Has Tokyo emptied out during the pandemic?

As residents in major cities around the world ponder moving to greener pastures, are Tokyo-ites doing the same thing? Are we seeing a mass exodus out of one of the world’s most livable cities?

Yes, by some metrics. But only by a fraction. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the greater Tokyo area (Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, and Chiba) had a net outflow of 1,459 residents in July. This is the first net decrease since July 2013. 

Compared to this time last year, fewer people are moving in but fewer people are leaving. A total of 29,103 residents moved into the greater Tokyo area from other prefectures in July, down 16.1% from last year. Meanwhile, there were 30,562 outgoing residents, down 5.7% from last year. In fact, all 47 prefectures across Japan saw a year-on-year decrease in residents moving out to other prefectures. In other words, more people are staying put.

In Japan’s 21 largest cities, the city with the biggest percentage drop in new arrivals was Hiroshima with an 18.1% decrease from last year. Fukuoka City was in second spot with a 17.3% drop. Tokyo was ranked 8th out of the 21 cities. What about the cities where residents are choosing to stay put? Hiroshima also topped that ranking with 23.2% fewer departures in July. Sendai City was in second spot with 20.3% fewer departures. 

The Tokyo metropolitan area saw a net outflow of 2,522 residents with 31,257 departures and 28,735 arrivals. This is the first net decrease in two months. The number of residents moving their address out of the city this July was 1.5% lower than the same time in 2019. New arrivals were down 12.8% over the same period. 

Back in May 2020, Tokyo’s population reached 14 million – the highest in history. As of July 1, it sat at 13,999,624 residents. There has been some movement within the city as those who have seen their income fall as a result of the pandemic are moving to cheaper neighborhoods. For the foreign resident population, there has been a general drop in numbers as some leave the country permanently. Disruptions to school starts and visa issuances have also restricted inbound foreign student numbers. The total foreign population in Tokyo has dropped by 20,098 residents in the months between February and July.

Using cellphone data, the New York Times estimated that as many as 420,000 residents left New York City between March 1 and May 1. Those numbers include temporary departures, such as residents who went to stay in holiday homes during the lockdown, while Tokyo’s data is based on resident registration data which is tied to one’s primary residence. In other words, some Tokyo residents may be spending more time in a holiday home in Nagano or Shizuoka, but are still keeping their residence in Tokyo. 

Residential listings and inventory levels can also give an indication of moving trends.  In Manhattan, StreetEasy reported number of new listings in July jumped 87% from the same time in 2019 as homeowners look to make their move permanent. In the Tokyo metropolitan area, REINS reported that new listings of apartments in July were down 16.6% from last year and inventory was down 9.4% over the same period. In central Tokyo’s three wards of Chiyoda, Chuo and Minato, new listings were down a whopping 21.8% from last year, while inventory fell by 11.9%.

Over half of the corporations in Japan with capital over 100 million Yen have their headquarters in Tokyo, while 80% of foreign companies have their Japanese branch in the capital. Back in 2015, the national government set a goal of having a zero net increase in the greater Tokyo population in an effort to revitalize regional areas. This failed. In 2019, greater Tokyo saw a net increase of 146,000 residents, causing the government to abandon its ambitious plan. 

There have been attempts to curb Tokyo’s growth for decades now, but with limited success. The Tokyo metropolitan area population reached 10 million in 1962, before growing to 11 million by 1966. However, reaching the next milestone of 12 million residents took over three decades, finally hitting this number in 2000. That may have had something to do with the development of suburban bed towns in surrounding prefectures, rising property prices, and a 1960 law that limited the construction of universities in most of the greater Tokyo area (this law was repealed in 2002, seeing campuses and a large student population return). Between 2000 and 2010, the population grew again by another million residents. 

Sources:
Statistics Bureau of Japan, August 27, 2020.
The Tokyo Shimbun, August 27, 2020.
The Tokyo Shimbun, August 23, 2020.

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