The Abe administration’s plan to move some national government functions out of Tokyo — supposedly a part of its efforts to halt population flight to the capital and revitalize regional economies — falls so short of expectations as to put its commitment to the project in doubt.

The plan unveiled last week fails to set specific timeline on the already decided transfer of the Cultural Affairs Agency to Kyoto — billed to take place “in several years” — and shelves the decision on whether to move the Consumer Affairs Agency to Tokushima Prefecture for three more years. It meanwhile calls for creation of regional branch facilities of some ministries and agencies in prefectures that had sought their relocation in vain — which would only result in the further bloating of the central government bureaucracy.

The administration should reflect on why it decided to try to relocate some central government functions in the first place. When the latest attempt was started in 2014, then regional revitalization minister Shigeru Ishiba said the government needs to set an example for the private sector as it urges businesses to transfer their headquarters out of Tokyo. If that was the objective, the administration appears to be setting a poor example and might only provide private-sector businesses with an excuse for not following the government’s call.

The Abe administration should consider whether its current plan will indeed serve the purposes for which the project was intended. The concentration of national government functions in Tokyo also poses a security risk in the event the capital is hit by major disasters, such as the dreaded big earthquake that could strike the metropolitan area, potentially paralyzing the administration of the whole country. Diversifying the location of government organizations is an important means of mitigating such a risk.

Its latest policy on how to proceed with the relocation of central government functions out of Tokyo, released on Friday, calls for the establishment in fiscal 2017 of a new Cultural Affairs Agency office in Kyoto that will make plans to revitalize local economies utilizing culture and art — as a prelude to the agency’s entire relocation to Kyoto. But it did not specify when the relocation will take place even though a basic plan adopted in March said the outline of the agency’s organizational structure will be unveiled by the end of August.

The Consumer Affairs Agency will create a new research and planning office in Tokushima Prefecture, which will be manned by 30 to 40 staff and hopefully begin operations next summer. The administration says it aims to make a judgment in about three years on whether to move the entire agency after reviewing the operation of the new office. Yet the basic plan in March had called for a decision on the agency’s transfer by the end of last month.

The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry will move some operations of its Statistics Bureau to the city of Wakayama in fiscal 2018. Meanwhile, the Patent Office, the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency, the Tourism Agency and the Meteorological Agency — whose relocation from Tokyo was ruled out in the March plan on the grounds that they would be unable to make policies and plans from nationwide perspectives — will beef up operations at their regional facilities as a substitute for their own transfers, according to the plan.

The way the administration is proceeding with the project also raises doubts about its commitments. In March 2015, it solicited proposals from prefectural governments willing to host central government organizations transferred from Tokyo. There were proposals from 42 prefectures to host a total of 69 organizations. The administration then essentially put it in the hands of the ministries and agencies being considered for relocation to judge the feasibility of their own transfers. Little wonder that most of the proposals met with resistance from the bureaucrats, who reportedly said they cannot move out of Tokyo because they need to be in close contact with each other and with politicians on policy matters and Diet affairs.

Local governments that invited the transfer of central government organizations will also be required to pay a portion of the cost. When specifics of the Cultural Affairs Agency transfer are decided, the Kyoto Prefectural and the city of Kyoto will be asked to shoulder a “due burden” of the move’s fiscal expense. But given that direct benefits to the local economy from the transfer of the 230-staff agency (including some who will continue to stay in Tokyo to deal with Diet business) will likely be limited, it is not clear whether Kyoto taxpayers will support using the local government coffers to pay the expense.

If relocation of central government functions out of Tokyo is to be pursued as a national project, then such ways of proceeding with it seem questionable. The Abe administration needs to take a stronger lead in pushing it forward if it is really serious about pursuing the project.

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