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Yoko Era and husband traded their office jobs for a life in rural Asuka in Japan in 2005, drawn to farming as a way of getting closer to local produce. Today, the couple makes a living not only from farming, but also from their inn business, welcoming tourists to their homes in the bucolic mountains of Nara Prefecture.

Era is part of a new breed of urbanites choosing to move to rural Japan and finding opportunities in tourism — helping reverse a worrying trend of declining population outside of Japan’s thriving urban centers.

Like other countries around the world, Japan had been grappling with rural-urban migration as populations gravitate towards urban centers in search of economic opportunity.

However, the effects are especially pronounced in Japan, exacerbated by the world’s fastest aging population and plunging birth rates. By 2065, Japan is projected to lose one-third of its population, to just 88 million people. Census figures estimate the country’s population has shrunk by nearly a million since 2010.

“The progress of aging and depopulation impose very tight financial difficulties [on rural municipalities] to maintain infrastructure, due to the decreased tax revenue from depopulation,” shared Yasuo Ohe of Chiba University’s food and resource economics department. Ohe has authored numerous research on rural economics and tourism over the past decades, most recently Community-based Rural Tourism and Entrepreneurship: A Microeconomic Approach.

The term genkai shūraku, or marginal villages, has been coined to describe the problem of greying hamlets in Japan. In Asuka, the small village in Nara prefecture that Era now calls home, population has declined by about 22 percent in less than a decade, to just 5,339 in 2018, according to the Statistics Bureau of Japan. The proportion of inhabitants aged above 60 was nearly 46 percent in 2015.

Tourism Opportunities

As visitor numbers to Japan grow, so have hopes of reviving the country’s disappearing hamlets.

A prime example is in the minpaku sector. Family homes and inns were being abandoned and facing imminent demolition, as populations moved into the cities and elder community members passed away, shared Hiroshi Kawaguchi, general manager of tour operator Oku Japan.

With the tourist influx prompting recent legalization of short-term rentals in the country, the minpaku sector is now flourishing, attracting young Japanese back to their old family homes in small villages.

Established vacation rental players are set to help industrialize the sector and further benefit local communities. HomeAway, Expedia’s home rental brand, entered a partnership with Japan’s Rakuten Lifull Stay in November 2019, and has since seen a sharp increase in the number of listings outside the country’s tourist centers.

“Okinawa [has been] a tailwind for further growth. The onboarding of new vacation rentals since the collaboration with Rakuten Lifull Stay is also distributed throughout prefectures such as Osaka, Hokkaido, Kyoto — as well as lesser-known destinations such as Wakayama, Fukuoka, Shizuoka, Kagawa and Fukushima,” stated Jude Davidson, regional director for Asia, HomeAway.

“We are also working very closely with the local governments to identify opportunities to increase the number of vacation rental stays, especially since we are anticipating a record number of travelers next year with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Games.”

Locals are also finding opportunities to make a living off their particular knowledge, talents, or ways-of-life. For example, Yamabushi ascetic monks work with Oku Japan on Kumano Kodo trails, guiding visitors through parts of the forest and introducing the spirituality of the region, Kawaguchi added.

Furthermore, transportation and infrastructure have received a boost from tourism, according to Kawaguchi. “Travelers create a demand and ensure that bus and taxi services are now being better sustained. Even infrastructure has benefited, because there is now money available to invest in historical buildings and services that keep the community alive and vibrant.”

Rural Longings

The role of tourism in rejuvenating disappearing hamlets extends beyond direct economic opportunity.

Domestic tourism fuels longings for rural living among young Japanese, and in doing so creates potential for longer-term migration to Japan’s declining towns and hamlets, observed Ohe.

“It is firstly important to attract urban [residents] to [visit] rural areas, which is termed here as ‘exchange population.’ We understand that rural tourism will contribute to the increase in the inhabitant population [in rural areas] through the increase in exchange population.”

Relief for rural population numbers has come in the form of young urbanites discovering the “positive aspects of rural areas such as being close to nature and a less stressful lifestyle.” The “stressful lifestyle” Ohe described is part of another social reality of overworked urbanites, sometimes to the point of death (karoshi), lending weight to the trend of urban-rural migration as an escape from the demands of city life.

