"We have suffered from a long economic recession during the past twenty years after the 1990s bubble economy. Our GDP has greatly decreased and growth power diminished. We are hoping, however, [the National Emergency Management International City] will give Japanese people the new 'dream and hope' for the future... We would like to rebuild our nation through these endeavors." - Councilman Hajime Ishii, Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, October 24, 2011.


Transfer of Japan’s capital from 456 B.C. to present. All images courtesy of Zhai and McGown unless otherwise noted.

HYPERCAPITAL. The capital of Japan has transferred to a new location a total of 42 times. Each transition of the capital occurred at a moment of conflict, the overthrowing or death of an emperor. Each transfer marked a new era in Japanese society, a moment of rebirth in the midst of a national crisis. The following research will explore the past and present conditions that have evolved to form a new national capital, sponsor regional economic development, and speculate on new urban forms.


Regions affected by the Kanto Fire, and subsequent reconstruction plan.

01. CRISIS BREEDS OPPORTUNITY. Each national emergency brought with it the latent opportunity to rebuild the country in a new imagea new image

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model city
. With the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the emperor gained all symbolic, political, and military power over the country, moving the capital to Tokyo and beginning the process of modernization. But it was not until after the Great Kanto Fire of 1923 that sufficient land use laws and building codes could be applied to the urban fabric of Tokyo, radically transforming the city into a modern, cosmopolitan hotspot. Each renewal allowed for the further accumulation of capital, development, and population in the city, setting the scene for the catastrophic lossescatastrophic losses

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side effect
after the fire-bombing of World War II and the current unsettling threat of an earthquake in the near future.


Evaluation of potential capital sites based on proximity of transportation infrastructure and commutable distance.

02. FLOATING LIKE AN ISLAND IN A SEA OF GREEN. During the nineties bubble economy and after a thorough study of geological processes in the Pacific Ring of Fire, an increasing sense of alarm grew into a call for the expedient removal of the capital functions outside of Tokyo to prevent a catastrophic loss of Japan’s political infrastructure. Tokyo would remain the symbolic de jure capital of Japan, while an entirely new de facto capital devoted to the political needs of the country would be constructed in a safe yet central location not far from Tokyo proper. 1


Economic analysis of transfer capital sites.

03. NEW CITY, NEW DIRECTION. Shento, the spiritual transfer of Japan’s capital, would mark the first peaceful transfer of political power in all of Japan’s history and would mark the regeneration of Japanese society moving into the twenty-first century. The new city would be separated from the economic interests of Tokyo and would instead promote the nation’s natural beauty, cultural heritage, and advancements in technology, especially in mobility and telecommunications infrastructures.2


Possible sites for a backup city in the Kansai region.

04. FROM TRANSFER TO BACKUP. From 1990 until 2004, several laws were passed, committees were convened, reports were commissioned, and ten candidate regions were pared down to three sites. But as the economic bubble burst in the mid to late nineties and political alliances devolved into infighting when politicians were faced with choosing a final site, the capital transfer plans have all but become a distant memory. Can Japan afford losing its capital in an inevitable crisis? A new proposal, led by Councilor Hajime Ishii, puts forward the idea of a backup capital city, and like a spare battery,3 it would be put into use only in the event of losing Tokyo in a natural disaster.


World Expos successful events, failed states.

05. A BACKUP CAPITAL, A NEW PUBLIC–PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP. With public debts exceeding 208 percent and a declining and aging population, Japan is unable to pay for either transferring the capital to a new city or building a backup city to hold the capital functions in a time of national emergency. Instead, it must partner with private industryprivate industry

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to gather the necessary funding for such a venture. The use of private–public partnerships have a long history in Japan, with the most recent examples including the international exhibitions held between 1970 and 2005 in Osaka, Okinawa, Kobe, Tsukuba, Tokyo, and Aichi.4 Each event required the complex coordination between state and private interests that would eventually demonstrate the technological and bureaucratic skills of the nation to both a domestic and international audience.


