Simona Zollet
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Urban-to-rural lifestyle migrants in Japanese island communities
Balancing quality of life expectations with reality

Japanese peripheral rural communities have been undergoing a dramatic demographic and social-economic decline, with many facing the concrete threat of disappearing over the next decades. Recently, however, there has been an increase in the number of people moving from urban to rural areas, primarily for lifestyle-related reasons. These rural in-migrants typically seek lifestyle change and more meaningful ways of living, driven by disillusionment with a stagnating economy and growing social and economic precarity. This chapter discusses the findings of a research project on domestic rural in-migrants in the islands of the Seto Inland Sea in Western Japan. The research focuses on people who migrated out of lifestyle reasons and are now living on the islands. The chapter qualitatively explores the ways in which respondents imagine, construct and (re)negotiate their desired lifestyles according to individual ideals of what constitutes quality of life, seen through the challenges and opportunities arising from living in small island communities. The results highlight the different ways in which in-migrants are experimenting with alternative rural lifestyles, and their struggles and successes in balancing economic and social needs with non-capitalistic notions of quality of life and well-being.


Japanese peripheral rural communities have been undergoing a dramatic demographic and socio-economic decline, with many facing the concrete threat of disappearing over the next decades. This condition is the outcome of decades of out-migration, lack of local employment opportunities and cuts in essential public services, a situation similar to that of marginal or remote rural areas in other post-industrial countries (Li et al., 2019). To counter these issues, small towns and municipalities across Japan have been engaging in revitalisation projects, many of which focus on attracting new residents or encouraging former outmigrants to return. Hope is being placed on in-migrants from urban areas, considered vital for bringing much-needed population and human resources back to declining small towns and villages. In parallel, Japan has seen an increase in people moving from urban to rural areas seeking lifestyle change and more meaningful ways of living, driven by disillusionment with a stagnating economy and growing social and economic precarity (Klien, 2020). This phenomenon can be likened to the broader concept of ‘lifestyle migration’ discussed in the international literature (Benson, 2009).

This chapter presents a qualitative exploration of domestic urban-to-rural lifestyle migrants on the islands of Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, particularly concerning their construction of quality of life. The analysis shows how respondents imagine, construct and (re)negotiate their desired lifestyles according to individual ideals of what constitutes a good quality of life, seen through the challenges and opportunities arising from living in small island communities. The results highlight the different ways in which in-migrants are experimenting with alternative rural lifestyles and their struggles and successes in balancing economic and social needs with post-capitalist notions of quality of life and well-being. Moreover, respondents’ quality of life is influenced by material and non-material elements which shape their post-migration everyday experiences, relationships and practices.

Changing rurality, lifestyle migration and the search for a better quality of life

Population decline and ageing in marginal and remote rural areas, driven by the diminishing economic importance of resource-based industries and by long-standing processes of rural out-migration, are nearly ubiquitous issues in post-industrial economies, from Japan to Europe to North America (Bock, 2016; Feldhoff, 2013; McManus et al., 2012; Stalker & Phyne, 2014). A vast body of research, mainly rooted in the European experience, has focused on re-imagining these rural territories and their communities as multifunctional spaces (Renting et al., 2009), characterised by a partial shift away from primary production and towards more consumption-based activities, such as recreation and tourism (Almstedt et al., 2014; Cloke, 2007). Research is also showing a growing interest in rural community revitalisation through creativity-based strategies, often connected to attracting a ‘creative class’ of urban-to-rural migrants to the countryside (Argent et al., 2011; Herslund, 2012).

