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The total number of cities, towns and villages in Japan is expected to be almost halved to about 1,700 as a result of moves by municipalities to merge by March 2005, when a special law promoting mergers expires, according to a recent Kyodo News survey.

The survey indicates an accelerated merger trend over the past eight months as a result of unified local elections, plebiscites and the approach of the law’s March 31, 2005, expiry. A similar poll last October showed that the projected final total would be about 1,970.

The law allows special treatment for merging municipalities, including preferential tax treatment and guaranteed employment for municipal staff for certain periods of time. It will expire on March 31, 2005.

In some regions, however, local governments clash over various factors, including the framework of mergers and the names of the new municipalities. Some local governments have even withdrawn from statutory consultative panels discussing the mergers.

As of July 2, there were 346 statutory consultative panels involving 1,403 cities, towns and villages. These mergers are expected to be certain. There were also 150 informal panels, involving 578 municipalities, that are likely to evolve into statutory ones and result in mergers.

The count aggregates to mergers involving 1,981 municipalities, resulting in the creation of 496 new local governments. Including municipalities not involved in the mergers, there would be 1,700 local governments in total, down from the current 3,185, once the process is completed.

Municipalities are considering mergers for various reasons, including improved fiscal conditions or as a measure against declining rural populations and increasing nursing-care insurance burdens.

Some are aimed at expansion through consolidation to qualify, as cities with more than 500,000 people, for such benefits as greater fiscal leeway and administrative independence.

Municipalities that have made no progress in merger discussions at statutory panels, including in areas near Kushiro, Hokkaido, were not included in the survey. Cases in which there were disagreements in the informal panels or where merger partners were not fixed were also excluded.

By region, the number of municipalities in Kyushu, Shikoku and the Chubu and Chugoku regions are expected to be reduced by more than half after the mergers.

In particular, participation in statutory panels account for over 90 percent of municipalities in Gifu and Shimane prefectures, and over 80 percent in Tottori, Yamaguchi, Ehime, Saga and Nagasaki prefectures, the poll found.

But there are expected to be fewer mergers in Hokkaido and the Tohoku, Kanto and Kinki regions.

Analysts say the government’s goal of decreasing the number of municipalities to 1,000 will be difficult to achieve because a significant future rise in mergers is unlikely now that there is little time left before the merger law expires and because many municipalities will decide to continue on their own.