Deep in the Shikoku wilderness, along a steep winding road above a dark green river, sits the tiny village of Okawa. It’s located in a region sometimes dubbed by enthusiastic travel writers as the “Tibet of Japan” for its comparative isolation within the mountains.

With less than 400 citizens, the Kochi Prefecture village faces the same predicament most local governments around Japan are grappling with: a declining, elderly population.

But Okawa’s decision to study the possibility of abolishing its village assembly due to a lack of candidates and introducing direct democracy is sparking a nationwide debate, and central government discussion, on the merits and demerits of establishing general village meetings in place of an elected council.

Okawa Mayor Kazuhito Wada greets visitors to an office smelling of fresh cedar with a business card that reads “Except For Outlying Islands, Japan’s Least Populated Village: Okawa.” While it was Wada who directed that studies begin on town meetings to replace the elected assembly, he hopes a way can still be found to preserve the current municipal assembly system.

“I respect the democratic system of elected assemblies, and in order to continue Okawa’s assembly, I want residents to take an interest in running it,” he said. “But I also want to emphasize that if they don’t, it’s possible the heavy burden of direct democracy via town meetings is something they’ll have to consider.”

From a peak population of about 4,100 in the early 1960s, Okawa’s population stood at 396 as of 2015. Of these denizens, 171 are over 65 years old. Nearly a quarter — 96 — are past the age of 80. The municipal assembly’s current members average close to 80 years old, and the next election will be in 2019. But Wada is thinking long term.

“Even if we’re OK in a couple of years and find enough people to stand for election, there’s another election four years after that, and four years after that.”

One reason sometimes cited for the lack of candidates at the local level is the salary. Central government statistics show that the average monthly salary for a town assembly member is around ¥213,000, well below the roughly ¥812,000 monthly average for prefectural assembly members and the ¥792,000 for assembly members in major cities.

But Wada said that’s not the crucial factor.

“Payment for village assembly members is an issue. But the biggest problem is the amount of work that members have to do,” he said. “A declining population means that one person has to do a lot of different kinds of public duties.”

Of Okawa’s 396 residents, 354 are registered voters. To get a quorum at a town meeting, 177 people would have to be present and accounted for in a public hall, a problematic scenario in a town filled with elderly voters, many of whom face physical restrictions or live in areas where transportation routes, especially in bad weather, might be closed.

Okawa is not alone in facing the realization that a declining population makes representative democracy difficult. The internal affairs ministry notes that the number of cities, towns and villages with a population of under 10,000 decreased from 1,537 in 1999 to just 505 this year, partially due to villages and towns integrating with each other. Yet despite such mergers over the past three decades, there are still 30 towns and villages, including Okawa, with a population of less than 1,000.

Trends since 1951 show that voting rates for assembly members were consistently 30 to 35 percentage points higher in towns than in major cities until around the late 1990s, when both rates declined sharply. In 2005, voter turnout for town assembly elections was 64.34 percent, while the rate for municipal assembly elections was 44.28 percent. A shortage of candidates meant that more than one-fifth — 21.8 percent — of all town and village assembly seats available were uncontested in 2015.

To address specific questions of how direct democracy might work in practice, an expert committee established by the internal affairs ministry began meeting in late July. Article 94 of the Local Autonomy Act notes that general town meetings can be set up and Article 95 allows them to function as de facto elected assemblies. But the details are not spelled out.

“The committee will likely discuss whether changing the way local governments operate would reduce the burden on assembly members and allow more residents to serve as assembly members. I’ve also heard it will address salary issues, and study town assembly examples from other countries,” then-internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi told reporters after the inaugural meeting.

It was not clear whether the committee will also address other, more difficult questions, such as the use of proxy votes for town residents who cannot, for whatever reason, be physically present. Whether voting should be allowed electronically is also a question that may be taken up.

Noboru Yanase, a constitutional law professor at Nihon University, pointed to a number of practical issues that towns considering whether to abolish their elected assemblies need to think about.

“Can a venue for the town meeting be secured? Is there a facility that can hold 350 people or so for discussions? You also have to think about transportation. Because public transportation may not be sufficient, the village would have to arrange for voters to be bused to and from the meeting, which raises its cost,” Yanase said.

Then there is the production, printing and distribution of official documents related to the discussions. The documents have to be supplied to all voters, which means the cost is greater than it would be under a system with elected assembly members.

“And a facilitator to ensure the meeting operates fairly and is not led in an inappropriate political direction is needed. Training for such facilitators is needed,” he said.

Yanase added he has doubts about whether local governments attempting to discuss town meetings are really prepared to hold them. He suggested keeping elected assemblies and hosting separate, legally nonbinding local gatherings where people debate community activities.

For Wada, though, the seriousness of the population decline and the lack of candidates in small villages require new thinking.

“We have to make predictions about things we previously thought unlikely because they are happening on a regular basis. Not too many years ago, heavy rainfall of more than 100 mm or more was said to be a once-a-century event. Now, almost every year, that amount falls on parts of Japan, so we have to make new predications based on reality,” he said.

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