These discourses can be further connected to the concept of lifestyle migration, an umbrella term that encompasses various phenomena related to the ‘spatial mobility of relatively affluent individuals of all ages, moving either part-time or full-time to places that are meaningful because, for various reasons, they offer the potential of a better quality of life’ (Benson, 2009, p. 2). A popular concept in the lifestyle and amenity migration literature is that of the rural idyll (Bell, 2006), which encompasses many of the elements behind the search for a better life, given that rural areas are generally constructed as having a slower, more relaxed lifestyle, more space and natural amenities, lower cost of living and a stronger feeling of community (Benson & O’Reilly, 2009). Lifestyle migrants also tend to describe quality of life and self-fulfilment as connected to having a more meaningful way of life, frequently expressed by the desire of being ‘one’s own boss’, achieving work–life balance and pursuing personal passions and interests (Benson, 2009; Gosnell & Abrams, 2009). Consequently, many lifestyle migrants are self-employed – often following radical career changes – both by choice and because self-employment frequently represents the only available option to realise a desired lifestyle in rural areas (Akgün et al., 2011; Bell & Jayne, 2010; Herslund, 2012). At the same time, many rural settings have been – or are being – constructed as sites for ‘“alternative” lifestyles for those disillusioned with urban living’ (Kneafsey et al., 2001, p. 308), a trend that is especially pronounced across global North countries (Halfacree & Rivera, 2012; Wilbur, 2013).

Some forms of lifestyle migration have negative repercussions on receiving communities, notably because they can trigger gentrification processes that cause rising property prices and social conflict (Kondo et al., 2012; Solana-Solana, 2010). However, in-migrants to rural areas, in particular those who establish small and micro-businesses, can also be potential catalysts for social, economic and even environmental regeneration (Bosworth & Atterton, 2012; Carson & Carson, 2018; Pinto-Correia et al., 2017). Lifestyle migrants also play a relational role, as they develop networks that extend outside the local area and bring in contacts, skills and experiences that can create new linkages, as well as new flows of people, ideas and products between urban and rural areas (Mayer et al., 2016).

Less clear, however, is how these processes contribute to the construction of lifestyle migrants’ quality of life in their rural destination. Even though post-migration rural lives tend to be perceived as having a better quality of life compared to before migration, lifestyle migrants’ everyday life experiences, as well as how ‘the reasoning and circumstances leading to migration … inform experiences of life within the destination’ (Benson & O’Reilly, 2009), remain under-researched. This is also true in the Japanese context, which presents the additional challenge of not fitting neatly within the Western-based conceptualisation of rural lifestyle migration.

Lifestyle migration and quality of life in rural Japan

In Japan, the speed and scale of ageing and rural decline pose an unprecedented social and economic challenge, worsened by the stark rural–urban demographic imbalance of the Japanese population, one quarter of which is concentrated in the Greater Tokyo Area (Feldhoff, 2013). A recent report on rural depopulation shows that in over 22 per cent of Japan’s 65,000 hamlets, more than half of the residents are over 65 years old (MIC, 2017). These communities are destined to hollow out and eventually become ghost towns in the next decades (Love, 2013; Matanle, 2016).

Efforts to slow this decline have intensified in recent years, including through policies aimed at attracting new residents. One example is the chiiki okoshi kyouryokutai (local revitalisation cooperation group) programme, established in 2009 by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications to support urban residents willing to move to depopulating rural areas and engage in local revitalisation activities (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 2009). Over the past two decades, there has also been an increase in the number of people choosing to relocate to rural areas, despite shortcomings in terms of employment opportunities or service availability (Klien, 2020; Shimojima & Ohe, 2016).

Unlike in Western contexts, where in-migration to rural areas is often viewed negatively, in Japan the ability to attract new residents is seen as essential for the survival of small rural communities (Feldhoff, 2013). Moreover, Japan does not have a pre-existing significant counter-urbanisation trend as identified in other contexts (Dwight Hines, 2010; Halfacree, 2012), making it challenging to draw parallels between the dynamics of domestic urban-to-rural migration in Japan and those observed in the international literature. For example, gentrification and displacement of local people associated with lifestyle migration has mainly been identified and researched in an Anglo-American context (Bosworth, 2010; Halfacree, 2008) and in relation to North–South migration (Benson & O’Reilly, 2009), but a scan of the Japanese literature does not reveal significant impacts associated with these processes.

