Japanese panel calls for
power shift to regions
Decentralization process picks up momentum
Purnendra Jain is professor and head of Asian Studies at the
University of Adelaide in Australia.
JUNE | JULY 2008 Federations
Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda faces demands for more powers from the country’s mayors and local governments.
Credit : REUTERS/Lee Jae Won
SPECIAL SECTION : Decentra lizati on and Dev oluti on in non-federa l countries
ments to operate effectively. Heavy dependence on their
central masters leaves the subnational governments usually
impeded, cash-strapped and often hamstrung.
The road to decentralization in postwar Japan has been long
and winding. It is marked with plenty of initiatives, ideas, plans
and recently even the passage of legislation in support of greater
autonomy for local governments.
The central government, fuelled by the work of the panel, is
now seriously considering a total restructuring of the current
two-tier structure consisting of 47 prefectures and a few thousand
municipalities classified as cities, towns and villages.
Cities cut in half
In 2006, centrally-designed – and in some cases unwelcome –
amalgamations halved the number of municipalities to 1,820.
The move was aimed to improve efficiency and economies of
scale by enabling more effective delivery of services to local
A new proposal considers redefining the current prefectural
boundaries to form what Japanese call doshusei (expanded
regions or states).
These states could number between 9 and 13 and could have
greater fiscal and functional autonomy than prefectures currently
hold. But it is strewn with obstacles while stakeholders
struggle to protect their turf. Ironically, powers of the central
government would be devolved to more centralized subnational
Following Japan’s defeat in World War II, the Allied Powers
(mainly the U.S.) occupied Japan. In line with Occupation aims
to decentralize governance, the 1947 Constitution enshrined
the principle of local autonomy. For the first time in Japan’s
modern history, local self-governance gained constitutional
With the end of the Occupation in 1952, ruling conservative
parties at both central and local levels rejected decentralization
by the Occupation authorities and flagrantly recentralized as
much as the new constitution allowed. Japan’s rapid economic
takeoff in early postwar served to legitimize this reversal by creating
broad acceptance of a centralized state as the essential
means to national economic growth.
This rapid economic growth through industrialization in the
1950s and 1960s also became a spur to local communities seeking
more autonomy, as they struggled to address severe social
problems like urban housing shortage and inadequate health
and family welfare. The conservative government of the Liberal
Democratic Party focused on continued economic growth and
ignored ordinary people’s suffering. But resistance inspired a
strong, creative and motivated grassroots movement against
the central government’s neglect of urban living conditions.
A new breed of left-leaning local chief executives was swept
into office through subnational elections. They were not afraid
to lock horns with the central government on issues vital to their
local communities, with which the central government was
demonstrably way out of touch.
They bravely initiated innovative policies in the interests of
local residents, even when that meant flying in the face of central
government policies. Their strong will, forthright policy
initiatives and concern to truly serve the localities that elected
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Japanese panel calls for