Local Politics: Heading for extinction?

As the country gears up for a string of local elections, we examine the issues that are likely to take center stage


Staff Writer

“All politics is local.”
— former U.S. House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill

“Local councilors, in practice, are accountable to nobody. Half of them are self-important busybodies on an ego trip and the other half are in it for what they can get out of it.”
— Jim Hacker, minister for administrative affairs in BBC’s TV comedy “Yes, Minister.”

On April 12 and 26, voters around the country go to the polls to cast their ballots in a series of local elections that have been the focus of national attention for nearly a year. The results of these battles are highly likely to influence Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s domestic policy choices over the coming months.

Up for grabs are 10 prefectural governorships and the mayor’s chair in five major cities, as well as seats in 41 prefectural assemblies and 17 large cities. Another 88 smaller cities hold mayoral elections and 296 will hold assembly elections. There are also hundreds of elections in towns and villages for local leaders and assemblies.

Since spring last year, the Abe administration, its political opposition, and the print and broadcast media chattering classes, with an eye toward the April elections, have debated the prime minister’s domestic policy options and how they would play out among the folks “back home” — that is, in the provinces. By early this year, however, concern was growing within the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling coalition over a string of defeats at the local level that suggested all was not well outside prosperous Tokyo and a few other urban centers. Candidates heavily backed by senior members of both parties, and by Abe himself, lost gubernatorial elections in Shiga, Okinawa and Saga prefectures in the latter half of 2014 and early 2015.

Even the ruling coalition’s victories in local races offered little to celebrate. Masao Uchibori won the Fukushima governor’s election in November with LDP support, but only after the party realized it couldn’t win with its first choice, a former Bank of Japan official whose sole strength seemed to be his connections in Tokyo and with central LDP figures.

Aware it might be more vulnerable at the local level than the national level, not only among voters but among disgruntled local chapters, the Abe administration turned its attention last autumn to local reform and revitalization projects — the usual pocketbook issues and public works projects that, unlike Constitutional revision or defense and diplomacy debates, are of immediate concern to local voters.

By setting up a new office to deal with local economic revitalization headed by LDP stalwart and Abe rival Shigeru Ishiba, who is nevertheless more popular among some local LDP chapters than the prime minister, the government hoped local voters would notice Tokyo is still thinking about them and was now reaching out to address their concerns. The April elections are, therefore, widely seen as the first true national referendum on “Abenomics.”

TPP and agricultural reform

While local revitalization is the common theme of this year’s elections nationally, separate regions have specific concerns about two hot-button issues: agricultural reform and the country’s possible entrance into the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, and the future of nuclear power in the local economy.

In Hokkaido, Tohoku and other farming areas, a recent agreement between Abe and JA Zenchu (Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives) is expected, in some quarters, to reduce the farm lobby’s political clout. The agreement — the first revision in 60 years — will likely mean a loss of revenue for JA, which has nearly 10 million members nationwide. That includes nonfarming family members and more than 200,000 employees.

Since the end of World War II, JA has had a monopoly over produce distribution, and operates banks, insurance agencies, supermarkets — even hospitals and gas stations. For the LDP, JA co-ops have long served as the party’s main rural support base for both local and national elections. But politicians running in the former have had to be particularly careful of not endorsing policies JA didn’t like. For April’s elections, this means thinking about the possible negative local impacts of further reforms and, especially, the TPP agreement.

At a news conference in early February, JA Zenchu President Akira Banzai struck a note of caution over the JA restructuring agreement, saying there was still the hard work of hammering out legislation in the upcoming Diet session based on the agreement. He said that doubts, which could spell political trouble for the LDP in the April elections, remain.

“We reached agreement (with Abe and the LDP),” Banzai said. “However, we’re still not convinced that a change in our organization will result in an increase of farm income. We agreed to carve out, or split off, the auditing organization from our group and give it to an outside firm after the government assured us the quality and substance of the audit will be maintain. But how do we secure that promise? This has yet to be worked out.”

In addition, while JA Zenchu and the Abe administration agreed on reorganization, they did so, Banzai said, only after the government, over the next five years, promised to postpone or shelve it’s original proposal to restrict JA Zenchu associate members to various services — especially banking services. The government’s promise is a move likely to prevent a rural revolt against the LDP at April’s polls.

The ongoing TPP negotiations, and the desire for Abe and many urban voters and politicians to join it, are partially behind the reorganization of JA Zenchu, even as JA supporters remain visibly opposed to a treaty that eliminates agricultural tariffs. Signs on farms announcing strong opposition to the multilateral, U.S.-led trade agreement, can be seen from Hokkaido to Okinawa. Local LDP manifests are often far more anti-TPP than the central party manifesto presented to voters during national elections.

“Sacred” sectors such as rice, beef, pork, wheat, dairy and sugar beets, where JA Zenchu opposes the lowering of tariffs under a TPP agreement, have stalled U.S.-Japan TPP negotiations for months, even as U.S. officials insist an agreement is close. How the reorganization of JA, combined with the recent resignation of farm minister Koya Nishikawa last week, might affect rural voters attitudes at the April polls remains to be seen.

Nuclear power

Turn the nuclear plants back on or keep them off? Apply for a restart or begin the long process of decommissioning? Four years after the 2011 quake, tsunami and meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, all of the country’s remaining 48 commercial nuclear reactors are offline, although two reactors in Kagoshima (at the Sendai plant) operated by Kyushu Electric Power Co. as well as Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama No. 3 and 4 reactors in Fukui Prefecture have cleared safety inspections and are heading toward restart.

