Even as the COVID-19 outbreak has helped Japan’s industrial behemoths cobble together the necessary tools for employees to work from home, more and more Japanese city dwellers are contemplating a move to the countryside.

This isn’t a completely new trend. I-turn, U-turn and J-turn are existing economic terms to describe people who move between urban and rural environments: U-turn describes those who moved from the countryside to the city, and are now returning to their hometowns; I-turn describes those from the city moving to the countryside; while J-turn refers to people originally from the countryside who, after moving to the city, return to a place near their hometown.

Kazuo Kasami, a deputy secretary-general of Furusato Kaiki Shien Center (Center for Hometown-bound Aid), a nonprofit organization supporting those interested in making such pivots through one-on-one consultations and how-to seminars, has noted a significant increase in the number of younger people considering making the move.

Until 2008, 70 percent of queries were from people in their 50s to 70s. By 2014, over 50 percent of the organization’s queries were from people in their 20s to 40s, peaking at over 70 percent in 2018. Thanks to additional funding from the government’s Machi Hito Shigoto Sousei Honbu (Town, People, Work Development Office), queries to Furusato Kaiki Shien Center quadrupled from 12,430 in 2014 to 49,401 in 2019. Kasami says that much of the spike is due to young people understanding there are smaller cities with viable job opportunities around Japan.

Increased interest in rural living has led to the creation of a new movement pattern: the O-turn. O-turners opt for a lifestyle in which they maintain two homes ⁠— one in the countryside and one in the city ⁠— with time split relatively equally between the two.

Yoshihisa Imoto, “principal” of The Campus, an online agriculture school, is one such O-turner on a mission to change the perception of what it means to live and work in the Japanese countryside.

Raised in a small farming area in Hiroshima Prefecture, Imoto travels back and forth between Hiroshima and Tokyo, invigorating farmland that has gone derelict and developing food products based on the fruits of his harvest.

Since 2017, The Campus has produced hundreds of articles written by farmers and agri-related professionals across Japan sharing specific skills and advice about everything from traditional Japanese natural farming practices, responsible seeds, heirloom root vegetables, natural winemaking and salt harvesting. On May 9, Imoto launched the Compact Agri-life School, what was to be The Campus’ first foray into classroom-based education. After quickly transitioning back online due to COVID-19, the inaugural class will graduate upon completing 10 seminars, each led by a different farmer.

“Our future is made up of the junkan (circulation) of people moving between the city and the countryside,” says Imoto. “People who have spent time in the city have incredibly vibrant skills that are invaluable when creating this new lifestyle in the countryside. They bring with them knowledge of what consumers in the city are looking for, as well as skills such as graphic design, marketing and sales.”

Nurturing people and plants: Hiroki Kashiwagi at his farm on Awaji Island, a region known for its quality onions. | BIOAGRI
Nurturing people and plants: Hiroki Kashiwagi at his farm on Awaji Island, a region known for its quality onions. | BIOAGRI

Another O-turner, Hiroki Kashiwagi, also recognizes the importance of nurturing business skills. Originally from Yokohama, Kashiwagi’s cooperative, Bioagri, is made up of several farmers raising their own chemical- and pesticide-free fruits and vegetables, sharing information, equipment and distribution routes as necessary. His 14 employees, including interns, mostly hail from Tokyo’s 23 wards, and Kashiwagi teaches each team member the basic how-to’s of living in the countryside, from how to rent a home, plant onions and market a carrot. From its base on Awaji Island, the largest island in the Seto Inland Sea, Bioagri sells approximately 200 different microvarietals direct to consumers, cutting out middlemen and reducing the time produce spends languishing in storage.

While the number of people interested in moving to the countryside — given the allure of larger living spaces, more time spent with family and easy access to nature — will likely increase, Kasami says that he foresees concerns raised by local residents and officials in some regions, who will remain wary of new people moving into their communities in the wake of COVID-19. Whether the burgeoning O-turn model will prove to mitigate concerns, or increase opposition, is yet to be seen.

Nevertheless, there’s a strong argument to be made that Japan — and Tokyo in particular — needs to decentralize in order to persevere beyond COVID-19, future pandemics and ecological emergencies. Ultimately, Kashiwagi suggests it’s an opportunity to learn how to contribute to our daily fare that would “provide not only a means of survival, but also a richness to life.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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