Promoting Local Autonomy in Japan

Promoting Local Autonomy in Japan
Photo Credit: Corbis/達志影像

What you need to know

Transferring administrative power from the central to local governments may not be enough to realize true local autonomy.

This is the 70th year since the concept of local autonomy was introduced in Japan under the Constitution. Both the national and local governments should be reminded that local autonomy is an important and essential heritage of the postwar political and legal transformation. Serious efforts need to be made to bolster local governments financially and otherwise, and improve the well-being of their residents in the face of population flight and aging.

Chapter VIII of the postwar Constitution deals with “local self-government.” The Local Autonomy Law took effect on the same day the Constitution entered into force on May 3, 1947. Under the preceding Meiji Constitution, which had no provision for local self-government, the national government appointed prefectural governors. The postwar system abolished that practice and introduced the direct election of governors and mayors while expanding the electorate, especially to include women, to vote on local assembly members.

Despite the reforms, the national government continued to have an upper hand over local administrations. This tendency started to gradually weaken after the Diet in 1993 adopted a resolution to promote local autonomy. It was followed in 2000 by the enforcement of a law that abolished administrative duties that the national government was supposed to fulfill but instead imposed on local governments. In subsequent reforms from 2011 to 2014, more power was transferred from the national to local governments and restrictions placed on the latter were relaxed. In principle, the relationship between central and local governments has become one of cooperation among equal parties.

Still, local governments continue to face difficult conditions. Although the Abe administration pushes for regional revitalization, the population exodus to the greater Tokyo area continues unabated. According to an internal affairs ministry report last year, people moving into the Tokyo megalopolis outnumbered those who moved out of it for 20 years in a row. In 2015, only eight prefectures — Tokyo, Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa, Aichi, Osaka, Fukuoka and Okinawa — saw new residents outnumber those leaving. The national government has a goal of balancing the population flow to and from the greater Tokyo area by 2020, but there is no prospect that the target can be achieved.

To reverse the trend, the National Governors Association is calling on the central government to restrict the opening of new universities and the enlargement of existing schools in Tokyo. But given the difficulties confronting the management of private universities due to the declining youth population, drastic measures such as moving existing universities out of the Tokyo area cannot be expected. All the national government can possibly do is tighten its monitoring of universities in Tokyo to prevent them from accepting more students than the officially fixed numbers, or beef up support for universities outside of major urban areas.

In fiscal 2016, the Abe administration introduced new grants to local governments eager to push projects for such purposes as industrial innovation, promoting migration to their areas and improvement of the work-life balance. To flexibly meet the needs of local administration, the government should remove the red tape in the procedure for providing the grants while eliminating wasteful expenses.

Transferring central government functions out of Tokyo remains slow. It has only been decided so far that the Cultural Affairs Agency will be relocated to Kyoto within several years, while some of the functions of the Consumer Affairs Agency and the internal affairs ministry’s Statistics Bureau will be moved out of Tokyo. Unless the Abe administration carries out a more large-scale relocation of government functions, its commitment to the endeavor — intended to encourage Tokyo-based businesses to relocate to other parts of the country — will be in doubt.

Past reforms for decentralization of administrative powers have empowered local governments, for example, to approve the diversion of farmland for other purposes on their own and to set up job placement offices using information on position offers held by the national government. These changes were meant to enable the local administrations to introduce measures suited to local needs, thereby improving the service for better satisfaction of local residents. But as the population exodus continues, it is not clear whether such steps are producing the intended effects.

Despite the principle that the national and local governments are equal parties, there still are cases in which the central government is pushing forward with its policies despite the wishes of local administrations and their residents. The standoff between the Abe administration and Okinawa Prefecture over the construction of a new military facility in Nago to take over the functions of U.S. Marine Air Station Futenma — in which Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s revocation of his predecessor’s permit for reclamation of the site of the new airfield led the prefecture into a court battle with the national government — is a case in point. What’s happening in Okinawa should be considered in light of the principle defining the relationship between the central government and local administrations.

Transferring administrative power from the central to local governments may not be enough to realize true local autonomy. The national government needs to make more efforts to enhance the financial resources of local administrations. For their part, local governments should improve the ability of their workers and assembly members to work out effective policy measures to serve local needs. They also should enlighten and educate local residents to ensure their meaningful participation in various decisions and projects that concern their lives.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this editorial. The original can be found here.

Editor: Olivia Yang