Japan has about 3,200 cities, towns and villages. The government and the Liberal Democratic Party, among others, think that is too many. They believe that small districts should be consolidated to improve administrative efficiency so that they can better meet the diverse needs of residents.

Merger moves have escalated since Mr. Masaru Nishio, head of the government’s Local Government System Research Council, published a drastic report last month calling for a shakeup of the municipal system. With its call for small districts that opt out to have their powers curtailed or be annexed into larger districts, the Nishio report is driving even reluctant districts to join the merger bandwagon.

Merger is also the overriding theme of an interim report from an LDP task force on local autonomy. The government is orchestrating a similar drive under special legislation that effectively sets a deadline for mergers — March 2005. Thus the government and the LDP are working hand in hand, so to speak, to promote the consolidation of small districts.

The Nishio proposal, for all practical purposes, boils down to “compulsory consolidation.” The National Association of Towns and Villages has criticized it as an “attempt to cut off small towns and villages,” while the National Association of Town and Village Representatives has adopted a special resolution opposing “compulsory mergers.”

Mr. Nishio, a professor at International Christian University, says his plan only provides a “basis for future discussion.” Given his position as council chairman, however, the proposal has come as a shock to small districts trying to survive on their own. A full and prompt explanation from the panel is in order.

The plan is designed to create a more efficient local administrative structure in which most of the country would be served by city-level units capable of providing a broad range of basic services, such as welfare and education. To this end, mergers would be promoted even after the special law expires in March 2005. Moreover, the minimum number of residents needed to sustain an administrative unit would be fixed by fiat.

The difficult part is that small districts that choose not to merge would have most of their services transferred to neighboring districts, except for skeleton services such as the issuance of resident certificates. Moreover, assembly members in such “dissident” towns and villages would be obliged, in principle, to serve without pay. Administrative chiefs there would have no deputies, and advisory or supervisory councils, such as boards of education, would not be installed. In effect, the merger plan denies fundamental principles of local autonomy.

No less disturbing is the fact that it aims to create administrative units of similar size throughout the country. Admittedly, the current system is unwieldy, with tiny towns consisting of a few hundred people possessing practically the same organization and functions as megacities like Yokohama (pop. 3.4 million). Uniform mergers, however, would hold back moves to provide services tailored to the needs of residents.

The Nishio plan calls for steps to offset the possible side effects of an unequal merger, such as creating new autonomous bodies in districts absorbed by larger ones. That would be an affront to small districts that are already doing a good job, through resourcefulness and ingenuity, in such areas as welfare and education. Instead of forcing them to merge, the government ought to give them more support.

The government has pledged to transfer more tax authority to local governments so that they can raise their own revenues. But little progress has been made so far. Local governments, particularly small towns and villages, continue to depend heavily on these transfer payments. However, the debt-ridden central government is trying to cut these grants.

To succeed, a merger scenario must take into account financial and other problems facing small administrations. First and foremost, their understanding and support must be gained. Merger talks are now under way, either under the law or on a voluntary basis, among more than 80 percent of the cities, towns and villages, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

A Kyodo News survey estimates their total number will be reduced to about 1,970 by the time the merger law expires. The question is just how many are really convinced that a better future awaits them. The government-sponsored merger drive does offer “carrots” such as special municipal bonds for new construction projects, but it also promises to employ “sticks” in cases of noncooperation. The important thing is to resist such pressure and to not be carried away by the “Heisei merger wave.” A linkup should be only one of the options open to small towns and villages.

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