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Politics

Japan debates creating 'backup' city to capital Tokyo

Spreading out ministries and companies would help avoid total shutdown

Tokyo's Kasumigaseki district is the home of many ministries and central-government agencies. (Photo by Hirofumi Yamamoto)

TOKYO -- As Japan adjusts to a new normal of remote work and social distancing, a proposal to disperse governmental and corporate operations across the country has begun to gain traction.

The parliament, ministries and other central-government entities, as well as many corporate headquarters and research institutions, are now concentrated in the Tokyo area. Spreading them across different regions could help the country avoid shutting down completely if a catastrophic pandemic or natural disaster hits the capital.

A group of ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers led by lower house member Keiji Furuya met Thursday to start discussing the idea. They aim to draft a detailed proposal by the end of the year.

Instead of moving everything out of Tokyo, the group envisions taking certain government functions elsewhere and creating backup sites for Tokyo-based operations. The parliament would remain in Tokyo, for example, but an alternate facility elsewhere could be used when the Diet building cannot.

The group could also recommend that companies disperse the functions handled by their headquarters. Various regions in Japan would have their own characteristics, such as Tokyo serving as the financial center.

Japan's debate on decentralizing government and corporate activities is not new. But the idea never gained much traction until now, as the pandemic highlights the risks associated with infectious disease and forces society to change how it lives and works.

A recent Cabinet Office poll found that 55.5% of respondents in Tokyo's 23 wards have experienced working remotely, compared with 34.6% nationwide. Leaving the capital is growing more attractive, with 35.4% of 20-somethings living in the 23 wards expressing more interest in moving away.

"This is a huge opportunity to correct the extreme concentration of people and things in Tokyo," Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters Sunday.

"If we can distribute operations that can be done remotely to areas outside Tokyo, we can spread out the capital's functions," said Yutaka Okada of the Mizuho Research Institute. "The government can encourage companies to spread out as well by taking the lead on this."

Corporate leaders welcome a shift. The Japan Business Federation, or Keidanren, proposed moving certain government agencies outside Tokyo in late March to boost local economies.

The Japan Association of Corporate Executives recommended June 16 that the government again consider the option.

It is not uncommon for a country's capital not to be its largest city -- take Washington and New York in the U.S., or Canberra and Sydney in Australia. Indonesia has announced plans to move its capital to East Kalimantan to ease congestion in Jakarta and let the city focus on economic development.

Meanwhile, Tokyo saw its population top 14 million for the first time as of May 1. It has also logged far more COVID-19 cases than any other Japanese prefecture, highlighting the risk of the health care system becoming overwhelmed.

Companies continue to flock to the capital, with 312 moving their headquarters to Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures in 2019 -- a net increase for a ninth straight year.

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