Similarities with the international lifestyle migration literature do emerge in the discussion of Japanese rural in-migrants’ motivations, centred around the pursuit of a better quality of life and more meaningful ways of living. Young Japanese people, in particular, are increasingly disillusioned with the life path that is traditionally expected of them, meaning full-time employment as white-collar employees, an aspect that is to a large extent driving lifestyle migration to rural places (Klien, 2020; Rosenberger, 2014; Sasaki, 2018). Many in-migrants start new businesses, either as a means to support themselves and their families economically or as a way to fulfil individual aspirations (Qu, Coulton, & Funck, 2020). Finally, a growing number of in-migrants are also motivated by the desire for downsized, more sustainable lifestyles, which often involve engaging in sustainable farming either as a lifestyle business or for self-consumption (Osawa, 2013; Rosenberger, 2017; Zollet & Maharjan, 2021).

Given that Japan is one of the countries where the compounded effects of rural demographic and economic decline have been manifesting the earliest, it represents important ground for investigating new modes of living in rural areas and small towns (Feldhoff, 2013; Matanle, 2016). Furthermore, since these issues are starting to affect an increasing number of countries across the world, research on why new residents move to rural communities, and how their quality of life is affected as a result, becomes crucial. At the same time, focusing on Japan offers a novel outlook on this phenomenon from a non-Western perspective. Research focused on lifestyle migrants’ quality of life in rural Japan, with exceptions such as Klien (2015, 2020) and Rosenberger (2017) is still scarce; given the issues of rural ageing, research on rural quality of life has mainly focused on the elderly population (Sewo Sampaio et al., 2013; Tsuji & Khan, 2016). Issues such as children’s education and job opportunities, which are highly relevant to in-migrants’ quality of life, as well as non-material aspects constituting quality of life, remain under-researched.

Study area

The Seto Inland Sea of Japan contains almost 3,000 small islands, several hundred of which are inhabited. Despite not always being ‘remote’ in terms of physical distance, many of them are not connected to the mainland by bridges, and access through ferry transportation is limited. The availability of essential services (schools, hospitals, grocery stores) is also limited and has been deteriorating further due to the steady population decline that characterises most island communities in the Seto Inland Sea (Qu, Mccormick, & Funck, 2020; Zollet & Qu, 2019). As a consequence, attracting in-migrants and developing alternative employment sources, such as tourism, especially through small businesses, is seen as vital by policymakers (Qu, Coulton, & Funck, 2020). An important aspect to note is that, in the eyes of Japanese people, these islands – despite being called the ‘Mediterranean of Japan’ by virtue of their climate – generally do not have the idyllic or exotic image of other island destinations around the world, and therefore there has been relatively little expansion – either past or present – in terms of tourism development or gentrification (Qu, 2019).

This study was conducted on eleven islands belonging to four of the prefectures facing the Seto Inland Sea (Hiroshima, Okayama, Ehime and Yamaguchi) (Figure 5.1). The islands were selected according to the following criteria: (1) a mix of islands connected to the mainland either by bridge or by ferry; and (2) islands where it was possible to identify and contact potential respondents. For each of the islands, we conducted a minimum of one interview (for the smaller islands) and up to seven interviews (for the larger ones).


The results presented in this chapter are part of a wider research project about domestic lifestyle in-migrants in Japan and their role in maintaining the vitality of small communities in rural areas. The main criteria for selecting the respondents were the following: people who had recently in-migrated (within ten years); who had relocated permanently or semi-permanently to the islands from urban areas; and who had moved to the islands due to lifestyle reasons, meaning that they were not driven by external forces such as family issues or job relocation.

Data was collected primarily through semi-structured interviews with in-migrants and participant observation during repeated field visits and on-site events. This choice addressed the need to understand the motivations behind participants’ choices and the factors contributing to their construction of quality of life within the specific context in which in-migrants live and work (Harvey et al., 2012). To identify potential respondents, we used a mix of purposive and snowball sampling. A total of thirty-six semi-structured interviews with in-migrants (including some couples who were interviewed together) were conducted between September 2018 and March 2019. The interviews were conducted in Japanese (N=31) and English (N=5). Subsequently, the Japanese interviews were transcribed by a native speaker and translated. The transcriptions were analysed to identify common themes and emergent themes and patterns connected to in-migrants’ quality of life construction, related to both material and non-material aspects relevant to their experience of moving and living on the islands.

