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Friday, Jan. 13, 2012

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Crisis HQ: Itami airport, straddling Osaka and Hyogo prefectures, is being pitched as a site for a relocated capital in the event of a major Tokyo crisis. KYODO

Itami airport site to be Tokyo backup?

March disasters help build support for plan to relocate capital in crisis

Staff writer

OSAKA — Imagine the following scenario: After decades of warnings from seismologists, a massive earthquake strikes Tokyo in 2022 and levels wide swaths of the city, killing tens of thousands of people and leaving hundreds of thousands more missing or injured.

In a worst-case scenario for the next Great Kanto Earthquake, the Tokyo urban area, home to nearly a quarter of Japan's 127 million people, would simply cease to function.

The massive temblor would knock out all power sources and destroy key infrastructure, including railways, roads, bridges and port facilities. Haneda airport would be half submerged in Tokyo Bay, and the runways of the U.S. air base at Yokota and the U.S.-Japanese base at Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, cracked open. It would only be possible to fly in immediate relief through Narita or Ibaraki airports.

But if a group of lawmakers in Tokyo and Osaka get their way, a decade from now major government functions would be able to relocate to the site Itami airport currently occupies if a megaquake devastates the capital. Facilities for the Diet, central government bureaucracy, foreign diplomatic corps, major media and other organizations deemed critical would relocate to the site, making Osaka the capital, at least temporarily.

This is the vision of the group's National Emergency Management International City project. The initiative is the brainchild of several politicians, including Kobe native Hajime Ishii of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. He also chairs the Upper House Budget Committee.

For at least a decade, Ishii has pushed the government to consider establishing a backup capital in the Kansai region. But the March 11 disasters and the Fukushima nuclear crisis have created unprecedented interest in the plan among Diet members. Nearly 200 lawmakers from all major political parties have already voiced their support.

"If a Tohoku-like disaster hits Tokyo, the damage would be enormous — politically and economically. Depending on the time the potential temblor strikes, the number of people killed is conservatively estimated at between 10,000 and 100,000," Ishii said.

Over the past year, Ishii and other Diet members have worked to identify the best location for a backup capital. Candidate sites had to meet certain criteria that the Diet members drew up.

"The size of the site had to be at least 500 hectares and not be privately owned. The location had to be someplace that would not require razing the surrounding mountains, and it had to be easily accessible," Ishii said. "Finally, the location had to be inland and not require any land reclamation, and it had to be at least 500 km away from Tokyo."

Itami airport, which straddles the border of Osaka and Hyogo prefectures, was judged the best choice — a result some critics allege was predetermined because of the site's proximity to Kobe, Ishii's hometown. The airport serves Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Kobe. Candidate sites rejected include Nagoya airport, the Aichi Expo site in Nagakute, Aichi Prefecture, the Expo '70 Commemoration Park in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, and the Gakkentoshi research park in Nara Prefecture.

The Itami airport site was officially selected because it already possesses good highway connections, and is less than 3 km from the nearest shinkansen line. According to the plan, Kansai airport and Kobe airport could be connected by an underwater tunnel to become a "two-in-one" airport. Kansai would be for international flights and Kobe for domestic routes.

Any backup capital at Itami would be temporary, until Tokyo started to function again. But the grand plan for a backup capital on the border of Osaka and Hyogo prefectures calls for a futuristic city straight out of a science fiction novel. It would consist of eight different zones, with buildings for the Diet, ministries, Supreme Court, the Imperial family, and all major diplomatic missions to Japan.

In addition, there would be high-rise apartments, warehouses, a business district with shopping facilities, a distribution center and waste disposal facilities. Like many government and corporate-sponsored urban renewal schemes floated over the past two decades in Japan, there would be an "international zone" where foreign firms would be located. Other zones include an area for international conventions and hotels, and a "downtown" area with libraries and cultural facilities.

The downtown zone would also be home to "amusement" facilities, which, among other things, means casinos of the kind found elsewhere in Asia. Those promoting the backup capital see legalized gambling facilities inside it as a way to generate revenue instead of raising taxes to levels that cause economic, and political, damage.

Until last year, Ishii's plan was easily dismissed by critics in and out of the Diet as yet another massive government-led pork-barrel project that was doomed to fail, in the same way many white elephant projects built with government funds during the 1990s have long since gone bankrupt. In addition, politicians and bureaucrats have proposed similar plans for a backup capital that went nowhere.

But the March 11 disasters and the rise of Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, the prefecture's former governor, have created a groundswell of at least verbal support in Tokyo for the plan.

Even Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who fiercely opposes a permanent transfer of the capital, has agreed on the need to establish a temporary backup facility. Close Hashimoto allies such as Shizuka Kamei, head of Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party), are especially vocal supporters of the Itami plan.

In recent months, Hashimoto has not pushed for the Itami plan too hard in either Nagata-cho, Tokyo's political center, or Osaka, concentrating his energies instead on merging the city of Osaka's administration with that of the prefecture. But his long-stated desire to close Itami airport is boosting the chances of Ishii's plan being realized.

"If a proposal for using the land Itami sits on were to be put forward, most Osakans would support closing the airport. A vision for a backup capital there is something we should consider.

"If you look at the data, it's clear Itami airport doesn't have a future, given the presence of Kansai and Kobe airports and the fact that, in the future, the (maglev) shinkansen will be built," Hashimoto said.

If all goes according to plan, the new city at Itami would be ready to open in about a decade.

But only ¥14 million was set aside by the government for research into the proposal, and forging a consensus in Kansai to close Itami could prove hard.

The entire Kansai region still relies heavily on the airport for domestic flights, and rapid and efficient transportation from Kyoto to Kansai airport will have to be ensured and airlines persuaded to switch routes to Kansai and Kobe airports if the plan is to fly.

But Ishii is undeterred, saying the project wouldn't only provide Japan with a backup capital, it would present Kansai with a huge opportunity for growth.

"The construction of a second capital city is more profitable, and the real estate value of the land would increase significantly. The project's goal is also to change to a "two-engine" economy, with Tokyo in the east and Osaka in the west. This project will help get Osaka's engine going, which will benefit both Japan and the Kansai region," Ishii said.

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