City mergers seen tailing off as the initial excitement fades

by Tomoya Okabe

The number of villages, towns and cities has fallen by 40 percent to 1,820 in the seven years since the so-called Heisei Era annexation was begun in 1999 as a means of strengthening local governments.

The latest round of mergers is the third such push in Japan’s modern history, after the Meiji and Showa consolidation of villages, towns and cities in 1888 and 1953.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has said the consolidation is essential to promote the decentralization of authority.

The central government has announced plans for another wave of annexations, but the prospects for this are uncertain because the amount of financial assistance it can provide under a new special law urging municipalities to merge is considerably smaller than the previous law that expired at the end of March.

At a ceremony marking the transition of the former town office of Kanbara to a branch office of Shimizu Ward in the city of Shizuoka on March 31, Mayor Zenkichi Kojima said Kanbara made the decision to merge with Shizuoka despite the fact that it is geographically separated from the rest of the municipality.

The mayor was referring to the last-minute decision by the town of Yui, sandwiched between Shizuoka and Kanbara, to cancel its earlier plan to join Kanbara in the merger.

Kanbara also saw resistance to the idea, even after the paperwork authorizing consolidation was submitted to the national government, but the majority of residents supported the amalgamation in a survey conducted ahead of the formal merger.

Although the merger has been formally completed, Kanbara still faces the problem of creating a sense of unity as part of the city of Shizuoka.

Meanwhile, further west, officials of Kosaza, Nagasaki Prefecture, assembled at the home of former Mayor Hiromi Kubota on the night of March 30, ahead of its merger with the city of Sasebo.

Kubota poured sake for every official present, saying, “The town is small, and I just couldn’t get (the idea of a) merger out of my mind.”

Consolidation negotiations with nearby municipalities were chaotic, but in the end Kosaza took only nine hours to draw up an accord with Sasebo — the shortest time for such a decision to be made anywhere in the country — to meet the deadline for application in March 2005. The last-minute rush left matters such as utility charges for the community unresolved.

A number of private-sector consultants have signed contracts with local governments to come up with ideas for mergers, making it possible for municipalities to meet the deadline.

“We refused to undertake any last-minute work because we didn’t want to be forced to assume any responsibility later,” an official of one such company said.

Moves by some small towns and villages to merge under the new special law are ongoing, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said the central government will continue to help.

One such consolidation is the April 1 joining of the town of Yatomi and 14 nearby villages in the mountains of Aichi Prefecture. Another is the merger of Yame city and Joyo town in Fukuoka Prefecture.

The central government is asking prefectural governments to lay out their goals for further municipal consolidations.

Not all local officials are keen to play along. Minoru Maeda, mayor of Aya, Miyazaki Prefecture, and president of the prefectural association of towns and villages, for one, is opposed to the prefectural government’s merger blueprint.

“It’s too hasty (for the prefecture) to work on (a new concept) right away when it has not finished carrying out its assessment” of the mergers that have already been completed, Maeda said. “Some (municipalities) that decided to forgo merging made the decision after agonizing over the matter. I wonder whether it’s all right for (municipalities) to merely become bigger.”

The latest round of annexations may affect the outcome of the Upper House election scheduled for summer 2007 because it will sharply reduce the number of local assembly members, who have helped candidates in the past.

“The number of local assembly members and chiefs of (municipalities) will decrease by about 17,500 by the end of the unified local elections in April next year. (The LDP) will shoulder a big handicap in the Upper House election,” said Mikio Aoki, chairman of the General Assembly of the Liberal Democratic Party Members of the Upper House.

One LDP Upper House member up for re-election said, “It seems that I have been digging my own grave by working hard for decentralization.”