The 47 prefectures have been in place since the Meiji Era (1868-1912), but the system is seen as increasingly obsolete amid the vast demographic changes Japan has had since the war.
The changes include a major population shift from rural to urban areas and, more recently, a declining birthrate and rapidly aging society.
Plans are advancing at the central and local government level to end the prefectural system and reorganize Japan into roughly a dozen super-states.
If the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc and its supporters prevail, the nearly 150-year-old prefectural system could be history by 2017.
What would a “United States of Japan” (Doshusei) look like on a map?
Last month, an LDP panel recommended abolishing the prefectural system and reorganizing the nation into between 11 and 13 regional blocks (depending on the preference of targeted prefectures.
Hokkaido, Kyushu and Okinawa would be separate blocks, while Shikoku would either be separate or part of a larger block encompassing the current Chugoku region of western Honshu (Tottori, Shimane, Okayama, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi prefectures).
The six prefectures of the Tohoku region (Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Akita, Yamagata and Fukushima) would make up the Tohoku block.
And the six Kansai region prefectures (Shiga, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, Nara and Wakayama) would form the Kansai block. Aichi and four other prefectures of the Chubu region (Mie, Shizuoka, Gifu and Nagano) would be called either the Chubu or Tokai block.
Tokyo would be either a separate region or part of a new southern Kanto block that would include Kanagawa, Chiba and Yamanashi prefectures. Saitama would be in either a northern Kanto block along with Gunma, Tochigi, and Miyagi prefectures or part of the southern Kanto block.
What would the political structure be like?
Each regional block would elect a governor and a regional assembly, both of which would have far more authority than under the current prefectural system to raise and spend funds on local needs, making the new entities more autonomous and similar to U.S. states.
The central government’s primary responsibilities would be to set overall national strategy and provide national defense.
What are the arguments for a regional block system?
The basic arguments are that it would transfer more political power and tax money from the central to local governments; it would lead to regional governments that are internationally competitive and a central government that is strong in setting national strategies and in crisis response; it would make the central and local governments more effective; and it would relieve the population concentration around Tokyo and allow for creation of specialized economic zones.
What are the main advantages of the new system, and who is promoting these advantages?
The strongest supporters of the regional block system are the LDP and business and industrial organizations that see the current prefectural system as economically inefficient, overly bureaucratic and impractical for a country where the population is falling and people are aging rapidly.
The merits of a regional block system, they say, are that it would help local governments better respond to local needs; make it easier for Tokyo to formulate national strategies because local governments would be invested with decision-making powers currently held by central government bureaucrats; offer better economies of scale for local infrastructure facilities and services; and drive competition among the regions, making the nation as a whole more diversified.
What are the disadvantages?
Opponents argue the new system would take local government further away from residents, especially those in small towns and villages or smaller prefectures; lead to population and financial concentrations in certain regions and thus further widen the economic and social gaps between them; undermine the sense of national unity and lead to a weaker nation; and create fewer but larger and more complex regional bureaucracies.
They also deny that providing larger regional bureaucracies with more resources and authority would lead to more efficiency and less waste, saying this has been contradicted by a history of failed local-level public works projects that arose in the 1990s.
What is the current status of discussions?
The idea is receiving quite a bit of attention among local governments and business entities in the prefectures that support integration.
Introducing the regional block system is in fact part of Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Hiroya Masuda’s brief.
Osaka is among the prefectures that support the regional system. But others, including Hyogo, have doubts.
Public opinion polls by government and various local media show a plurality of people either oppose a “United States of Japan” or are ambivalent about it.
At the same time, however, the polls show most Japanese feel their lives are too controlled by Tokyo bureaucrats and they welcome further efforts to decentralize.