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Japanese suburbs return to spotlight in the era of coronavirus

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                A woman wearing a face mask walks under the yellow leaves of ginko trees in Yokohama, Japan.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    A woman wearing a face mask walks under the yellow leaves of ginko trees in Yokohama, Japan.

TOKYO >> Kamigo Neopolis is a suburban district in the hills of Yokohama about 25 miles from central Tokyo. Here, the landscape is speckled with old houses and shuttered shops. It is one of many large-scale “new towns” that sprang up across Japan in the 1970s. Now, areas such as this one are not so new anymore; rather, they are aging along with an ever- graying population.

The popularity of such suburban districts had been declining as dual-income households increased and the desire to live close to workplaces rose.

But in the past year, the pandemic has caused workers to consider the benefits of living outside the city, away from high infection risks, and there is interest in this district once more. Telecommuting options also add to the allure.

“Buses used to be jam-packed during rush hour in both the morning and the evening,” said Nobuyuki Yoshii, 73, leader of a council tasked with rejuvenating the district. “We hope this area can become lively again, even if that revitalization were to be triggered by the novel coronavirus.”

Neopolis’ population began dropping two decades ago, as children in the district grew up. Since then, area schools have merged or closed, and many shops and restaurants have shut down. Today, more than half of Neopolis’s population is age 65 and older, and it is ironically called an “old town.”

In April, when Japan declared a state of emergency, the district’s prospects began looking up. According to housing website Suumo, page views for newly built, stand-alone properties in Sakae Ward, Yokohama, where Neopolis is located, jumped 60%. In July, views were up 90%.

Other old towns, which number about 2,900, are generating similiar interest.

“Suburban cities and towns, including ‘new town’ districts, are convenient places to live and have a nice environment,” said Yoichi Ikemoto, Suumo editor-in-chief. “The recent trend may become a new current in the movement of people away from urban centers.”

In the meantime, locals are breathing new life into their communities.

In October, Neopolis opened a convenience store staffed by residents. The goal: establishing the store as a central meeting place. To tackle the inconvenience of a decline in bus service, they are experimenting with electric carts and wheelchairs as transportation options.

According to one report, more people moved out of Tokyo than into it in May, July, August and September. Likewise, office vacancies in central Tokyo rose for eight consecutive months last year. A similar trend is occurring in Nagoya and Osaka as well.

Overflow Inc., a firm that connects IT engineers with companies, had planned to relocate its head office but closed it instead. Now, the company’s 100 employees telecommute.

“We found that we can do our work at home,” said CEO Yuto Suzuki. “We thought it would be easier to have discussions and increase our opportunities if our office was located in central Tokyo. But we’ve completely changed that viewpoint.”

Such trends could alter Japan’s city landscape, said professor Kazuo Mizuno of Hosei University, an expert in the economies of urban areas. “This may be the dawn of a new era, when more uniformly sized cities exist in various parts of the country.”

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