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Democracy, interrupted: How local voices were silenced in Tokyo’s first referendum

Huge effort to mobilize locals over planned road through park may count for nought as mayor decides to destroy all ballots

by Chris Burgess

On Sunday, May 26, something quite remarkable happened in Kodaira city, western Tokyo: Over 50,000 citizens voted in Tokyo’s very first local referendum (jūmin tōhyō) on the issue of whether a 50-year-old plan to construct a road should be reviewed or not.

Unfortunately, the ballot papers will never be opened — 90 days on, the votes will be discarded, and with them the opinions of 51,010 Kodaira citizens. And so will end an extraordinary story of grass-roots democracy, public works spending and political obstruction.

The story starts some 50 years ago, against the background of a booming population and economy. In 1963, the Tokyo metropolitan government put forward a plan for a four-lane, 1.4 km road, part of a 13.6 km stretch linking Fuchu and Higashimurayama. This road was to run through Kodaira Chuo Park, bisecting the historical Tamagawa Aqueduct (Tamagawa Jōsui) and the Green Road, a popular 21 km circular walking path.

Soon after, the plan dropped off the political radar. But 18 years ago it was revived. Aside from the economic benefits arising from transport improvements, emphasis was also put on its role in times of disaster. The revived plan was to cost ¥250 billion — most of which would be used to compensate the 220 households who were to be evicted. Almost half of 1.3 hectares of woodland was scheduled to be cleared and 481 trees chopped down.

The revival of the old plan prompted a number of local groups to band together and form a coalition — Kodaira-toshi Keikaku-Doro ni Jumin no Ishi o Han’ei Saseru Kai — asking for citizens’ wishes to be reflected in the decision-making process.

“The government must know that traffic has decreased in recent years,” noted the group’s spokesperson, Kazue Mizuguchi. Demographic projections reinforce Mizuguchi’s point: The Japanese population is forecast to drop from around 127 million to 100 million by 2050, when more than one in three Japanese will be over 65.

In December 2012, Han’ei Saseru Kai set about gathering “signatures” (shomei), knowing that if they were able to collect 3,000 — some 2 percent of the voting population — they would be legally entitled to ask the local government to hold a referendum.

For non-Japanese, collecting signatures might seem a simple task, but in Japan it is no easy matter. This is because it is not a handwritten signature that is required at all, but a personal seal (hanko). The fact that most Japanese don’t carry their hanko while out and about in town made collecting “signatures” a Herculean task (although a fingerprint was also an option for those who didn’t mind the ink).

If this were not enough, signees also had to write down their date of birth, a rather sensitive piece of information in an increasingly privacy-conscious Japan. Finally, Kodaira collectors had to be officially approved; non-Japanese — even if, like this writer, they were long-term residents with permanent visas — were not allowed to canvass or sign, highlighting the odd distinction in Japan between shimin (citizen) and jūmin (resident).

Despite all the difficulties, by the deadline of January 2013 a total of 7,593 signatures had been collected, more than twice the required amount. The election board ruled 7,183 of these to be valid and they were presented to the local assembly in February to debate whether a referendum should be held or not. This was by no means a foregone conclusion; indeed, Mayor Masanori Kobayashi made his displeasure clear, saying, “It was likely to cause problems for the road networking plan of the Tokyo metropolitan government.”

Precedent shows that persuading Japanese local governments to hold a referendum is difficult. For example, in the last year or two alone, assemblies in Tokyo, Osaka, Shizuoka and Niigata have voted down bills calling for referendums on whether to resume operations at — or scrap — nuclear power plants, despite the required number of signatures having been collected in each case. Indeed, referendums to date have mostly involved public safety issues, such as the building of a nuclear power plant, industrial waste facility or military base — though recent years have seen some diversification in the issues addressed. Nevertheless, cases of referendums initiated by citizens regarding public works projects are rare in Japan, reflecting the steep hurdles local people face in having their voices heard.

Against this background, the Kodaira assembly’s March decision to allow a referendum to go ahead came as a big surprise to many. Like the previous 10 referendums initiated by citizens, it was decided that no conditions (such as a minimum turnout) would be attached. The fact that citizens were not asking to stop the road, just to take another look at the 50-year-old plan, undoubtedly worked in their favor.

