Japan Ponders a Capital Move
Sep. 08, 1999
TOKYO (AP) _ Just down the street from Parliament is the Imperial Palace. A stone's throw from that is Asia's biggest stock market. In and around Tokyo are Japan's best schools, its media centers, the bulk of its wealth and nearly a quarter of its population.
So much of what makes Japan tick is concentrated in Tokyo that it's scary _ and that's why the government wants to move the capital.
Worried that everything could come crashing down with a massive earthquake under Tokyo's notoriously shaky ground, officials feel its time to move the government to a more stable place.
But while momentum is growing in Parliament for a long-debated government relocation plan, it is also running up against one of Japan's most formidable obstacles _ Tokyo City Hall.
``I want to clearly state my opposition to the relocation of the capital,'' Tokyo's savvy and popular new mayor, Shintaro Ishihara, said upon taking office earlier this summer. ``It will have an extremely large impact not only on Tokyo, but on the development of the country and on the livelihood of the nation.''
The plan to relocate the capital is shaping up to be one of Japan's most ambitious _ and expensive _ projects for the new millennium.
``We are working very hard to choose the site,'' Ikuo Shimizu, head of a division devoted to the matter within the National Land Agency, said Monday after a meeting of the panel supervising the move. ``Autumn is our deadline.''
Once a site has been selected, a ``Parliament city'' for 100,000 people will be built from the ground up, covering an area of 5,000 acres. The second phase involves the construction of satellite cities, with populations ranging from 30,000 to 100,000.
According to the government, the project will cost at least $105 billion. Critics say it could go as high as $350 billion.
It would be a huge economic boon for the chosen site, and officials representing the three areas under consideration are scrambling to make their pitches.
Fukushima, a rural state north of Tokyo with lots of forests, bought air time on two major TV networks last month and has placed full-page ads in major newspapers to argue its case.
``A breath of fresh air for Parliament,'' read one of its newspaper ads, which showed a capital building poking out of a dense, sprawling forest.
The decentralization idea has been kicking around for decades. The Construction Ministry first proposed moving administrative functions out of Tokyo in 1964, the year Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics.
Tokyo is easily Japan's largest city. Nearly 8 million people live in the city proper, and almost 30 million in the greater Tokyo area. Japan's population is 120 million.
Though a resolution to relocate Parliament was passed by both houses in 1990, it took the near destruction of Kobe by a massive earthquake in 1995 to really get the project going.
Like Kobe, Tokyo is located on very shaky ground. Earthquakes and fires have regularly devastated the city. More than 100,000 people were killed in 1923 when an earthquake and fire ravaged the city.
Because another major earthquake could hit at any time, the government has readied a huge complex on the outskirts of town to serve as an emergency political nerve center.
But experts fear a serious Tokyo quake could still throw the country into chaos and hurt global financial markets.
Still, Tokyo officials say the whole relocation project is a mistake.
And, although Japan has a highly centralized government, Tokyo has traditionally wielded a great deal of political power as the nation's most important city, with a municipal budget rivaling South Korea's national budget.
``We are clearly against it,'' said city official Kazuhiko Yoshihara. ``If the government has that kind of money to invest, they should invest it in Tokyo.''
Yoshihara said that instead of building a new capital from scratch, efforts are already being made to spread some of its functions out over Tokyo's neighboring areas.
``But no place in Japan is safe from an earthquake,'' he said. ``And if you split the political and economic centers, Japan will lose the only city it has that really qualifies as a major international hub.''