OSAKA – Just three months after the village of Okawa, Kochi Prefecture, drew national attention by announcing it might abolish its elected council due to a lack of qualified candidates and introduce direct democracy, the head of the sparsely populated municipality said Monday that talks on the issue would be suspended.
“With the cooperation of the Kochi Prefectural Government, discussions are under way about maintaining the Okawa village council and local revitalization,” the village head, Kazuhito Wada, told the council members. “(With that,) a strong boost has been given to maintaining the council system.”
Okawa’s decision to look at the prospect of direct democracy prompted the central government to establish, within the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, a committee to look at the idea of direct democracy in small towns and villages. The committee’s first — and so far only — meeting took place at the end of July and focused on Okawa’s efforts as well as the various laws, rules and regulations on running for a local council.
Current laws dictate that local bureaucrats and public school teachers are not allowed to work concurrently as council members. Those who work for public-private ventures involved in work such as local snow removal or cutting down trees that block roads may also find themselves disqualified from serving on a council at the same time, lowering the number of potential candidates even further and resulting in many seats being left vacant at election time.
Across the nation, hundreds of small towns and villages are facing a similar aging and depopulation issue. That gives rise to many questions on critical issues, including how, or even whether, enough qualified candidates can be found to fill local council and assembly seats, and what legal changes will be needed to support their continuation.
With a population of just under 400, and only 354 registered voters, Okawa has six council members. Half its population is over the age of 60, and nearly a quarter is over 80. Qualified candidates interested in running for office were scarce, prompting Wada to announce he was exploring the idea of abolishing the council and introducing the kind of direct democracy seen in other small towns in other parts of the world, especially the northeast New England states of the United States.
Wada himself told The Japan Times last month he never wanted to abolish the elected assembly system. But, he added, given restrictions on council members doing outside work and population decreases in rural areas, local residents as well as the central government need to be aware of the growing problem of finding candidates.
“Residents need to think seriously about how their town will operate if there are no qualified candidates. They need to take responsibility for their democracy,” he said.