Hajime Ishii’s Integrated Resort, Tourism, Business, and Backup City (IRTBBC).5

06. FROM DEFICITS TO THE REVERSE PPP MODEL. In each case, international exhibitions temporarily increased government spending followed by a decline in spending and an increase in tax revenue.6 Each expo garnered profits for both private and public interests and increased economic opportunities through a combination of improved regional infrastructures and capital injection into local enterprises. But with the success of each of these events, the government developed a dependency on speculation and investment by local private interests by increasing government spending in the issuing of long-term foreign-invested bonds. This economic bubble, based on government debt and private speculation, would eventually burst, ending the intentions of many to move the national capital. The current plan reverses the relationship between public and private investment. Rather than the government injecting capital and building infrastructure in order to accelerate the private market, the current plan to develop a backup city at the site of Itami Airport in Osaka would rely on a 90 percent stake by private industry to build and operate an Integrated Resort, Tourism, Business, and Backup City, or IRTBBC.7 The new city would function as a private development, but in the event of a disaster in Tokyo, the backup city would rapidly transform into the nation’s temporary capital.


Kenzo Tenge’s 1940 proposal for a decentralized capital.

07. THE DISTRIBUTED CAPITAL. The ideological disposition to decentralize and to reform the government through this process is not a new concept. In Kenzo Tange’s 1942 proposal, the functions of the government would be dispersed along the newly developed Tokaido Shinkansen train lines running south from Tokyo toward Mount Fuji. The symbolic functions of the government would coexist at both ends of the line, one remaining in the emperor’s residence in Tokyo and the other at the foot of Mount Fuji, the geological heart of Japan, where all Asian nations would pledge allegiance to an alliance of Asian countries led by Japan. The national functions of government and leading business interests would be relocated to a central position between each of these symbolic nodes, thus dispersing the functions of government and providing an early attempt to decongest Tokyo for private development, a goal that remains to this day.


Travel-time map from Tokyo to capital sites: Maglev.

08. THE KEY TO DECENTRALIZATION. Whether in the earlier attempts to transfer the entire capital functions to another city or in the recent proposal to build a backup capital in Osaka, the key factor above all other considerations is a question of mobility. Any new capital or backup capital has to be within two hours of Tokyo.8 Currently, bullet trains provide trips between Osaka and Tokyo in less than two and half hours. The Maglev, or magnetically levitating train, has been in development since the 1980s and puts Japan on the verge of fundamentally changing the relationship of the people to the city. At a top speed of 517 kilometers per hour (321 miles per hour)9 the Maglev would reduce the trip to less than an hour. With the current average Tokyo commute an hour long, this new form of mobility will radically change and break the traditional boundaries of urban form. The landscape between Tokyo and Osaka will transform into one continuously merged urbanscape. The train’s first run is scheduled for 2020, trips between Nagoya and Tokyo are planned for 2025, and trips between Osaka and Tokyo are set for 2045.


The world economy of casinos, 2009–11.

09. LATENT ECONOMY. Besides Pachinko, horse racing, and the state lottery, which are legal, gambling is generally banned and discouraged in Japan. The new IRTBBC plans to function outside of these limits, allowing all forms of gambling currently available in international gambling capitals like Las Vegas and Macau to occur legally in Japan for the first time.


Pachinko revenue, 2009, compared to world’s top casino revenue 2009–11.

10. NEW STATE STRUCTURES.The potential to tap into the gambling market is a substantially lucrative bet for Japan, with the number of international tourists topping 2.4 million in 2010,10 a potential international gambling market worth $40 billion and a domestic Pachinko market worth $378 billion.11 This influx of international capital and an already prevalent domestic gambling market would help finance the development of the new backup city as a viable and sustainable option for Japan. If the state were to finance and back the private development of Pachinko gambling within Japan, that alone would pay for the expense of the new connective Maglev train (Chuo Shinkansen) between Osaka and Tokyo 3.4 times over. New economies will drive the development of new state infrastructures.


Programmatic pairing of capital and Olympic functions.

