OSAKA — With its constant factional infighting and Cabinet shuffles, Japanese national politics is a disheartening affair for the concerned voter. Last year’s historic elections, however, demonstrated that voters can oust unpopular governments, and that party competition and accountability is emerging at last.
Unfortunately, it is hard to say the same for politics beyond Tokyo. In Japan’s prefectures and municipalities, the worst aspects of old-style politics seem set to continue.
Local assemblies in particular have long been criticized as divorced from the public, havens of back-room deals and dominated by local special interests. For the average taxpayer, the existence and purpose of roughly 37,000 local assembly members, with an average annual salary near ¥7 million, is a costly mystery. When they do appear in the news, it is often for obstructing popular reformist mayors and governors or for answering charges of corruption. Public frustration has naturally run high.
Assembly reform has been demanded and discussed a long time but to little avail. Now should be the time for the new Democratic Party of Japan administration to press forward not only on further decentralization but also on instituting reforms to fix Japan’s malfunctioning local assemblies.
So far, the signs are encouraging. The new minister in charge of local government affairs, Yoshihiro Katayama, is a formidable reformer with a proven track record as former governor of Tottori Prefecture. He has already announced intentions to tackle defects in local political representation and accountability. Reformist governors, such as Osaka’s Toru Hashimoto, have been proposing drastic changes to how local governments function, including the introduction of an English-style “Cabinet” system. Any future reforms, however, should keep in mind the root of malaise in local Japanese politics: lack of clear competition between policy-oriented political parties.
Under the current system, Japanese local elections tend to be murky contests between individual politicians conducting costly election campaigns based on personal ties and appeals.
Rather than debating issues and delivering policy solutions facing the wider community as members of political parties, local politicians focus on providing services and favors to their neighborhood supporters.
Particularly problematic is the prevalence of independents (over 70 percent) in Japan’s municipal assemblies. When asked to choose among dozens of such candidates without party labels, the average voter has very little information to go by. The endless repetition of candidate names on street corners and from campaign cars is of little help. Most voters have neither the time nor interest to research and keep track of the policy positions and voting records of individual politicians.
Given such information challenges, parties can simplify choice and provide greater accountability. In other than the smallest towns and villages, then, organized parties with clearly stated local policy objectives are the only realistic way to structure conflicts and provide policy direction for a community.
The common refrain, however, is that partisan competition is unsuitable for local politics. International comparison points to Japan’s anomaly. Most Western European local elections are partisan contests, even at the municipal level. Only in the United States and Canada are nonpartisan local elections the norm, and these have resulted in familiar problems of personality politics and corruption. Neighboring South Korea recently permitted partisan competition in municipal elections; now, independents are in the minority.
It is true that Japanese local politicians in the assemblies of prefectures and in the biggest cities compete on national party labels. Yet it is not clear whether they compete on broader policy issues, particularly when these parties jointly back the same governor or mayor in many regions. Such pan-partisan coalitions at the local level clearly rob voters of choice.
In another common practice, mayoral and gubernatorial candidates who are actually party members, or supported by parties, run as “independents” while concealing their partisan affiliation. The present Chiba governor, for example, has been sued by a civic group for campaigning as unaffiliated with any party even though he headed the local branch of the Liberal Democratic Party. Measures need to be taken to prevent such practices, which contribute to confusion at the ballot booth.
There are promising currents of change from below. The appearance of local parties in Osaka, Nagoya and Shiga suggests voters are enthusiastic about politicians united under a common local policy goal. Yet such developments are still limited, and require the existence of charismatic governors leading such parties. As Katayama himself argues, residents should not be waiting around for such enlightened mayors and governors to appear as “saviors” of their communities. More long-term and stable solutions are required. Encouraging partisan competition is one of them.
Potential measures could include providing financial support — not toward individual politicians, as is the case today — for local party organizations (as in Sweden). Parties at the local level should perhaps be required to publish manifestos and engage in televised and streamed debates. Past voting records on key issues should also be provided. Even the introduction of proportional representation elections at the local level might be considered.
Another set of reforms needs to tackle the other major shortcoming in Japan’s local assemblies: the under- representation of the younger, female and white-collar population. Fixing this will require changes in how assemblies operate. This may involve measures such as conducting assembly business at night or on weekends so that more amateur politicians can participate, particularly in smaller communities.
Even the engagement of amateur politicians should be structured around parties that can be easily joined or formed locally. Party politicization is desired, but care should be taken so that local politics is not monopolized by national parties or party apparatchiks.
As the DPJ moves forward on its promise to devolve greater powers and resources to local governments, local democracy in Japan will become ever more vital. Much thought and debate should go into improving representation and accountability at the local level.
To start with, we can perhaps turn to two deep political thinkers of the past. Alexis de Tocqueville famously said local government was the foundation and school of democracy, while Elmer Eric Schattschneider argued that modern democracy is unthinkable except in terms of political parties. Taking these two insights together, the direction of reform should be clear.
Ken Victor Leonard Hijino, a former journalist in Tokyo, is a JSPS (Nihon Gakujutsu Shinko Kai) postdoctoral fellow at Osaka City University. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in 2009, researching decentralization and local democracy.
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