Aging populations and the outflow of young people to Tokyo and other metropolises from rural parts of Japan have long made it difficult to revitalize regional economies.

But a new website for side jobs and the wider use of teleworking sparked by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus could propel hope for change.

The city of Hida in Gifu Prefecture, central Japan, has put a call out for people through the website — named Furusato Kengyo — to help rice farms expand sales of locally produced premium rice.

Furusato Kengyo, which roughly translates as “side jobs for hometowns,” recruits company employees and students with spare time to take on online side jobs in an effort to spur businesses in remote areas.

Three people joined a project to boost sales of what Hida officials call “the world’s best rice” last year. One of them is a salesman at an automobile company in neighboring Aichi Prefecture who has brought fresh ideas about marketing, sales channels and branding strategies.

“Not many of us possess a lot of knowledge on things like sales expansion, so it was good to have someone with a marketing background,” says Hida city official Shoko Ueda.

The Koshihikari brand of rice, grown in Gifu’s northernmost city, has won awards in several categories of a domestically hosted international rice competition over the years. But it has yet to reach many consumers in other parts of Japan — or the wider world.

“We wanted to make our rice known in and outside the country, but didn’t have the know-how,” Ueda, 31, says.

People with sales and business backgrounds are being encouraged to assist farm workers in Gifu Prefecture with promoting their rice. | COURTESY OF HIDA CITY / VIA KYODO
People with sales and business backgrounds are being encouraged to assist farm workers in Gifu Prefecture with promoting their rice. | COURTESY OF HIDA CITY / VIA KYODO

With a population of just over 23,000, Hida, like other towns and villages in rural Japan, has longstanding problems with a lack of workers and successors for its rice farms. And because farmers are mostly focused on day-to-day operations, they cannot afford to devote much time to thinking about new sales strategies.

About 40 percent of Hida’s population is aged 65 or over, while the average age of farmers is around 50, according to the city government.

The city hopes that raising the profile of its premium rice brand will boost the profitability of its rice farms and bring young people, whether from Hida or elsewhere, to work for them.

“We will first make the rice well known in Japan and then in the world,” Ueda says.

Most of the jobs featured on the website, some of which are unpaid, relate to primary industries or small to midsize companies, such as local building contractors and traditional craft makers.

And, as in Hida, many are aimed at promoting local products to a wider audience and conducting effective communications on social media.

Locations vary from Kyushu in southwestern Japan to the northern main island of Hokkaido, but much work can be undertaken online with site visits only occasionally needed. Travel expenses are often covered by employers.

“Local enterprises are eager to incorporate fresh ideas from skillful workers and boost manpower — even if it is for the short term,” says Shuji Minamida, head of a Gifu-based nonprofit organization that runs the website, referring to the outflow of young people from rural to urban areas.

While the populations of Tokyo and its surrounding areas continue to grow, 40 of the country’s 47 prefectures suffered a fall in their populations last year, as of October, according to government data.

According to Minamida, Furusato Kengyo has solicited help for as many as 120 projects since its inception in September 2018 and a total of around 800 people have applied for work, mostly from urban areas such as Tokyo and Osaka.

In what may signal that the side job model has a future, the number of applicants doubled in from March to April as the pandemic forced many people to stay at home and telework.

Minamida, 31, says many local small and midsize businesses have been hit hard by the coronavirus, but that he hopes the increase in applicants will be a “tailwind” for local businesses to bounce back.

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