The Heisei Era has witnessed major changes in the local autonomy system. Reforms introduced at the turn of the century to decentralize administrative powers altered the relationship between national and local governments from that of top-down subordination to cooperation between equals, thus giving prefectures and municipalities greater powers and responsibility. At the same time, the protracted economic doldrums following the collapse of the bubble boom from the late 1980s wreaked havoc on the finances of many smaller municipalities, forcing large numbers of them to merge with each other for survival. Now, as the Heisei Era is about to wrap up at the end of April, many of the depopulated municipalities are under increasing threat of demographic pressures and the continuing population exodus to Tokyo — to the point that maintaining local assemblies has become a challenge. A radical overhaul will be inevitable if the local autonomy system is to continue to exist.

In the large-scale wave of municipality mergers promoted by the national government from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, the number of cities, towns and villages across the country shrank from around 3,200 to 1,800. Although the mergers were intended to make municipalities more fiscally stable and robust, the population flight from rural to big metropolitan areas such as greater Tokyo continued unabated, casting serious doubts about the future of those communities. A private think tank report in 2014 warned that nearly half of the municipalities across the country faced the risk of disappearing by as early as 2040 due to the depletion of young people.

That dire warning prompted the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to put regional revitalization high on its political agenda, pushing for policies to reverse the exodus to Tokyo by creating more jobs in regions outside the big metropolitan areas. However, such key steps as relocating national government functions out of Tokyo and encouraging firms to transfer their headquarters out of the capital have so far borne poor results.

The population flight to the greater Tokyo area (including Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures) has even picked up speed — the net population inflow to greater Tokyo reached nearly 120,000 in 2017 while more than three-quarters of the municipalities nationwide suffered a net outflow — and the government’s target of balancing this movement of people by 2020 is now deemed to be out of reach.

The exodus has created a serious problem in many rural municipalities: not enough candidates to run for local assemblies, which play crucial roles in the local autonomy system. A unified series of local races will be held across the country in April. But in the elections four years ago, more than 20 percent of town and village assembly members were selected without a vote because the number of candidates did not exceed the seats up for grabs. The same problem is expected again this April.

The mountain village of Okawa, Kochi Prefecture, with a population of around 400, drew nationwide attention when it recently entertained the idea of abolishing its six-seat assembly and holding an all-resident council instead, due to the prospect that not enough candidates will emerge to fill the assembly seats when its aging members retire. While that idea was eventually discarded, it is not a problem unique to one depopulated village.

A research group at the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry compiled a report last year spelling out two options in reforming the local assembly system: one aimed at enabling assembly members to concurrently hold other jobs and positions so that more people would be willing to run for public office, and the other reducing the assembly size to a small group of full-time members. However, there has been little progress in the discussions to reform the local assembly system.

The crisis facing many local governments concerns not just maintaining local representation but whether each can keep up administrative services, including sustaining sufficient manpower, as the local population keeps dwindling. Another study group of the internal affairs ministry proposed a new system last July whereby a group of municipalities would create a regional network to provide administrative services.

Opposition remains strong on the part of local governments, which fear that such a scheme would lead to more smaller municipalities being effectively absorbed by larger cities. But with few prospects that the steep decline and aging of the Japanese population or the exodus from rural areas to Tokyo will change course in the coming years, it’s time to overhaul the local autonomy system to prepare for the radical changes that are projected to take place in a not so distant future.

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