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LOCAL LEADERS FEDERATION

Small group making waves

DPJ, LDP envy and fear federation of popular, dynamic local leaders

by Eric Johnston

About two months before the Aug. 30 election, a small group of political leaders made big news by forming a new group. Though it consists of only half a dozen politicians at the local level, Shucho Rengo (the Local Leaders Federation) grabbed headlines nationwide and created concern among senior Diet members and bureaucrats in Tokyo.

That’s because the group mostly consists of young, dynamic political leaders who are sometimes fiery populists with strong individual personalities.

Each member has a reputation for being a reformist or shaking things up at the local level, and in general enjoys popularity ratings that senior politicians in both the ruling and opposition parties envy. Following are some basic facts about the federation:

What is the federation and how did it come into existence?

The federation is a political alliance between government leaders at the local level, all of whom are dedicated to wresting decision-making from the central bureaucracy and winning a significant increase in local autonomy.

Federation members are particularly angry with the degree of legal and administrative control Tokyo bureaucrats and Diet members have over how local tax revenues are spent.

The federation came into existence after Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto called for a new group of local leaders to put more direct pressure on Tokyo to decentralize and grant local autonomy.

Though not an official political party or lobbying group, the federation nevertheless has a specific political agenda.

What is the federation’s agenda?

The federation is calling for a basic rethinking of the current prefectural system, which was set up during the Meiji Era, and a restructuring of the fundamental way in which Japan is governed. In particular, it calls for the authority over how and where tax money is spent to be given to local governments.

“Local decisions on local taxes” is one of the federation’s rallying cries.

Does the federation support the regional block system that both the Democratic Party of Japan and Liberal Democratic Party have proposed?

In their inaugural message, federation members declared their support for a system in which the 47 prefectures would be abolished and replaced by nine to 13 regional blocks.

Under this system, the central government would be responsible for almost nothing but defense, diplomacy and disaster relief, while the regions would be virtually independent in all other matters.

The federation members believe a regional system would lead to a more active and vibrant local government system and a more active and vibrant Japan, as each block could use its tax money to better support the needs of its residents and businesses.

Who are the members of the federation?

Currently, there are six members: Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto; former Yokohama Mayor Hiroshi Nakada; Tokihiro Nakamura, mayor of Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture; Soichi Kataoka, mayor of Soja, Okayama Prefecture; Junichi Tsuyuki, mayor of Kaisei, Kanagawa Prefecture; and Hiroshi Yamada, the head of Suginami Ward, Tokyo.

Why is such a small group receiving so much political and media attention?

Partially because of the personalities involved. Hashimoto and Tanaka in particular are seen as young, vibrant populists who are adept politicians for the modern media age.

Their anti-Tokyo, antibureaucracy and anti-LDP rhetoric has struck a chord with voters who believe their local governments are powerless to do much more than agree to whatever is decided on their behalf in Tokyo.

But with many local governments around Japan now drowning in debt, often due to tax money that was poured into central government-run public works projects that did nothing more than make a few Diet members rich and provide cushy “amakudari” jobs for retired bureaucrats, the federation’s members are also giving a public voice to the anger and frustration felt by a large number of voters nationwide.

In particular, there is anger in the regions due to cuts in local social welfare services and because of broken political and bureaucratic promises over the past couple of decades that large-scale projects under the guidance of the central government would lead to local jobs and investment.

In other words, although it has a small membership, the federation has been able to greatly amplify the concerns many voters are feeling. This in turn has given them a certain degree of political power that those in the central government have taken note of.

Did the group play any part in the recent Lower House election?

In July, a few weeks after the formation of the group, Hashimoto in particular was courted by both the LDP and the DPJ.

Even though the LDP and New Komeito backed his bid for governor, Hashimoto and the group ended up supporting the DPJ because of its plans for decentralization, bringing added publicity and, probably, more votes to the DPJ.

How is the federation perceived by other local leaders?

The National Association of Prefectural Governors has expressed caution over the group, as many governors are tied, especially financially, to the LDP and the central government, and wish to avoid making public comments and commitments about national policy.

Many older governors in particular also personally dislike the federation members. While they are privately supportive of most of the federation’s goals, the association has questioned its methods and timing.

On a local level, large numbers of mayors and village heads, especially in Kansai, see the federation as nothing more than a political support group for Hashimoto and worry that, should he be voted out of office or run for a seat in next summer’s Upper House election, the federation will quickly wither and die.

What about popular Miyazaki Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru?

Higashikokubaru was asked, but declined, to join the federation. Depending on who you ask, the reasons for his refusal are either because the strength of the LDP in Miyazaki made it difficult for him to align himself with the more independent-minded federation, or because he didn’t want to share the media spotlight with Hashimoto, with whom he remains on good terms.

Is the federation aiming to become an official party that puts up candidates for national office?

Some members, like Hashimoto, see that as a possibility, but not until more members are recruited and not until there is a much broader national consensus on the goals of the federation, especially the regional block system.

In the meantime, the federation is expected to remain a small but influential political group, and members have said they will step up pressure on the DPJ to keep its manifesto pledge to pursue thorough decentralization.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk