OSAKA — Imagine, if you will, Japan in 2018. Following the historic Lower House election in 2009, the country passed legislation that abolished the 47 prefectures and thousands of smaller local governments.

In their place are 10 semiautonomous regions with the authority to decide for themselves how to distribute most of their tax revenues.

By 2018, the central government’s role has been reduced to conducting foreign policy and providing for the common welfare.

Now, each region uses its tax money to pursue economic sectors (agriculture, industry, education, tourism), public works projects (hospitals, social welfare centers) and fund social services in a highly efficient manner that best suits its demographic realities and local abilities.

Whether one considers this scenario a wishful fantasy, an inevitable reality or somewhere in between, just how willing political parties in the Aug. 30 election are to embrace decentralization has become a major campaign theme.

Tired of bureaucrats in Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki district telling them how to spend their tax money, a small but growing group of governors and local leaders have pushed hard for all parties to create a legal framework for transferring financial powers from the central government to local governments, and eventually introduce a regional block system.

Leading the charge is Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto.

On Aug. 11, after months of overtures, threats and discussions with ruling and opposition party heads over regionalization and the regional block system, Hashimoto announced he and a small group of local government leaders who support him were backing the Democratic Party of Japan.

He claimed that the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling coalition, which supported Hashimoto for governor in 2008, was too closely aligned with Tokyo bureaucrats to be effective in breaking their power and that the DPJ had the most detailed plan for successfully carrying out regionalization.

“It’s impossible for the LDP to dissolve Kasumigaseki because Kasumigaseki and the LDP have become one and the same. We’re betting on the possibility of change (with a DPJ victory),” Hashimoto said at a joint appearance in Osaka with former Yokohama Mayor Hiroshi Nakada, who resigned to form a new political group with Hashimoto.

Hashimoto’s decision shocked the local LDP and New Komeito representatives.

Several called him a traitor and warned he would face payback when the Osaka Prefectural Assembly, which is controlled by the LDP, convenes in September to talk about, among other things, his plans for promoting regionalization.

Others were surprised because Hashimoto had criticized the DPJ’s platform on decentralization in early August, saying it was too vague.

His endorsement came after a group of mayors from the nation’s 18 biggest cities gave a high rating to the DPJ’s regionalization promises and a few days after the National Governors’ Association released an evaluation of the LDP, New Komeito and DPJ stances on the issue.

Although the association refused to endorse a specific party, it gave New Komeito the highest overall rating on regionalization, with the LDP finishing second and the DPJ third.

In its manifesto, the LDP promises to quickly pass a basic law for establishing the blocks and to adopt the system by 2017. It also says it will review how taxes are distributed locally and the requirement for local governments to partially shoulder the financial burden for projects directly run by the central government.

In response to weeks of lobbying by Hashimoto and other local leaders, the LDP said it would establish, by law, a format under which local governments and the central government could discuss regional issues.

New Komeito has promised to pass legislation for starting a regional block system within three years, and to adopt it within a decade. The party also promised to abolish forced local funding of central government-sponsored projects.

New Komeito’s manifesto won special praise from the National Governors’ Association for promising that power for official discussions on decentralization would legally rest with local governments, not with central government politicians and bureaucrats.

The DPJ’s manifesto, by contrast, emphasizes breaking the power of Tokyo bureaucrats by transferring more power to local governments and leaving the central government to take care of diplomacy and security issues.

Like the ruling parties, the DPJ also promises to abolish mandatory prefectural financial support of central government projects like roads, bridges and dams.

The DPJ platform goes into more detail than the ruling coalition on what it wants to achieve in terms of decentralizing bureaucratic power, redistributing local tax money and promoting regional industry.

The detailed language is what convinced Hashimoto to support the DPJ, despite the absence of an explicit promise to replace the prefectural system with new regions within the next decade.

Although Hashimoto’s endorsement and the high rating of 18 mayors has given the DPJ a publicity boost and divided opinion among his fellow governors, the National Governors’ Association said the manifestos of all three parties fail to fully address basic concerns shared by all localities.

Wataru Aso, chairman of the association, said there wasn’t a big point differential among the party platforms.

“But there were differences over how much unease each party displayed about the dire financial straits of the prefectures,” Aso said. “As local services increase to meet the social welfare needs of an aging population with fewer younger people, it’s critical that prefectures have a secure financial base.”

And while the concept of general regionalization and reducing the power of Tokyo bureaucrats over local-level finances is supported by virtually all governors, introducing blocks is more contentious. Some governors who support more local autonomy are reluctant about or outright opposed to regionalization.

Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido is one, saying parties are not eager to launch such a system anytime soon.

“LDP officials have said their party is divided on the regional block system, while New Komeito’s leaders have indicated it’s only one method of discussing the current state of local governments,” Ido said.

“The DPJ says now is not the time to support or not support such a system, but to continue to promote transfers of authority to local governments. The party says the regional block system can be talked about at a later date.”

The few polls done so far on regional systems show the public is either uncertain of what it means or is skeptical it will work as advertised.

A survey conducted in 2008 in the Kansai region by think tank Kansai Institute for Social and Economic Research showed a plurality of respondents had doubts about it and a nearly equal number didn’t understand what it meant. Resistance to a Kansai block was especially strong in Kyoto, the report noted.

Ido and like-minded politicians also clashed with Hashimoto over the Osaka governor’s attempt to close Itami airport, which sees heavy use by residents of Hyogo Prefecture.

Hashimoto sees the closure of Itami, over which he has no authority, as a way to boost business at Kansai airport and as a step toward decentralization and the eventual establishment of a regional system.

There are also fundamental questions about the block system that remain unanswered or have yet to be addressed at length.

For example, how would local democracy change? Would people in rural areas have less political power when it comes to voting on controversial power plants, dams and airports in their backyards that faraway urban dwellers need but don’t want in their neighborhoods?

And would larger blocks centered on heavily populated urban centers really invest in and care for people in the countryside to the extent prefectural and local governments now do?

“A regional block system likely means those living in the block but in less-populated areas hundreds of kilometers away from the main urban center are likely to end up having the same complaints about too much centralized power in the main city, exactly the kind of complaint Hashimoto and other prefectures currently make of Tokyo,” an Osaka prefectural official who opposes the system said on condition of anonymity.

For this election, though, regionalization and the issue of local governments being in charge of how to spend their tax money has forced all three parties to respond with promises to break Tokyo’s power over local governments.

Whether the more idealistic visions of a regional block system are realized, the question of local autonomy versus control by Tokyo bureaucrats has become an important topic for all politicians in the runup to Aug. 30.

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