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In August, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced that, for the first time since 1956, the capital’s monthly population report had recorded a drop.

As of June 1 there were 13.99 million people in Tokyo’s 23 wards, down from 14 million as of May 1. News of the slight decline, believed to be due to the novel coronavirus, came amid talk about how the pandemic might be an opportunity to end the over-concentration of people in Tokyo. Such talk, and efforts at decentralization, have a long but so far futile history.

What has been said recently about dealing with the over-concentration of people and enterprises in Tokyo?

On July 17, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet approved a basic economic and financial policy plan that included a pledge to transform Japan from a country with an over-concentration in Tokyo to one with multiple interconnected districts and local revitalization.

To accomplish this, the government pledged to accelerate establishment of smart city communities in different parts of the country. This would involve upgrading communication infrastructure, among other prerequisites.

There are also plans to strengthen support for establishing secondary premises in areas outside Tokyo. Employees now working in central Tokyo would be able to work remotely from these locations, which could also be used as a backup or emergency office in the event of the main office in Tokyo being damaged or destroyed by a natural disaster.

Finally, increased assistance to regional universities was promised as a way of making them more attractive to talented local students, who would otherwise leave for a Tokyo-based university. The hope was that they would be more likely to seek employment locally after they graduate.

In late August, the government also announced that, in an effort to attract foreign financial institutions to Japan but not Tokyo, it would allocate ¥50 million in next year’s fiscal budget to examine the feasibility of turning Osaka and Fukuoka into international financial centers.

The initiative comes amid international concern over the potential impacts of Hong Kong’s new national security law on the city’s status as a financial hub.

Local governments and businesses in Osaka and Fukuoka have long stressed their ties to the Asian region, and Osaka has a history as a commercial center within Japan.

Members of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party who hope to succeed him have recently made comments in support of relocating people and businesses out of Tokyo.

Former Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba, who will stand in the Sept. 14 LDP presidential election, told an Osaka audience at the end of July that decentralization would form a main pillar of his policy platform in the next LDP presidential election. Ishiba enjoys a large measure of support from local LDP chapters, whose votes are crucial for the election of a party president.

In addition to Ishiba, Fumio Kishida, who chairs the party’s Policy Research Council and is also running for the party presidency, has said that he’d work to end over-concentration in Tokyo, and that it is possible for businesses to get their work done without being located in the capital.

What measures have been taken in the past to promote decentralization?

Many proposals have been made, but they have gone nowhere.

In 1990, the Diet adopted a resolution calling for the Diet and other organizations to be relocated outside of the capital. Part of the reason had to do with soaring land prices in Tokyo, but the government gave other reasons as well.

“People will be able to free themselves from the obsessive belief that Tokyo is at the top of the hierarchy,” said the official English-language brochure entitled “Let’s Consider Relocation of the Diet and Other Organizations” published in 1990 by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

People commute early in the morning in Tokyo. | AFP-JIJI
People commute early in the morning in Tokyo. | AFP-JIJI

In 1992, the government promulgated an act for relocating the Diet, which was partially amended in 1996. That same year, a council was formed to look into the relocation of the Diet and other organizations, and long years of debate followed.

In December 2004, the chair of a committee representing both houses of the Diet looked into relocation, recommending such a move only after finding solutions for how relationships between a relocated Diet and Tokyo-based central government bureaucrats would operate, and answers to questions about disaster prevention and risk management.

The committee listed three effects of relocating the Diet, including government reform that would lead to a new relationship between legislators, bureaucrats and ordinary citizens, and to a better ability to prevent simultaneous damage to Japan’s political and bureaucratic systems in the event of a national disaster.

It also said relocating the Diet would help alleviate an excessive concentration of people and businesses in Tokyo, and offered a psychological, as opposed to an economic, benefit for doing so.

Which locations in Japan have been discussed as possible destinations for the Diet’s relocation?