11. THREE CLIENTS, ONE PROJECT. Combining the needs of the state and the interests of private industry, Japan could symbiotically create a new urban hybrid typology, the Hypercapital. The Hypercapital would distribute the capital functions along the seven stops of the Chuo Shinkansen Maglev. At each stop, a public–private partnership between the national and local governments, Japanese Rail Central, and a private casino-operating company would collectively build and operate key governmental facilities sponsored and financially sustained through private development. Added to this is a third element, the projected 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, as a way to spur private development, gain public support, and finance the distribution of capital functions. Whereas in most Olympic Games, venues are disproportionately centered in one city of a host nation, the 2020 Olympic Games facilities would be developed concurrently with each of the Hypercapital sites, further distributing the games and development between Osaka and Tokyo, bridging the two historic capitals of Japan into a new urban typology.


Proposed distribution of capital functions, and Olympic venues along future Maglev line running from Tokyo to Osaka.

12. HYPERCAPITAL. It is clear that Tokyo and the fate of Japan’s government are heading toward an imminent natural disaster if not a human-induced disaster through runaway deficits, debilitating sovereign debt, and a declining and aging population. But rather than waiting for the final blow and responding reactively to a devastating crisis, Japan now has the opportunity to be proactive. By combining government functions, private interests, the national aspiration of hosting the Olympics, and reforming the government and regional economies all through a distributed development plan along the Chuo Shinkansen Maglev, a new era for Japan is nearly within reach. For Japan, this is the era of pragmatic optimism, the era of the Hypercapital.


Japan’s new capital: the Hypercapital.

This project was created by David Zhai and Simon McGown in a studio taught by Shohei Shigematsu and Christy Cheng at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in spring 2013.

David Zhai is a spatial designer with an interest in the future of architectural practice and pedagogy, and the way that that design can help transform the way we live, work, and play. David’s work often explores opportunities of crisis, and the hybridization of form to create new typologies of space. David is currently pursuing his interests as a Designer at Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), and as an Associate in Architecture at Columbia University GSAPP where he is teaching in both the Core, and Advanced research studios.

Simon McGown is a Designer at Morphosis Architects in New York, NY specializing in higher education typologies and facade systems. He graduated from Columbia University with a Master in Architecture and a received a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from Texas Tech University. He is an instructor at Pratt Institute.

  1. 1. “Policy speech by governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara at the First Regular Session of the Metropolitan Assembly, March 1, 2003,” accessed April 15, 2014. link. ^
  2. 2. Timothy Hoye, Japanese Politics: Fixed and Floating Worlds. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall 1999): 147–8. ^
  3. 3. Julian Ryall, “Japan Considers Building Backup City in Case of Emergency,” The Telegraph, October 27, 2011. Accessed April 15, 2014. link. ^
  4. 4. Toru Aizawa, “Capital Function Relocation in Japan,” in Institute for International Studies and Training website (July 1, 2003), accessed April 15, 2014. link. ^
  5. 5. Hajime Ishii, National Emergency Management International City (Government of Japan: 2011). ^
  6. 6. Report of the Investigating Committee for the Relocation of the Diet and Other Organizations. Council for the Relocation of the Diet and Other Organizations. Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism. December 20, 1999, accessed April 15, 2014. link. ^
  7. 7. Alan Boyle, “Will Japan Build a Backup Tokyo?” NBC News, November 2, 2011, accessed April 15, 2014. link. ^
  8. 8. Report of the Investigating Committee for the Relocation of the Diet and Other Organizations. Council for the Relocation of the Diet and Other Organizations. Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism. December 13, 1995, accessed April 15, 2014. link. ^
  9. 9. “Does Japan Need a High-Speed Maglev Line?” in Nippon.com (November 5, 2013), accessed April 15, 2014. link. ^
  10. 10. Mure Dickie, “Tourists Flock to Japan Despite China Spat,” The Financial Times, accessed April 15, 2014. link. ^
  11. 11. “Japan’s Growth, Abenomics, and Investment Opportunities,” MarketWatch.com (May 7, 2013), accessed May 10, 2014. link. ^

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