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Top>Opinion>Can this change of government produce a nation of local sovereignty?


Nobuo Sasaki

Nobuo Sasaki [Profile]

Can this change of government produce a nation of local sovereignty?

Nobuo Sasaki
Professor of Administration and Local Autonomy, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University

First change of government after World War II

This summer, Japan saw its first great change of government. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) replaced the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had held the reins of government for more than half a century since the war, to establish a new government. This implied people in Japan chose an ordinary citizen-oriented government, focusing on the disadvantaged, rather than a producer-oriented government, focusing on the business world.

Two expectations for the DPJ government

Japanese people have two expectations of the DPJ government. One is the expectation that the administration will be revamped, by cutting waste and eliminating collusive relationships among politicians, officials, and corporations (a role of Mito Komon). The other is the expectation that the administration will develop and implement new ordinary citizen-oriented and local government-minded policy (a role of Doraemon).

In the United States and England, there is a tacit acceptance that they do not criticize a new administration in its first 100 days. This means that the transition of administrations is warmly welcomed. The new administration in Japan currently maintains a popularity rating of over 60%. And the Hatoyama administration appears to be off to a good start in terms of foreign affairs, based on the environmental speech at the U. N. General Assembly, which established friendly relations with President Obama as well as other leaders including the Korean and Chinese premiers.

Among the political commitments made by the new government, the most historically important is Japan's pledged shift to become a nation of local sovereignty. The new government claims that Japan should not aim to be a conservative nation for which growth depends on centralization and bureaucracy, but rather to be a nation of local sovereignty where decentralization is promoted by politicians and autonomous municipal governance is regarded as the primary government. More than likely, considerable vested interests and constraints remain to be faced, and it will not be long before the new administration must battle against the so-called resistance forces, including the LDP, business world, politicians acting in the interest of certain government ministries and industries, and bureaucrats.

The political power to break through these formidable challenges is essential for the DPJ.

Starting decentralization from what is closest at hand

But can we leave the vital task of decentralization to politicians? Will the nation naturally acquire local sovereignty while the municipalities (prefectures, cities, towns, and villages) as well as the citizens of Japan just watch the central government act, in a veritable spectator democracy? This line of thinking is fatally flawed.

Decentralization certainly comprises a paradigm shift in the power structure involving a decrease in the power of the central government-in Kasumigaseki-and an increase in municipal autonomy. The ensuing power struggles cannot be waged without political leadership. Even if decentralization is realized, however, officials at central ministries regard it as merely a nominal change, feeling that, as in the past, they can subcontract their tasks to local governments. Politicians must act to change of the notions of these officials and overhaul the structure of our nation.

Just as there is a centralized structure between the central government and local governments, there are similar centralized structures between prefectures and cities, and other municipalities. The enemy is at Honnouji Temple (right in our own backyard), and decentralization will not materialize while we wait. We must take action! In order to change the relationship between prefectures and lower level municipalities (such as cities and towns), I propose the following. First, establish a basic ordinance on decentralization throughout the country. Then based on this ordinance, develop a local initiative local community building concept to promote the transfer of authority from prefectures to lower level municipalities. Further, by promoting decentralization in communities and in the private sector, form a new type of community.

The era of local assembly members

There is another point that is worth noting. Though only the Diet receives attention now, local assemblies will be much more important after considerable sovereignty is granted to local governments. Surprisingly, few of us know how many local assembly members there are there in the 1,800 cities and towns across 47 prefectures. Now, there are about 2,800 assembly members in the prefectures and about 35,000 assembly members in the cities or towns. Though some say this is too many and others say this is too few, there is no doubt that these members are decision makers for local administrations, which occupy two-thirds of the administrative activities in Japan. Since the promotion of decentralization means the transfer of authority and money from the nation to municipalities, the role of the Diet is also transferred to local assemblies. Thus, the manner in which local assemblies and their members should function becomes important.

To argue this point, I have recently written a book entitled Local Assembly Member (PHP Shinsho). As the first book that discusses local assembly members in Japan, this book has received a considerable response nationwide.

Actually in Japan, decentralization reform started in 2000 and the authority of local assemblies has been significantly expanded since then. For more than a half century prior, local governments themselves had conducted around 70 to 80 percent of their operations for commissioned tasks as if they were subcontractors of the central government under the leadership of governors or mayors, who were regarded as local representatives of each Minister of the Cabinet. The then local assemblies did not have any right to discuss many commissioned tasks, to establish ordinances, or to decrease the budget. In other words, local assemblies merely played a supporting role in politics.

If local governments change, so will the nation

However, reforms in 2000 abolished this type of administration. Local governments dedicate themselves to administrative operations for their own communities, while local assemblies have rights to discuss every local task, to establish ordinances, and to review every budget. They may kill unnecessary projects and decrease the budget. If they wish, local assemblies can influence their governors or mayors as well as administrative organizations by way of policy proposals. Now, local governments emerge in the consummate leading role in politics.

Nevertheless, few local assembly members recognize the change of roles and of authority. As ever, members still regard local assemblies as a checking organization, which begs the question: what was the purpose of implementing decentralization reform?

Wake up! If local assemblies change, politics in Japan will change dramatically as well. Politics need to drive society, and so do local governments. I hope local assembly members nationwide open their eyes and rise to the occasion.

Nobuo Sasaki
Professor of Administration and Local Autonomy,
Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
The author was born in Iwate prefecture in 1948. He received a graduate degree from the Graduate School of Political Science at Waseda University. After working for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, he became a professor at Seigakuin University in 1989, and then a professor at Chuo University in 1994. Professor Sasaki holds a PhD in Law from Keio University. Professor Sasaki is a regular news commentator at Tokyo MX Television. His primary works include: "Local assembly members", "How do we change municipalities?", "Modern local autonomy" and many others. A Japan City Association Award winner, Professor Sasaki devotes his energies to giving lectures on decentralization, assembly reform, regional systems, and municipal management at many local assemblies, prefectural government offices, city halls, economic organizations, and junior chambers all over the country. His clear and accessible lectures are widely renowned.