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Staff writer

Spanning four eras (Meiji, Taisho, Showa and Heisei), the 20th century has brought historic change to Japan. The approach of 2000, its final year, offers an ideal platform from which to reflect on the dramatic developments that have shaped the nation over the past 100 years.

Each entry in this series will focus on a specific component of Japanese society and its shifts in values, from the adoption of the idea of a nation-state with the 1868 Meiji Restoration, to the devastation of war, the achievement of economic might on the global stage and the struggle to rebuild after the bubble economy collapsed. Installments in the series are scheduled to appear every day until Jan. 8 and intermittently thereafter.


Akira Tanaka, 61, now feels confident that citizens can change local politics and abandon the past practice of leaving everything to the municipal government.Although Tanaka, a native of Mitake, a former mining town in Gifu Prefecture, had never challenged authority, he decided a few years ago to protest the municipal government’s sudden reversal, through closed-door negotiations, of its position against a plan to create a large-scale industrial waste disposal facility.

Tanaka and his friends launched a plebiscite drive on the plan, to hear the voices of voters and raise local awareness of the issue.

Some 80.94 percent of those who voted in the June 1997 plebiscite, and 69.7 percent of all qualified voters, opposed the plan. What surprised many was the high voter turnout — 87.5 percent.

Mitake citizens, who studied extensively about waste problems and the disposal site, as well as local autonomy, are reflecting on their wasteful lifestyle and are working hard to reduce trash.

“We are responsible for what we chose,” Tanaka said. “The plebiscite has given us a great opportunity to consider the real meaning of self-government.”

The Mitake plebiscite is one of a series that took place across Japan along with moves to enact local ordinances on such polls in recent years.

Plebiscites have served as nonbinding local voter opinion polls on issues such as the separation or merger of municipalities.

But in August 1996 in Maki, Niigata Prefecture, under an ordinance allowing for a plebiscite, voters took issue with plans to construct a nuclear plant in the town.

After that, ordinance-based plebiscites took place in Okinawa Prefecture, and six cities and towns, and more than 20 municipalities carried out campaigns for similar ordinances.

The issues challenged ranged from large-scale public works projects, such as airports and dams, to those with international implications, such as whether to downsize U.S. military bases.

Many experts see the movement as a necessary response to particular developments.

Masumi Ishikawa, a professor at Niigata University of International & Information Studies, said an underlying reason for the movement is that the representative-government system is not working to the public’s liking, and now people have access to more information, through sources such as the Internet.

More and more people are dissatisfied with politicians as well as with local-level and central government assemblies, and say the voices of the public are not reflected in policies.

Muneyuki Shindo, a professor of political science at Rikkyo University, said voters have realized that leaving everything to local governments will not guarantee happiness.

“The essence of the movement is a change in political culture,” Shindo said. “Democracy in Japan is entering a new stage.”

Although plebiscites have generated keen interest, national elections have seen low turnouts when specific issues — such as introduction of the consumption tax — have not been on the agenda.

Although voter turnout was 74.57 percent in June 1980 due to the “double” elections of both chambers of the Diet, it has since declined, hitting a record low 59.65 percent in October 1996.

In recent national elections, many voters have said they distanced themselves from politics because they cannot expect change.

“I’ve become indifferent to politics. Nothing has changed, and it seems hopeless,” a 67-year-old retired man said after casting a ballot in the Upper House election in July.

Although voter turnout in national elections has fallen, voters have not lost interest in politics; rather, many think casting a vote will not help change the political situation, Shindo said.

Voter turnout in gubernatorial elections has also slipped.

Ishikawa said voters do not go to the polls if no competitive candidates challenge the incumbent — a common scenario.

Many leaders of the Meiji government, who struggled to establish suffrage, probably could not imagine the current state of voter apathy.

The enactment of the municipal system, based on a similar model in Germany, was drawn up in 1888 and served as a stepping stone for public participation in politics.

According to the system, men who met certain qualifications, such as being wealthy enough to pay taxes, were given suffrage and required to volunteer in public activities.

Shozo Takayose, a Konan University professor and an expert on local autonomy, pointed out that the philosophy of direct democracy was seen around 1880 in the movement for freedom and people’s rights and in the 1901 political action platform of the Social Democratic Party, Japan’s first Socialist party, which was founded that year.

The freedom and rights movement led by Taisuke Itagaki and other reformers called for a constitution and parliament as well as autonomy for local governments.