Another factor might have been that the group had ultimately decided, fearing this might derail the whole process, not to ask that permanent foreign residents be allowed to vote (opposition to foreign participation was reportedly deep among many assembly members). Unfortunately, to Han’ei Saseru Kai’s surprise, it was decided not to hold the vote in conjunction with the upcoming mayoral election, something that would have guaranteed a higher turnout.

Things, however, began to take a turn for the worse shortly after Mayor Kobayashi was re-elected in April. On April 24, in a special session of the local assembly, a revision (kaiseian) was made to the terms of the local referendum: In the case of a turnout of less than 50 percent, ballots would not be opened. Given that the turnout in the mayoral election had been around 37 percent, many considered this an impossible hurdle — one, moreover, that was not mentioned by Kobayashi in his re-election bid. The revision also excluded those having a criminal record from the vote, putting them in the same bracket as foreign residents.

Despite the efforts of an army of volunteers to publicize the referendum — the local government did nothing in this respect — voter turnout on May 26 was 35.17 percent, less than the 50 percent required. Kobayashi, seemingly questioning the validity of his own re-election, declared that such a turnout “cannot be said to reflect the collective opinion (sōi) of Kodaira citizens.” On May 28, amid rumors that a deal had already been in place, it was reported that the Tokyo government had submitted the paperwork for the road plan to the national government. The green light to begin construction is expected around August.

The notable thing about the story of Tokyo’s first local referendum is how the protest movement morphed from a loose coalition questioning the need to destroy a green space to build a road based on 50-year-old population projections to a broader movement of citizens indignant at the indifference and even contempt being shown by those in power towards local people’s opinions.

Despite all the legal obstacles already in place — including the fact that even if a referendum is successful it remains nonbinding — local politicians seemed to be trying their hardest to thwart local activists every step of the way. This generated feelings of powerlessness (shikata ga nai) amongst many locals resigned to the “fact” that the road would be built whatever they said or did; on the other hand, it energized others and served to popularize the protests.

Amid all the despondency, perhaps a glimmer of hope remains. Tokyo Gov. Naoki Inose is no friend of public works and bureaucratic secrecy, and a word from him could put the road project on hold indefinitely.

With International Olympic Committee members casting their eyes towards Tokyo (and perhaps even over The Japan Times), the man who is a keen advocate of information sharing could earn some kudos for encouraging local democracy. What he most certainly doesn’t want are Narita airport-like scenes of protesters lying in front of bulldozers and chaining themselves to homes in the build-up to a possible 2020 Olympic Games.

Chris Burgess teaches Australian and Japanese Studies at Tsuda College, Kodaira. This article is dedicated to all the local people in Kodaira who worked tirelessly to ensure the voices of ordinary citizens could be heard. Special thanks to Kazue Mizuguchi, Naoko Ogawa, Tadashi Kamio and Kazuyo Kamikubo. For more information, including a link to a digital petition asking the local government to make the ballots public, see jumintohyo.wordpress.com (in Japanese). Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • ScooterRunner

    I’m confused. What will be decided around August? Was paperwork sent to the national government about the road plan or about the election?

    • Chris

      Sorry about any confusion. The paperwork refers to paperwork (shinsei in Japanese) on the road project. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government had been waiting until the referendum had finished before applying to the national government for permission to get started on the road. It will probably take 2 or 3 months until they get the green light from MLIT to begin construction. Of course, the referendum has really not “finished” as the ballots remain unopened and there are still moves to get these released. A recent request from the group to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to put things on hold until the situation with the unopened ballots is resolved was recently turned down. The rejection letter is available at http://jumintohyo.wordpress.com/2013/06/13/ (note the reference to “Tokyo 2020″).

  • Ron NJ

    If you think shimin and jumin is an odd distinction, then let me tell you a little story about my friends kenmin and kokumin who would like to join them in that gray area there.

  • paul

    Hope that it is only interrupted and that democracy and logic takes their logical courses.

  • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

    So the choice is between a Mayor who sees no contradiction in saying, “…it cannot be said to reflect the collective opinion of Kodaira citizens.” in this situation, and a plan that sanctions forcefully vacating residents if the majority wills it?

    That it is the kind of dangerous democracy that needs to be avoided, not promoted.

    What terrible alternatives.