Public support for the “doshu-sei” system will depend on whether people can realize the benefits of ongoing efforts at decentralizing the nation’s administrative powers, but the efforts have so far been hampered by the strong resistance of the central bureaucracy, panelists told the Sept. 18 symposium.

A recent nationwide opinion poll showed that only 29 percent of the respondents favor the doshu-sei system of redividing Japan into several regional blocs — less than half the 62 percent who said they oppose the idea.

Tomikazu Fukuda, governor of Tochigi Prefecture, noted that the rate of support for the idea had been nearly 50 percent just a few years ago. Why has it declined so sharply over a short period?

“Progress in the doshu-sei debate will depend on whether the decentralization of administrative power will make headway,” Fukuda said. Halfhearted reforms like the ones implemented under the administration of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, he added, “will only leave the people disappointed.”

Fukuda pointed out that most of the reports compiled by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) on the doshu-sei system cite decentralization of power as the main objective of the proposed system.

“But as seen in the case of the so-called Trinity Reform (to simultaneously promote the devolving of authority and responsibility from the central to local governments, and to fix the debt-ridden finances of both, introduced by Koizumi), the central bureaucracy puts up strong resistance to giving up its administrative and taxation powers,” the governor said.

Similar resistance is expected to the introduction of the doshu-sei system, Fukuda said, calling for “strong political leadership” to overcome the bureaucracy.

Mutsumi Nishida, an editorial page writer for the Nikkei business daily, said there have been two-pronged efforts to reduce the grip on power by Kasumigaseki — the Tokyo district where most of the central government ministries are located.

One is the political reforms aimed at enabling politicians to take control of the policymaking process away from the bureaucrats, including launch of the Economic and Fiscal Policy Council aimed at allowing the prime minister’s Cabinet secretariat to take the lead in setting policy debates, he noted.

The other approach is the decentralization of administrative power to local governments, and the ultimate form of decentralization may be the doshu-sei system, Nishida said. However, he concurred that the efforts, in the face of resistance from the bureaucracy, have achieved little.

Seiken Sugiura, a former justice minister and deputy chief Cabinet secretary who currently heads the Liberal Democratic Party’s research panel on the doshu-sei system, acknowledged that the government’s decentralization efforts, including the reforms under Koizumi, have been “too much of a piecemeal effort to be successful.”

Kouichi Ikeda, chairman of Asahi Breweries Ltd. and co-chairman of Nippon Keidanren’s committee on the new government system, said doshu-sei will have a major impact on realizing small government, and improving the efficiency and productivity of the bureaucracy.

Roughly two-thirds of the 330,000 national government employees work at the local and regional branches of the central bureaucracy — meaning that their jobs can be taken over by local government workers once the administrative powers are decentralized, he pointed out.

The doshu-sei system will be meaningless unless its introduction is packaged with the radical streamlining of central government ministries, Nikkei’s Nishida told the audience.

The last time government ministries were reorganized under the reforms initiated by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in the late 1990s, the need to decentralize their powers to local authorities was not taken into account, he noted.

If the doshu-sei system is to transfer much of the central government functions on domestic affairs to regional and local governments, the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry will almost become unnecessary while large portions of the work at the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry and the Environment Ministry can be moved to the doshu state governments, he pointed out.

Tochigi Gov. Fukuda acknowledged that no consensus has been reached on the need for the doshu-sei system among governors of the 47 prefectures. Some governors say it is too early to reach a conclusion on the issue while others call for a close examination of the effects of the large-scale mergers of municipalities during the past several years, he said.

Fukuda also pointed to the question of the anticipated gap among the regional blocs when the doshu-sei system is introduced — an issue that he said has not been sufficiently discussed.

“We must consider the need for some balance in the basic conditions of the doshu states,” he said. “For the regional blocs to compete with one another, they must start from roughly equal basic conditions in such aspects as accumulated economic resources. Otherwise, the regional gap could simply expand,” he noted.

The doshu-sei system assumes that the central government will decentralize taxation powers while reducing subsidies to local governments.

According to an estimate by the Toyama Prefectural Government based on a scenario in which the nation is reorganized into 11 regional blocs, only two blocs — southern Kanto, which will include Tokyo, and northern Kanto — will end up with higher revenues.

The estimate shows that the revenue will decline in all the other nine blocs, including the Hokuriku bloc and the Kyushu bloc, which will face cuts of ¥150 billion and ¥460 billion, respectively, Fukuda said.

The LDP’s Sugiura said some fiscal adjustments will become necessary to transfer tax revenues from the rich blocs to those with smaller income.

“Such adjustments will be needed for a fairly long period” after the doshu-sei system is introduced, Sugiura said.

Opinion polls suggest that many people are skeptical of the doshu-sei system because they fear the quality of administrative services could decline if the prefectural governments are replaced by regional authorities that oversee much wider areas, said Yoshitsugu Hayashi, a Kwansei Gakuin University professor who served as moderator in the discussion.

Asahi Breweries’ Ikeda argued that much of those administrative services will be provided by the municipalities. “As the basis for introduction of the doshu-sei system, it is imperative to consolidate the cities, towns and villages so that each of them has solid fiscal capabilities to offer high-quality services for residents,” he said.

Tochigi Gov. Fukuda admitted he hears complaints that municipality mergers have not actually resulted in better services for residents. But he also said it is “questionable” that small municipalities in rural areas can keep serving the needs of local people in their current depleted conditions.

It is often said that a municipality should have at least a population of 100,000 to 150,000 to financially stand on its own, but some rural cities are run with only a population of 30,000 to 40,000 even after the mergers, Fukuda said.

He said he doubts that such small cities can fully provide administrative services, noting that a gap is already emerging between municipalities in the quality of nursing care for residents.