Welcome to the blog of the research project “Urban-rural migration and rural revitalization in Japan”. This project is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and started in October 2020. Professor Cornelia Reiher (PI) and her team from the Institute of Japanese Studies at Freie Universität Berlin investigate the impacts of urban-rural migration on rural revitalization in Kyūshū, Japan’s most southern main island. In this blog, our group will give insights into the research process and progress, present first results, share information about our field sites and on related projects and publications. It also features guest contributions by students, PhD students, colleagues and practitioners from Freie Universität Berlin, Japan and universities around the world who work on related projects focusing on urban to rural migration and rural Japan. The editor of this blog is Professor Cornelia Reiher.

Guest Contribution: Finally back to Japan

by Chris McMorran

In January 2022 I was finally able to visit Japan after a two-year gap. Two years of lockdowns, canceled research trips, and courses, meetings, and conferences moved online. Covid-19 disrupted my annual cycle of taking students to Kumamoto each May, visiting Tokyo for short holidays, and visiting family in Kumamoto each New Year’s. My return in January 2022 coincided with 10 months of sabbatical away from NUS and Japan’s reluctant opening to non-Japanese visitors. I could only enter because of my Japanese partner. Japan’s tight regulations on foreign visitors had been polling strongly and boosting PM Kishida’s government, so I expected to find a “closed country” mentality on the streets of Tokyo and Kumamoto, where I split three months.

Instead, I found people as polite and welcoming as ever. Kids playing in the street in my in-laws’ neighbourhood said hello. Staff in shops and restaurants welcomed us enthusiastically. But I did not yet feel comfortable doing interviews or even visiting my usual fieldwork sites, around Kurokawa Onsen (Kumamoto). I feared introducing the coronavirus to the spaces and people I care about so much. I owed a massive debt to those people and did not want to jeopardize my future with them. So I spent my time researching spaces and ideas on the periphery of my main focus: the intersection of tourism and work in rural Japan. And I took advantage of our new shared technological abilities, sharing my latest work in online lectures. 

Online lecture for ICU
Copyright © Chris McMorran 2022

During my three months in Japan I gave lectures for audiences at International Christian University (Tokyo), Kanazawa University and the German Institute for Japanese Studies (DIJ). Under the heightened restrictions from the Omicron wave of January and February 2022, all three talks were moved online. While I felt some disappointment, I was also uplifted by the fact that the online talks could be attended by a truly global audience. My lecture on ryokan for International Christian University could be attended by ICU professors and students, as well as ICU alumni (including one who currently works in a ryokan!), and some of my own students in Singapore. My lecture for Kanazawa University could be attended by super-busy ryokan owners from distant Kurokawa Onsen, and my lecture for the German Institute for Japanese Studies could be attended by researchers based in Europe. These lectures reminded me how broad the global interest is in rural Japan, as well as how inclusive and supportive the network of scholars is.

Typical “workation” advertisement by JR East
Copyright © Chris McMorran 2022

While in Tokyo, I was excited to encounter instances of rural Japan reimagined as a new space of combined tourism and work, in the form of the “workation” (work+vacation) Posters in trains and train platforms showed happy individuals sitting in the great outdoors, their laptops strategically open before them. Covid-19 reminded everyone of the inherent risks associated with congested urban spaces. Rural areas have provided a way to escape such risks—and even enjoy one’s work—by working remotely (“telework”). The rural workation moves beyond working from home, which carries its own risks of burnout. Rural Japan—accessible by train—promises the ideal solution. Seeing so many reminders of this reimagination of rural Japan was enough to spur a new research project, one that would have been unlikely had I not returned to Japan. 

Dōgo jump: enjoying the relatively empty streets of Dōgo Onsen
Copyright © Chris McMorran 2022

I also visited one of Japan’s oldest onsen, Dōgo Onsen in Ehime, to see how it was weathering the Covid-19 storm. Shopping streets that in normal times would be brimming with shops selling local delicacies and flooded with tourists sat half empty. Some shops were temporarily shuttered. In the shops that were open, staff waited eagerly for the next customer to arrive. The lack of guests meant we could easily bathe in Dōgo’s most famous public baths, without waiting in lines that can normally last hours. It was a reminder that Japan’s tourism industry has a long road to recovery from the coronavirus disruption. My time in Japan was over too quickly, but I was grateful I could reconnect with the country and be stimulated by new potential research avenues. 

Chris McMorran is Associate Professor of Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore. He is a cultural geographer of contemporary Japan who researches the geographies of home across scale, from the body to the nation. His is the author of Ryokan: Mobilizing Hospitality in Rural Japan (2022, University of Hawai’i Press), an intimate study of a Japanese inn, based on twelve months spent scrubbing baths, washing dishes, and making guests feel at home at a hot springs resort. He also co-produces (with NUS students) “Home on the Dot,” a podcast that explores the meaning of home on the little red dot of Singapore.

15 May 2022: the 50th anniversary of Okinawa Prefecture’s ‘reversion’ to Japan

by Sarah Bijlsma

This week, Japan celebrated the 50-year anniversary of Okinawa’s return to the mainland. After being governed by the US since the end of WWII, the administration of the prefecture was handed back to prime minister Eisaku Satō (1901-1975) on the 15th of May 1972. On the anniversary day, the central and national governments held ceremonies simultaneously in Tokyo and Okinawa including a video message from the Japanese Emperor and Empress. In the months before the anniversary, national and local media platforms took the opportunity to publish articles, interviews, and visual content that address various aspects of Okinawa Prefecture. In this blogpost, I will discuss two examples that illustrate the different ways the Japanese media represents the prefecture.

