world in 2022.

This problem, the migration of young people from the countryside to overcrowded cities, is a key factor in Japan’s broader demographic crisis, experts say. The country has long struggled with low birth rates and long life expectancies, and has seen the number of deaths exceed the number of births in recent years.

Experts point to several factors: the high cost of living, limited space and lack of childcare services in cities make it difficult to raise children, which means fewer couples are having children. Urban couples are also often estranged from extended family who could help support them.

For example, Tokyo has the lowest fertility rate of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Current migration patterns result in deserted hometowns with few children. In the riverside village of Nagoro in southern Japan, there were fewer than 30 residents in 2019, with the youngest resident being over 50. The only school in the village closed a few years ago after its last students graduated.

To combat these problems, the authorities launched an initiative in 2019 to attract people to regional areas.

Under the plan, people who have lived and worked in the Tokyo metropolitan area for at least five years could receive 600,000 yen ($4,500) if they moved to rural areas. This incentive is higher for couples, at 1 million yen ($7,700).

Last year, the government allowed single parents or couples with children to receive 300,000 yen ($2,300) per child if they moved.

Those who move could work in this region, start their own business or continue to work remotely in their Tokyo-based jobs, the government spokesman said.

“Tokyo has a very high concentration of people, and the government wants to increase the flow of people to regional areas to revitalize areas with declining populations,” he added.

There is evidence that the program is gaining momentum, although the numbers are still low. In the first year of launch, only 71 households participated, compared to 1,184 households in 2021.

The Japanese government has also made other efforts to address population decline, including introducing policies in recent decades to improve childcare services and improve housing for families with children. Some rural communes have even started paying the couples who live there to have children.

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