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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Kansai bids to be 'backup capital'

Able and ready to serve in a crisis, the region's biggest problem is winning over Tokyo

Staff writer

OSAKA — Kansai's political and business leaders are stepping up efforts to convince those in Tokyo that Osaka, Kyoto, or Kobe should be designated Japan's backup capital to ensure that companies, government organs, foreign delegations and even the Imperial Family will continue to function in the event of a Kanto-area disaster.

But while even a temporary Kansai shift may make economic and logistical sense, personal circumstances and cultural and social differences between the two regions mean that convincing large numbers of Tokyoites to flee to Kansai could prove difficult.

In the aftermath of the March 11 quake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear crisis, thousands of Tokyo residents — foreign and Japanese alike — fled to the Kansai region. While most had either returned to Tokyo or left Japan by early April, the Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry reported later that month that it was getting dozens of inquiries from Tokyo-based firms, including foreign firms, asking for introductions to local real estate agents.

These Tokyo firms said they planned, or hoped, to relocate staff and computer equipment over the coming weeks to avoid potential power shortages in Tokyo over the summer and the likelihood that disruptive power conservation measures will be in place in the Kanto region for a long time to come.

"The message the Kansai region needs to send to Tokyo is that there is sufficient electricity, a well-developed transportation infrastructure, and enough office space to meet the needs of Tokyo firms looking to relocate," said Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto last week.

Kansai is also home to 19 official and 60 honorary consulates, four United Nations organizations and the World Health Organization's center for health development. After the quake, several European and Asian consulates moved some Tokyo embassy staff to Kansai.

At an April 27 meeting involving the Kansai area consulates, the Foreign Ministry and the Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Japanese participants asked the foreign consulates to emphasize to their governments that, while there are concerns about the Fukushima plant and availability of electricity in Tokyo for the foreseeable future, western Japan is safe, stable and ready to welcome any Tokyo-based foreign diplomatic mission or business looking to relocate.

"There's been some distortion in the overseas media about the Fukushima reactor and many people think all of Japan was affected. But the Kansai region is operating normally," said OCCI head Shigetaka Sato at the meeting.

The following day, Union of Kansai Governments, a group of seven Kansai prefectures seeking greater autonomy from the central government, went further, calling on Tokyo to establish a disaster response plan that would make the Kansai region the nation's backup capital in the event Tokyo cannot function.

The seven prefectures proposed on April 28 that the central government establish specific response measures for a natural disaster that renders Tokyo inoperable.

The measures include moving the Tokyo Stock Exchange and the Bank of Japan's functions to Osaka, ensuring enough office and hotel space is available to Tokyoites who are temporarily relocating, transferring the Tokyo editorial functions of NHK and the major newspapers to Osaka, designating evacuation zones throughout the region for Tokyo refugees, helping foreign delegations in Tokyo relocate to Kansai, and moving the Imperial Family to Kyoto's Imperial Palace, which is already run by the Imperial Household Agency.

"Except for Kansai, there are no regions outside Tokyo that can take on many of the functions of a capital, and none that offer maximum results for a minimum of initial investment and planning," says the April 28 plan, which was signed by the governors of Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Shiga, Wakayama, Tottori and Tokushima.

Kansai area governors and business leaders have stressed they see the region serving as a temporary, not permanent, replacement for Tokyo.

But even a temporary Kansai relocation could be difficult for many Tokyoites. Convincing those who have financial and family obligations in the area to move out for an undetermined length of time is likely to be met with strong resistance, says Joji Uehara, an Osaka area business consultant.

"While younger, single Tokyoites might not object, it will be very difficult to convince older employees with housing loans and children in local schools to pack up and move to Kansai for long periods of time without housing arrangements and good schools close by. That's a hidden cost companies, and Kansai's leaders, need to factor into plans to create a backup capital," Uehara said.

Those who have experience in both Tokyo and Osaka in particular say a bigger problem could be the long-standing rivalry between the Kansai and Tokyo regions, and the social and cultural differences that are the subject of endless debates.

In recent days, Kansai area television and radio commentators have said some Tokyoites would probably refuse to relocate to Osaka, even temporarily, simply because they're too used to the way things are done in Tokyo and too proud, or too prejudiced against Osaka, to change.

Uehara said many Tokyoites would probably be more worried about starting over in Kansai without benefit of friends and social networks. But he added that the fear of not fitting in and a tendency of Osaka people to sometimes go out of their way to emphasize their differences with Tokyo, is an issue that needs addressed.

"Historically, there have always been strong differences in the way people in Tokyo and Osaka act, behave and even speak. Many Tokyoites have a bad impression of Osaka. Some may quit their companies rather than move, and any plans for relocating from Tokyo to Kansai need to take into account these kinds of 'soft' aspects as well," said Uehara.

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