The ruling and opposition parties have respectively submitted bills designed to allow prefectures and other local governments to set up “special wards” — similar to those that exist in Tokyo — to the Diet. Behind this is a move by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, leader of Osaka Ishin-no Kai (Osaka Association for Reform), a local party. The populist mayor is eager to abolish Osaka Prefecture, which has a population of some 2.7 million people, and to reorganize it into a metropolitan entity like Tokyo consisting of “special wards,” each having a population of about 300,000.

Both the ruling and opposition parties fear Mr. Hashimoto’s plan to field a large number of candidates from his party in the next national-level election if the Diet fails to enact a law allowing his reorganization plan for Osaka to proceed. Lawmakers should carefully consider whether the bills will help enhance local residents’ well-being and whether they will give unjustifiable advantages to the special wards in comparison with the conditions set for municipalities.

Special wards are similar to municipalities. But they cannot independently operate services such as city water, sewerage, fire fighting, bus and subway services, crematories, public hospitals and universities.

At present, three bills related to the Osaka mayor’s request have been submitted to the Diet. Under the Democratic Party of Japan’s bill, a local government with a population of at least 2 million can set up special wards. The population requirement is one million or more under the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito bill and 700,000 or more under the Your Party bill. Large cities like Saitama would clear the LDP-Komeito bill’s requirement and all 20 government ordinance-designated cities would clear Your Party bill’s population requirement. But the meaning of reorganizing existing large cities into entities consisting of special wards each with a population of 300,000 to 500,000 must be subjected to strict scrutiny.

Under the opposition bills, local government that set up special wards do not need approval from the central government even if the special wards’ tax and finance systems would require law revisions at the national level. Attention must be paid to the fact that most prefectural and municipal governments are receiving grants from the central governments. Any of the opposition bills, if passed, could lead to the reduction of grants available for other local governments. The central government must be involved in the establishment of special wards to ensure that the financial conditions of other local governments will not deteriorate.

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