No significant changes in Tokyo migration flows

The spread of the novel coronavirus has forced people to drastically change their lifestyles. The promotion of teleworking to avoid the “Three C’s” (closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings) is a part of such change. As a result, people have less need to commute, less need to live in the center of cites, and it has been reported that more people are moving to rural areas.

However, an analysis of population data shows that such large changes are not happening.

Before analyzing migration flows in Tokyo, we need to define where Tokyo refers to. Here, let us consider two areas separately; one is the so-called Greater Tokyo Area, which consists of Tokyo Metropolis, and the prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba, and the other is the 23 special wards of Tokyo Metropolis.

In the Greater Tokyo Area, in-migration has been consistently in excess of out-migration since a period of high economic growth, though its degree temporarily declined following the oil crisis, the bursting of the bubble economy, and the financial crisis. As the mono-polar concentration of population in Tokyo has been continuing over the long term, Tokyo has expanded its urban area by suburbanizing neighboring prefectures.

On the other hand, looking at the inside of the Greater Tokyo Area, following the end of the bubble economy until the mid-1990s there had been an excessive outflow from the 23 special-ward area and an excessive inflow into the suburbs of neighboring prefectures. This is known as the doughnut effect, meaning that the center of a city becomes hollowed out while the surrounding areas become suburbanized.

However, since the late 1990s, the population of the 23 special-ward area has shifted to one with an excess of in-migration. The population of the 23 special-ward area had been on a decreasing trend for a long time following World War II, so this population recovery has gained a lot of attention.

The reason for this turnabout is the active construction of condominiums in such area, particularly in its coastal areas, and house prices have become more affordable. Therefore, people who had been moving out to the suburbs in order to find affordable housing began to stay in the 23 special-ward area, and as a result, the population outflow has been limited.

People often say that there is a “tendency to return to the city center” based on population recovery in the 23 special-ward area, but it should be noted that this does not mean that there has been a significant population reverse flow from the suburbs to the 23 special-ward area. However, in the sense that capital investment that had been focused on suburb development has shifted to (re-) development in the city center, the phrase “tendency to return to the city center” may be correct.

The COVID-19 pandemic which started in 2020 has led to an increase in teleworking, and the media has reported on migration to rural areas and relocation to the suburbs. So far, however, the data shows no significant changes in migration trends. The mono-polar concentration of population in the Greater Tokyo Area and the excess of in-migration to the 23 special-ward area still continue.

It is certainly true that the number of people who moved into the Greater Tokyo Area decreased in 2020. This is thought to be due to a temporary decrease in the number of young people, especially those in their 20s, who move to the Greater Tokyo Area for further education or employment. On the other hand, the number of people moving out of the Greater Tokyo Area has not increased, and there are not so many people moving away into the countryside.

Looking at the number of people who have moved out of the 23 special-ward area, many are in the age range of 0-4 or are in their 30s or 40s. It is believed that the current child-rearing house-hunting generation have given up on buying a home in the 23 special-ward area, where prices have soared since the 2010s, and, in consideration of their working environment at home, are instead moving out to neighboring suburbs, where housing is more affordable.

However, it is not the case that the COVID-19 crisis has had no impact; rather it has triggered the spread of teleworking and online communication.

This will lead to changes in the way we work and the way we live, as well as how workplaces should be and how a city should be.

Accelerating development of an information society prompted by COVID-19

Although teleworking and online communication started before the COVID-19 pandemic, they have quickly spread since the pandemic began. In other words, the pandemic has pushed and accelerated the progress of the information society.

Originally, it was manufacturing industries that were supporting Japan’s high economic growth after World War II, but social structures began to change from around the time of the collapse of the bubble economy.

For example, computers were once a tool used by just a few people, but, in the mid-1990s, when an operating system that anyone could easily use was released, personal computers and the Internet became widespread. Then, in the 2010s, the trend toward mobility and high speed rapidly accelerated.

Personal computers were used not only as tools to for processing various data but also as terminals for the Internet, which created an environment where anyone could send and receive information. This represented a societal shift, the so-called “From things to information.”

