Regional Reform Back on the Front Burner


Japan is today seeing renewed interest in the idea of fundamentally reforming the current system of 47 prefectures. The idea is to create a new system of regional blocs encompassing several prefectures each: one for Tōhoku, one for Kansai, and so on. The reform idea was bottled up when the Democratic Party of Japan took power in 2009. Now that Osaka mayor Hashimoto Tōru’s Osaka Restoration Association, which is aiming to be a presence on the national political scene, has voiced the idea once again as a plank of its official platform, the proposal is reemerging in the national consciousness.

The basic system of regional governance in Japan has remained unchanged for over 120 years, ever since Kagawa Prefecture was separated from Ehime Prefecture in 1888. The biggest change since then came in 1943, when the city of Tokyo and its surrounding prefecture were reclassified as a metropolis. In contrast, Japan’s municipalities, which are the key governmental bodies for citizens, have been significantly reduced in number through the three waves of mergers carried out in the Meiji (1868–1912), Shōwa (1926–89), and Heisei (1989–) eras.

The advanced age of the current system has led to discussion in business and other circles about reorganizing the existing prefectures into regional blocs that might be termed “provinces” or “states.” The Liberal Democratic Party generally had a positive stance on the issue. In March 2006 the twenty-eighth Committee to Investigate Local Government Systems submitted a report to Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō stating that it would be appropriate to introduce a new system devolving more power to 9, 11, or 13 regional blocs. An official from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications explains: “Even though the reform would be difficult to achieve, the aim was to prepare a blueprint that could be used if political discussions on the matter ever gained momentum.”

When the DPJ took over the reins of government from the LDP, however, one of its leading members, Ozawa Ichirō, adopted a cautious attitude toward the reform. This reticence was mirrored in the All-Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers Union, a group wielding considerable influence over the DPJ. With these factors at play, discussion of the reform was shelved and the DPJ focused on the municipal level in its approach to regional governance reform.

The Prospects for Reform

Hashimoto Tōru and his Osaka Restoration Association have revived interest in decentralization. The group will likely make this reform a key part of its platform in the lead-up to the next lower-house election. Hashimoto is aiming to reorganize Osaka from a city within a prefecture into a metropolis like Tokyo. On the national stage, though, his ultimate aim is to create a more decentralized governmental system based on regional blocs. Breaking up Japan’s current centralized system along the lines of an unrestricted federal system of states, as proposed in the earlier LDP plan, is certainly an attractive option. But it would be hard to imagine a more difficult reform to implement should the matter be seriously discussed.

Having existed for more than 120 years, each of the 47 prefectures has an identity that is deeply etched in the hearts and minds of its residents as the geographic unit circumscribing their cultural activities and daily lives. And the fact that prefectural governors, assembly members, and other government workers would face the loss of their positions is reason enough for them to oppose the reform, or at least be reluctant to support it.

Opinions are also split in the case of some prefectures straddling the borders between larger regions—such as Saitama, Niigata, Mie, Fukui, and Nagano—as to which bloc they should be a part of. As one veteran LDP member puts it: “Even if there is general agreement about the need for reform, it’ll be like stirring up a hornet’s nest to work out the details, so you can expect all sorts of trouble.”

One crucial issue for a new system is structural: how to make fiscal adjustments to cope with the economic differences between the regional blocs. Another key debate point will be how to balance the metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka, assuming the latter comes into being, with the bloc system. Even Hashimoto has recognized that the creation of regional blocs faces very high hurdles, and for that reason he is kicking off the reform of the governmental system with the smaller-scale project of creating Osaka Metropolis.

Even assuming that the actors make progress toward a concrete plan, the first political task will be to formulate a basic law stipulating the principles and process for implementing the reform. The road ahead is unpredictable, though, given that some are looking to a new regional system simply as a means of cutting administrative costs, while others would like to national government to remain strong even within a decentralized system.

The two conditions that are clearly necessary for the decentralization reform to take concrete shape are the emergence of a strong political will—something Japan has not seen in recent years—and a sense of crisis among the Japanese citizenry regarding the inability to break through the stagnant status quo. (February 21, 2012)

(Originally written in Japanese.)

regional blocs decentralization Osaka Restoration Association Hitora Tadashi prefectures municipalities Osaka Metropolis