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KANSAI REGIONAL LEAGUE

Is prefectural alliance a step toward superstates?

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — After years of planning, a regional alliance of seven prefectures was created earlier this year and held its first meeting this month.

The Kansai Regional League, which includes Osaka, Hyogo, Kyoto, Shiga, Wakayama, Tokushima and Tottori, is the first of its kind and is designed to cut through prefectural and local government red tape and make it easier for participating officials to cooperate on everything from disaster relief to tourism.

Of special interest to rural members facing shortages of doctors and nurses is the increased availability of medical flights and emergency medical services participation in the league is expected to bring.

Such flights and emergency services based in urban areas have been previously faced with many bureaucratic obstacles to easily cross prefectural borders.

The league has long been heavily pushed by the Kansai business community, especially the extremely powerful Kansai Economic Federation. Frustrated with what they saw as the inefficiency of local governments, they saw streamlining local bureaucracies as a business advantage and practical necessity to compete with Tokyo.

However, doubts about how effective the league will be persist. Nara Prefecture opted not to join, feeling there was little merit in becoming a member.

Following are some questions and answers regarding the regional league.

What is the Kansai Regional League supposed to do?

Under the agreement, each prefecture will be responsible for certain administrative functions for the entire league. For example, Hyogo will be in charge of strengthening disaster response measures, while Kyoto will be in charge of tourism and cultural development, including overseas public relations campaigns.

Tokushima will operate medical flights and create an emergency medical response system. And Osaka will be responsible for coming up with an industrial vision for the league.

This, however, is only the first stage. The next step, the league hopes, will be to expand its power and assume responsibilities that have traditionally been the prerogative of the central government, including improving local transportation infrastructure.

The fundamental purpose of the league is to take charge of local matters that have traditionally been decided by Tokyo bureaucrats, in order to compete with Tokyo, and with other parts of Japan and Asia, more effectively.

How will the league be structured?

An assembly of 20 members from the seven prefectures, and a separate committee consisting of the seven governors, will run the league. Members will not be directly elected by citizens of the participating prefectures but will be current prefectural assembly members chosen by the seven governors. Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido is the league’s chairman.

The first meeting of the league’s representatives took place this month, and its budget for 2011, which is being funded by taxpayers in the seven prefectures, is set at ¥500 million.

What motivations do prefectures have for joining the league?

The league enjoys its strongest support in Osaka, Hyogo and Shiga. In the case of Osaka and Hyogo, economic rivalry has led to the duplication of projects and services, most notoriously visible in Kobe’s construction of a domestic-only airport despite the nearby, more frequented, Itami and Kansai airports.

Wasteful local government projects funded 15 or 20 years ago, usually with the support of the same business communities now pushing for the league, have created grave financial situations in both Osaka and Hyogo and thus both governors are keen to cooperate more efficiently.

In Shiga’s case, there is strong interest in having access to Osaka’s vast medical services, especially medical flights, which Shiga does not have.

As a member of the league, medical helicopters from Osaka will be able to fly to Shiga within 30 minutes without having to go through cumbersome bureaucratic procedures to cross prefectural borders.

Kyoto strongly supports the league’s efforts to promote regional culture and increased tourism. But local media polls show many Kyotoites are also concerned that the league not be dominated by Osaka and Hyogo, and that public support is somewhat less enthusiastic than elsewhere.

Is the league the first step toward eventually replacing the prefectural system with a series of superstates that are virtually independent from the central government?

Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto and officials in the Kansai Economic Federation who favor the superstate notion hope so.

But many politicians in the Kansai region and central government bureaucrats in Tokyo have opposed or expressed reservations about the superstate goal.

So, too, do other Kansai governors worried about polls showing large numbers of people in the region ambivalent if not outright opposed to a superstate if it means losing their identities or local democratic institutions.

Except for Hashimoto, the league is being promoted by the governors as something that will increase government efficiency throughout the region, but not as a steppingstone to a superstate.

Is that why Nara decided not to join?

Nara Gov. Shogo Arai told the seven governors last summer that because his prefecture is not as economically developed as main members of the league, and because of its dire financial situation, joining would have simply increased the prosperity gap between Nara and the others.

But Arai is also worried about whether the league will really be efficient, and warned the other governors that there is no merit to simply creating an organization for organization’s sake.

How has Tokyo reacted to the league?

Politicians in the Liberal Democratic Party, the main opposition force, especially those from Kansai, have long supported the league and many hope to see a superstate system. Members of Your Party have also voiced support.

But the Social Democratic Party and Japanese Communist Party have both expressed opposition, saying the league will weaken local democracy for the sake of the Kansai corporate community.

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan has offered support for the league’s creation, although it has not addressed questions about the future of the league and the kinds of political, and financial, authority now enjoyed by Tokyo that might be transferred to it.

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