The idea, however, failed to develop into a large movement because priority was put on introducing a form of universal suffrage, Takayose said.

In 1926, during the democracy movement of the Taisho Era, conditions for suffrage were drastically eased, allowing men 25 years or older who established two years of residency in a particular electoral district to run or vote. The suffrage did not cover women.

The democracy and local autonomy movements, however, took a step backward before and during World War II as a bellicose government deprived local governments of administrative authority.

The nation’s defeat in the war brought a windfall — something for which Japan’s feminist movement pioneers, including Raicho Hiratsuka and Fusae Ichikawa, struggled for many years. When the Occupation forces ordered revision of the election law, women were given suffrage for the first time in Japan.

The first postwar general election, on April 10, 1946, saw 89 female candidates. Thirty-nine won, including feminists such as Shizue Kato and Ito Niizuma, who both ran on the Socialist Party ticket.

In the same year, the local government system was reformed to allow residents to choose their own municipal head. The introduction of the direct petition system enabled eligible voters to be involved in direct democracy, and included the right to recall those in public office.

Despite the spirit of the Constitution, which went into effect on May 3, 1947, the revision of the Local Government Law in 1948 limited the direct petition system by imposing stricter requirements on voters following strong requests from members of the Diet.

Kiichiro Tomino, a professor of regional environmental policy at Shimane National University, said the defects in the system for direct democracy kept voters from being actively involved in local politics, noting the painstaking process to reflect local residents’ demands.

For instance, a plebiscite requires a local ordinance, and in order to be enacted, signatures of one-fiftieth of the electorate are required. A massive campaign effort by citizens usually takes place, and then the assembly must pass the proposal.

Even if a plebiscite is held, the local government is not bound by its results — unlike in the United States and many European countries.

“The concept of decentralization in the U.S. and Europe was based on civil society, in which citizens fought for ruling power. But Japanese people had no such experience,” Tomino said.

While many experts welcome the plebiscite movement, saying it reinvigorates local politics, some raise concerns and opposition to it.

A common criticism is that direct democracy may destroy the current representation system.

Niigata University’s Ishikawa said direct democracy provided the basis for the representative system, which was introduced because it is technically impossible for all eligible voters to directly participate in politics.

“This (plebiscite) movement goes back to the basics,” Ishikawa said. “Plebiscites and referendums supplement indirect democracy.”

“Plebiscites help narrow the gap between citizens and assembly members,” said Machiko Adachi, a Narita Municipal Assembly member in Chiba Prefecture and a member of a nationwide group promoting plebiscites and referendums.

Another concern being raised is whether voters can make appropriate decisions in plebiscites.

When Maki residents cast votes on construction of a nuclear plant in August 1996, many experts as well as government and political party officials said it would be too difficult for residents to decide on technical matters such as nuclear power plants.

Tomino argues, however, that everybody makes wrong decisions and that it is worse when “experts” make wrong decisions.

Tomino served as mayor of Zushi, Kanagawa Prefecture, for two terms starting in 1984. He successfully ran in the mayoral election with the backing of a resident group that opposed construction of a housing complex for U.S. military personnel at a former ammunition depot in a wooded area of the city.

“There is a huge information gap between ordinary citizens and government officials,” Tomino said. “The government should disclose all the information on issues that are up for a plebiscite.”

In fact, when Tomino drew up a draft ordinance on a general plebiscite in February 1984 as a member of the citizens’ group, he included requirements for the local government to disclose all relevant information.

Will the current trend of holding plebiscites bring about change in the political system and society as a whole?

Rikkyo University’s Shindo said the movement may change the current relationship between politicians and the electorate — “patrons and clients,” in which politicians typically bring public works projects to their constituencies in return for votes.

“Voters’ assessment of politicians would be stricter, and politicians would have to change the ways they do politics,” Shindo said.

He pointed out that the trend is in line with a movement to decentralize administrative and financial authority.

A law to promote decentralization was enacted in 1996, and a government panel submitted its final report in November, calling for transferring more power to local governments in conducting public works projects.

Different types of plebiscites need to be held for the time being to see their good and bad points, and a legal framework for such polls must be mapped out, Tomino said.

“Democracy in Japan is moving in the right direction,” Tomino said. “The people’s ability to make their own decisions is increasing, although it takes time for the system to change structurally.”

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