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Challenges Facing Local Governments Two Years after the Great East Japan Earthquake

Takaharu Kohara
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

Exactly two years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake. In this paper I would like to point out some problems faced by the local authorities in the areas afflicted by the disaster, based on what I have seen and heard over the past two years as a member of the National and Local Administration Group of the "Social Scientific Survey of the Great East Japan Earthquake," by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (research project entrusted to Waseda University and led by Hiroaki Inatsugu, Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics). Firstly, I will discuss an issue related to the functioning of local administration. Secondly, I will look into a problem associated with rebuilding of local communities.

Staff Shortages

First, I would like to point out shortages of local government personnel in the afflicted areas as an urgent issue that should be addressed as soon as possible. The staff is overstretched and exhausted. Almost any researcher who was involved in a survey of the local authorities would realize this and feel a sense of guilt, knowing that the officials granted interviews when they actually had no time to spare. Some might argue that acute staff shortages are inevitable in an emergency of this dimension. But in fact one cannot blame it all on the disaster since staff shortages are more or less the result of national policy implemented over the past 10 years.

The national policy that I refer to here is two key government initiatives: the Great Heisei Consolidation of Municipalities and the Concentrated Reform Plan of Local Authorities.

Due to the Great Heisei Consolidation, the number of municipalities in Japan was halved, from 3232 as of March 31, 1999 to 1719 as of January 1, 2013. Of the three prefectures most severely affected by the disaster, Iwate saw the number of municipalities reduced from 59 to 33, Miyagi from 71 to 35, and Fukushima from 90 to 59. Typically in a municipal merger, a central city swallows up towns or villages in surrounding areas, and town halls in the surrounding areas are transformed into branch offices of a newly established municipality. We've seen, however, a number of cases in which those branch offices ended up being merged and eventually abolished, resulting in the peripheral communities losing their core administrative facilities. This is a general trend that can be observed all over the country. Through this process, the total number of administrative staff has been gradually reduced. I'd like to call the attention to the fact that the residents of the peripheral areas will have to bear the brunt of the staff reduction because it will surely affect the quality of administrative services provided for them.

Government workers were more seriously affected by the Concentrated Reform Plan, which was undertaken by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications after the Great Heisei Consolidation. This plan resulted in the number of municipal workers being slashed by 10% and that of prefectural government workers by 5% over the 5 years, beginning in fiscal 2005. It is under such circumstances that the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake struck. The local authorities in the afflicted areas have since been suffering from the acute lack of manpower in the face of daunting tasks to rebuild their communities. On the other hand, the local authorities outside the disaster zones found it difficult to dispatch personnel to help out the afflicted communities as they were also struggling with chronic staff shortages as the result of the administrative reform.

Even though the landscapes in the disaster areas look little different from the days immediately after the tsunami struck, there is no doubt that restoration and reconstruction work is making progress. The most pressing task for the local authorities at the moment is to negotiate with residents and help build a consensus among them regarding planned mass relocation to inland areas and land readjustment projects for ravaged coastal districts. In particular, land readjustment is a task that requires a high level of legal knowledge and sufficient practical experiences on the part of municipal staff. Therefore, it is often the case that the local authorities have to rely on specialist staff dispatched from other local governments. At the same time, those who are familiar with the local situation are essential to ensure smooth communication with residents. Being aware of this, some local authorities see to it that negotiation teams are in principle made up of both home-grown staff and outside experts. However, such an arrangement is not always possible due to a serious shortage of both types of personnel. Thus, the local governments manage to proceed with reconstruction work by heavily relying on the selfless devotion of their workers. But now that their exhaustion is reaching the limits, concerns are mounting that this may hamper the progress of reconstruction.

Schools and Local Communities

Next, I would like to discuss a problem associated with rebuilding of local communities with the focus on the role of local schools.

