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Faced with a rapidly shrinking population of elderly residents reluctant to run for seats on the local council, the village of Okawa, Kochi Prefecture, passed a referendum Monday designed to make it easier serve on the council while concurrently holding side jobs.

The measure goes into effect on April 1. Okawa’s six seats are up for re-election in the April 21 nationwide local town and village assembly elections.

Japanese law forbids residents from serving as local assembly members while working as private contractors for the municipalities they serve. But the exact definition of a contractor is not clear. Okawa’s new rules will allow contractors to continue to receive income from their businesses if there is little danger that doing so will damage the impartiality of their public duties.

Local firms whose public works contracts with the village come to less than 50 percent of the income of their main business are exempt from the rule forbidding them to run for an assembly seat. The mayor will make yearly announcements of the names of firms who meet these requirements, thus allowing their owners to run for seats.

Okawa, with a population of 406, made national news in 2017 when its mayor, Kazuhito Wada, warned that the declining population made finding candidates to run for local office ever more difficult. At the time, Wada said it was time to discuss dissolving the town council and introducing direct democracy.

Ultimately, it was decided that the council would continue with prefectural assistance. But in a 2017 interview with The Japan Times, Wada said the strict rules governing side jobs by local assembly members needed to be reconsidered.

“Many of our residents are engaged in private businesses. But they rely on that income and don’t want to run for office if they have to give it up,” Wada said.

Data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications shows that just over a fifth, or 21.8 percent, of Japan’s town and village assembly seats in the 2015 local elections went uncontested. As many localities have elderly and declining populations, the problem is expected to get worse in the coming years without fundamental changes to local elections laws, Wada added.

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