Kantei, the Prime Minister’s Official Residence, is always a center of attention, particularly in times of national crisis, including when a big earthquake struck Niigata Prefecture in October 2004 and when North Korea tested a nuclear weapon last October.

The five-story high-tech structure, situated next to the older official residence in the Nagata-cho section of Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, cost taxpayers some 64.7 billion yen by the time it was completed in 2002. The following questions and answers provide a glimpse at what goes on behind its walls:

What does the prime minister do there?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe convenes Cabinet meetings and huddles with executives of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, senior bureaucrats and the occasional academic to listen to advice and exchange opinions. The facility is also used for summits and banquets for foreign dignitaries.

During natural disasters, the prime minister assumes command at the crisis-management headquarters in the basement, which operates 24 hours a day. Real-time footage is beamed in via cameras mounted on helicopters. Other details pertaining to the headquarters are kept secret.

Though the new building is called a residence, Abe and his wife do not actually reside there, but rather in the older building. Built in the style of U.S. architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the old Kantei has now been fully refurbished.

Why did they need the new building?

Unlike the U.S. White House, which has received several face-lifts in its more than 200 years, Japan’s old Kantei had never been renovated before.

Government officials say the former residence, built in 1929, was run down, lacked space for large gatherings and was difficult to secure against terrorist threats. Today, a wall surrounds the new and old buildings, and the entrance is protected by two gates.

Covered with stones and bulletproof glass, the new residence rises from a hillside adjoining the old building.

Renovations to the residence had been discussed since the 1980s, but plans were put on hold amid rising budget deficits in the 1990s.

What are some interesting historical events that have transpired at the old residence?

The old Kantei was attacked by rioters several times during the social upheavals of the 1930s, the tumult following Japan’s 1945 defeat in World War II and student protests over the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty in 1960. In 1932, rogue soldiers shot Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai dead there.

What are some of the new additions?

There are two new helipads for emergencies, one atop the new residence and another in the front garden. According to some media reports, the new structure is built to withstand a catastrophic earthquake, and the older building has been reinforced as well.

The total floor space of the new building is 25,000 sq. meters, making it 2.5 times larger than the old building. In the past, large receptions were held in luxury hotels due to lack of space.

What kind of backroom politicking goes on at the official residence?

Every Monday, Abe meets heavyweights from the LDP and its coalition partner, New Komeito. And in January, Abe’s newly formed panel on education, which meets at Kantei, wrapped up its long-awaited first report on educational reform.

Indeed, others in the LDP grumble about the constant comings and goings at Kantei of aides appointed by Abe’s many panels on everything from education to health and technology and North Korea’s past abductions of Japanese. “Members of ‘Team Abe’ are not cooperating with each other,” huffed LDP policy chief Shoichi Nakagawa last month.

Will Kantei ever have an image like the White House or Kremlin?

Maybe. In a bid to draw power away from bureaucrats, Abe pledged soon after taking office in September to form a Japanese version of the U.S. National Security Council. Its secretariat will be located at Kantei to enable the prime minister to react speedily to fast-developing global situations. However, the new body is not expected to be very powerful.

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