On May 3, 1947, the day the current Constitution went into effect, the Local Autonomy Law came into force. Local autonomy is an important system that puts into practice the postwar Constitution’s basic principle that sovereign power resides with the people. The current Constitution devotes a whole chapter (Chapter VIII) with four articles to local autonomy.

Under the Meiji Constitution, the central government chose prefectural governors, usually from the ranks of bureaucrats. The prefectural governments were extensions of the central government. Direct elections of governors were first held in April 1947. The average voter turnout was slightly more than 71 percent, topping the 61 percent for Upper House elections and the 68 percent for Lower House elections held immediately afterward.

The corresponding figure for the gubernatorial elections recently held in 13 prefectures was less than 60 percent. Regrettably, the people’s interest in local elections has been waning over the years. Voters must realize that they have the power to change the heads of local governments. In a recent election, for example, voters in the town of Toyo, Kochi Prefecture, replaced the former mayor who favored the idea of the town hosting a nuclear dump site with a candidate who opposed the idea.

The Local Autonomy Law provides for a mechanism under which residents can make direct appeals to their local governments. Through this mechanism they can call for the removal of local government chiefs and high-ranking officials, the abolition or enactment of particular by-laws, the dissolution of local assemblies, and so forth.

The existence of a strong bureaucracy and a tendency for all political parties in local assemblies to support local government heads may be hindering residents’ awareness of the principle of local autonomy. It is important that they realize they can use this law to directly influence the operation of their local governments.

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