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In Japan, the main obstacle to achieving the kind of widespread self-isolation necessary for limiting the spread of the coronavirus is thought to be the country’s work culture. The government, which has always favored policies that benefit the private sector, is averse to countermeasures that would place a burden on business activities, and so mostly counts on employers to self-police their own activities.

The media likes to focus on specific examples of what it is about Japanese work culture that isn’t compatible with requests to stay at home and practice social distancing. One such focus has been on hanko, the carved seals and stamps used in lieu of signatures for official documents, and whose use requires even those people working from home to travel in person to the office to get their work approved. In any case, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported on April 13 that, following the state of emergency announced by the government, the decrease in inbound commuters wasn’t as great as it should have been.

However, work culture itself did not give rise to the epidemic. What has been more central to the virulence of COVID-19 is global urbanization. In its April 10 issue, the Asahi Shimbun asked several experts to comment on the current crisis and what it means for the future of Japan’s social structure. Shinichi Takemura, a professor at Kyoto University of the Arts, predicts a shift from the current mass urbanization of the planet to a pastoral-suburban model that spreads the economic and governmental functions of a state more evenly, obviating the need for people to move long distances en masse to work in densely populated city centers. This idea, which Takemura argues has been discussed by social scientists since the industrial revolution of the 19th century and was the model for the “new town” concept that Japan promoted during its postwar growth period, seems to confound current trends toward greater density for the sake of sustainability, but what he proposes is simply to make that density more manageable.

Telework is, of course, the first order of business, which means larger domestic companies and government organs need to up their information technology game. This doesn’t mean that everyone works from home. They could live near satellite facilities that are better connected online. This greater dispersal of function not only lessens the risk of pandemics, but also mitigates the destructive effects of disasters such as earthquakes and extreme weather events, which become exponentially worse when large numbers of people and buildings are concentrated in an area. In Japan, these urban centers tend to be in low-lying coastal regions that are more susceptible to flooding, earthquakes and tsunamis.

Takemura is essentially reviving, for the thousandth time, the argument that Tokyo needs to be decentralized, its capital functions scattered to less populated urban centers and its corporate concentration diluted. Beneficial by-products are uses for many of the abandoned properties that are increasing nationwide, as well as the repopulation of rural districts. The difference now is that there is a pressing — some will claim life-or-death — reason for decentralization. COVID-19 is not the last pandemic, say experts. They will become more frequent as increasing global populations gravitate to cities. Governments must actively promote deconcentration, which is a problem in Japan because the central government sees its job as facilitating private enterprise, whose capitalist-bred instinct is to move toward density of function. On March 8, science and business writer Yasuyuki Kishiro wrote in Ronza about the continuing population shift to Tokyo, especially young women, due to regional imbalances in educational and occupational opportunity that no one seems capable of fixing. Government and commerce are drawn to each other and, as a result, Tokyo has become the black hole of domestic talent.

Even before the state of emergency was declared, Ichiro Asahina, CEO of Aoyama Shachu Co., wrote in JB Press that now is the perfect time to decentralize Tokyo and that such a move could actually give Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a positive legacy. Abe is supposed to end his premiership next year, and it is unlikely he will see much progress before then in his pet project to revise the constitution, something Asahina supports but believes is not likely to get very far in the short run. It is better for Abe, he says, to pursue the decentralization of Tokyo, which would have much more direct and beneficial effects, not only for Tokyo but for the country. Such an endeavor would revitalize the economy, simplify crisis management and bring new life to regional centers.

Asahina suggests moving the Environment Ministry to Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture, as a start, but the government has already tried shifting organs to other cities with no success. He doesn’t say enough about the central government’s stake in Tokyo, as illustrated by the standoff over lockdown conditions in the capital between the central government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, whose power to enforce social distancing measures was checked by the state. As long as the entire national apparatus is in Tokyo, local government autonomy will always be limited.

This situation was illustrated by an article in the Huffington Post, which reported that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, for obvious reasons, had wanted to include hair-cutting establishments in its list of businesses that should close down during the emergency, but apparently the central government prevented that from happening, having deemed barber shops and hair salons to be essential services. Although the government’s pronouncements on essential services apply to all prefectures subject to the state of emergency, the only one where they seem to have actively advocated for them is Tokyo. That’s because to lawmakers and bureaucrats, Tokyo is home.

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