Era is an example of a former city dweller who sought a slower pace of life in rural Japan. “My husband and I were interested in getting away from a nine-to-five lifestyle. We thought to try moving to rural Asuka and take up farming in 2005, an unusual decision at the time.”

With tourism a viable source of income today, Japanese who had once entertained the idea of life outside the city now have greater reason to put down roots in the countryside.

In 2012, Era and her husband began operating a minshuku inn, Farmstay Yururiya, out of their home in the mountains, and a separate inn named Farmstay Tomaryanse.

The couple went on to open two more properties in 2019, and is seeing steady demand from both international and domestic guests. “Farmstay Auberge Komorebi is an overnight restaurant experience located in Kashihara, which is known for traditional Kominka homes. Farmstay Showa no Kaori is located near the Ishibutai Kofun, a large burial mound dating back to Japan’s Asuka Period.”

Tourism Ambivalence

For all the benefits it can bring, tourism growth has become an ambivalent subject in Japan. The country has seen visitor numbers surge faster than expected, straining capacity and impinging on the local way-of-life in the country’s most popular tourist spots.

Dispersing traffic beyond the hotspots has been on the country’s tourism agenda, especially with the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. National flag carrier Japan Airlines is running an ongoing promotion to give away 50,000 free tickets to lesser-visited destinations in the period surrounding the 2020 Olympics.

As tourists arrive in lesser-known (and arguably more insular) parts of the country in greater numbers, it can be expected that the recurrent themes of tourism pollution will follow.

There are ways to mitigate friction between locals and visitors, according to Oku Japan. Kawaguchi said: “Problematic tourist behaviour [is more likely when] tourists are not supported or educated, which is why we endeavor to fill these gaps so that our local partners are able to introduce their culture on their own terms to eager guests.

“For example, in the past, we would occasionally run into situations where guests would be out enjoying the trail too close to dinnertime, and the innkeeper would go out looking for them to make sure they could find their way. After receiving feedback from this partner, we adjusted the schedule provided to guests to [allow them to explore, without] worrying the innkeepers.”

Although free independent travel may imply greater incidence of tourist faux pas in the absence of guides, Ohe said this segment could in fact be more welcome in rural parts of Japan. He believes that independent travellers have a higher propensity to consume compared to group tourists in general. Their higher per capita spending could mean businesses in rural areas do not need to rely on large groups of tourists for revenue, he remarked.

Beyond etiquette and culture clashes, tourism can have yet more tangible consequences for local communities. In the ski resort destination of Niseko, for example, tourism growth has contributed to rising land prices and crowded out local residents, Ohe pointed out.

Ohe hence emphasized that the distinction must be made between large-scale foreign capital investments (hard tourism) versus local resource-based tourism development (soft tourism). “What we should focus on is soft tourism, where the benefit-sharing system would be discussed among local stakeholders concerned.”

Immediate Concern

But for Japan’s genkai shūraku fighting the decline of populations, tax revenue and infrastructure, inappropriate tourist behavior is not the immediate concern.

“Conflicts occur only in very limited tourist areas, not in every rural area. It should not be over-exaggerated. The fact is that many rural areas need more tourists at present and are struggling to create effective strategies on how to attract more of them.”

Oku Japan’s Kawaguchi suggested that an openness to change, including to outsiders and new business, can strengthen rather than desecrate communities.

Kawaguchi said: “Rural communities have a strong way of life and prioritize maintaining their traditions and customs, which at times can clash with an influx of new or temporary visitors from outside the community.”

“Interestingly, depopulation has not affected the Kumano region as it has other rural communities that traditionally relied upon industries such as fishing. It is thanks to this willingness to foster new relationships that Oku Japan has been able to create bonds within the community and work with locals to introduce a steady stream of tourists. As a result, young people who find the tourism industry appealing are moving into the Kumano region and making a life there.”

Photo Credit: Rural Japan. Photo courtesy of Abercrombie & Kent