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BOOK REVIEW | 'Urban Migrants in Rural Japan: Between Agency and Anomie in a Post-Growth Society' by Susanne Klien

This well-researched study explores the gap between expectations of a leisurely life in rural Japan, its reality, and one’s relationship with society.



In late January this year, the Ministry of Internal Affairs Communications announced that the population of Tokyo and other major cities increased. This was due to migration to Tokyo from other parts of Japan and abroad. Since Tokyo represents 30 percent of the Japanese population, this may not be surprising. But during the early years of the COVID pandemic, there were expectations that more and more people would choose to leave the crowded metropolis and live in rural Japan.

Rural migration is hoped to help revitalize communities that face severe population declines. It is also a good step in risk mitigation.

The iconic Ginza shopping area of Tokyo at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Exodus that Never Quite Happened

In 2021, more people actually left Tokyo's 23 wards than moved to them. But during 2022, the pre-COVID trend returned. Namely, 21,420 more people moved to Tokyo than left it (38,000 if you include the entire Tokyo Metropolitan Area).

Many of those moving to Tokyo are doing so for the first time, for work or school. However, there are also those who elected before or during COVID to work remotely from the countryside, then subsequently decided to return to Tokyo.

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The book cover of "Urban Migrants in Rural Japan" by Susanne Klien (SUNY Press)

Although Susanne Klien wrote her fascinating book before COVID set in, its descriptions of the difficulties for some migrants from the cities are quite relevant. It explains why the number of urban migrants to the countryside during COVID never reached the expectations of forecasters.

Klien is a native of Austria and Associate Professor of Modern Japanese Studies at Hokkaido University. As her book shows, she has spent much time thinking about these issues. It is well-researched, both in the literature and in the fieldwork she conducted. She traveled to Shimane, Tokushima, Niigata, Miyagi, and Iwate on multiple occasions for interviews, in addition to within her adopted prefecture of Hokkaido.

“The Dance of the Landing Crane” by Aya Oikawa, taken at Lake Furenko, Nemuro City, Hokkaido (© Sankei)


The book has eight chapters and an Introduction. The chapters are:

  1. Lifestyle Migration and Mobility: Negotiating Urban Lifestyles in Rural Communities
  2. The Countryside between Aging, Lack of Perspectives, and Creative Depopulation through the Lens of Female Settlers
  3. Post-Growth Forms of Living and Working: Countryside as Experimental Ground and Social Imaginary
  4. Between Agency and Anomie, Possibility and Probability: Lifestyle Migrants and the Neoliberal Moment
  5. Convergence of Work and Leisure: Blessing or Plight
  6. Liminal Belonging and Moratorium Migration: Lifestyle Migrants between Limbo and Purpose of Life
  7. Social Entrepreneurs between Self-Determination and Structural Constraints: Examples from Miyagi and Tokushima Prefectures
  8. Deconstructing Japan's Rural-Urban Divide
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“Village Folk Festival” by Ichiro Tsumanuki, taken in Iide City, Yamagata Prefecture. (© Sankei)

Japan as a 'Post-Growth Society'

Klien's academic interests include intangible cultural property, rural Japan, lifestyle migration, transnational mobility, regional revitalization, and new modes of working and living. She is well-read in each of these areas, and carefully introduces the reader to new terminology, whether academic jargon (of which there is quite a bit) or Japanese terms.

The author emphasizes two concepts throughout the book. The first is Japan as a "post-growth society." This can be defined as a rejection of the "sacrificing of individual interests" mantra of postwar economic growth in Japan "for the good of large-scale entities toward activities that combine personal growth, social innovation, contribution, and challenge" (p. 11). The second is "work-life balance" — easy to understand but often difficult to achieve for the subjects of her study.

“We love Chosa (Festival)!” by Toshikatsu Shinohara, taken in Mitoyo City, Kagawa Prefecture (© Sankei)

What Urban Migrants Seek

Klien finds there are many types of settlers or migrants. Lifestyle migrants "relocate for noneconomic reasons with the aim of leading a more meaningful life" (p. 2).

Moratorium migrants seek a "grace period." They might be "torn between societal expectations of stable employment, their own ideas about creating freelance jobs for themselves, and the struggle of turning personal fantasies into viable realities" (p. 79).

Circumstantial migrants are those whose "circumstances shaped their actions and relocations" (p. 102). She even includes nomads.


One aspect of Klien's study was particularly interesting and confirmed my own observations. Particularly talented migrants, especially those who were on the verge of burning out in urban settings and wanted a quieter setting or more relaxed pace, ended up getting busy again. This was due to their own workaholic personality, having to straddle two communities (rural for living and urban for working), or having ended up establishing a new business or framework in their adopted community that made them even busier than before. 

Klien predicts that the narratives within the book "as unsettling as [they] may be … provide us with valuable insights into the gradual, if slow diversification of Japanese society that … will result in formative changes in lifestyle and work nodes in Japan soon and in the future" (p. 184).

For those interested in these issues, I wholeheartedly recommend her labor of love. I look forward to her future research as well.

“Winter Solstice Weather” by Shigeru Yamaga, taken in Nagiso City, Nagano Prefecture. (© Sankei)

About the Book:

Title: Urban Migrants in Rural Japan: Between Agency and Anomie in a Post-Growth Society

Author: Susanne Klien 

Publisher: SUNY Press (2020)

Paperback: 9781438478067, $32.95 USD (2021)

Hardback: 9781438478050, $95.00 USD (2020)


Reviewed by: Robert D Eldridge