A useless talk shop that will ultimately be remembered as a massive waste of taxpayer money, or a farsighted experiment that will someday be seen as the forerunner of a fundamentally new system of central government?

That’s the question that supporters and critics of the Union of Kansai Governments are asking three years after seven Kansai prefectures and four major cities banded together to increase cooperation in everything from disaster planning to tourism promotion and standardized testing and licensing.

Due to geography, Kansai’s main cities of Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and Kobe are no more than an hour apart by limited express trains. It’s possible to travel to all four in under 2½ hours, which is less than the time it takes to travel by shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka.

But familiarity often breeds contempt. Kansai’s local governments have a long history of not cooperating with each other, resulting in rival plans to attract businesses and tourists. They’ve also been plagued by traditionally limited communication or mountains of bureaucratic red tape when it came to things like dispatching emergency vehicles and personnel across prefectural borders.

Over the past three years, progress has been made toward removing some of the barriers. The governors and mayors meet on a regular basis and draw up plans in areas they specifically agree to coordinate for the entire union.

Hyogo, having suffered the 1995 Kobe earthquake, is in charge of coordinating disaster relief measures. Kyoto is in charge of tourism promotion for the region, while Osaka is in charge of economic development.

Their most visible success to date has been agreeing to get the entire region to cut back on electricity usage in 2011 after the nuclear power plants were shut down, resulting in expeditious, coordinated action that prevented rolling blackouts during the peak summer months. But while demonstrating some ability to react to outside events, the union has been poor at being proactive, partially because of the limited local powers under the prefectural government system.

Advocates of the union point out that it’s too early to issue a final report card on how useful it is, and that its ultimate goal is to replace the Meiji Era prefectural system with a series of semi-autonomous regional blocs and a weak central government. Needless to say, that idea is met with open hostility in Tokyo, which fears it would lose power and prestige.

Critics come in two types. The first consists of those who see the union as a good idea being poorly executed because of central government regulations, entrenched local bureaucratic rivalries and differing attitudes among the political members about the wisdom of drawing too closely together.

The second group, even as they agree with the first group about the problems, sees the union as fundamentally anti-democratic, a creation of Kansai’s corporate lobby that is more interested in taking away local rights to, for example, block construction of an airport, dam or power plant. The union is not about smaller government, they say, but about creating a Kansai fiefdom that would be run as a giant corporation where efficiency trumps local democracy.

To what extent the union’s political leaders will be willing to spend political capital to enact ideas has always been the question. As efforts to formulate a detailed, unionwide disaster response plan in the event of not only an earthquake and tsunami, but also a nuclear disaster demonstrate, however, local politicians and bureaucrats are hard-wired to deal with the problems in front of them, not those on the horizon, however imperative it may be to address them before they become disasters.

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