One strand of publications echoes hegemonic discourses of ‘Okinawa difference,’ including romanticized representations of the islands’ distinct culture and social life [1]. NHK, for example, since April broadcasts the morning drama Chimudondon. The asadora tells the story of a farmer’s daughter from the lush Yanbaru area, who opens an Okinawan restaurant in Tokyo in her adult life. The scenes are full of natural sceneries, local dishes, traditional crafts, and the large families Okinawa is known for. In the third episode, when the girl is still a child, she talks with the father of a friend who just moved from the capital to her small village. Standing under a shikuwasa tree with the blue sea shines bright in the background, she wonders out loud, “Isn’t Tokyo a much more interesting place?” The man replies: “You know, to you this village is your hometown.” “My hometown?” the girl looks confused [2]. The natural environment, genuine human relationships, and use of the Japanese term furusato for hometown instantly evokes a nostalgic feeling for all that is lost in urbanized Japan.

What is noticeable, however, is that in addition to such romanticized representations media channels gave much attention to the ongoing social and economic issues the prefecture is facing—a different translation of ‘Okinawa difference.’ Especially regarding the US military presence on the islands and the relocation of the Futenma base to Henoko, news platforms do not shy away of featuring critical voices. Asahi Shinbun, for example, featured an interview with a woman who joined the protest march that was held in the streets of Naha on 15 May 1972. She recalls that on the day of the reversion, rain came pouring from the sky. It was not a celebrative atmosphere; while she was only a high school student, she was somehow aware that it was not the return that she had wanted. Yet only years later, when she started working with children herself, she became to understand the irrationality of the situation in Okinawa more deeply. Even after the reversion to Japan, sexual assaults of children and women by US soldiers and helicopter accidents continued to occur significantly. The woman states that she feels that Okinawans are treated as if their lives do not matter much. Land reclamation in the Henoko sea continues, while she does not believe that there is anyone in the prefecture who agrees with that [3].  

Protesters on the beach of Oura Bay in Henoko
Copyright © Sarah Bijlsma 2019

During the ceremonies on the 15th of May, many references were made to Okinawa’s present-day issues as well. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida acknowledged Okinawa’s lacking economy and continuing burden of the bases, pledging to “steadily make visible progress on the alleviation of the burden while maintaining the deterrence offered by the Japan-U.S. alliance” [4]. Okinawa governor Denny Tamaki urged the central government to turn Okinawa finally into “islands of peace” [5]. These statements and the media coverage illustrate that there is an increasing ground to openly debate social issues in present-day Japan. People more often take a clear stance; a newly conducted survey by Kyodo News showed that ca. 80% of the Japanese does not find it fair compared to other prefectures that Okinawa hosts more than 70% of Japan’s US military bases [6]. It is my hope that these and other debates continue to be held in and outside of Okinawa, also after this ‘anniversary’ year.

Protesters in front of Camp Schwab in Henoko
Copyright © Sarah Bijlsma 2019


[1] See for example Hein, Ina. 2010. “Constructing difference in Japan: Literary counter-images of the Okinawa boom”, Contemporary Japan 22, 179-204.

[2] Chimudondon. NHK, 2022. Episode 3.

[3] Asahi Shimbun. 11 May 2022. (fukki 50 nen, sorezore no Okinawa) demo shashin ni, kōkōsei datta watashi kyōin ni nari rikai shita, Okinawa ga seou rifujin [(50 years after return, every Okinawa) I was a high school student on the photo of the demonstration, when I became a teacher I understood the irrationality that burdens Okinawa].

[4] Kyodo News. 15 May 2022. “Okinawa marks 50 years since reversion to Japan.” Via: https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2022/05/48ab72b43dd5-okinawa-marks-50-years-since-reversion-from-us-rule-as-bases-remain.html

[5] Kyodo News. 15 May 2022. “Okinawa marks 50 years since reversion to Japan.” Via: https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2022/05/48ab72b43dd5-okinawa-marks-50-years-since-reversion-from-us-rule-as-bases-remain.html

[6] Japan Times. 5 May 2022. “Nearly 80% of Japanese think Okinawa’s base-hosting unfair”.

First blog anniversary, first year of PhD: a celebration of physical and online social relations

by Cecilia Luzi

In April 2022, my first year as a PhD student came to an end. Since maternity leave kept me away from my office for about seven months last year, my schedule changed, and I just entered what is supposed to be the “fieldwork year”. During the last months, I have been following migrants in Hasami and Buzen mainly through their social media profiles. Recently, I reached out to some of them, and I started to listen to their stories about the migration experience via Zoom. I will write more about this experience in the future, but in this post, I would like to follow up on Professor Reiher’s last article and reflect about doing research during a global pandemic.

When we started working in the project in October 2020, we did not realize yet that being able to be in Berlin at the same time, was already a great chance. Our offices face each other and being physically close encouraged the team spirit a lot. Moreover, when all classes for PhD students took place online, and most of other members of our cohort at GEAS were stuck in Japan, Korea or somewhere else in Europe, being here on campus helped us not to lose track of our own PhD projects. By  simply being able to say hello in the morning across the corridor or have a chat while making coffee in the kitchen has been very helpful during these months.