Among the interviewees, 46 per cent were male and 34 per cent female, while the remaining 20 per cent was composed of couples who had relocated to the islands together. Most were in their 30s and 40s. The majority had no previous ties with the island they chose (I-turn), while a few had family ties to their island (mainly through their grandparents) and had decided to return or to move to their family’s place of origin after a prolonged period of living elsewhere (U-turn). Many had lived in one or more of Japan’s major cities, such as Tokyo or Osaka. Respondents can be roughly classified into three (overlapping) categories according to their occupation: organic farming, creative professions (photographers, artists, craft makers) and hospitality-related businesses (guesthouses, cafes, restaurants). This distribution finds correspondence with the literature on urban to rural migration, where creativity-based occupations are common among lifestyle migrants (Kneafsey et al., 2001). Similarly, occupations connected to land-based ‘alternative’ lifestyles, often involving farming and food production, are also common (Wilbur, 2013).

As supporting data, we used the results of a questionnaire survey conducted among the residents of an ageing island community on one of the islands covered in this paper. The questionnaire focused on life on the island (although mainly in relation to elderly residents). In this chapter, however, we use only the results of one question pertaining specifically to quality of life, and mainly as background information to introduce the qualitative interviews.

Results and discussion

Respondents’ motivations for moving to rural communities

The most common motivation behind respondents’ choice to move to rural island communities was the desire to reclaim the possibility to live in ways mostly denied to them in urban spaces, such as growing their own food, experiencing nature and community more directly and having the possibility to raise and care for children outside the hectic rhythm and pressure of employed city life. Extremely common across interviews was the search for a simpler, ‘slower’ and downsized lifestyle in a more natural living environment. Although the islands’ nature and warm climate did play a role in attracting in-migrants, they appeared quite different from the wealthy ‘hedonistic residential tourists’ (Benson & O’Reilly, 2009, p. 612) described in the North–South migration literature, as most respondents had modest middle-class backgrounds and were not retirees. The desire to grow healthy food also ranked high among in-migrants’ motivations (fourteen interviewees were doing organic farming either as a full-time or part-time occupation). This trend has intensified since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, which made many Japanese people uneasy about food sourced through conventional channels (Teoh, 2016). Masayuki,1 one of the respondents, decided to move to an island in 2012, and describes his choice as follows:

My child started going to kindergarten in 2010, but in 2011 there was the Great East Japan Earthquake. At that time I started wondering if it was a good idea to keep working in Tokyo, and I decided that I wanted to have a lifestyle where I could grow my own food.

In parallel, most respondents also stated that one of the main reasons that motivated them to move was the possibility of being their own boss and exploring personal interests, values and ideas. Moving to rural areas was seen as opening new possibilities to embark on ‘lifestyle experiments’ with relatively few risks involved, including opening new businesses and engaging in what interviewees felt was more meaningful work. In general, they were highly pluri-active and flexible in their work-related choices. Mixed businesses, characterised by frequent redesign and recombination of activities based on external or personal circumstances, were common, exemplifying a process of creative bricolage that is common among Japanese rural in-migrants. Bricolage has been defined as ‘making do’ using ‘whatever is at hand’ (Levi-Strauss, 1966, p. 11) and can in this case be applied to the creative use and (re)combination of available skills and resources for lifestyle-related purposes.

Material aspects contributing to quality of life: infrastructure and access to services

We start this section with the findings of the community survey, specifically those of a question asking respondents to rate the importance of a number of elements contributing to the quality of life of island community members. The survey received thirty-eight completed questionnaires. Among the respondents, 61 per cent were local long-term residents and 39 per cent were in-migrants. The results are shown in Figure 5.2. As the chart shows, respondents’ top concerns were the existence of medical services and related infrastructure (such as clinics and nursing homes), followed by transportation, both of which were indicated as ‘very important’ by over 50 per cent of respondents. Medical services and infrastructure, in particular, were the main concern, with 92 per cent of respondents considering them either ‘very important’ or ‘important’. This reflects an emphasis on the needs of the elderly population: people over 65 years old make up 67 per cent of residents in the community, and 31 per cent are more than 80 years old (Kure City, 2019). This reflects a situation that is common to many other island and rural communities.

