Osaka – In what could become a new chapter on how Japan’s local governments are run, campaigning began Monday for a Nov. 1 referendum on whether Osaka should become a metropolis, akin to Tokyo, in 2025.
Some 2.24 million voters in the western city are eligible to take part in what will be a second plebiscite on the Osaka metropolis plan. A similar plan was voted down in 2015 by a slim margin.
Proponents say such a measure will lead to more cost-effective governance, by eliminating duplication of work between the Osaka prefectural and city governments. Opponents, however, argue that the COVID-19 crisis should be prioritized over the referendum.
A majority vote is required to approve the plan, regardless of turnout, and it will be legally binding.
Backed by Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura and Mayor Ichiro Matsui, the initiative calls for the restructuring of the city’s 24 administrative districts into four special wards with greater authority and elected leaders. Tokyo is arranged similarly with 23 special wards.
“After having persistently argued for the elimination of the overlapping of administrative work, this day has finally arrived,” Yoshimura said in a stump speech in the city’s entertainment district of Nanba.
Matsui, who heads Nippon Ishin no Kai (the Japan Innovation Party) and the regional political group Osaka Ishin no Kai, urged the public to vote for the plan, saying that the city’s economy has grown since Toru Hashimoto, a former governor and mayor of Osaka, first advocated the plan in 2010.
The Osaka metropolis plan is the signature policy of Osaka Ishin no Kai. Komeito, the ruling coalition partner of the Liberal Democratic Party, also backs the plan.
If the plan is voted down again, Matsui has said he will retire from politics after completing his term as mayor through April 2023.
According to the plan, the special wards would be given responsibility for providing services such as education and welfare, while Osaka Prefecture would be in charge of broad-based strategies such as economic growth, tourism and infrastructure maintenance.
Proponents argue that it would reduce the city’s annual expenditure and lead to economic growth by eliminating functional overlaps between the prefectural and city governments.
Opponents, including the LDP and the Japanese Communist Party, argue such a change would deliver a hit to the area’s coffers, would worsen services for residents and would be an impediment to disaster prevention efforts.
“Can we really abolish Osaka city? If it becomes a metropolis, the level of services to residents will fall,” said Taeko Kitano, a senior LDP member of the Osaka city assembly.
Separately, Tomoko Yamanaka, a senior JCP member of the assembly, also expressed opposition to the plan in a speech before the Osaka city government.
Residents’ opinions were split on the plan.
“Change is necessary for Osaka. If the metropolis plan is realized, Osaka will become even more attractive,” said Etsuhiro Kasano, an 84-year-old from the city’s Kita Ward.
“Policy implementation will be enhanced,” said a 36-year-old self-employed man who cast a yes vote five years ago.
But a 72-year-old from Chuo Ward spoke of worry that the quality of services for residents would decline.
There is also concern the pandemic may affect voting. Resident Mayumi Nishioka, the mother of infant twins, said she had no intention of going to the polls out of fear of becoming infected with the virus.
In the previous referendum, the voting rate stood at 66.83%. Votes backing the metropolis plan accounted for 49.6%, or 694,844 votes, while those against the plan came to 50.4%, or 705,585 votes.
Hashimoto announced his exit from politics in response to the plan’s defeat in the referendum.
Having declared it would try again to bring the metropolis plan to fruition, Osaka Ishin no Kai won the Osaka gubernatorial and mayoral races in April last year.
With help from Komeito, both the Osaka prefectural and city assemblies approved the metropolis plan by the end of September this year.