TOKYO - One of the world's great capitals may soon be just one of the world's great cities.
Japan's parliament in 1992 voted to move itself out of Tokyo. Last week, after three years of studying the details, a government committee recommended a $140 billion construction project to have a relocated capital working by 2010.
Critics have been clamoring for a new capital since shortly after Tokyo was chosen in 1868. But since the late 1980s, the argument has gained momentum as Tokyo has become increasingly crowded and expensive.
Land values are so high that most people hold no hope of purchasing a home. Millions who work in Tokyo cannot afford even tiny apartments and spend hours commuting in trains famous for "pushers" who jam riders into crowded cars.
Metropolitan Tokyo, an earthquake-prone zone, is home to 30 million people, a quarter of the nation's population. After more than 5,500 people were killed in a January earthquake in Kobe, the government panel studying the capital relocation decided to speed up deliberations.
Last week's report calls for selection within two years of a relatively uncrowded area no more than 180 miles from Tokyo and for construction to begin before 2000. The area is to be within 40 minutes of an international airport and not on earthquake fault lines.
The area within a 180-mile radius of Tokyo covers much of central Honshu, the main Japanese island. Officials in some rural areas are already lobbying hard. No site has emerged as a front-runner.
It could take 10 years after construction begins before legislators move in. Along with Japan's parliament, known as the Diet, the new capital would house the Supreme Court, the prime minister's residence and office, Cabinet agencies and government ministries. Businesses and groups dependent on the government are expected to follow.
The Diet still must approve specifics of the relocation, and some remain skeptical it will happen.
The governor of Tokyo, for one, hopes it never does. "Instead of spending huge sums on the construction of a new capital, (the government) should concentrate on consolidating various functions to be more capable of handling disasters and winning competitions with other international cities," Gov. Yukio Aoshima said.
Other critics say the peak of growth for Tokyo, a city of 5 million people in 1950, is already over. "This plan had meaning 20 years ago," said Tetsundo Iwakuni, a prominent politician. "But now the policy is too late."
Supporters argue a new capital would boost Japan's sluggish economy. The massive construction project would create jobs and might aid efforts to decentralize the federal bureaucracy, they say.