The interviews with lifestyle migrants further specify the material elements that contribute (either positively or negatively) to their quality of life. While easy and quick access to medical services was often mentioned, it was mainly in relation to the needs of the community as a whole; this is likely related to the relatively young age of respondents, most of whom are in their 30s and 40s. On the other hand, the presence of education services, particularly elementary and middle schools, was a common cause for worry for respondents. In virtually all islands schools have decreased dramatically in the past two decades, with many having only a handful of children and being on the verge of closing or being incorporated with other, more distant ones. As one respondent with two young children commented, ‘when I moved to [town name], there were still elementary and junior high schools, but now that the schools have been integrated … the junior high school is on the next island. This is a big problem for the child-rearing generation’ (female, TV reporter).

The presence (or absence) of high-speed Internet connection was another major factor enabling in-migrants to live on the islands, with some going as far as describing it as a ‘lifeline’. The fact that high-speed Internet coverage is uneven among islands was considered an obstacle for those respondents who depend on fast and reliable Internet access for working and running their businesses. Transportation issues were also frequently mentioned, especially concerning the high cost of ferry services or bridge tolls; however, since most respondents live and work on the islands year-round, this was not perceived as decreasing their overall quality of life, especially thanks to the possibility of making purchases online and to Japan’s cheap and efficient delivery services, as mentioned by this organic farmer: ‘[we go out of the island] once a month. Other than that, honestly ... if we want something, we get it on the Internet. … we rely on deliveries a lot, so we don’t feel that our life is inconvenient.’

In addition, although many respondents admit to having had to change their lifestyle and habits – for example by drastically decreasing activities such as shopping or eating out – they did not feel that this had caused a decrease in their quality of life. On the contrary, most perceived it as something positive: rather than feeling constrained by the island’s physical boundaries, respondents considered them as liberating. They also enjoyed the simplicity of their new life, away from the trappings and over-convenience of urban life. A former Tokyo resident, for example, described wanting something radically different from her previous ‘big city’ life, ‘an inconvenient (fuben) lifestyle’, while another stated that she chose her island based on the fact that it did not have a bridge. In this sense, in-migrants appreciate life on the islands for what it offers and accept its limitations as a reasonable trade-off:

Here … every day I can see the sunset, the moon, the stars, and I can swim in front of my house. [In Tokyo], I’d need to go somewhere else to do that. … for newcomers, if they decide to move to the island it means they already know that life will be different compared to city life (female, in-migration advisor and cafe owner).

Quality of life through downsized consumption, work–life balance and meaningful work

Another common characteristic across respondents was their understanding of quality of life as decoupled from (superfluous) material consumption. A mindset of voluntary simplicity, characterised by efforts to downsize consumption, an emphasis on localised lifestyles and self-sufficiency, emerged from most of the interviews, although to different degrees. While many interviewees were small business owners, most of them were not motivated by the desire to make substantial profits from their business. Economic sustainability was a tool in the construction of their desired lifestyle, rather than the main goal. Most of the respondents had a clear idea of the (relatively low) amount of money they needed to earn in order to make a living on the island. That amount was their goal, as they hoped to leave the remaining time free to pursue other interests, although this was often more aspiration than reality. As Shinji, another newcomer organic farmer, pointed out,

there is lots of happiness that you can find elsewhere. I want to improve my farming efficiency, to earn the amount of money that is necessary for us to live. When we can reach that point, we can spend our time thinking about other [social and environmental] issues, such as plastic pollution …. Now we are still aiming for that point [where we can make enough money], but afterwards we can do that kind of thing.

In parallel, respondents were also motivated by the perceived possibility of combining work, leisure and family life in a more balanced way. The previously mentioned Masayuki, for example, moved away from Tokyo with his wife and young child after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, out of a desire to grow safe food and to spend more time with his son. For three years he worked as a member of the local revitalisation team, a period he used to find farmland and to learn how to grow organic produce and raise chickens, aiming to become as food self-sufficient as possible and to eventually make a living through the sale of his farm products. At the same time, however, he also started working two days a week at a radio station in a relatively large city two hours away from his house, a job he found thanks to his previous experience as a radio host in Tokyo. He describes his two jobs – as a farmer and radio host – as connected to each other and to the experience of living on the island:

It’s enjoyable, being involved in agriculture. When I go to work on the radio …, what I talk about reflects what I learned in the field. I can convey the experience of living in nature …, of feeling the seasons and the flow of time. It was not the same in the city.

