Japan’s Overpopulated, but…Japan also has Ghost Towns? Here’s What’s Really Going On

A bit about my background living in Japan’s biggest cities, as well as a suburb in Japan.

Hi. My name is Evan. I moved to Osaka, Japan in early 2015 to study at a Japanese language school, eventually moving on to studying at Kwansei Gakuin University from 2016 to 2020. Now I’m working in Tokyo. If you want to read about my experience studying at the Japanese language school I wrote an article all about that experience, and also wrote about my experience studying at a university in Japan.

My university “zemi” class, phot taken in 2018

I’ve been living in Japan for close to 7 years now, and have lived in a decent variety of places. In fact, one of the first places I moved to in Japan was in Osaka’s supposedly very seedy “minami” south underbelly, and was probably one of the strangest places I’ve ever lived in. I actually wrote a detailed account of that…eye opening experience living in one of Osaka’s strangest neighborhoods, which you can read here.

One area I lived in Japan, and how location affects your experience with Japan’s population density.

Admittedly, most of my experience in Japan have been pretty heavily city-centric. That being said, I did live in front of a rice field for over 4 years, and would wake up to the sound of farm equipment and the insects at work trying to invade the various entranceways to my tiny Japanese apartment. If you’re wondering how I could “hear” insects, you probably haven’t seen the gargantuan size of the legs on some of the bugs in Japan. For your own protection I’ll spare you from adding any images…(lol)

The area outside my apartment, Nishinomiya. Photo taken in 2016.

That was when I was living in Nishinomiya, Japan, a key central suburb firmly in between Osaka and Kobe city. It’s about 20 minutes each way to either city, so it was a great location, being close enough to head out to Osaka or Kobe, but still removed enough to have some of that countryside charm. Near my apartment, streets had few cars, houses were spacious and spread apart, and kids would play near the local parks and shrines. It was a peaceful area to live in, if not a little bit removed from the bustle of the cities around it.

Japan is SUPER CROWDED…expect for when it isn’t? An example from my life of Japan’s strange population density phenomenon.

Nishinomiya was the perfect place to observe the strange phenomenon of Japan’s modern population density crisis. One only had to walk 5 minutes from Nishinomiya station to become lost in what seemed like a never-ending expanse of abandoned farms, quaint neighborhood alleys, and large unattended department stores. 8 lane-wide highways would be encompassed on both sides by empty shrines and service stations, with mountains and a lone Tsutaya in the distance (Japan’s version of blockbuster, which is still hanging on by a thread.) However, head back to Nishinomiya station and you’ll instantly come face to face with the reality of Japan’s modern population density issue.

Population density in Nishinomiya, Japan. In Nishinomiya, life revolves around Nishinomiya Gardens.

Exterior of Nishinomiya Gardens

Next to Nishinomiya Station is Nishinomiya Gardens, an expansive modern shopping mall that dominates the area’s economy and social lives of all Nishinomiya residents. If you live in Nishinomiya, visits to Nishinomiya Gardens is likely a part of your everyday routines. Head to any shop in Nishinomiya Gardens or any of the surrounding area and you will quickly realize an unfortunate reality: Every place is super crowded. There are families everywhere!

And, if you’re like me and have a hard time with suffocating crowds, you’re now suffering from a bit of anxiety. Only 5 minutes earlier I was walking around abandoned shrines and empty roads, and now I can’t even find enough space to take a breath. This is the reality of much of the infrastructure in Japan, and this is not an isolated incident by any means. I thought this example with Nishinomiya painted the picture well, but this situation is only more extreme in Japan’s bigger cities.

Did you know that Japan has a huge number of ghost towns and abandoned buildings? But, wait…I thought Japan was overcrowded?

In fact, did you know that Japan has an ever-growing number of ghost towns? This is actually one of the most pressing issues in the country today, as Japan’s aging population (Japan is the most aging population in the world) along with a lot of societal factors driving young people to Japan’s major cities compounds this issue even more. Along with ghost towns, Japan also has a really high number of abandoned ‘ghost houses’. So much to the extent where the Japanese government has begun giving away many of these properties for free as their previous owners pass away. So, why wouldn’t more people jump at the chance of receiving a free house? There are many many reasons, but I believe there are a few main factors. First, these houses are typically washiki style wooden houses (Lit. means traditional Japanese style), meaning many of these houses are not only dilapidated, but most of them are also made entirely of wood, making it very difficult to install modern appliances and air conditioning to name a few things. The second, and more prominent reason in my opinion, are the many societal factors that push more and more young Japanese people to move to Tokyo each year. Let’s take a look at a few of these factors that lead to underpopulation in Japan’s countryside, and overpopulation in Tokyo.