Together, we developed ideas about how to continue our research during the pandemic. We went through a process of adapting our respective research together. Very often, we discussed how to overcome bureaucratic obstacles or just encouraged each other. Together we managed to remain positive even during confusing times. For instance, when the Japanese government closed borders again in the aftermath of the emergence of the Omicron variant in late 2021, the “Urban-rural migration and rural revitalization in Japan” research group was my source of strength even when working from home. I can never thank them enough.

Yet, this was not our only support group. While learning how the digital space could be used to access the research field from our desks, we also started to use digital meeting tools to reach out other students and researchers with similar interests. In a short time, we set up an online study group meeting once a month. After a year and many meetings, I can confidently say that these meeting were incredibly useful for developing a research network, receiving feedback and discovering new research paths. The atmosphere in the study group is very cooperative and informal and I really enjoyed these moments of exchange with people from outside the team. I am very grateful to all the participants who stayed with us during all these months, and I really hope we will be able to meet in person one day soon.

Last but not the least, this blog was of course another door to the outside world and still keeps us connected with researchers on rural Japan and beyond. Contributions come from people with all sorts of backgrounds, different origins, and various interests, which makes the blog rich and vibrant. For me, writing in a blog is both a chance to reflect on the practice of dissemination of academic knowledge and an exercise of awareness for positionality. In fact, while putting my observations and thoughts out for a wider and more diversified public, I am forced to spend time reflecting about what parts of my research I want the blog’s audience to see and how I can convey them in less than 800 words. I experienced how a blog can “become a workspace for the ethnographer” (Beaulieu 2004, p.151).

An online Christmas party improved everyone’s mood after the renewal of Japan’s entry ban in 2021
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2021

The fabric of social relations is what kept me afloat during these years of the pandemic. This is especially true when it comes to my PhD. Whether in the office wearing masks, or over Webex having Christmas parties, exchanging ideas and encouraging each other, within and outside our team, has always brought back the enthusiasm of the beginning. I value the relations built both in the “real” and “virtual” world. If there is one important lesson these hard times taught me, it is that social connections always can find a way through pandemic lockdowns, isolation and overcome any distance.


Beaulieu, A. 2004. Mediating ethnography: objectivity and the making of ethnographies of the internet, Social Epistemology, 18:2-3, 139-163,

First Blog Anniversary: Reflections about a Joint Experiment

by Cornelia Reiher

It has already been a year since we started this blog in March 2021 to report on our research in the DFG project “Urban-rural migration and rural revitalization in Japan.” I launched the blog to share first insights from (online) fieldwork and to connect with other researchers and practitioners in Europe and Asia. Throughout this year our team experienced hope and disappointments with regard to our fieldwork plans. Japan first lifted its Covid-induced entry ban in November 2021 and closed the borders again in December. Instead of waiting around, however, all of us conducted online research. This included, for example, online interviews, social media research and participant observation in online events. We also continued our online study group. In the winter term 2021/22 we launched a lecture series. Colleagues and students presented their research and we discovered interesting parallels or connections between the different projects discussing urban-rural migration and rural issues in and beyond Japan. This summer we will experiment with different formats, including workshop-style discussion groups and lectures.

Sharing knowledge: Our urban-rural migration study group is still meeting online
Copyright© Cornelia Reiher 2021

The blog became an important venue to channel our thoughts and to present our experiences and first results. By doing so, we also reached out to other researchers and students whom we invited to write about their own research on rural Japan, urban-rural migration and methodological challenges during the pandemic. Because we could not go to Japan ourselves, we asked some of our research participants to write about the situation in rural Japan, about themselves and about their rural revitalization activities. Our network expanded faster than we expected and we were able to publish one blogpost a week. Up to now there are 56 posts authored by 24 different contributors, many of them members of our online study group. Surprisingly, we were contacted by people who found our blog online and some of them later became authors, collaborators or research participants. Motivated by this experience, we created an Instagram account to reach even more people.

We also used the blog to share information about our online events and lectures. We have presented preliminary results of this project in November 2021 at the Urban-Rural Study Group meeting of the German Association for Social Science Research on Japan (VSJF). Team members also individually presented their work in different contexts. One of this year’s highlights was our joint study group with Sachie Oka’s lab from Kyushu University. Frank and Cecilia presented their research in Japanese and we had very interesting discussions with Oka sensei’s Phd and MA students. We will meet online again in order to strengthen our cooperation with researchers and peers from Japan. In April we also met with members of the Aso Project at the University of Vienna  to exchange experiences with research about rural Kyushu. In June, Chris McMorran from NUS, who is a member of our study group and also authored a blog post, will join FU Berlin as a visiting researcher and present his new book. We hope for more onsite exchange like this in the future!