Despite his stated desire to balance family life and work, however, it took some time for Masayuki to achieve the desired balance:

In the first year [of doing farming] I went out early in the morning, I brought lunch with me and stayed there until I went home at night. … The reason why I moved here was that I wanted to have more time to spend with my family, but I ended up having less time to spend with my family than when I was in Tokyo!

Eventually, he moved to another part of the island, closer to the farmland he had rented, and gave up the idea of becoming a full-time farmer, opting instead to live as a han-nou han-x2 (half farmer, half ‘something else’). This hybrid lifestyle gave him some financial security through his part-time job, while at the same time enabling him to uphold his desire of doing farming and being close to his family for most of the week. Like Masayuki, many other respondents had waged part-time jobs in addition to their own businesses, which gave them a measure of financial security.

Cases such as Masayuki’s were common among respondents, reflecting the connection between lifestyle migrants’ construction of quality of life and the creative bricolage process occurring in their lives. Underpinning all of this are the characteristics of rural areas and rural communities, which facilitate in-migrants’ process of assembling and recombining their lives in ways unthinkable in urban areas. First, the characteristics of rural contexts make it considerably easier to engage in activities such as food production, foraging and the reuse of unwanted resources such as abandoned farmland, which form much of respondents’ motivations to move to rural areas in the first place. Second, the lower cost of living in rural communities compared to urban areas – in addition to respondents’ own downsized needs – considerably facilitates the creative bricolage process. One of the respondents, a craftsmaker, stated that by living a frugal lifestyle and growing her own food she only needed to spend 12,000 yen per month (approximately 90 euro) to pay for rent and utilities. This situation gives in-migrants freedom to try out new things with relative ease and peace of mind – or, as one respondent put it, with a ‘carefree attitude’ (karui kimochi). Third, the closer-knit relationships within rural communities can represent a safety net in difficult times, even for newcomers. As one respondent commented:

I don’t want to borrow money to do what I want to do, I just use my own money. If that money finishes, I stop. … But if you are in Tokyo, you cannot stop like that because you need a lot of money just to survive. Also, if you have no money, here neighbours will give you vegetables or fruits. But if you are in Tokyo, you don’t have neighbours.

(female, in-migration advisor and cafe owner)

In other words, the characteristics of rural life, combined with in-migrants’ own willingness to adapt and experiment – knowing that it is possible to try things out with relatively few negative consequences – help them shape their life and work in the direction of their desired lifestyle. Shinji’s aspiration for self-sufficiency, however, as well as the account of Masayuki’s trajectory, also show how in-migrants’ quality of life construction is a work in progress, and that reaching the desired balance point can be elusive and subject to frequent renegotiation.

Quality of life through deeper social relations

Another major reason driving lifestyle migrants to the islands was the desire to live more connected lives characterised by stronger social interaction and closeness with others, often contrasted to the alienating feeling of life in large cities. Many respondents, for example, reported an increase in the number of their acquaintances since moving to an island. In most cases, however, in-migrants created stronger social ties with other in-migrants, thanks to the shared experiences and mindsets associated with ‘coming from outside’ and ‘being outsiders’ to the community. Formal and informal networks among in-migrants, either on the same island or on neighbouring ones, were important to obtain practical information and support, and often played a role in attracting new in-migrants to specific islands or communities through social media and word of mouth. In several instances, there was a tendency for in-migrants to cluster, which in turn helps to attract more newcomers, a phenomenon that has been discussed by Zollet and Maharjan (2021) and McGreevy et al. (2021) in the specific context of in-migrant organic farmers’ clusters. Not all in-migrants are the same, however: one of the respondents mentioned that she would like to involve other women who came to the island after marrying local men in activities for the revitalisation of the local community, but she feels that they do not enjoy the island life as much as she does, since they came solely for marriage, rather than out of interest in the possibilities of rural life itself.

