The COVID-19 pandemic has seen enormous political change across all affected countries, with each nation experiencing its own version of coronavirus-induced transformation. While some nations have witnessed the emergence of a new unity, elsewhere the response to the pandemic has deepened existing divides.

Over the past few months, there has been a remarkable rise in the power and prestige of Japan's prefectural governors. Although regional leaders are traditionally expected to take wide-ranging and effective action in the United States and in other systems where they exercise significant authority, the governors’ recent actions are unprecedented in Japan, where centralization has been the norm and strict limits are placed on regional autonomy. The implications of this change will likely be felt outside and beyond the response to the pandemic, and could bring about far-reaching changes in the Japanese political landscape.

The national government’s response to the pandemic has widely been perceived as sluggish. Cases of the virus in Japan were confirmed in January, which places the country among the earliest to have been affected. However, a state of emergency was not declared until April, and debate around financial aid for businesses hit by the outbreak was slow to progress and failed to achieve any effective outcome.

In contrast to the dilatory reactions at the national level, some governors took prompt and decisive action to contain the spread of the disease, displaying a strength of leadership that belies the limits on their authority and frequently brought them into conflict with the central government.

On Feb. 28, more than a month before the national government declared a state of emergency, the governor of Hokkaido, Naomichi Suzuki, took the initiative and made his own declaration, despite the fact he had no legal power to do so. Only on March 13 did the Diet enact a law for a state of emergency by amending existing special legislation designed to combat the H1N1 flu.

Under the amended law, the prime minister may declare a state of emergency whenever the situation meets certain requirements, at which point authority is conferred on governors to issue stay-at-home requests for residents and temporary closure requests for certain businesses.

Although governors are, legally, only allowed to issue “requests” and not “orders” for residents and businesses, they had been urgently calling for the declaration of a state of emergency in order to flatten the curve in densely populated metropolitan areas such as Tokyo and Osaka. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finally declared a state of emergency for seven prefectures on April 7, expanding coverage to the entire nation nine days later, he was widely perceived as having acted too late. His indecisiveness caused significant frustration among regional leaders, which has only increased since the state of emergency was imposed.

When Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike requested the temporary closure of certain businesses immediately after the prime minister’s declaration, legitimately exercising her powers under the emergency legislation, the central government butted in, urging her not only to delay the request for two weeks but also to exempt certain businesses, such as barbers and hardware stores.

“I initially assumed that governors would get the authority of a CEO,” Koike commented April 10, adding dryly that she felt “more like a middle manager.” Moreover, when the central government finally greenlighted regional requests for temporary closures, it dragged its feet over funding to aid affected businesses, despite repeated pleas from governors.

Ultimately, Koike announced that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government would fund the aid out of its own budget. Although other governors followed suit, these were difficult decisions, considering that prefectural budgets have already been under substantial pressure.

As an end to the state of emergency may finally be in sight, debate is turning to how to relax or lift the restrictions on businesses in order to revitalize the national economy, which has been badly hit by the pandemic. This debate, too, has been led by a regional leader rather than the national government. On May 5, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura laid out the criteria under which his prefecture will gradually allow local businesses to reopen.

Originally, Yoshimura pressed the central government to issue a clear exit strategy; when the prime minister failed to do so — even when announcing an extension of the emergency on May 4 — Yoshimura took matters into his own hands by publishing his own regional exit strategy. The public has welcomed his actions.

Clearly, regional leaders have played a critical role in managing the crisis, essentially bypassing the dysfunctional central government. This unexpected revelation of the untapped potential offered by governors will have significant long-term impact on Japanese politics.

It would appear that the Liberal Democratic Party has, for the moment, retained its dominant position, given the equal failure of the opposition parties to step up to the plate. In the long run, however, the current equilibrium could be undermined by political parties whose power bases lie in the regions, such as Osaka Ishin no Kai, which counts Yoshimura of Osaka among its key members. This redistribution of political influence could change both the orientation of the national political agenda and the political landscape throughout Japan.

More importantly, the emergence of governors as popular leaders during a time of crisis could have implications for the national government’s tendency to keep a tight grip on power, which has long characterized Japan’s model of governance.

Article 92 of the Constitution enshrines the principle of local autonomy, and the Decentralization Act of 2000 declares that central-local relations should operate on the basis of equality; however, in practice the authority of prefectural governments and governors has remained limited. Under incomplete devolution, local governments struggle to implement locally tailored measures and remain reliant on the national treasury for, on average, half their total budget.

In fact, most of the disagreements between the central and prefectural governments during the pandemic can be traced to the contentious issue of local autonomy. Governors could have taken more effective measures if the central government had not overly interfered, and independent regional budgets would have given them more leeway to give financial aid to virus-hit local businesses.

The debate over devolution, however, is far from new, although three decades of wrangling have not brought it any nearer to resolution. Perhaps the unexpected political legacy of COVID-19 will be that in the next round, regional leaders will be able to offer incontestable evidence of the benefits of greater power-sharing.

Michio Ueda is a political scientist based in Tokyo. He studies party politics and elections in Southeast and East Asian countries. Ueda received an M.A. distinction in Southeast Asian studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied as a Fulbright fellow. He previously worked in the Defense Ministry and the Boston Consulting Group. 2020, The Diplomat; distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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