The need to sustain local autonomy

The principle of local autonomy is an important pillar of Japan’s political system. It was introduced under the postwar Constitution — Chapter VIII deals with “local self-government.” Following several rounds of reforms, the national and local governments are equal partners de jure. In practice, however, autonomous powers of prefectures and municipalities remain insufficient. The national government should continue efforts to help local authorities secure a more solid foundation in terms of power and finance so they can better serve the needs of local residents, communities and economies.

The Local Autonomy Law took effect on the same day as the Constitution — May 3, 1947. The Diet in 1993 adopted a resolution promoting local autonomy. A law that abolished administrative duties the state was supposed to fulfill but instead imposed on prefectures and municipalities was enforced in 2000. Subsequent reforms introduced from 2011 to 2014 transferred more power from the national to local governments.

Still, the national government continues to intervene in the operation of local governments through “notifications” and “requests.” It also has the upper hand in budgetary matters, including in the distribution of tied and untied grants from state coffers. A new type of grant created under the Abe administration’s regional revitalization strategy is reportedly unpopular with local governments because they must create plans for regional revitalization that conform to the rules set by the state, and are able to get the funding only after the plans are examined and approved by the state — in a structure that’s reminiscent of the system where state authorities retain superiority.

Behind the administration’s regional revitalization drive is the continuing population exodus from rural communities to big urban areas — to the extent that survivability of many of the nation’s municipalities could be threatened in the not so distant future. The national government has set a target of balancing the net population flow into and out from the greater Tokyo area by 2020, in an attempt to reverse the concentration of people in the capital area. However, the greater Tokyo area, which includes Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures, saw a net inflow of 118,000 in 2016 — an increase of more than 20,000 compared with 2013. The administration’s efforts to move national government functions out of Tokyo — to set examples for the private sector to create more job opportunities elsewhere — have also produced poor results, with the Cultural Affairs Agency’s scheduled move to Kyoto by the end of fiscal 2021 being the lone example of a full relocation of a government organization.

Many local governments, particularly those in the rural parts of the country, struggle in their efforts to fight depopulation in their areas and make the local communities sustainable. Since the demographic trends in this country are the result of economic and other policies pursued by the state for the last several decades, the national government bears the responsibility of providing full support to such efforts by local authorities.

Local autonomy may come up as a possibility for constitutional revision, which has been pushed eagerly by the Abe administration. The National Governors’ Association is asking the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that clarifying autonomous powers of local authorities be included if amendments are indeed made, but what specifically should be amended needs to be discussed thoroughly. They are also reportedly calling for an amendment to make sure that at least one Diet member is chosen from each prefecture in each national election — a response to the recent changes to the Upper House electoral system that combined less populated prefectures into a single constituency. But that is an issue that needs to be considered in the overall context of overhauling the electoral system, not just from the viewpoint of local autonomy.

The acuteness of the depopulation problem in rural areas was symbolized by an announcement last year by the mountain village of Okawa, Kochi Prefecture, that it may consider replacing its municipal assembly with a council of residents in which voters participate directly in the decision-making process if not enough candidates run for the six-member assembly in future elections — a procedure that is allowed under the Local Autonomy Law but has been used only once in the past, temporarily in a small island village. As a first step, measures should be considered to lower legal and other hurdles to running in local assembly elections — a common problem observed in many rural municipalities facing similar issues.