The relationship with local people also plays a crucial role in both migrants’ settlement and post-migration’s quality of life construction, in both positive and negative ways. Nearly all respondents agreed that access to key resources – most notably housing – was inescapably tied to processes of negotiation with local community members. Despite the astounding number of vacant houses (akiya) in rural areas (up to or more than 50 per cent of the total in many settlements), most of these houses are not officially available for rent or sale (Takahashi et al., 2014). Many owners are unwilling to sell or rent out their property even if they do not live on the property anymore, often because the house still contains their family altar and they come back to the house once a year for the Obon festival (the Buddhist festival for honouring the spirits of one’s ancestors). Outsiders with no family connections or local acquaintances that can act as go-betweens and guarantors find it very hard to find available housing in liveable condition. In some cases, the process of becoming familiar with the community and earning locals’ trust can take a long time, but most respondents described it as necessary and unavoidable. In addition, this system plays an important role in avoiding or slowing down gentrification processes, while at the same time ensuring that newcomers become, at least to some extent, part of the community. Most respondents ended up finding housing through unofficial community connections after living on the island for a while in shared houses, apartments or other temporary accommodation:

There are so many vacant houses, but it’s difficult to rent them. However, if you live on the island for a while, you start communicating with the people, which creates a relationship of trust, and then you ask if they are willing to lend the house to you. If you suddenly come and look for a house, they won’t lend it to someone they don’t know.

(female, community cafe manager)

A similar process applies to farmland, and this helps to explain why gentrification has not been an issue on most of the islands so far, as the local community exerts relatively tight control on who accesses local resources, and there is usually a preference for renting out property rather than selling it. Once a connection has been established, things become much easier for in-migrants, demonstrating the inextricable connection between material resources (e.g. housing) and non-material ones (social networks): ‘Sometimes you can find a job, a house or a car on the same day, it’s not a rare case. The size of the island is small enough that people know each other and can connect you quickly and smoothly’, one respondent noted.

Building positive relationships with local people was a goal for most respondents, with many being driven to move to rural areas out of the specific desire to contribute to the revitalisation of rural communities through their projects. Several respondents stated that they were trying to create businesses that could provide services to local residents, rather than just to tourists or outside customers. In these cases, in-migrants’ construction of quality of life can benefit locals’ quality of life as well. At the same time, locals’ expectations towards in-migrants may not correspond to the characteristics of newcomers moving into the community (Qu, Coulton & Funck, 2020). This gap can create misunderstandings between locals and in-migrants, which in turn can impact in-migrants’ quality of life in the community. Emblematic in this sense is the case of Kaho; born and raised in a large city, she studied languages at university and lived in Australia for five years. When she went back to Japan, she worked for a few years as a translator before deciding to move to a rural area, due to health issues and a dislike for working a traditional company job and being told what to do. She also admitted to not being a ‘social’ kind of person, which is why she purposefully looked for a remote island community to live in. Kaho learned to make leather crafts, which she sells online and are her current source of income, and tries to live as self-sufficiently as possible by growing much of her own food, making her own clothes and household items, and sourcing what she cannot produce locally. She does not own a car and travels out of the island only a few times a year.

Despite this apparently challenging lifestyle, when asked about the biggest challenge of living on the island her answer was ‘getting people’s understanding’. For example, her neighbours took issue with her way of growing vegetables. In contrast to the immaculately tidy vegetable gardens of island people, her garden was full of weeds. While for Kaho, who learned permaculture in Australia, weeds are part of the farm system, her neighbours saw them as an eyesore, and she was constantly being told to remove them. While she acknowledges that her neighbours probably meant it in a good way, this clashed with what she wanted to do. Nevertheless, she eventually gave in and started removing the weeds. She changed house three times on the same island due to this kind of pressure, and eventually moved to another island altogether. Another area where she found the relationship with locals to be problematic was that people expected her to live a typical ‘Japanese’ lifestyle: be married, have kids, a ‘real’ job and fit in with the community. Even though she moved to the island to escape this kind of conventional lifestyle, she realised that, no matter where, ‘in Japan it’s good to be the same as everyone else’. She compared this to her experience with living in Australia, where ‘it’s good to be different’.