Restarting the reactors also means restarting the flow of central government subsidies to local governments that host them. In Fukui Prefecture prior to 2011, some towns relied upon nuclear-related subsidies for nearly 60 percent of their municipal budget. Then there are the myriad financial gifts utilities provide to nuclear power plant hosts that are separate from official subsidies. Finally, periodic inspections that shut the plants down for a few weeks means temporary part-time jobs at the plant for local residents, while hundreds of various visiting utility and government officials stay in local hotels and inns, and patronize restaurants and other service industries in surrounding towns that desperately need the business.

The Fukui governorship, the prefectural assembly and the towns that host nuclear plants, including Takahama, are all going to the polls in April. Fukui has long been an LDP stronghold. Abe ally Tomomi Inada, the extreme right-wing minister who is also chief of the party’s policy research council, is from the prefecture and was a prominent leader in the local LDP chapter.

Few expect anti-nuclear candidates to win many, if any, seats in April. However, given that tough decisions have to be made soon about the future of eight Fukui reactors that are more than 35 years old, including five that have reached or surpassed their original 40-year lifespan, candidates will have to convince voters they can keep the money flowing into Fukui even if at least some reactors are decommissioned.

As goes Fukui, so, too, go other local governments hosting older nuclear plants. This year, seven reactors nationwide will be at least 40 years old. Five, including the Mihama No. 1 and 2 reactors and the Tsuruga No.1 reactor in Fukui Prefecture, the Genkai No. 1 reactor in Saga Prefecture, and the Shimane No. 1 reactor in Shimane Prefecture are heading towards decommissioning, a process that will take decades and has the host governments concerned about how nuclear revenue will be replaced.

Another two reactors at Takahama, Fukui Prefecture, may apply for a one-time, 20-year extension. Meanwhile, in Niigata, Hokkaido, Ehime and Kagoshima, voters who want their younger reactors switched back on will first demand, for a few more years at least, politicians who can work most effectively to ensure central government and utility subsidies are well-spent for local pet projects.

Last but not least, under new rules adopted after March 11, 2011, evacuation plans for residents living within a 30-km radius of a nuclear power plant must be drawn up. That gives politicians from areas hosting power plants another reason to push Tokyo for funding all sorts of expensive projects in the name of “safety measures for nuclear power plants,” no matter how dubious such schemes may seem to outside critics.

Roads need to be widened, bridges need to be built, new train lines need to be added, evacuation centers need to be upgraded — the list of potential ways local politicians might demand money to help secure votes is endless, even if electricity consumers in the major urban centers wonder if they’ll be the ones having to pay in the end, through higher electricity bills, to prop up such projects. Especially if they fail to solve the most important local and national political problem of all: Will anybody be around if and when they’re finally completed?

Local extinctions?

Last year, former Iwate Prefecture Gov. Hiroya Masuda, who headed a committee looking at local revitalization, stunned Japan’s political world by warning parts of the country faced “extinction” due to rapidly aging populations and a lack of younger people who flocked to urban areas.

While the dual problems of a lower birthrate and aging population have long been known, Masuda’s warning struck home with politicians, especially older male politicians and their older male supporters, because it contained reams of data predicting, town by town, by what percentages the number of women between 20 and 40 years old — that is, of childbearing age — would decline by 2040.

Fewer women, the politicians realized, meant fewer children, fewer wives for men outside the major cities, and a continued overall decline of not just citizens, but — perhaps more importantly — taxpayers, registered voters and local party supporters.

Since then, stark predictions of massive population drops on a local basis have made media headlines, along with what those drops are likely to do local economies.

By 2060, the government predicts the population will decline from about 127 million at present to 86.7 million. Rural areas in Tohoku, some of which are expected to lose up to half their female population by 2040 and see overall population drops of 30 percent or more, will be especially hard hit. However, even larger cities such as Sapporo are expected to lose up to 200,000 people, while Fukuoka Prefecture, with a current population of just over 5 million people, is expected to have only 4.3 million people by 2040.

Concerns are growing, thanks to Masuda’s warning, that parts of the country may well be abandoned, as the few remaining elderly residents relocate to urban retirement homes or nursing centers due to a lack of funds for social welfare services in their hometown or village.

“Many towns and villages across Japan are growing desperate. Policies by the central government to encourage people not to concentrate in major cities and to revive local economies have failed because the good jobs for younger people remain in the major cities, especially Tokyo,” said Kyoto Gov. Keiji Yamada, who also heads the National Governors’ Association.

However, while the April elections are sure to feature lots of political rhetoric about depopulation and various policy solutions from all major parties, voters are likely to stick to voting for local politicians based less on their remedies for curing the nation’s ills and more on who they are — at least, if the past is any indication.

A survey of 3,000 people who voted in the 2011 local elections revealed that, in the gubernatorial races, 63.8 percent voted based on the candidate’s personality, while only 26.2 percent chose a candidate based on their party affiliation. At the local town and ward level, the gap was even greater. More than 64 percent of respondents said they chose their leaders based on who they were. Only 26 percent said they made their choice based on the party.

“Local politics in Japan is still very much decided based on personal connections to the candidates and past loyalties, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” says Hironori Sasada, a political science professor at Hokkaido University.

In other words — and with apologies to O’Neill — all local politics is personal. Despite concern in specific areas of the country over specific issues and the more general worries nationwide about population decline and a growing need to care for elderly voters, it’s still who you are, who your family is, and who you know, rather than what you specifically plan to do if elected that will determine who wins and loses in April.