Coronavirus halts Japanese population's migration to Tokyo

After years of growth, Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures are now home to 37 million people. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Japan has been trying for years to stop Tokyo from gobbling up more and more of the nation's shrinking population, to no avail. Now, the coronavirus appears to have done what no government policy could: get people to stop moving into the world's biggest city.

The greater Tokyo area lost 1,459 residents last month, snapping an 84-month streak of net move-ins that was unbroken since the data started in July 2013, the ministry of internal affairs reported last week.

After years of growth, Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures are now home to 37 million people, which is more than a quarter of the country's population.

While the virus may have helped some people see the virtue of not living in a densely built city that's slowly swallowing the nation, one month of population outflow during a pandemic probably isn't the start of a trend.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who announced his resignation last week, tried for years to revive regional economies by boosting tourism, but it wasn't enough to stop young people from leaving in search of better paying jobs.

The Tokyo metropolitan area has grown by 710,000 people in the last seven years and the numbers are larger if you include neighbouring Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa prefectures, which make up the rest of the greater Tokyo area.

Meantime, the country's overall population has shrunk by 1.4 million to about 126 million.

With Tokyo recording about 30 per cent of Japan's total virus cases, the city has gotten its share of bad press during the pandemic.

These days, Tokyoites are often unwelcome in other parts of the country. Concern the virus might spread from the capital even caused the central government to exclude the city from a national campaign of travel discounts this summer.

Still, the drop in Tokyo's population last month probably has less to do with fear than with the simple fact that this is no time to be relocating anywhere.

Move-ins to the city dropped 13 per cent in July, compared with the previous year. Move-outs also fell, by 1.5 per cent. The data doesn't take into account population change due to births and deaths.

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