Sharing experiences: Although most of our activities took place online, we could also meet onsite more often in 2022 and went on a fieldtrip to Brandenburg together in April
Copyright© Cornelia Reiher 2022

Finally, the blog also served as a means to raise our team spirit during the long periods when we could not meet in person. Working together on the short blog posts, sharing feedback and reading other people’s posts, helped to feel closer as a team. Other things, of course, raised our team spirits even more. In February, we received a surprise parcel from Chris who had already entered Japan. He sent sweets from Kumamoto. This was a great culinary motivation during a time when we did not know when Japan would reopen its borders for researchers and students. But most of all, meeting with the other team members in Berlin and to discover new things about rural areas together, cheered us up. In April we went on a fieldtrip to Brandenburg to talk to German urban-rural migrants in our vicinity and it was a wonderful opportunity to spend time with the team before we have to meet online again. But this time this is due to Frank’s departure to Japan. Cecilia and Sarah will hopefully go to Japan this fall. Closing this blog post on this happy news, I would also like to thank everyone who contributed to this blog! I am especially grateful to Maritchu Durand for doing an excellent job designing and regularly uploading everyone’s posts and for creating and updating our Instagram account. I am looking forward to another year of interesting contributions about rural Japan. This summer, I am also using the blog as a resource for teaching undergraduate students at FUB about Japan’s rural areas.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on urban-rural migration

by Ngo Tu Thanh (Frank Tu)

There has been an abundance of studies demonstrating that the outflow of people from rural areas to urban cities for work and education purposes is one of the main rural challenges. However, the outbreak of COVID-19 has forced countries around the world, including Japan, to utilize virtual modes of working and learning. Social distancing allows for greater flexibility since employees and students are no longer required to be physically present. As Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, and other meeting applications became household names as a byproduct of COVID-19, I was really curious to figure out if the pandemic and the growing popularity of telework and e-learning might have any impact on rural Japan.

On-site training workshops and presentations were no longer possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic
Copyright © Cédric Watanabe-Pacaud 2019

There have been reports of people fleeing Tokyo to other regions to escape COVID-19. For instance, 400,000 people were reported to have left Tokyo in 2020 [1], and the number of those moving away from Tokyo in 2022 was even higher than that in 2021 [2]. Moreover, telework also is said to have long-lasting potential. According to Yamamoto (2020), 25% of those who had worked remotely were interested in moving to rural areas. These numbers seem to suggest an increase of urban-rural migration in Japan against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic [3].

In order to further explicate the impact of COVID-19 on rural areas, I have conducted online interviews and written exchanges with five national policy actors in Japan. They include a high-ranking official at the Headquarters for Regional Revitalization (Cabinet Office), three Advisors for Regional Vitality (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications), and one high-ranking official of the Japan Organization for Internal Migration (JOIN).

It has become clear from the exchanges that all five research participants were optimistic about an increase in urban-rural migrants, particularly due to the growing popularity and adoption of telework and e-learning. However, whether telework can have long-lasting effects on rural areas depends on whether Japan’s companies and organizations continue to allow for this mode of working, even after the COVID pandemic. 

Since 2020, many people in Japan became used to teleworking
Copyright © Pham Thanh Dat 2022

The official at the Headquarters for Regional Revitalization said that the COVID-19 pandemic might have had a positive impact on urban-rural migration, particularly due to people’s changing attitudes towards migration and the emergence of telework. He stated: “While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused damage to the regional economy and society, it has changed people’s mindset and behavior as evidenced by a decline in the net inflow of population into the Tokyo region, an increase in people’s interest in migration to regions and the penetration of telework.” [4]

The Advisors for Regional Vitality also were also in agreement regarding the roles of the COVID-19 pandemic and immigration. First, they believed that the pandemic might have presented a great opportunity for urban-rural migration. The advisors explained that telework allows employees to work from rural areas while still maintaining their urban salaries. This can increase employees’ disposable income as living expenses are comparatively cheaper in rural areas. Similarly, e-learning may also allow students to attend courses at universities in urban cities while living in their hometowns. However, according to the advisors, such a positive impact of COVID-19 on rural revitalization could only last in the long term if Japanese companies and organizations allowed for this new style of working to continue post-COVID. 

Empty classrooms can be seen around the world due to COVID-19
Copyright © Yuji Natsuma 2022

Similarly, the JOIN manager also believed that the pandemic would have a positive impact on migration to rural areas. He said that before the pandemic, many companies in Tokyo had already planned to move to telework for they expected that Tokyo would be overcrowded during the Tokyo Olympics. However, COVID-19 had accelerated the transition to telework. Indeed, he stated that Japanese people are moving and working remotely from places around Tokyo such as Chiba, Kanagawa, and Saitama. Finally, he also believed teleworking from places outside of Tokyo would increase disposable income.

In the early days of the pandemic, there were various efforts to incentivize Tokyo-based employees to work remotely from depopulated areas. For instance, in 2020 a company launched a “co-working space bus tour”, which visited different municipalities outside of Tokyo. The tour was a rare attempt in Japan to bring teleworkers together [5]. However, we are currently in the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic. As companies and educational institutions around Japan are slowly getting back to the traditional style that requires on-site presence, it is important to consider the potential of telework and e-learning for urban-rural migration and rural revitalization. Will Japan capitalize on this opportunity, or will it discard the three years of expertise with online working and learning? I would be very interested to follow up on this.  


[1] Teh, C. (2021) ‘400,000 people have fled Tokyo in a 2020 pandemic exodus, seeking cheaper and less crowded cities’, Insider. Available at: https://www.insider.com/400000-people-flee-tokyo-in-2020-pandemic-exodus-2021-3.

