With the spread of the novel coronavirus forcing companies to significantly increase the adoption of remote work, some Tokyoites are starting to wonder if living in the capital is really worth it.

Tokyo may be the center of politics, businesses and culture, but its downsides include high rent, rush hour trains and lack of spacious housing, to name a few.

A drastic shift to telework is giving workers less reason to live in the city, putting the brakes on its ever-growing population — the capital houses about 11 percent of the nation’s population — in a slowdown that could ease the overconcentration that has been a problem for years.

“As part of work-style reforms the government had been leading efforts toward staggered commutes and telecommuting, but it did not bear much fruit,” said real estate analyst Kazuyuki Yamashita. “Then came the coronavirus and telework skyrocketed, and that’s pushing people to live far away from the cities.”

The trend is already visible in statistics. The population in the Tokyo metropolitan area, which includes the prefectures of Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama and has been steadily increasing for years, saw a negative change in July for the first time since at least July 2013, Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry data showed.

Since May, Tokyo’s population, which has grown 840,000 in the past decade, has been plateauing in a new trend, a senior metropolitan government official said.

June typically registers a net gain of around 10,000 people, due to a steady inflow of younger generations. But this year the population fell by 3,405 as of June 1, the figures showed, marking the first decline for the month since the data was first recorded in 1956. After a slight rise in July, the population again dipped by 5,903 to 13,993,721 as of Aug. 1.

“As measures to prevent the spread of the virus would probably take years, telework is likely to take root as a new basic work style, and that’s providing a huge tailwind for decentralization away from the overconcentration in Tokyo,” said Kazuma Komiya, Mizuho Research Institute’s senior manager in the firm’s project research and advisory department.

“Backed by the central government’s local community revitalization assistance, there had been a rise in people’s interest in moving to regional areas from the city — but that had been dwarfed by the inflow of younger generations who came to Tokyo for new jobs or universities,” Komiya explained. “But the coronavirus has put a stop to the young people coming to Tokyo.”

Ad-promote Co.'s new headquarters in Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture | COURTESY OF AD-PROMOTE CO.
Ad-promote Co.’s new headquarters in Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture | COURTESY OF AD-PROMOTE CO.

Listings for second-hand houses in Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture, recently topped rankings for the biggest increase in page views on Recruit Group’s Suumo real estate information portal following the coronavirus pandemic, reflecting a rise in people’s interests to live farther away from the heart of Tokyo.

“Kisarazu is a one- to one-and-a-half-hour train ride from Tokyo and a one-hour drive from Tokyo on the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line expressway,” real estate analyst Yamashita said. “Second-hand houses in the Shonan area, in Kanagawa Prefecture, are roughly the same distance and time from Tokyo but cost nearly twice as much.”

On a similar note, suburbs in the metropolitan area, such as Hashimoto in Kanagawa Prefecture, Hachioji in western Tokyo and Omiya in Saitama Prefecture, are likely to gain popularity as possible choices to move away from more convenient and costly places such as Shimokitazawa in the heart of Tokyo, Yamashita said.

Property preferences are also shifting, with homes in areas further away from their nearest stations drawing more attention.

“The price of an apartment in a complex within a five-minute walk from the station could differ by 30 or 40 percent from one 15 minutes away on foot,” he said. “If it’s 15 minutes away, you could buy a house that’s about a third larger in space, and where children can run around in a more hospitable green neighborhood.”

The mindset is similar for businesses, too, and moving offices outside Tokyo, or even further, is also becoming an attractive option for them.

AIS Co. Ltd., a Tokyo-based accounting system provider for maritime firms, is one example. In August, AIS opened a satellite office in a shared office in the city of Shizuoka, about 180 kilometers southwest of the capital.

“We expect to save 80 percent on office costs by setting up a satellite office in Shizuoka compared with expanding the office space in Tokyo,” AIS President Hiroshi Oura said.

The new headquarters of Ad-promote Co. in Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture | COURTESY OF AD-PROMOTE CO.
The new headquarters of Ad-promote Co. in Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture | COURTESY OF AD-PROMOTE CO.

Oura has hired six new staff members to expand operations and plans to hire around four more in the near future, at a time when companies nationwide are slashing jobs amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

One of his employees who lived in Ibaraki Prefecture has already moved to Shizuoka, near the office, and another is commuting from Yokohama via shinkansen in a little over an hour.

Subsidies offered by local governments to move offices to their cities, towns and villages may also be facilitating the outflow.

Shizuoka has been offering a campaign encouraging companies in the metropolitan area to move to the city, and AIS became the first company to set up a satellite office there this year, said Yui Okudaira, a Shizuoka Municipal Government official.

The city, which touts a tremendous view of Mount Fuji, is also offering an all-expenses-paid campaign to have people try out telework for one day.

Though the campaign was halted in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak in April through June, six people have taken up the offer since July, Okudaira said. Three businesses, including AIS, have set up satellite offices in Shizuoka in the past three years, she added.

Ad-promote Co.'s new headquarters in Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture | COURTESY OF AD-PROMOTE CO.
Ad-promote Co.’s new headquarters in Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture | COURTESY OF AD-PROMOTE CO.

“Businesses say there’s good talent in Shizuoka, and they can curb office rents significantly compared with the Tokyo metropolitan area,” Okudaira said. “The companies also cite the convenience of an one-hour ride via shinkansen from Tokyo and the need to address business continuity planning as reasons for picking Shizuoka.”

Some companies, like digital marketing firm Overflow Inc., even decided to get rid of their Tokyo offices altogether, to save costs.

Major IT firm Fujitsu Ltd. has decided to halve office space within the next two and a half years and push employees to work from home on a long-term basis regardless of the virus.

“If you need to commute only once a week or once a month, people may tolerate a commute of one, two or even three hours, and they may possibly be prompted to commute via shinkansen in some cases,” real estate analyst Yamashita said. “It could force a radical change in people’s behavior to choose homes in areas more distant from work.”

Internet advertising Ad-promote Co. closed its headquarters in the bustling Dogenzaka area near JR Shibuya Station in Tokyo and moved to Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture, in May, having its employees work from home.

The move saved fixed costs, such as office rent and transportation expenses, by about 30 percent, according to the firm’s CEO, Hideki Yoshida. It also prompted him to terminate an apartment contract in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area.

“Because we are an IT company we have made a smooth transition to working remotely, and the performance of the company has not deteriorated so far without a foothold in Tokyo,” Yoshida said. “There has been no inconvenience, and I’m sure that someday a day will come when there’s no need to set up an office in Tokyo.”

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