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This will be an important year for local governments across Japan as the Abe administration pushes a policy aimed at revitalizing the nation’s regional economies. Under the five-year comprehensive strategy adopted by the administration, local governments are supposed to work out their own revitalization plans for review by the national government. The effectiveness of the local plans will hold the key when the central government decides on the allocation of a new type of grant to be distributed to local governments under the program.

It will be imperative for the heads of local government and their employees to correctly identify the problems and needs of their residents and areas, and give full play to their own ingenuity in working out the plans. Central government officials need to respect local initiatives and refrain from imposing uniform ideas about what revitalization efforts should be like when they assess the proposals.

The national government has already exhibited a tendency to impose ideas on local governments by suggesting that new grants be used, for example, to issue coupons for residents to use in local stores or to give one-time allowances to low-income households for purchasing kerosene.

The nation’s graying and dwindling population is taking especially heavy tolls on rural areas, which are also suffering from an exodus of people to urban regions that offer higher-paying jobs. Clearly the priority task for local administrations will be to devise various measures to retain local residents and attract people from urban areas by creating job opportunities for them.

In working out their revitalization plans, members of local governments must avoid trying to develop ideas only among themselves and instead seek the opinions of citizens. They need to rouse local residents’ interest in taking part in developing the plans and solicit opinions from a variety of people, including executives and employees of local businesses, people in agriculture, forestry or fisheries industries and members of civic groups. They can also utilize existing local networks such as community associations to serve as vehicles to draw ideas and put them in action.

It will also be important for local officials to turn what has been viewed in a negative light — such as vacant houses and uncultivated agricultural fields — into assets to attract city dwellers. Vacant housing, for example, can be used as residences for immigrants from urban areas or as business offices.

Local governments should devise financial and other means that prepare the owners of vacant houses and agricultural fields to lend or lease unused assets. Local governments also should consider utilizing unused private and public properties, such as public halls and abandoned schools, not only for economic purposes but also for social welfare, medical and other public purposes.

In developing the plans, local governments also should look beyond their borders and cooperate with other municipalities to exchange ideas. They should also make efforts to locate nongovernmental groups and businesses ready to help and should get their assistance.

Past attempts at regional revitalization have not been very successful. Leaders of local governments should realize that, given the dire demographic situation, the Abe administration’s emphasis on the issue of regional revitalization provides perhaps one of the last chances to accomplish this vital goal.

The central government bureaucracy, for their part, should break away from their turf mentality and be open-minded and flexible when they deal with local governments’ initiatives.

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