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Decentralizing Tokyo may save the nation

by Philip Brasor

The concentration of money and power in Tokyo is to a degree unthinkable in the United States. — Edward Seidensticker

A recent issue of the somewhat disreputable Shukan Jitsuwa looked into a “rumor” that said the capital may be moved to the Kansai region due to the continuing threat of radiation in the eastern part of Japan. The exodus will be spearheaded by the private sector it said, mainly foreign companies but also firms that were born in Kansai but which had over time moved their headquarters to Tokyo. Jitsuwa said that Osaka governor Toru Hashimoto is excited about the possibility, hinting at a rivalry between him and Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, who has never taken the idea of relocation seriously.

Because it was published in Jitsuwa, many won’t take the article seriously, either. However, the earthquake of March 11 reminded everyone just how vulnerable Tokyo is to disaster. The quake caused little damage in the city, but the disruption of transportation and communications lines led to thousands of pedestrians clogging the sidewalks. Another weekly, Sunday Mainichi, reported that 33 percent of the people who commute to Tokyo for work walked home that night. It was an orderly migration, but nevertheless a worrying one. If this is what happens in Tokyo when a major earthquake strikes hundreds of kilometers away, what would happen if one struck much closer?

The idea of relocating the functions of the central government was first floated in the 1960s for various reasons, not all of them having to do with disaster countermeasures. During the so-called bubble period of the late 1980s, land prices in Tokyo were absurdly high, and it was thought that moving at least some of the government would spread the wealth around, since the theory was that related private sector concerns would follow. When the economy cooled in the 1990s so did talk about relocation, and by the late 2000s the idea was considered dead.

Now it’s suddenly back. On April 14, Sankei Shimbun reported on a bipartisan meeting of national politicians in the Diet to set up fukutoshin (auxiliary capitals) that can take over if Tokyo is hit by a major natural disaster or terrorist attack. Some 200 lawmakers attended the meeting and agreed that construction must begin as soon as possible, by the end of the year at the latest. The urgency of such a task was underlined by Kobe University seismologist Katsuhiko Ishibashi, who warned at the meeting that if a major earthquake struck the Tokai region and damaged the Hamaoka nuclear power plant in Shizuoka Prefecture, Tokyo, which is less than 100 kilometers away, would have to be evacuated.

More than one auxiliary capital is preferable, but among the candidate locations the favorite seems to be Itami Airport in Osaka, a decision that should please Hashimoto, who wants to close Itami, once the region’s international airport, in order to boost the fortunes of the newer Kansai International Airport. A bill has been submitted to set up a special economic district for the auxiliary capital so that planning and construction can begin.

But while there is certainly a need to have government functions reproduced somewhere outside of Tokyo, there are some people who believe it is not enough. In an opinion piece in the Asahi Shimbun, Mitsushi Koyama, the president of food company Bansho, says that full-scale decentralization of Tokyo should be the goal. He uses the expected shortage of electricity this summer to show how too much of the nation’s resources are used for Tokyo and the surrounding regions. The area covered by Tokyo Electric Power Co. usually needs between 55 and 60 million kilowatts of power in the summer. None of the other nine regional power companies requires more than 20 million kilowatts at any one time.

But even if the government was moved out of Tokyo, Koyama doesn’t believe it’s enough. As he points out, only 2.8 percent of Tokyo’s workers toil in the public sector, and the old theory that private sector companies would follow the government seems less supportable with the advent of the Internet. If the government wants to promote decentralization, it should directly encourage companies to move out of Tokyo. There’s no reason for the Internet shopping mall Rakuten to have its headquarters in Roppongi. It can function anywhere. Japan has an excellent nationwide transportation network and high-speed communications system, so businesses can take advantage of regional characteristics.

Even Okinawa has special merits: All Nippon Airways has developed Naha Airport into a cargo hub for all of eastern Asia, so companies that sell parts to that area of the world could reduce costs if they relocated factories or distribution centers to Okinawa. The Mainichi Shimbun suggested Tokyo companies move to the Tohoku region in order to help it recover more quickly.

Shortly after the earthquake, some companies did move their offices out of the capital, but only temporarily. Under those circumstances, “leaving Tokyo” was seen as a negative thing. Koyama says business groups such as Nippon Keidanren (Japan Federation of Economic Organizations) should promote leaving Tokyo in a positive light. A 47-year-old man who wrote a letter to the Asahi expressed similar ideas but added he didn’t think the government could be counted on to make decentralization happen. Despite the concerted push to find an auxiliary capital, the Diet on April 15 passed a bill to give tax breaks to large corporations that plan redevelopment activities in large cities, including Tokyo, where all the large corporations are headquartered.

Ishihara is also an obstacle. During his recent reelection campaign, he supported greater disaster prevention capabilities for the city rather than decentralization. The governor, who has repeatedly said his political vision is national, wants to change Japan from his vantage point of Tokyo, thus indicating Tokyo is the nation. By that logic, if Tokyo falls, so does Japan.

Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com.