When a young Emperor Meiji moved to Edo from Kyoto in 1868, many of Kyoto’s noble families were strongly opposed to his leaving what had been Japan’s capital and home to the Imperial family since 794.

Those who traced their aristocratic lineage back to ancient times convinced themselves the Emperor was merely “visiting” Edo, and would one day return to his true home. The Emperor himself reportedly said he would return to Kyoto someday. But his departure also drained Kyoto of wealthy merchants, skilled craftsmen and artists, and intellectuals, all of whom followed him to Edo, now present-day Tokyo.

Within a few decades, Kyoto was considered a stagnant backwater by a Japan that was racing to catch up with the West. But Kyoto never really gave up hoping that at least some members of the Imperial family would one day “come home.”

Now, nearly a century and a half after the Meiji Restoration, during which the capital became Tokyo, Kyoto, a major international tourism mecca, is once again pressing its case for relocating part of the Imperial family there under the guise of a project local officials dub the “twin capitals” system, part of a larger vision for 2040 that top city and prefectural officials, as well as leading members of Kyoto’s business community, are supporting.

The 2040 vision, revealed three years ago, includes the usual large-scale, bureaucratically managed construction and real estate projects with lofty names and vague goals that bureaucrats, politicians and their financial supporters in the construction and real estate sectors always love.

It also emphasizes municipal support for the development of renewable-energy technology to generate electricity locally and make Kyoto nuclear-free by 2040.

But another key goal is to further emphasize Kyoto’s role as an internationally recognized city of Japanese culture.

One of the ways Kyoto wants to do this is through its “twin capitals” concept, in which Kyoto would become Japan’s official historical cultural capital and Tokyo would be remain its political and economic capital. That would mean moving members of the Imperial family to Kyoto.

“As Kyoto has become the center of Japanese culture, Kyoto is the most appropriate city for Imperial family members to live in,” Kyoto Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa said in 2013.

Other Kyoto officials insist that the reasons for the move are not only historical or cultural but also practical.

“The twin capitals concept was born of the desire to have members of the Imperial family live not only in Tokyo, but also in Kyoto for the safety, security and prosperity of the Imperial household in the midst of a Japan that is dangerously over-concentrated in Tokyo,” Kyoto Gov. Keiji Yamada said in the report.

Yuichi Ishizawa, a prefectural official involved with the project, said while efforts have continued since 2013 to achieve the twin capitals goal, none of the basic questions has been answered, including which members of the Imperial family might be persuaded to move and, most importantly, what their roles in Kyoto would be.

Since 2013, an advisory panel consisting of Kyoto-based academics and others has met to discuss issues related to the twin capitals concept.

The panel has suggested the royals might participate in Kyoto’s traditional cultural events, including festivals, as well as international conferences, and meet with foreign VIPs visiting the region. It’s also been proposed that their transfers to Kyoto be conducted gradually, starting with facilities that allow long-term stays of a week or month to be made for certain events before settling them in Kyoto permanently.

What Kyoto wishes, however, would require approval from both the Diet and the Imperial Household Agency.

Last July, Kenta Izumi, a Lower House member from Kyoto, raised the twin capitals concept in the Diet and called for more royal ceremonies to be conducted in Kyoto, although he did not specifically call for any member of the Imperial family to move there.

In his reply, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga merely said the government was aware Kyoto was pursing the twin capitals concept but did not dismiss it out of hand.

Behind the scenes, Kyoto politicians and business leaders continue to quietly lobby the central government on the issue. Recent reports that Emperor Akihito may abdicate in a few years may also affect the debate in coming months, although how, exactly, is unclear.

Given Kyoto’s long history as the home of the Imperial family and Japan’s historical and cultural traditions, its political leaders are unlikely to abandon their quest to have some of the royals “return,” regardless of what the prime minister or the Diet of the moment might decide to do.

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