[2] Koizumi, H. (2022) ‘More people leave Tokyo’s 23 wards than move in during 2021’, The Asahi Shimbun. Available at: https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14538705.

[3] Yamamoto, T. (2020) ‘1 in 4 teleworkers mulling ditching Japan’s big cities for rural areas’, The Asahi Shimbun. Available at: https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/13479412.

[4] Written response from the research participant (2021).

[5] Mainichi Shimbun (2020) ‘Rimōto wāku saizensen: kowākingu tsuā basu de katamichi 90 kiro idõshinagaramo hataraku hito mo aidea mo bunsan’. Available at: https://mainichi.jp/articles/20200124/ddm/012/100/077000c.

Urban-rural migration at our doorstep: Fieldtrip to a community project in the outskirts of Berlin

by Maritchu Durand

It has now been more than two years that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected many aspects of our lives, including the way we conduct research for our project. Since none of us could go to Japan to conduct fieldwork, we decided to broaden our perspective and to take a look at urban-rural migration in our vicinity. I had seen a short documentary on neo-rurals on the European public service channel arte [1]recently, featuring a community project founded by former residents of Berlin in the capital’s surrounding region Brandenburg. I contacted them and got a quick and positive response: our team was welcome to pay a visit if we wished to get to know the place better. On a cool Saturday morning at the end of March, we packed our sandwiches, put on our hiking shoes and set off to Brandenburg.

Without a car, there are two possibilities to go there: either by bus that drives by every hour or so, or a 10 kilometer walk. We chose the second option and passed through small sleepy villages in-between large fields and pine forests. Surrounded by nature, I was expecting to find a community embedded in its natural environment, with inclines towards self-sufficiency, organic produce and sustainable farming. Previously, I had heard of farms in Brandenburg selling their local produce on markets in the capital. But what we found was slightly different and surprising.

After a two hour walk and a cold picknick on the damp grass, we were happy to reach the small village where the community project is located. Just across the pebble stone road, facing the church, is the entrance of Hof Prädikow: an abandoned complex that hosted many different buildings for different activities such as a forge, a brewery, a bakery and different storage buildings. Passing the gates, we entered the first courtyard: while the small café, the adjacent barn and an old building were already in use, most of the other buildings were either under construction or still rather run down. As soon as we arrived, one of the residents, whom I had previously emailed, greeted and invited us to sit and enjoy some home-made sweets and coffee.

In the café, we had the opportunity to talk to our host about the community project, how it came to be and how it functioned. It is run by a collective that currently consists of 60 adults and 30 children, mainly from Berlin. All members have already moved or will soon be moving to the village. The community is organized in specialized groups that are responsible for and possess expertise on different key fields in the community. It is based on the principle of sociocracy. Each adult member has a voice and participates in the decision-making process. One of the important decisions the community collectively makes is whom to accept as a new member and resident. They receive many applications and carefully choose its members, making sure they fit their mindset and agree to their overall goal to live together. But what did those individuals seek in the countryside? For some, it is a life surrounded by nature to raise their children as well as a life within a community. The latter refers to the feeling of being part of a collective and being able to realize personal projects within a group. Most of the residents want to get away from the city. Although the community is not designed as a weekend destination some residents seem to still be very much connected to the capital and keep their apartments in the city to return whenever necessary.

The first courtyard: while the buildings on the right are almost finished, the one on the left is under intensive construction
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

While living in the cooperatively owned apartments, residents initiate different events and projects. One project is the Café where locals and visitors of all ages can meet while enjoying a drink, a hearty homemade meal or artisanal cakes. Other projects include as a co-working space, a barn for events organized by locals and newcomers. Realizing these projects and the costly renovation of the old buildings was only possible thanks to several sponsors. I was surprised to find out that many actors from NPOs to regional and national governments were involved in financing the project.

The second courtyard: the chimney from the old forge dominates a collection of old brick buildings that are all in need of thorough renovations – a great potential for many future projects
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

This was a very interesting trip that allowed us to get a glimpse into urban-rural migration at our doorsteps. It was not exactly what I had expected. While I thought I would find more connections to agriculture and nature, the focus of the community was rather on communal and shared living. I was also surprised by how popular communal living is in Germany, something I have not come across in Japan – at least to that extent. On the contrary, some problems seemed to be quite similar to what we have seen in Japan, especially the relationship they had with the local population, between consensus building, skeptical beginnings and ideological differences. Do these types of community also exist in Japan? This is a question yet to be explored.

[1] https://www.arte.tv/de/videos/093706-001-A/re-der-lockruf-der-provinz/

Yarabu Tree: Multi-species collaboration and co-habitation on Ikema

by Sarah Bijlsma

In order to make tamanu oil, you first need a tree known as penaga laut or nyamplung (Calophyllum inophyllum) or terihaboku in Japanese. In the local dialect of Ikema-jima, a small island just off the coast of Miyako, this tree is called yarab. The local population of Ikema-jima has been planting yarab trees since the times of the Ryūkyū Kingdom on shores and around agricultural fields. Together with the lower adan tree (Pandanus odoratissimus), these lines of vegetation serve as windbreaks against the strong northern winds that come from the ocean. As such, they protect crops from damage by outside forces, while simultaneously preventing ki (energy) to flow out of the island.

