Tokyo’s Backup Plan

Japan is contemplating building a 'backup' city to take over the government if Tokyo is ever destroyed

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Issei Kato / Reuters

Natural disasters are at the top of Japan's collective mind, where officials and residents alike are keen to avoid a repeat of the devastation brought on by March's earthquake and subsequent tsunami. More than 200 square miles of the country were flooded in the disaster, forcing the evacuation of more than 320,000 people. That massive and rapid destruction was bad enough, but officials can’t help but wonder if, instead of the wrath of nature wiping out the north eastern coast of the country’s main island, a disaster were to occur in an arguably more important part of the country, like its capital city of Tokyo.

With faultlines crisscrossing the country, earthquakes are a real threat, and officials are concerned that a big one could take out Tokyo. The prospect is real enough that the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is thinking about creating a “backup” city to assume the seat of power should Tokyo be destroyed, according to a recent article in the Telegraph.

The plan is still in its early stages, but would outline the creation of a new city on the site of an underused airport outside of Osaka, about 250 miles to the southwest of Tokyo. The new city – dubbed Integrated Resort, Tourism, Business and Backup City – would include office towers, parks, housing for 50,000 and, for some less-than-emergency reasons, resort facilities, casinos and “the tallest tower in the world.” It’s envisioned that this city would have space for about 200,000 workers, and that it would be able to operate as the center of government in the event of devastation in Tokyo.

Lloyd Alter at Treehugger is more than a little skeptical about the idea. He calls it “the stuff of bad science fiction movies and cold war nuclear destruction dramas. How do you back up space for 13 million people in a city designed for 200,000?”

In a lot of ways he’s right. The idea of replacing a city like Tokyo – with a city population of about 13 million and a metro population estimated around 35 million – is absurd. But what’s interesting here is not that the plan is to replace Tokyo, but rather to create a physical Plan B to fill in for its role as a center of government.

And while maintaining a seat of government is probably a good idea, not planning for what happens to the city’s 13 million residents in the face of what’s perceived as a looming disaster seems ignorant of why Tokyo is one of the world’s most successful and powerful cities. The estimated $180,000 the government is expected to spend on preliminary plans for this backup city might wisely be matched with similar funding to plan for how the existing city of Tokyo could be more resilient should that devastation come.

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.