KOCHI – Facing a shortage of new assembly members, a mountain village in Kochi Prefecture is exploring direct democracy and possibly offering a glimpse into the future of local governance amid Japan’s rapidly graying and declining population.
Okawa Mayor Kazuhito Wada told the municipal assembly Monday that he will consider setting up a “general council” in which voters would directly deliberate budgets and other proposals. Okawa is the least-populated municipality in Japan.
He said his first choice is to maintain the assembly, but in the meantime he will study the possible benefits and drawbacks of setting up a general council.
Wada said the results of his study should be ready by early 2018, and he will consider establishing a general council if enough assembly candidates fail to run in the next election in April 2019.
Other than remote islands, Okawa is the least-populated municipality in the nation. Around 45 percent of its roughly 400 residents are 65 or older, and the average age of the six current assembly members is over 70.
How the village proceeds on this issue could influence other municipalities facing similar challenges.
If two seats or more are left vacant in the next assembly election, the village is required by the Public Offices Election Law to hold a fresh election.
To avoid this scenario, the mayor instructed village officials in April to begin considering setting up a general council.
The local autonomy law allows a municipal government to replace its assembly with a general council consisting of voters.
In the last assembly election in 2015, all six members were re-elected without contest. But some of them have already expressed their intention to not run for re-election next time.
In addition to aging, securing new candidates has been difficult due to the monthly pay of ¥155,000, the lowest among municipal assemblies in Kochi Prefecture, and the fact public servants are not allowed to have a side job.
But operating a general council won’t be easy. The council must be attended by more than half of the village’s voters, a requirement unlikely to be easily fulfilled given the large number of elderly people, including those living in hospitals or nursing homes outside the village.
Akira Tsutsui, an 83-year-old former deputy mayor of the village, said he is against the idea of setting up a general council.
“Many proposals (to the assembly) are highly specialized,” he said. “I wonder whether villagers can make decisions by gathering and discussing them.”
Masayuki Wada, a 26-year-old temporary worker in the village office, said: “I think many people will not be able to attend a general council meeting as they have problems walking. If only a limited number of people attend and make decisions, it would not be so different from the existing assembly.”
A general council has been set up only once before, in 1951 by the village of Utsuki on Hachijo-kojima, a remote island about 290 km south of Tokyo. The council remained in place until Utsuki was merged with the village of Hachijo in 1955, according to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.
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