A yarab tree bearing fruits
Copyright © Tomoko Miwa 2020

Yarab trees bloom in the spring and fall and often bear fruit throughout the year. The fruits are round and a few centimeters in size, have a greyish green color and pungent taste. While humans generally do not consume the fruits, the bats on Ikema-jima are fond of them. At night, they pick them from the trees and eat the pulp with their small teeth. The seed inside the fruit is too hard to eat and hence dropped. Bats only eat those fruits that are free from chemicals; finding yarab seeds on the ground is a sign that no pesticides are used.

The local population celebrates yarab trees as symbols of fertility and scolds them for the many seeds and fruits that are lying around everywhere. Yet, recently the Ikema residents began to view them from a new perspective. After working for seven years for the Ikema Welfare Support Center (Ikema fukushi shien sentaa), Kanagawa-born Tomoko Miwa realized that creating jobs for the island’s children in the future would help Ikema island the most. Together with her husband she started Yarabu Tree, a small company that plants yarab trees and produces tamanu oil from their seeds.

The seed of the yarab tree
Copyright © Tomoko Miwa 2018

A first step in the oil production process is to go out and collect the seeds. In this, Tomoko and her husband are helped by Ikema’s obaa-san and ojii-san. At that point, the seeds are still wrapped in a hard brown shell that needs to be cracked with a hammer or nutcracker—another job for the elderly islanders. Tomoko explains to me that planting yarab trees helps against soil erosion, but the oil production process also enhances the social relationships between the islanders. “There are of course people who are not able to receive salaries like we do, who are disabled, or who cannot live a normal life for any other reason. These individuals quickly withdraw from [social life on] the island” [1]. An example are the many old men on Ikema-jima who develop drinking issues. Without having anything better to do, they start early in the morning, and just wait until the evening comes, drinking by themselves. “Our idea was that with Yarabu Tree, these people can get a job that they can do anytime anywhere, in their own pace, with people they like […]. Bit by bit, we touched upon different kinds of people and while we had never imagined that before, these people built relationships with one another. Of course, they receive money because that is important too, but what surprised us the most is how the relationship between the people on the island is changing gradually” [2].

Islanders cracking the seeds together
Copyright © Tomoko Miwa 2020

After the shells are removed, the seeds are washed and dried in the sun. This process can take up to three months. Tomoko has tried to dry the seeds mechanically but concluded that much of the natural resin is lost in that way. When it is time, the seeds are turned into tamanu oil by using cold-pressing techniques. The oil is sold pure, as body oil, or mixed with the flowers of shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet). The Yarabu Forest that Tomoko and her husband began will be turned into a commons when fully grown. In this way, everyone on the island can go and collect the seeds, crack the shells, and produce the oil by themselves.

Drying the seeds in the Ikema sun
Copyright © Tomoko Miwa 2020

Tamanu oil is a product of multi-species collaboration and co-habitation. Tree, bat, and human work together to secure each other’s livelihoods. “[When I first told the obaa-san and ojii-san about my plans], they were like, ‘that is definitely impossible! Those fallen things, let’s just throw them with the garbage’” [3]. Tomoko laughs and says that the locals still can hardly believe that people in big cities actually buy the product. This illustrates how tamanu oil creates a bridge between Ikema-jima’s local traditions and people in Japanese metropoles who support the island through buying the products. Tamanu oil also connects Miyako’s long-term residents and newcomers. “I think that you heard this as well, but it is true that the people who migrated [to the Miyako Islands] and the people from here usually do not have so much contact with one another. They have separate communities, and the migrants are not so interested or involved with the islanders, I believe. But the tamanu oil that we produce is made by the elderly of the island, you know. […] And the migrants are very interested in [the oil], which means that there is a connection after all, I think” [3].

[1] Interview with Tomoko Miwa, 23 March 2022.
[2] Interview with Tomoko Miwa, 23 March 2022.
[3] Interview with Tomoko Miwa, 23 March 2022.
[4] Interview with Tomoko Miwa, 23 March 2022.

Creating physical and digital connections – New rural lifestyles in Japan (part 1)

by Cecilia Luzi

As many posts on this blog have shown, rural Japan is diverse. The experiences of living in rural areas vary according to geographical, economic or demographic conditions. But local or prefectural authorities, the central government and individual citizens spread an image of an idealized rural life which is highly homogeneous. Images of idealized rural lifestyles are not something new, and in times of the Covid pandemic, digital media are becoming the perfect tool to circulate new images of rural lifestyles.

Migrants use social media to share information about their lives and their jobs, often on a daily base. The great creativity in terms of creating jobs and businesses always strikes me when I go through migrants’ profiles. Many are owners of small independent businesses such as cafes, shops, guesthouses and wellness-related enterprises. This plurality in urban-rural migrants’ entrepreneurship was already discovered by other authors who have studied urban-rural migration in Japan. Among young urbanites’ reasons for leaving the metropolis is their desire to live and work in a community with close social ties and enjoyable interactions with people from this community [1].

A local market in Wakayama Prefecture
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2019

Migrant entrepreneurs become part of social networks which extend beyond work. They participate in local markets, buy ingredients from small local farms, organize events for the town and receive help from and exchange vegetables with their neighbors. At the same time, they post about their lives on social media and receive comments and likes from all over Japan, sometimes from the entire world. What these social media profiles seem to suggest, or at least what migrants want followers to see, is that living and working in rural areas today does not lead to isolation and disconnectedness. On the contrary: it can lead to close local connections while at the same time virtual interactions allow migrants to cultivate the bonds with those left behind and maintain their social networks even beyond the place they live in.

