Talk Of ‘Decentralizing’ Tokyo, Moving Capitol Persist

Sunday, April 24, 2011
By Paul Martin

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The concentration of money and power in Tokyo is to a degree unthinkable in the United States. — Edward Seidensticker

A recent issue of the somewhat disreputable Shukan Jitsuwa looked into a “rumor” that said the capital may be moved to the Kansai region due to the continuing threat of radiation in the eastern part of Japan. The exodus will be spearheaded by the private sector it said, mainly foreign companies but also firms that were born in Kansai but which had over time moved their headquarters to Tokyo. Jitsuwa said that Osaka governor Toru Hashimoto is excited about the possibility, hinting at a rivalry between him and Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, who has never taken the idea of relocation seriously.

Because it was published in Jitsuwa, many won’t take the article seriously, either. However, the earthquake of March 11 reminded everyone just how vulnerable Tokyo is to disaster. The quake caused little damage in the city, but the disruption of transportation and communications lines led to thousands of pedestrians clogging the sidewalks. Another weekly, Sunday Mainichi, reported that 33 percent of the people who commute to Tokyo for work walked home that night. It was an orderly migration, but nevertheless a worrying one. If this is what happens in Tokyo when a major earthquake strikes hundreds of kilometers away, what would happen if one struck much closer?

The idea of relocating the functions of the central government was first floated in the 1960s for various reasons, not all of them having to do with disaster countermeasures. During the so-called bubble period of the late 1980s, land prices in Tokyo were absurdly high, and it was thought that moving at least some of the government would spread the wealth around, since the theory was that related private sector concerns would follow. When the economy cooled in the 1990s so did talk about relocation, and by the late 2000s the idea was considered dead.

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