Edo investigates...

Moving the Diet

On the edge of the teeming Kanto Plain, a cow looks out across her field. She looks up for a moment, pausing to observe the mountains above, as the snow stretches out like the limbs of a sleeper from beneath a blanket of cloud. But the next few years could see some big changes to her lifestyle. If campaigners have their way, the Japanese Diet2, could soon be sharing these pastures, ruminating on the affairs of state. So what would the legislators want with her field? Why would they come and work in the inaka3? Why would they move from Tokyo to Tochigi? Isn't that like, erm, you know, backwards?

The Chamber of the House of Representatives4 spreads its magisterial girth over an impressively wide area, its ornate glass ceiling an airy 13 metres from the ground. The city it inhabits is built on the junction of three tectonic plates. To the north and west, the vast Eurasian plate extends across a quarter of the globe. To the east, the Pacific Plate stretches out beneath the ocean. And to the south, the Philippine Plate appears like an inverted "V", supporting, on its very tip, the bottom end of the Izu Peninsula. Over the millennia the Pacific Plate has been edging its way towards the Eurasian plate, shunting countless tons of rock into immense, snow-board-able mountains. Its irresistible pressure is shunting the Phillipine Sea Plate further towards the shore. Once every century or so, the enormous stresses created in this process are released, and Tokyo has a major earthquake.

The timing of earthquakes are virtually impossible to predict, but they are all but certain to occur. In the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1926, Tokyo was turned into a giant fireball, as pots of boiling oil spilled over onto open fires that no-one could reach in time to extinguish. The effects of the next major tremor are harder to predict. There will certainly be considerable damage in the old, crowded shitamachi5 areas, built cheaply and hurriedly and before current standards were in place. Almost as worrying are newer areas built on reclaimed land. A big tremor could shake out the upper layers of sandy soil, leaving a wet quagmire in which buildings can keel over.6 In the middle of this chaotic mess, paralyzed by blocked streets and broken cables, would lie the Diet, its elegant glass ceiling disintegrating into tiny shards of glass, raining down through ample expanses of air onto the balding heads of our finest legislators.7.

Click the image below for a simulation. (Needs Java.)
Click repeatedly if you're that old guy from the sento today who was saying those buggers really needed shaking up.

The Japanese Diet.

Theoretically, much of Tokyo is built to withstand all but the very strongest of quakes. But then, theoretically, people don't mix enriched uranium in stainless steel buckets. Seeing the damage to California after the 1994 quake, Construction Ministry officials appeared on TV to reassure everyone that "it can't happen in Japan" 8. At Kobe it did, with sub-standard buildings collapsing under their own weight and leaving over 300,000 homeless.

When the big one hits Tokyo, many hope the government will be situated safely out of harm's way, leaving them free to co-ordinate the rescue efforts. The ideal location should be less than two and a half hours away by train, between 60 and 300 kilometers from Tokyo and should never have experienced an earthquake of magnitude 6 or greater at the same time as the current capital. That's where we come in. The Nasu area of Tochigi Prefecture is only 100 kilometers away, accessible by Shinkansen in an hour and thirteen minutes and experienced tremors not exceeding magnitude 4 during the Great Kanto Earthquake.

Tochigi is lobbying furiously. Plans are being laid for a new town of over 10,000 people, but the development could bring at least twenty times that. The prefecture spent over 2 billion yen last year on PR activities alone. Enormous banners are sprawled across public buildings. Psychologically, the ground is already being prepared. They have distributed posters to schools, and recently convened a special Children's Diet to discuss the issue with future generations.

Still, the move is far from a foregone conclusion. Tochigi is only one of three areas to have gone forward for examination by the diet, with another, Kyoto and Nara, to be reconsidered if transport links are improved. Tokyo, unsurprisingly, is opposed. Japan's industrial-sized pressure groups are worried about having to leave the capital to buy the lawmakers lunch. Tokyo's governor, the right-wing Ishihara Shintaro, whose best-selling books have included "The Asia That Can Say NO", "The Japan That Can Say NO" and "The Tokyo That Can Say NO", has not responded positively. A recent article in the Asahi Shinbun suggested that the move will cost some 2% of Japanese GDP. That's equivalent to one fifth of a whole year's Japanese exports. Either they're planning to make the new place out of gold or the Asahi Shinbun has joined the spoiling campaign. These are both genuine possibilities.

At this point it is worth noting that the government's response to Japan's last big earthquake was not exactly a model of efficiency. Help from abroad was turned away while people lay trapped under wreckage. Rescue dogs from Europe were held up in quarantine. Delays in the prefecture making the proper request, and the Prime Minister the proper decision, meant that troops were not allowed out of barracks until 22 hours after the earthquake hit. According to some reports the Prime Minister did not even know about the disaster until two hours after it had happened. In subsequent disasters people would speak of a "new volunteerism" born out of the Kobe disaster. People helped themselves because they know they knew there was no point in waiting for the government to help them.

Back in Nasu, opinions are divided. People are worried about land prices, pollution, water, peace and quiet. The Children's Diet appeared unimpressed. "Won't the animals be pushed out by cars?", protested 5th-grade elementary school student Fujita DifficultKanji. Luckily the head of the development corporation was on hand to set the children straight.9. Despite my most earnest solicitations, the cow declined to comment. But given what happened at Kobe, I can't help thinking she'd be more use than the Diet.


1. Joke. [back]
2. Don't say "parliament" or "assembly". Say "Diet". You have to do this with Japanese things. Otherwise it doesn't sound mysterious enough and it's harder to impress people with your Japan Expertise. Also, don't say "King". Say "Emperor". Obviously he doesn't have an empire, but, well, erm, it just sounds better. [back]
3. Also, don't say countryside, say inaka. Never use an English word when you can use a Japanese one that most English-speaking people won't understand. [back]
4. You can visit The Diet from 9.30 to 4 Monday to Friday, as long as they're not in session. For information on tours call 03-3581-3111, ext. 2451, or visit their homepage at http://www.sangiin.go.jp/.[back]
5. Don't say "downtown", say... OK, You get the idea.[back]
6. To be honest I'm not totally sure about all this catastrophe stuff, since I got it out of a big red book called "The Sixty Seconds That Will Shake The Earth". The author claims to be an accomplished geologist, but I figure if he'd written "The Sixty Seconds That Will Spill Some Coffee" he wouldn't have sold as many copies.[back]
7. Apparently the Lower House have special hoods under their chairs in case this happens. The Upper House said they'd just protect themselves with their jackets, thus demonstrating their independence from their more influential colleagues.[back]
8. Ever heard that before?[back]
9. He was the Chairman. I couldn't find out if the kids were allowed to vote on it.[back]