The approval of a draft plan to reorganize the city of Osaka into five special districts, by both the municipal assembly and the Osaka Prefectural Assembly, sets the stage for an unprecedented referendum in which the 2.15 million eligible voters of western Japan’s largest city will decide the future of their local administration.

The Osaka reorganization has been a pet project of Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who entered politics first as governor of Osaka Prefecture in 2008. The outcome of the local referendum — likely to be held May 17 — will determine the political fate of Hashimoto, who has pledged to retire from politics at the end of his current term as mayor in December if the plan is rejected by the voters.

The results of the vote are also expected to have major repercussions for national politics, including the political fortunes of Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party), which Hashimoto founded, its role within the opposition camp and its relations with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition.

But these impacts aside, the proposed reorganization of Osaka — the first such scheme among the nation’s major cities with special legal status under the law — should be weighed on its own merits. Osaka voters are urged to think about the shape they would wish for the local administration. As the proposal directly concerns the quality of services they receive, it will affect their daily lives.

The draft plan calls for abolishing the city of Osaka and reorganizing its 24 wards into five special districts — with expanded administrative powers for each district and the public election of district heads and assembly members — and changing the division of labor with the Osaka Prefectural Government so that the prefecture is responsible for regionwide development projects and infrastructure building. Meanwhile, the special ward offices would take charge of day-to-day administrative services for local residents such as medical services, social welfare and education. If approved by a referendum majority, the changes would take effect April 1, 2017.

Hashimoto and his Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) — and Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, who took over from Hashimoto when he became mayor in 2011 — have argued that the so-called dual administrative structure of Osaka Prefecture and the city of Osaka, whose population of 2.68 million accounts for roughly 30 percent of the prefecture’s, has led to duplicate and inefficient administrative services and wasteful spending, resulting in severe fiscal woes for both the city and the prefecture. They claim the city’s reorganization would resolve these problems. Opponents, led by the local chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party and including most other parties, charge that administrative duplications can be eliminated by adjusting the division of labor between the city and the prefecture.

The plan has gone through its twists and turns. The Osaka Ishin group, riding Hashimoto’s strong popularity among local voters, has been the largest force in the city assembly but lacks a majority and needed the cooperation of Komeito to push the plan through the assembly.

The same draft plan was rejected by the assembly in October when Komeito opposed it. Hashimoto, who at one point indicated he might run for the Lower House from a local constituency controlled by Komeito in the December election before backing off, later succeeded in getting the party’s support for passing the draft through the assembly last week. Komeito says it voted yes to holding the referendum but still opposes the city’s reorganization itself.

The controversial project appears driven by local jitters over the long-term decline of Osaka’s economic presence. Osaka Prefecture’s share of Japan’s gross domestic product has dipped from 10 percent in 1970 to less than 8 percent in recent years. Osaka has been passed by Kanagawa as the prefecture with the second-largest population after Tokyo. Osaka’s jobless rate is consistently above the national average.

Osaka Ishin’s website on the project paints a dismal picture: The city of Osaka’s economy shrank by 16 percent over a decade in the 2000s; the number of local businesses fell 24 percent since 1986; the ratio of residents receiving livelihood assistance for the poor is the highest among the nation’s major cities; more than a quarter of local households earn less than ¥2 million a year; and the city’s per capita local debt is three times larger than that for Tokyo’s 23 wards combined.

The website says the resources saved for the city and the prefecture by ending wasteful spending on the dual administrative structure would outweigh the cost of reorganization, and that such reforms would make Osaka more prosperous.

Opponents of the plan dispute this rosy scenario. Some opponents charge that the reorganization could create even more duplicate administrative work because some city government jobs, like those for handling local residents’ public health insurance and water supply, would be taken over by a clerical work union to be newly created and jointly run by the five special district offices. Hashimoto’s side claims that the quality of administrative services for local residents would improve with the reorganization. Opponents say the opposite.

It may be a difficult call to make. But it would be too optimistic to assume that merely changing the administrative structure would resolve Osaka’s economic woes. Turning the structure into one similar to that of the Tokyo metropolitan government and its 23 wards will not automatically pull Osaka out of the doldrums. When casting their referendum votes, local residents are urged to consider the actual changes they can expect from the administrative reorganization — rather than the promises made by its supporters.

Opponents of the plan who say that Osaka’s woes can be addressed without changing its administrative structure should give convincing explanations as to why such efforts have not been made so far.

A recent Kyodo News poll showed that supporters of the plan slightly outnumber opponents among Osaka residents. At the same time, roughly 70 percent of the respondents said Hashimoto’s explanations of the plan have been insufficient. About 55 percent of the pollees said they understand what the plan entails, while the remainder said they either don’t understand it well or not at all.

At the same time, support for the mayor himself far outweighs the opposition to him. Nearly 80 percent of his supporters said they endorse the plan, while 85 percent of his opponents replied that they oppose it. But the referendum should not be a vote of confidence on the popular mayor. Osaka voters should judge the plan on its own merits.

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