The drafting of a bill to transfer the functions of regional bureaus of three central government ministries to federations of local governments is being delayed due to resistance from the ministries concerned and some Democratic Party of Japan lawmakers. Associations of city, town and village mayors also have expressed concerns over the transfer. They fear that such federations, which lack a centralized structure, may not be able to function properly in the event of a major disaster like the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami.

Pushing devolution was an important pillar of the promises made by the DPJ in the 2009 Lower House election, which brought it to power. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda should make clear his stance on the bill. He also needs to take measures to address the mayors’ concerns. Their concerns are understandable because municipal governments, which are close to local residents, are the most important administrative units when responding to natural disasters. They want some form of central government involvement to assist local residents and communities affected by disasters.

The planned bill will transfer regional development bureaus of the infrastructure and transport ministry, regional economic and industry bureaus of the trade and industry ministry, and regional environment offices of the environment ministry to federations of local governments. These bureaus carry out some 3,000 different functions, about half of which are done by regional development bureaus whose jurisdiction includes road construction and management, and river management.

The infrastructure and transport ministry is vehemently opposed to the transfer of public works projects such as construction and management of major national highways. While it is logical to minimize the number of regional-level functions that the three central government ministries must retain, the municipal mayors’ worries about the planned transfer of the functions of regional bureaus are rooted in their experiences stemming from the 3/11 disasters. The Tohoku regional development bureau of the infrastructure and transport ministry has been praised for doing a good job in assisting local residents and restoring roads.

Mayors fear that federations of local government will not be able to function in future major disasters as quickly and efficiently as the bureau did in the wake of the 3/11 disasters. The planned bill says that a federation of local governments must comply with the central government’s order to dispatch its workers to a disaster area if it thinks it does not hamper its work. The central government should consider whether this arrangement is adequate to alleviate the concerns of the mayors and should make changes if necessary.

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