Until Hiroshi Yamada took control of Tokyo's Suginami Ward in April 1999, local government activity proceeded at a predictably slow pace.

Ward officials would never have dreamed of taking the initiative in introducing new policies ahead of other municipalities.

"We had never considered being the first out of Tokyo's 23 wards when it comes to new projects. Suginami had always been around the 10th or so to launch new projects because we wanted to see how the other municipalities dealt with them first," said Yoshiaki Kobayashi, deputy mayor of Suginami, which has a population of around 520,000.