National | View from Osaka

Osaka, Okawa at the forefront of demographic changes altering power structures

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

On the surface, former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and Kazuhito Wada, the head of Okawa village, Kochi Prefecture, have little in common. Hashimoto is brash, confrontational and more interested these days in getting rich as a private citizen than in being a politician. Wada is quieter, a team player who comes across as a nice guy who cares deeply about the small village he serves.

Yet both men have been influential in pushing to the fore a topic that political parties and bureaucrats don’t seem ready to grapple with: The impact of an aging and declining population on the structure of local democracy.

Okawa made headlines earlier this year because its severe depopulation left the village government scrambling to find candidates for the next election. Maybe, Wada suggested, it was time to consider scrapping the assembly and replacing it with a village assembly meeting, similar in spirit to America’s town hall meetings in states such as Vermont.

No elected officials. No political parties. Just direct democracy.

One could almost hear gasps of outrage echoing through the corridors of power in Tokyo. But Wada’s suggestion struck a chord because he dared to utter out loud a frustration shared by thousands of smaller governments throughout Japan — many of which have elected bodies that are concerned about young voters running off to big cities and leaving behind only those who grow ever older.

This week, Wada told the Okawa assembly he was suspending discussion on whether to abolish the town council and introduce a form of direct democracy after he received assurances from the prefectural government that it would help out.

However, Wada’s action forced the central government to now formally study the issue.

The story in Osaka is somewhat different. The local party Hashimoto founded continues his fight to integrate Osaka city and prefecture. He suggested getting rid of the city’s current form of local assembly, but did not advocate outright abolition of all elected local assemblies. Hashimoto said Osaka city and prefecture had to face facts and adjust to meet the needs of the smaller and older metropolis it will soon become: less government for fewer people.

Whether to introduce direct democracy for small villages and consolidate the number of assemblies in urban areas expected to lose tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of residents in the coming decades is one of the most contentious questions Japan faces for a simple reason. It asks citizens what kind of local democracy they want in the 21st century.

Can fewer assembly members or no assemblies at all really protect democratic, constitutional rights for everyone? Can these choices deliver effective, affordable government services and generate sufficient tax revenue to ensure economic prosperity?

Should we merge with our neighboring villages? Or should we just let the unelected bureaucrats in Tokyo or the prefectural office take over?

Such questions may still be academic to those in heavily populated urban areas. But as Okawa demonstrates, smaller towns and villages can’t wait much longer.

A 2016 survey of 928 local councils nationwide by the National Association Chairmen of Town and Village Assemblies showed about three-quarters of elected representatives were over the age of 60. Around 20 percent were 70 years or older. Ehime Prefecture, Kochi’s neighbor, had the highest average age for assembly members among the 47 prefectures — 65.4 years old for men and 64.4 years old for women.

As Japan ages and the population declines, politicians, whether in cities such as Osaka, with a population of 2.7 million, or villages like Okawa, with just 396 people, face well-documented and unprecedented economic and social welfare challenges. However, there’s been less attention on what such changes mean for the democratic process. Thus two very different men in western Japan have, through their different actions, sounded the alarm on a problem once thought remote but which is now quite close.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.

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