One can define a community as a place where the lives of people are intertwined by material and psychological bonds fostered through their living together in the same area for many years. Municipalities used to be more or less such communities, defined as above. But the repeated mergers of municipalities have gradually weakened and diluted these characteristics. The area and population of each municipality has now become so bloated that such institutions as town hall and the local assembly have become distant from the lives of many residents and they feel increasingly alienated from the municipality in which they live. However, in contrast to substantial changes brought about by repeated municipal mergers, school districts remain relatively untouched. Even now it is often the case that the boundaries of elementary-school districts are roughly equivalent to those of the villages that existed prior to the Great Showa Consolidation while the borders of junior-high-school districts match those of the towns that were there before the Great Heisei Consolidation. This is why a school district attracts attention as the basic unit of a community.

Nowadays, particularly in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the role of local communities has come under a renewed spotlight. During and immediately after the disaster, residents in the same community helped each other in rescue and evacuation efforts. Communal ties also ensured that living in shelters and temporary housing went relatively smoothly and even helped reduce secondary damage such as solitary deaths of disaster survivors. Above all, community bonds provided invaluable emotional and psychological support for afflicted people who were forced to live in harsh conditions.

Such phenomena have led to a deepening recognition of the significance of elementary and junior high schools as the basic unit of a community. In Japan, elementary and junior high schools have long been the places where adults and children from the same community gather to enjoy such events as sports days, musical performances and school plays. During the chaotic days immediately after the disaster, approximately one-quarter of evacuation shelters were situated on the premises of local schools. Looking to the future, local schools are expected to play a major role in efforts to educate children on "disaster damage reduction," which is advocated by Yoshiaki Kawada.

However, in the disaster-stricken areas, moves are under way to consolidate and abolish local schools. A media report said a total of 25 elementary and junior high schools were going to be closed in March 2013 in Iwate and Miyagi. Behind the move is a downward trend in school enrollment aggravated by mass evacuation following the disaster. Extensive damage sustained by school buildings, which is estimated to cost huge amounts of money to repair, is also cited as a reason behind the school closures(Asahi Newspaper, March 7, 2013, evening edition). According to another report, there are plans to make CDs of top-notch orchestras' performing the school songs of the 20 schools in Miyagi's Ishinomaki city, Higashi-Matsushima city and Onagawa town that will close down shortly. The plans are reportedly prompted by a group of people in Ishinomaki who seek to preserve at least the school songs as their community songs even though the schools themselves cease to exist(Yomiuri Newspaper, March 5, 2013, evening edition).

I cannot accept the argument that school closures cannot be helped because this is an emergency. In my opinion, we should rather position local schools in the stricken areas as bases for their regeneration and make maximum efforts to maintain the schools, all the more because many of the communities are facing the danger of collapse in the wake of the disaster. Naoki Ogi, a critic on education issues, proposes having a school build a community rather than building a school in a community(How Should We See the Children Crisis? [Kodomo no Kiki wo Do Miruka], published by Iwanami Shoten, 2000; p211). Ogi's remark may sound paradoxical, but I believe it offers a profound insight into how we should rebuild our communities. I'd suggest that we reconsider the roles of local elementary and junior high schools and put the brakes on their mergers and closures, in line with Ogi's proposal.

Takaharu Kohara
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University


Born in Nagano Prefecture in 1959. Graduated from the School of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University in 1982. Withdrew from the doctoral program at the Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University, in 1990, after completing the required course work. After serving as Professor at the Faculty of Law, Seikei University, he was appointed to his current position in 2010. His area of specialty is local government.

His published works include The Great Heisei Consolidation of Municipalties: Is this what we wanted? [Korede Iinoka Heisei-no-Daigappei] (as editor and coauthor, Commons, 2003); The New Commons and Challenges Faced by Local Governments [Atarashii Koukyo to Jichi no Genba] (as coeditor and coauthor, Commons, 2011); What Should the Democratic Party Government Do? [Minshuto Seiken wa Nani o Nasubekika] (as coauthor, Jiro Yamaguchi ed., Iwanami Shoten, 2010); Political Theory of Publicness [Kokyosei no Seiji Riron] (as coauthor, Junichi Saito ed., Nakanishiya Shuppan, 2010); and Access: Democracy Theory [Akusesu Demokurashii-ron] (as coauthor, Junichi Saito and Tetsuki Tamura eds., Nihon Keizai Hyoronsha, 2012) among others.