This situation is not uncommon among in-migrants, who often discussed getting well-meaning but overly intrusive advice from locals. This was especially true for female in-migrants, who are scrutinised for being single or not having children, as in Kaho’s case or that of other female interviewees. Another issue relates to the various social obligations to participate in communal activities that are typical of Japanese rural communities. These activities can be seen as overly burdensome, as young newcomers are often expected to take part in several of them regardless of their schedule or preferences. Not all in-migrants, however, perceive these activities negatively. According to Ken and Miho, a young couple who opened a cafe,

with a community comes responsibilities. Compared to city life where you can decide how to spend your free time, on the island you have to take part in various group tasks like beach cleaning, festival preparation, voluntary firefighters. It sometimes feels like a chore, but we consider it a ‘tax’ to live in such a beautiful place.


This chapter has explored the material and immaterial elements contributing to urban-to-rural lifestyle migrants’ quality of life in small Japanese island communities. The findings show the differences between expectations and reality concerning post-migration quality of life once in-migrants settle down in their new community, while also highlighting some differences with lifestyle migration dynamics described in the Western literature. As such, the study adds to our understanding of how lifestyle migrants imagine, perform, reproduce and (re-)negotiate independent lifestyles in peripheral rural communities, including the everyday practices, social relationships and patterns of behaviour that contribute to these processes.

The first aspect discussed in the chapter relates to the material elements that constitute lifestyle migrants’ quality of life. The results showed the adaptability of migrants to ‘inconvenient’ ways of life; on the other hand, they also raise the question of whether these lifestyles can be sustained in the long term, in light of the precarity of the services and infrastructure on the islands threatened by the likely inevitable progression of population decline.

Second, desired lifestyles are hard to achieve in reality, requiring a significant amount of compromise and bricolage. Seeking – and achieving – work–life balance does not always mean ‘working less’, but rather requires the creation of a suitable mix of activities that bring in-migrants as close as possible to their desired lifestyles. Also, thanks to the lower cost of living and the closer social relationships with locals and other in-migrants, island and rural communities can become spaces of experimentation for new modes and ways of living driven by a desire for autonomy, self-sufficiency and simpler, downsized lifestyles.

Finally, we have discussed how these desired lifestyles, and the associated quality of life, are inescapably connected to community relations. The closer social relationships characterising small island communities, while helpful in some cases, can also put pressure on in-migrants to conform and ‘fit in’, thus questioning to what extent in-migrants are able to construct lifestyles that go radically against expected conventions. Despite this, however, the trend of urban-to-rural in-migration continues to gain momentum, driven by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 first (Klien, 2016) and now by the COVID-19 pandemic. These events are aggravating the sense of ‘crisis’ perceived by young Japanese people, leading increasing numbers of them to reconsider their lives vis-à-vis present and future environmental, health, social and economic risks facing Japan. The popularisation of terms such as I-turn and han-nou han-x and policies to support rural in-migrants are also making rural communities more receptive to receiving outsiders, with several places becoming ‘hotspots’ for in-migrants (Klien, 2015; Zollet & Maharjan, 2021). This may also signify that a normalisation of attitudes towards newcomers and their sometimes unconventional lifestyles is underway. It will therefore be important to keep tracking the trajectory of lifestyle migrants’ lives as they negotiate and balance their understanding of quality of life between their own aspirations and those of their families with the local community and their wider social networks. In relation to this, another key topic of future research around urban-to-rural lifestyle migration will be that of trans-migration and ‘relational’ migration (Qu, Coulton, & Funck, 2020), which are becoming increasingly relevant patterns of lifestyle migration in contemporary Japan.


This work was supported by JSPS KAKENHI Grant Number 21K20068.

1 All names are pseudonyms to protect respondents’ privacy.
2 A concept popularised by an influential book by Naoki Shiomi (Shiomi, 2003). Shiomi advocates for a pluri-active lifestyle in which individuals spend part of their time engaging in small-scale agriculture for self-sufficiency, and the remaining time engaging in another occupation of their own choice, possibly one ‘contributing to society’. Shiomi’s work has also been indicated as one of the reasons for the increase in popularity of urban-to-rural lifestyle migration in Japan (Osawa, 2014).


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