At the time of the 1990 resolution, the land and transport ministry listed three candidate sites: an area straddling Tochigi and Fukushima prefectures, another area of land in both Gifu and Aichi prefectures, and a third location largely in northern Mie Prefecture, beside Kyoto and Nara prefectures. They were officially selected by the government as candidate sites in 1999.

Factors in choosing the sites included their accessibility to Tokyo as well as the risk of the area being damaged by a volcanic eruption or an earthquake.

Two cost and scale models were offered. The first assumed 560,000 people would relocate to the new Diet facilities at a cost of ¥12.3 trillion. A second estimate assumed only the majority of Diet members, ministries and agencies would relocate. That would mean about 156,000 people at a cost of ¥4.7 trillion.

What measures have been taken since?

After failing to relocate the Diet due to concerns about how well it would be able to communicate with bureaucracies and agencies in Tokyo (in discussions held before widespread Internet and social media usage) and cost, political attention then turned to relocating a few ministries out of Tokyo.

So far, however, only the Cultural Affairs Agency, scheduled to relocate 70 percent of its functions to Kyoto by August 2022, is leaving.

There was also discussion on relocating the entire Consumer Affairs Agency to Tokushima Prefecture. That idea was scrapped last year over worries about how the bureaucrats would communicate with the Diet or deal with emergencies. Instead, the government plans for Tokushima to become a base for consumer policy research.

Construction of the maglev shinkansen between Tokyo and Nagoya, and — so Kansai hopes — eventually Osaka, was also seen as a way to ease over-concentration in Tokyo.

The journey from Tokyo to Osaka currently takes about two and a half hours by the fastest shinkansen, but the plan was to have the new train make the run in about an hour. It would also pass through, or close to, areas of Gifu, Aichi, and Mie prefectures identified in 1990 as potential Diet relocation sites.

But problems securing land in Shizuoka Prefecture for the route forced the operator, Central Japan Railways, to abandon the planned starting date of 2027 for the Tokyo to Nagoya route, and there is no guarantee the final leg to Osaka will be delivered.

Why does decentralizing from Tokyo remain difficult for many people and businesses?

Economic and social opportunities of the kind found in Tokyo are big factors for younger people.

A January 2019 report from the Prime Minister’s Office on the causes of over-concentration in Tokyo surveyed workers between 20 and 29 years old, and found that men and women with higher levels of education tended to seek work with large Tokyo-based corporations in both “regular” and “nonregular” positions, the latter category including those with low-paying, part-time jobs..

But while the percentage of nonregular workers in the age group was high, it was lower for women in the Tokyo region compared to other localities.

Access to the most advanced communication technologies can play a role in discussions about how to get firms to relocate out of Tokyo, or individuals to work remotely.

A 2019 report by the Ministry of International Affairs and Communications showed that 95.7 percent of Tokyoites accessed the internet or social media. But other parts of the country, including Tohoku and western Japan, had usage rates under 90 percent. Local leaders like Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura have called for upgrades to local internet accessibility to the level enjoyed in Tokyo in order to attract outside investment and personnel.

Still, there are also practical, personal reasons for people not to move out of Tokyo, such as the need to remain close to elderly relatives also living in the capital who may need care or worries about one’s spouse being able to continue their own career after relocating elsewhere. While the novel coronavirus has prompted talk of more remote working, relocating one’s workplace too far outside of Tokyo to do that remains problematic for many who not only work but live there.

Does teleworking offer a chance to end over-concentration in Tokyo?

That is the subject of much debate at present, although Abe, who emphasized local economic revitalization as a key policy goal, believes it does offer such an opportunity. During his Aug. 28 news conference, Abe admitted the issue of over-concentration in Tokyo hadn’t been resolved. But he said its pace had slowed considerably.

He added that teleworking was progressing and that there were surveys showing more younger people in their 20s want to relocate to rural areas. The novel coronavirus, he said, may radically change the shape of the Japanese archipelago and the way the country operates in the future.

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