A depopulated mountain village in Shikoku has drawn nationwide attention for saying it may set up a council in which voters participate directly in making municipal decisions — as a substitute for a local assembly — in case not enough candidates run in future elections. The announcement by Okawa, Kochi Prefecture, symbolizes the crisis confronting many municipalities threatened by sharply declining and aging populations as they try to maintain local autonomy. Taking a cue from Okawa, the national as well as local governments should look for the best ways to cope with similar situations in other municipalities.

The Local Autonomy Law allows towns and villages to establish a voters’ conference to discuss and vote on legislative and administrative matters in place of a traditional assembly of elected representatives. There has so far been only one example of such a council in Japan. It operated from 1951 to 1955 in the village of Utsuki on the island of Hachijo-kojima, nearly 300 km south of Tokyo.

Okawa Mayor Kazuhito Wada said last week that the village will look into institutionalizing a voters’ conference, although that would not automatically mean disbanding the local assembly. Okawa’s population, which peaked at some 4,100 in 1960, has fallen to roughly 400 following the closure of a local copper mine and the relocation of residents of a former community submerged by a dam. A merger with nearby municipalities explored more than a decade ago to consolidate administrative functions never materialized. The village now has the smallest population in Japan, except for municipalities on remote islands, and about 45 percent of Okawa’s residents are 65 years old or older.

In line with the falling population, the number of seats in its municipal assembly was reduced from 10 to eight in 2003, and then cut to six in 2007 after the assembly suffered a one-seat vacancy for an extended period. All of the current members were chosen uncontested in the 2015 election because there were no other candidates. The village fears that there will not be enough candidates to fill the assembly seats when the next election comes around in 2019.

Some of the current assembly members, whose average age is 70.8, have indicated they want to retire while nobody else appears ready to take their place. One reason so few people are willing to run for the assembly is the low remuneration and the provision in the election law banning local government employees from concurrently serving as assembly members. A re-election must be held if the next election results in a vacancy of two or more seats, since the Public Offices Election Law mandates a new race if the vacancy rate exceeds one-sixth of the total.

Merely instituting a voters’ conference in place of the local assembly may not solve the problem. In the case of Okawa, it would be difficult just to gather half of the village’s voters — the level needed for a quorum — since its communities are scattered across mountainous areas, where bus services are limited and residents have a tough time securing transportation. Some of Okawa’s aging residents actually live in hospitals and care homes for the elderly located outside of the village. In the case of the village of Utsuki, it may have been easier to run a voters’ conference since its population was a mere 66, according to the 1950 census. Still, there were cases in which participants numbered less than half the local voters, according to Yukihiro Enokisawa, an associate professor of constitutional studies at Nagoya Gakuin University.

A voters’ conference may seem like a good example of direct democracy that more accurately reflects residents’ wishes in administrative decisions. But things are not so simple. One question is whether voters are well-informed and have enough knowledge on matters up for decisions. It also needs to be watched whether enough time can be secured for discussions by the bulk of local voters. Still another problem is the possibility that a small number of people with personal stakes in a matter at hand may try to distort the direction of discussion to promote their own interests.

Okawa is one of the roughly 30 municipalities across Japan with less than 1,000 people. But the shortage of candidates running in local assembly elections is a broader problem — in the nationwide series of local elections in 2015, local assembly members in more than 20 percent of towns and villages ran uncontested, so a vote wasn’t even held. Measures should be considered to make it easier for more people to run for municipal assemblies, including holding assembly sessions at night or on weekends, as well as relaxing the rules that prohibit local government workers from concurrently holding public office. There should be ways to revitalize municipal assemblies as a key function of local autonomy.

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