Municipal and prefectural authorities also use official websites and social media to promote the life in the countryside. They aim to appeal to urban dwellers in pursuit of newcomers to rural areas. Local authorities tend to emphasize that rural environments offer rich and new possibilities for interactions with locals. However, finding a job or starting a new business can be a daunting task for newcomers who cannot count on their social safety net. Therefore, municipalities and prefectures provide measures to support work and occupation for migrants. These are at the heart of their rural revitalization strategies.

Recently, I observed something interesting on Nagasaki Prefecture’s website for prospective migrants, Nagasaki ijū-nabi. To the many pages full of support schemes and facilities, the prefecture added a link to a new section advertising remote work around September 2021. On this new website, the prefecture promotes events about remote working facilities and provides a list of several local initiatives and start-ups that support connectivity and remote work. My impression is that Nagasaki aims to expand the opportunities and the use of telework in many professions of the tertiary sector in order to attract people who want to leave Tokyo during the pandemic [2].

A local market in Wakayama Prefecture
Copyright © Cecilia Luzi 2019

The message on Nagasaki prefecture’s website is simple: the prefecture provides in-migrants with all that is necessary to stay fully digitally connected and to be able to work remotely after migration. This way, they can have a fulfilling professional life while enjoying Nagasaki’s rich natural and cultural environments. Moreover, they can maintain the connections with the metropolis, while living “a better life” in the countryside with people who share their lifestyle.

In conclusion, exploring how migrants and local authorities showcase rural life in the digital space can help us to understand multiple layers of connectedness between rural and urban areas. Nowadays in Japan, the possibility for connections and social networks appears to be key to realize a good life in the countryside. Real world interactions are what many migrants aim for, while digital connections are what they bring to rural areas. I would say that the access to digital networks enables the sustainment of existing social and professional networks and the creation of new ones. Digital networks and remote work make rural lives possible for many migrants. One fundamental aspect of new rural lifestyles in contemporary Japan is social connections, both physical and digital.


Klien, S. (2020). Urban Migrants in Rural Japan: Between Agency and Anomie in a Post-Growth Society. Suny Press.

Ueda, M. (2020, 8 July). Urban exodus in cards as people find freedom in teleworking. The Asahi Shinbun. https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/13485555

ゲスト寄稿: 有田町と立命館アジア太平洋大学の友好交流協定 Guest Contribution: The partnership between Arita Town and the Asia Pacific University

文/英語訳:ヴィンセント – ホイザ



by Vincent Heuser

As mentioned in my first blog post, Arita town in Saga Prefecture is known worldwide for porcelain and currently trying to rebrand its famous Arita Ware.

In October 2019, Arita Town and the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Oita Prefecture (abbreviated as APU from here on) signed a Partnership Agreement. [1] With this Partnership Agreement, Arita Town aims to find new ways for sustainable development and training of talented people that can interact on an international level [2] as well as to make Arita more widely known among younger people. The main project that Arita and APU have implemented is an internship program that was first carried out from February to March 2021. As part of this program four students from APU stayed in Arita. In February this year, the internship project was held for the second time with three students from APU. Even though it is also open to apply for Japanese students, so far all participants were non-Japanese students enrolled at APU. During their stay, the students live in an international guesthouse in Arita located in the middle of the Sarayama Street, the main street running through the old historic part of Arita Town. This makes it easy to connect with people involved in the ceramics industry living in that area as well as to get an impression on how much the ceramics industry means to the town and how much the townscape is influenced by it.

The APU students participating in the 2022 internship program receive their certificates
Copyright © Arita Town 2022



The internship is about two weeks long. Students spend five days actually working at the business that they are assigned to. Among the businesses that accepted the students are companies operating in the ceramics industry as well as a company focusing on town development and the Arita Tourism Association. The local government chooses the businesses based on considerations about whether an internship at that place appears to be promising regarding the benefits for the interns themselves, the businesses and the town.

For the interns, the main goal is to get some firsthand experience in Japanese businesses that can be helpful when deciding if they aim for a career in Japan. Furthermore, students get the opportunity to find out whether the ceramics industry is a field where they want to work in the future. The companies accepting interns get the opportunity to meet potential new staff to recruit. Also, foreign students or Japanese students able to speak foreign languages can contribute to the internationalization of the business. As for the town, the main target is to make Arita more widely known as a town as well as a place to live and work among young people from outside Saga Prefecture and Japan. The town also aims to promote the ceramics industry as a field that young people might develop interest in.


The history of the ceramics industry in Arita stretches over more than 400 years with many ups and downs in its prosperity over the centuries. Within the more recent history after WW2, the early 1990s have been the prime for ceramics production and sales in Arita but since the burst of the economic bubble in Japan, similar to many other industries, the ceramics industry has been in a state of recession. The crafts industry in Japan struggles to find new craftspeople as the population shrinks and the proportion of young people choosing an academic career over a career in crafts is rising. With the ceramics industry as its biggest industry, the effects of that tendency can be strongly felt in Arita. Therefore, the ceramics industry and the town itself are experimenting with different means to raise the popularity of the ceramics industry as a field of employment. The partnership with APU is one of the measures to promote and support the ceramics industry.

