Since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in September 2009, the word “chiho bunken” (devolution) has been replaced by the new expression “chiiki shuken” (local sovereignty).

The government on Nov. 17 that year created the “Local Sovereignty Strategy Council” chaired by the prime minister within the Cabinet Office. Although it is unclear what specific subjects are being debated by that council, there is no doubt that the DPJ is placing much emphasis on the promotion of local autonomy.

“Devolution,” which is an antonym of a centralized form of government, means delegating to local governments some of the power and authority now heavily concentrated in the central government ministries and agencies, which are often referred to as “Kasumigaseki” after the name of a central part of Tokyo where most of them are headquartered.

It must not be overlooked, however, that in reality, local autonomous bodies, such as prefectures and municipalities, are subordinate to the central government. It follows, therefore, that even if devolution is promoted, there is a limit to the extent to which real autonomy can be attained by local governments. As a result, prefectural governors must always “read the minds” of Tokyo in making major decisions or implementing important policies. In no other industrialized democracy is so much power and authority concentrated in the central government as in Japan.

Japan’s university system is a good example to illustrate that point. In the United States, each state has at least one state university, but there is no such thing as a “national university” administered by the federal government. Municipalities are responsible for elementary and secondary education while higher education is provided by the state. The federal government is not involved in education in any manner. Yet, funds for scientific and academic research projects are provided by federal agencies like the National Science Foundation.

In Japan, though this is not well known, public university corporations, such as those run by prefectures and municipalities, receive their operational grants from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. Moreover, privately run universities and high schools also receive grants totaling ¥450 billion per year from the central government.

Yet, Article 89 of the Constitution stipulates: “No public money or other property shall be expended or appropriated for the use, benefit or maintenance of any religious institution or association, or for any charitable, educational or benevolent enterprises not under the control of public authority.”

Granting government money to private educational institutions would constitute a violation of this constitutional provision, unless such institutions, be they universities or high schools, are deemed to be “under the control of public authority.” Provision of money from the central government to private educational institutions can be justified because establishing a new private university or creating or expanding a department within such a university is subject to approval by a government council with the education ministry.

The word “local” usually refers to a geographical area set apart from all other areas. When it is used in the context of “local sovereignty,” however, its basic reference is to cities, towns, villages and prefectures. Its definition can be expanded to cover broader areas if the existing 47 prefectures are reorganized into a smaller number of “do” or “shu” (states).

If localities were given greater “sovereignty,” the roles of the central government would be limited to things like defense, diplomacy, taxation, implementation and accounting of the national budget, and nationwide environmental policies.

If “local sovereignty” is achieved, the central government’s share in revenue from personal income and corporate taxes will diminish. In view of the prevailing large economic disparities between different regions, however, unrestricted push for “local sovereignty” would only result in exacerbating the disparities.

In Japan, there has been little or no regional disparity in elementary and secondary education. It is worth remembering that this factor greatly contributed to Japan’s recovery from the postwar economic devastation, rapid economic growth and overcoming the oil crisis. Regional economic disparities would create disparities in education, which in turn could undermine the strengths with which the nation has been able to grow to what it is today.

During the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the Cabinet Office proposed abolishing government subsidies to cover half of the salaries paid to teachers in compulsory education and transferring commensurate amounts of tax revenues to local governments to enable them to pay teachers’ salaries. After deliberations at the Central Council for Education, however, this proposal was amended to reduce the government subsidies from one-half to one-third of teachers’ salaries.

The very root of Japan’s vitality has lain in the availability of high quality education to all children in every corner of the country. I am convinced that the fundamental cause of the recent weakening of Japan can be traced to deterioration of the homogenous quality in elementary and secondary education. This deterioration was brought about by an increase in the number of private high schools that are primarily interested in teaching students how to master elaborate techniques of passing university entrance examinations.

In China, a concept of building a “harmonious society” has become quite popular the past few years. The expression was first used by President Hu Jintao, when he addressed the sixth general session of the 16th Communist Party National Congress on Oct. 12, 2006.

Hu emphasized the urgent need to rectify the “disharmony” that has resulted from the country’s adopting a policy of economic reform — that is, widening gaps between the coastal areas and the inlands, between manufacturing industry and agriculture, and between cities and farming regions, as well as causing environmental disruptions.

When I first heard of China’s aspirations to build a harmonious society, I felt that Japan represents the best model in the world for such a society. Even though its land area is small, Japan can boast of infrastructural networks of railways, telephone service, electric power supply, mail delivery, broadcasting, and expressways and highways connecting every part of the country.

As far as I know, this country does not have a conspicuously poverty-stricken town or village. In other words, Japan has been successful in keeping to a minimum the type of “disharmony” that worries President Hu.

What has made Japan so successful in this regard?

The answer lies in the fact that all of its infrastructural networks were initiated by the central government, which also provided grants and subsidies to local governments. This way the central government made maximum efforts to reduce regional disparities, playing the central role in rectifying regional imbalances.

We must not turn a blind eye to pork-barrel policies pursued by certain politicians in a bid to bring benefits to their respective constituencies. Still, we must be proud of the undeniable fact that our successive governments, intentionally or unintentionally, have built up a harmonious society that is rare by any global standard.

Local sovereignty is worth pursuing. But the government must continue to fulfill its responsibility of redressing regional economic disparities so that Japan continues to remain a true model of a harmonious society.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.

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