Every area in Japan except for Tokyo is seeing population decline. Why most people in Japan inevitably end up in Tokyo, and why Tokyo is so crowded.

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo. I used to cross this everyday to get to my workplace.

Around 40% of the people living in Tokyo weren’t born in the region, but instead migrated there later in life. Why? This is a complex question, but some personal experiences opened my eyes to a few major reasons. Throughout my time going through Japan’s job hunting process as an undergraduate student at Kwansei Gakuin University outside of Osaka, one of the reasons why Tokyo is so mindbogglingly crowded (The Greater Tokyo Area is the most populous urban area in the world.)

That’s a LOT of people, and you can definitely feel it on some of Tokyo’s more crowded train lines.

Throughout my experience going through Japan’s insane job hunting system (Something I would love to dedicate a massive article to in the future.), it became clear that the structure of this job hunting system itself was one of the primary reasons why so many Japanese students early 20’s end up moving to Tokyo and eventually settling down there.

How Japan’s job hunting system leads to Tokyo’s overpopulation.

Photo taken literally minutes after one of my key interviews. You can see the stress in my eyes. Especially the left one! (lol)

Japan’s job hunting system was traditionally designed behind the philosophy of shushinkoyou or “lifetime employment.” In Japan, despite the reality that 40% of new graduates will leave their first job within the first year, there is still this remaining attitude within the older generation in particular that the company you choose is meant to be a lifelong commitment. This has relaxed a bit in recent years to be more of a standard of toriaezu sannen or “At least 3 years.” Go on any recruitment site in Japanese and a HUGE portion of job listings will say “3 years experience.” It’s a bit of a standard within the country, to prove to others that you were able to make it through this initial three years. This often leaves new graduates with a feeling of helplessness, as almost all companies in Japan will send you cross country to their headquarters for typically a year of jack-of-all-trades training.

So…why Tokyo?

Photo taken from Tokyo Sky Tree, 2018

And guess what? A HUGE percentage of companies in Japan are headquartered in Tokyo. This means that upon graduation most new members of the workforce are expected to move to Tokyo for training! I couldn’t find this exact statistic, but I remember reading a few years back that over 50% of new graduates move to Tokyo for work training after graduation. I was a a bit surprised. This number seemed too low. Actually, I moved to Tokyo myself for this exact reason after living in the Osaka area for over 5 years. With so many new graduates moving to Tokyo each year, and no signs of this system changing anytime soon, Tokyo has a steady supply of new migrants who will bolster the population, make areas more crowded, and contribute to the population decline of their hometowns. In fact, even large cities like Osaka and Fukuoka seen continual population decline year by year, while Tokyo continues to get more crowded by the year. It’s a viscous cycle, and is a problem with no real person to blame.

Is Tokyo overcrowded? Does this make it difficult to live in the city?

And, don’t get me wrong, Tokyo is a great city to live in. The population density can be avoided at times if you know where to go, when to travel, and the means to get there, etc. I like living in Tokyo, despite all of the setbacks. However, the government is extremely aware of this issue, and is trying to create more incentives to get young people to move to the countryside and outside of Tokyo all of the time. It’s an issue that really needs to be experienced to be fully understood, I believe, since so much of social life in Japan is dependent on the infrastructure of major areas, and major train station stations in particular. If you are interested in reading more about the lifestyle in Tokyo, as well as how the Tokyo area is defined (It’s actually pretty crazy how they measure this) , I wrote an article about all of that here.

Conclusion: Is the population density in Japan really so bad? Should you move to the countryside?

I would really say that you get used to Japan’s population density over time, and will learn how to adapt your lifestyle to it and still be happy. Everything becomes a double-edged sword. Sure, you might never get to sit while you’re riding the train in Tokyo, but hey, that makes for some great exercise. Two birds and one stone right? It might be difficult to find places to get away from crowds in the major cities, but that also leads to a society where people are constantly aware of those around them for better or worse. Japanese people are incredibly considerate, and are always looking around at the people around them. The question really is, can you make that work for your lifestyle? I did, but it did take some time.

If you are interested in learning more about what people do for fun in Japan, and how this population density has influenced the entertainment industry of Japan…

I wrote a whole article on that below, which I think would be a great natural continuation of this article. Please feel free to check it out!

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