Tour through one of Arita`s kilns
Copyright © Arita Town 2022


Besides the two-week internship mentioned above, Arita’s local government and APU also work on other projects as part of their partnership. In November 2021, they held an event, for which 13 students from APU spent a weekend in Arita. They learned about the ceramics industry and also got in touch with local residents. They gave presentations in front of elementary school children introducing their home countries and took part in group discussions with locals interested in international exchange.

Cultural experience during the Hiina Festival in Arita
Copyright © Arita Town 2022


Even though the history of the partnership between Arita Town and APU is still rather short, a strong connection has already developed. Especially when keeping in mind that due to the Covid-19 pandemic it is much more complicated to develop new partnerships and connections than usual, it is remarkable how active the exchange between Arita and APU has become in less than two and half years. May this connection become even stronger in the future and produce results satisfying all parties involved.

Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, https:// apu.ac.jp/home/news/article/?storyid=3145 (last viewed on March 3rd, 2022)

Official Journal of Arita Town, December 2019


Vincent Heuser received his bachelor’s degree from Hamburg University with a thesis on “Japan after the triple disaster 2011: The revitalization of the Tōhoku area”. He currently works as coordinator for international relations (CIR) in the JET-Program at the municipal hall of Arita-chō.

Guest Contribution: “The winds sure are strong, right?”: Tales from a post-2011 Fukushima

by Lynn Ng

In April 2019, I made my first trip into Fukushima on a friend’s spontaneous invitation – a week-long trip I never imagined would turn into an MA, and now doctoral research project. On a late afternoon in end-April, I arrived at Odaka station and was greeted by the station master. “The winds sure are strong, right? Please take care,” he said as I handed him my ticket. Heeding his words, I cautiously pulled the doors open and stepped out of the station expecting “strong winds” but was met with nothing more than a mild breeze. With the station master’s strange warning stuck to my mind, I slowly made my way to the café where my friend would meet me.

The colorful koinobori that welcomed me right outside the station
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2019

At the quiet café, with all due social awkwardness, I’d blurted out “the winds sure are strong, huh?” to the café owner. The owner looked up, glanced in the direction of the station, and commented that, yes, the winds were indeed strong. A silent minute passed before he began a lengthy explanation of why the winds were strong: The lands beyond the station (towards the coast) used to be farmlands protected by windbreaks – the rows of trees that shelter the farms from coastal winds. After 3/11, the trees felled and unobstructed coastal winds now blow freely into the town.

As an environmental biologist, my first instinct then was to question this exaggerated range of windbreaks. Still, I held my tongue. Instead, I asked how he knew this information, and what it was like growing up in this area before the triple disaster. To my surprise, he was from urban Tokyo and had never been to Fukushima until 2016. And thus, my curiosities were piqued – what was an urbanite such as him doing in rural post-disaster Fukushima?

Later in the week, the café owner introduced me to his friend who offered to give me a tour around town. She drove me past rolling hills of sunflowers and canola, with wind turbines turning far in the background. She told me about the town’s plan to develop into Japan’s canola-town, since canola plants are sturdy and grow quickly, and thus can very efficiently absorb contaminants in the soil. I’d silently scoffed at her comment, not because of canola’s capabilities in decontaminating the soils, but because Japan’s canola-town is a crown already claimed by the town [1] in Hokkaido in which I lived for three years. In that brief moment, standing amongst the canola flowers in Odaka, I had felt immensely protective of the place I had called home.

Canola fields in Odaka
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2019

Again, I kept my mouth shut. I instead redirected the conversation to anecdotes of the countryside. We joked about hazardous elderly drivers before she admitted that she missed having movie theaters nearby. I would from here on learn that she came here from metropolitan Nagoya. And from here, my curiosities spiraled out of control – What were urbanites such as her and the café owner doing in rural post-disaster Fukushima? Were there more of them? Are they an isolated bubble of I-turners? How integrated were they into the larger population? What else do they do here? Do they participate in the region’s revitalization programs? Out of all of Japan’s regions, why Fukushima?

Tomioka will not lose! And neither will my spirit in untangling the complex Fukushima web!
Copyright © Lynn Ng 2020

Over the months after this trip, I developed these first questions into a full MA project. With every return trip I made to Fukushima, I met more I- and U-turners (or in Fukushima’s terms, F-turners [2]) and learned more narratives. I would learn that the complexity of Fukushima’s nuclear exclusion zones extends far beyond population movements and Becquerel-Sieverts, and traverses into domains of hope and belonging. Now as a doctoral candidate at GEAS in Berlin, I approach the phenomenon of urban-rural migration into Fukushima with the same curiosity, and cannot wait to dive in even deeper than before.


Takikawa has been home to Japan’s largest canola fields for seven straight years.Takikawa City (2021). Nanohana ni tsuite [About Canola]. Available at: https://www.city.takikawa.hokkaido.jp/230keizai/03kankourenkei/10menu/nanohana.html

“F-Turn” is Fukushima Prefecture’s project at promoting U-I-J turns into Fukushima. Fukushima Prefecture (2022). F-tān [F-Turn]. Available at: https://www.f-turn.jp/