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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Back to the Farm

Nov. 24, 2015

Young Japanese urbanites' growing interest in country living is pushing them out of the city to follow family ties in their grandparents’ hometowns. It is a reversal of a trend that began in the 1960s, when big cities were booming as people flocked to metropolises for a taste of the urban lifestyle.

Young people in the countryside abandoned their towns and villages and thronged to the affluent cities. Over the years, Tokyo's population has swelled to more than 13 million.

Now, rural life is becoming an attractive option for city-dwellers. According to a recent online poll, more than 46 percent of teens and people in their 20s living in Tokyo say they would consider moving to the countryside.

Because it is difficult to pick up and move somewhere completely new, many are choosing to return to their roots, in their grandparents’ hometowns. Former Osaka resident Chiemi Osawa, 28, has done just that. She chose Kaiyocho, a quiet, picturesque town on the Pacific coast in Tokushima Prefecture.

Like many rural towns in Japan, the population in Kaiyocho is aging and more than 40 percent of residents are aged 65 or older. Chiemi moved to the area in January to be close to her 87-year-old grandmother, Hisako.

"There’s definitely overlap between the person I want to become and my grandmother,” she says. “When I’m an old woman, I want to be able to do anything myself.” Chiemi is learning from her grandmother about Japanese traditions, including cooking and life on the land.

Chiemi's grandmother has taught her how to grow rice in the first planting at the family field since Hisako’s husband passed away 10 years ago. As it is hard to survive on farming alone, Chiemi works as a nurse at a hospital in a neighboring town. Many people who move to the countryside have problems finding work, but Chiemi was able to find a job using her education and local connections.

She says she was inspired to return to her roots two years ago, while working as a volunteer nurse in Germany. Chiemi was working with an organization that helps children who have fled war and met people who were living active lives despite experiencing poverty and conflict. She decided the true meaning of life was to depend less on money and material goods.

“I’m aiming for a lifestyle in which I grow my own food, live more self-sufficiently, and distance myself from consumer society in general. I want to do as much as I can for myself, but I have a long way to go,” she says of her seachange.

Chiemi has fond childhood memories of observing her grandmother's way of life, but now she has to worry about her grandmother’s recent dementia diagnosis. Although Hisako remembers the past clearly, her short-term memory is failing and Chiemi wants to help make her grandmother's life easier.

She finds herself undertaking tasks that once fell to Hisako, such as cooking and farming work. Sometimes she falls short of her grandmother’s expectations. “There are times when I feel like all I get is criticism, and I dislike her and want to get away from her. I’m not such a sweet granddaughter,” says Chiemi.

The pair faced a challenge in late September, as they were preparing for the rice harvest. They discovered most of the crop was ruined by monkeys who ate it up.

It was a sad time for Chiemi who visited the seashore a few days later to practice her shamisen. She met up with a close friend, Junko Miyauchi, who left Tokyo and moved to her family’s hometown in Tokushima Prefecture 10 years ago.

“I’m thinking about whether or not to harvest the rice. The monkeys have eaten almost all of it,” Chiemi told her friend. "Even if there is very little rice, if my grandmother can eat some, it will make her very happy."

Junko promised to help her harvest what was left of the rice and on harvest day, locals residents gathered to help. Hisako joined them in the field for the first time in weeks and showed Chiemi how to bundle up the rice with straw. Her grandmother seemed to be her old self again. “The whole thing made me happy. Everyone came, and we harvested rice together, and Grandma seemed happy,” says Chiemi.

While it is sometimes difficult to bridge the generation gap, Chiemi says that when it does happen, the feeling of accomplishment is second to none. She has been lucky to find personal fulfillment outside the constraints of city living.