While the information society has enabled a smooth introduction of teleworking as a COVID-19 countermeasure, we cannot forecast how far people’s ways of working and living will change.

For example, being able to work through teleworking and online communication has broadened options for working. I think many people welcome it because they can choose their working hours and workplace location at their own discretion.

On the other hand, it has also become clear that it enables employers to robotize and shift their operations offshore. This means that there is no need to place limited human resources on work through communication that can be manualized.

In other words, the importance of work which requires communication that cannot be replaced online or manualized has been rediscovered.

With these points in mind, there is a possibility that new population movements will appear.

For example, the work of global elites who are responsible for decision-making and creativity, and intellectual workers who are called symbolic analysts, requires spontaneous thinking, such as improvisation and the transmission of tacit knowledge that cannot be translated into language. Moreover, this is often inspired by an atmosphere where people with various ideas can freely talk face-to-face and use physical communication that mobilizes all five senses.

Therefore, it is difficult to facilitate their work online, and there is a risk of separating out the people who can attend online and those who cannot, as well as those people who can meet in person and those who cannot. Due to this, such people may tend to live in a city where they can secure contact opportunities to work.

On the other hand, among white-collar jobs, roles that have a clear division of duties and are placed in a hierarchical command system seem to have a high affinity with teleworking. Furthermore, if they can telework full-time they become totally location-free, and do not have to live in a city or its suburbs in order to commute.

If they need to physically come to work several times a week, then living in two places is an option. In some cases, they can participate in cross-border work from overseas, and if they are foreigners, they will not be asked about their residence status. This will also enable nomadic work whereby move from place to place. In any case, it seems that a relatively free style of working and living is achievable.

But, this applies only as far as workplace communication is formal and can be done online. With the progress of the information society, questions arise as to whether such jobs will continue to exist in companies, or even in Japan. As a good example of this, just remember the fact that factory automation and overseas relocation has occurred time and time again at manufacturing sites.

In addition, those who are engaged in labor-intensive and supplementary jobs, such as support workers, will be forced to accept low-wage employment because of the increasing employment of temporary or foreign workers.

Many of their jobs are concentrated in cities, and they are obliged to live in cities close to their workplaces because their jobs, which involve physical labor, cannot exactly be done online.

People living in cities can then be divided into two groups: elites who live in enclaves in the heart of a city and those people who live in marginal areas where housing costs are low.

Gentrification refers to the redevelopment of poor communities into clean, secure, and safe communities preferred by the elite. This can result in depriving lower income workers of places where they have lived for many years.

In the United States and other parts of the world, a social structure has already emerged where wealth is concentrated in a rich segment of the population that makes up a tiny proportion of the total population. As social disparities widen, spatial segregation is becoming more prominent, and I am concerned that this tendency will become stronger in Japan as well.

How to correct these disparities will continue to be a major social issue.

The meaning of the existence of cities will not be lost

Now, let us think again about what a city is. Looking back at human history, cities are places where diverse people gather, where various information and knowledge are exchanged, and from where new developments are born and returned to the public.

In other words, cities are built as places where diverse people can come into close contact, and this is what gives a city its vitality.

The advance of the information society has made it possible to virtualize such cities, and the COVID-19 pandemic has boosted this.

Amid this process, however, it has been recognized that real communication is important for creativity. This applies not only to creative people and elites.

For example, in the downtown areas of Tokyo, a variety of people have started to gather and form networks centered on vacant houses and shops. These networks are also a movement for people who want to find their own identity, motivation, purpose in life, and contribution so as to create their own place.

When people think of creation and innovation, they tend to think of them as large things which turn societies upside down, but things that are more familiar to us can lead to things that enrich our lives.

In this sense, I would like to pay attention to the roles played by face-to-face networks in the midst of the progressing information society.

I think that such networks will help people find their place.

In that regard, I think that even if the shape of cities changes, the meaning of their existence will not.

* The information contained herein is current as of June 2021.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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