The poor results of the Abe administration’s attempt to move national government functions out of Tokyo — with the planned relocation of the Cultural Affairs Agency to Kyoto “within several years” as seemingly the sole major outcome — should be enough to cast doubts as to how serious the administration is about pursuing its much-hyped policy of revitalizing regional economies by halting the population flight to Tokyo and creating more jobs outside the capital.

Transfer of government institutions out of the capital may have only symbolic impact for reversing the accelerating concentration of people and resources in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area. The administration’s regional revitalization strategy calls for stopping the population flight to the Tokyo-centered metropolitan area by creating 300,000 jobs for young workers in other parts of Japan by 2020. It encourages private-sector businesses to move their headquarters out of Tokyo by offering tax incentives for those that do. But the government can also set an example by starting where it can — relocating its own institutions away from Tokyo.

Whether the administration’s basic policy on the issue, adopted last week, will prod companies to consider leaving Tokyo by following the government’s lead seems questionable. It might in fact lead businesses to doubt the government’s own commitment to the goal.

Of the seven agencies listed as candidates for transfer out of Tokyo, the government decided to move the Cultural Affairs Agency to Kyoto, shelved the decision on two others and decided not to relocate the remaining four. It reportedly plans to move up to about 90 percent of the Cultural Affairs Agency’s roughly 230 officials to Kyoto, except for those responsible for Diet affairs and diplomatic meetings, who will stay in Tokyo. The plan will be finalized by the end of the year for its transfer within several years — the first ever full relocation of a Tokyo-based national government agency.

The administration says it will decide by the end of August whether to move the Consumer Affairs Agency to Tokushima Prefecture and the Statistics Bureau of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry to Wakayama Prefecture, after testing and reviewing the feasibility of conducting operations through remote communications with Tokyo, such as teleconferencing.

Meanwhile, it decided against transferring the Patent Office, the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency, the Japan Tourism Agency and the Meteorological Agency, on the grounds that moving them out of Tokyo would make it difficult for their officials to formulate policies “from a nationwide perspective” — a reason that hardly sounds convincing if the others are being considered for relocation. Bureaucrats at such institutions are reported to have resisted the transfer, saying that being away from Tokyo hampers their Diet-related work — in which officials routinely prepare Cabinet ministers’ answers to questions from lawmakers — and coordinate with other government ministries and agencies.

The basic policy also singles out 22 research institutions and other outlets of the national government and independent administrative corporations as subject to the relocation. However, only the National Institute of Health and Nutrition will wholly move out of Tokyo — to Osaka Prefecture. Most other institutions will merely consider launching joint research with universities or other activities in prefectures that sought their relocation.

Regional revitalization minister Shigeru Ishiba — who was tasked with putting together the plan — boasts that the measures in total will result in a transfer of government functions of significant scale out of Tokyo. But it seems obvious that the measures will produce little results in terms of sustained movement of government employees and facilities from the capital. It would be hard to calculate what impact the steps will have for moving jobs and economic benefits to regions outside of Tokyo — if that’s what the administration had intended.

Talk of relocating national government organizations outside the capital goes back decades. In the late 1980s, some government outlets and affiliated special corporations were transferred to the neighboring prefectures of Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa. The move was intended as a solution to skyrocketing land prices and a housing shortage in central Tokyo as well as to ease government workers’ long commutes. The surge in real estate prices during the asset-inflated bubble years built the momentum for relocating or dispersing the very capital functions out of Tokyo, including the Diet. The 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake — which exposed the vulnerability of urban infrastructure — also fueled the discussions for such a relocation. But the momentum quickly died down with the subsequent economic downturn and opposition from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

This time, the Abe administration, as part of its agenda to correct the over-concentration of the population in Tokyo and revitalize the regional economies, solicited plans by prefectures across the country to host the relocation of national government organizations — to which 42 prefectural governments responded by inviting 69 institutions to their areas. In December, the government narrowed down the candidates for consideration to 34 organizations, including the seven government agencies tabbed as candidates.

The administration should think again about what purpose it wants to serve by discussing the relocation in the first place — and whether the outcome serves that purpose.

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