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The coronavirus pandemic has prompted the national government to declare an emergency in seven prefectures. This, in turn, has put the spotlight on the powers and responsibilities of prefectural governors. Though often compared to state governors elsewhere, there are key differences.

What is the current state of the prefectural governor system?

Since the postwar Constitution and the Local Autonomy Law took effect May 3, 1947, eligible voters have elected prefectural governors for four-year terms. Governors are not allowed to concurrently serve as either Diet members or on local councils.

Under the previous Meiji Constitution, prefectural governors were not elected by popular vote but appointed by the national government.

At present, governors have the right to enact regulations, draft budgets, introduce bills to the prefectural legislature (also elected by popular vote) and to appoint members to various administrative committees such as the prefectural board of education and public safety committee.

Other powers include the right to veto ordinances even if they’ve been passed by the prefectural assembly and the power to dissolve the assembly and call a local election. Governors can also be subjected to a recall referendum.

What kind of people have been elected as governors?

Until about the late 1990s, most had local political experience or were former government bureaucrats with good connections to their former colleagues in Tokyo that they used to benefit their prefecture. However, in 1995, former actor and Upper House member Yukio Aoshima was elected governor of Tokyo without major party support, on a promise to cancel a costly project that the previous governor had approved. That same year, Osaka elected popular comedian “Knock” Yokoyama.

Aoshima resigned in 1999 and is remembered as being largely ineffectual.

Yokoyama was often at odds with the Osaka business community and ruling parties in Tokyo. He was forced to resign in December 1999, just after being prosecuted for sexual assault. He was found guilty in August 2000. His replacement was a former Ministry of International Trade and Industry bureaucrat, Fusae Ota, Japan’s first female governor.

In the 1999 Tokyo gubernatorial election, former Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker and author Shintaro Ishihara, a noted outspoken nationalist, successfully ran as an independent with a populist appeal. As governor, he cut municipal projects he deemed to be a waste of money and slapped taxes on hotels and banks.

Nine years later, lawyer-turned-TV talent Toru Hashimoto became Osaka governor on a similar populist appeal, touting cost-cutting. Nominally an independent, Hashimoto’s campaign was supported by the local LDP and Komeito chapters and by Kansai’s major corporate lobbies.

He slashed the prefectural bureaucracy and challenged the status quo, giving thought to everything from nuclear power to Japan’s foreign policy. His attacks against Tokyo’s bureaucrats and Diet politicians won favor in a region that had seen many businesses leave for the capital in the 1990s, and whose voters felt Tokyo was not paying attention to their needs.

Hashimoto’s skilled use of local media, especially local television, to get his message across and retain his popularity were lessons learned by other governors who followed, some of whom also came from TV backgrounds. These include Yuji Kuroiwa, a former Fuji TV announcer who became the governor of Kanagawa in 2011, and, of course, Yuriko Koike, a former newscaster who became Tokyo governor in 2016.

To varying degrees, they, too, would rail against status quo thinking in the national politics and central bureaucracy, winning popular favor.

Does such local appeal translate to a national political career?

Former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, who led the nation with a coalition government from 1993 to 1994 as the first non-LDP prime minister since the party’s founding in 1955, had been the governor of Kumamoto Prefecture.

Since then, no former governor has taken over the Prime Minister’s Office. Nearly a decade ago, there was speculation that Ishihara, and then Hashimoto, might be the nation’s next prime minister due to their popularity. Currently, there is some talk that Koike, or perhaps even Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura, might be future prime minister material.

But translating local support and a positive nationwide public image into political power at the national level has proved difficult so far. Neither Ishihara nor Hashimoto ever returned to the Diet, and it’s unclear if Koike or Yoshimura have the necessary skills to convince a major party to tap them as a potential prime minister.

What are some of the ways in which Japanese governors are similar to U.S. state governors?

Both can declare local states of emergencies in the event of a natural disaster or pandemic. This allows them more leeway to mobilize local resources quickly than might otherwise be the case. More generally, governors in both the U.S. and Japan perform some of the same type of administrative and ceremonial duties, including greeting delegations of visiting foreign dignitaries.

What are the main differences between a U.S. state governor and Japanese prefectural governor?

In a nutshell, Japanese governors, and prefectural assemblies, are less autonomous than U.S. state governors and their state legislatures.

This is particularly the case in three areas: sales taxes, criminal pardons, and authority over local military assistance.

In Japan, the sales tax, raised to 10 percent last October, applies to all 47 prefectures. But in the U.S., there is no national general sales tax. The rate varies state-by-state and can be raised or lowered by the state assembly, with the approval of the governor. Five states (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon) don’t have a state sales tax.

Further, U.S. governors have the right to grant pardons or reprieves for offenses committed under state criminal law. In Japan, however, the power to pardon criminals rests with the Cabinet Office. It often does so on historic occasions related to the Imperial family. Last October, to mark the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito, nearly 550,000 people were pardoned by the government.

Finally, there is the issue of seeking military assistance, such as during an emergency. A U.S. state governor is also the commander-in-chief of the state’s National Guard forces, which are under the dual command and control of the state and the federal government. Most National Guard members are part timers. But they can be called into action by the governor of the state they are based in to help with natural disasters and other emergencies.

In Japan, however, governors may request help from the Self-Defense Forces in the event of a local emergency, but formal approval for their dispatch has to be given by the central government, even if that approval is pro forma.

What kinds of attempts are being made by local governments to change the current prefectural governing structure in Japan?

One attempt is to push for more independence to decide how they use central government money provided for local economic revitalization programs. Very often, governors complain that in order to get state-supplied funds, they first to have to draw up local economic plans to get the money for local projects based on rules set by the central government, who determine whether to approve or reject such plans, regardless of how practical or realistic local governors and legislators may consider them to be.

While governors have more autonomy than they did decades ago, local control over the use of funds remains a perennial issue of contention with Tokyo.

A more fundamental attempt at change is the so-called dōshū seido, or regional block system. This would eliminate the current 47 prefectures and turn them into semi-autonomous regions with their own governors.

The idea received a lot of official attention 10 or 15 years ago, especially in the Kansai region. But it is less discussed today as prefectural governments grapple with more immediate problems like aging and declining populations and economic revitalization.

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