“Osaka Metropolis” Plan Faces Many Hurdles


The Law Passed—But Many Tasks Remain

During the ordinary session of the Diet, new legislation was passed on August 29 that enables the creation of an “Osaka Metropolis,” as advocated by Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Tōru.

The surging popularity of Hashimoto has propelled an extraordinarily rapid realignment of the ruling and opposition parties. Still, despite the passage of aforementioned legislation, some party officials foresee difficulties for the establishment of an Osaka Metropolis. It is worth bearing in mind that the new law will have a major impact on Japan’s system of local government, and that some daunting obstacles stand in the way of the realization of Hashimoto’s objective.

Local government in Japan is administered at two levels: prefecture-wide governments; and the municipal governments tasked with administration for residents of villages, towns, and cities. In the case of Tokyo Metropolis (also referred to simply as “Tokyo Prefecture” in English) there is also a third level: the 23 special wards into which Tokyo was originally divided when it was still categorized as a “city” before World War II—rather than a “metropolis,” as it became after World War II.

The Osaka Metropolis plan would reorganize the city of Osaka, population 2.6 million, into a number of special wards enjoying local autonomy under the leadership of publically elected ward mayors, while unified administration of the larger regional area would be entrusted to Osaka’s prefectural government. This is referred to as the Osaka Metropolis plan because the arrangement resembles the relationship between Tokyo Metropolis and the Tokyo ward governments.

The new law, jointly drafted by seven political organizations (including the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party), provides procedures that make it possible even for municipalities outside of Tokyo to be abolished and replaced by a special ward. Under the law, any municipality with a population over two million, including the “government ordinance cities” (seireishi), can make that transition, in line with a plan drawn up by the municipality and prefecture involved. At present, though, no municipality has followed Osaka’s lead. Prior to any such reform, consultation with the central government will be necessary in order to work out the relationship between the prefecture and the special wards with regard to the allocation of administrative duties, jurisdiction, and revenue.

Entrusting the Fate of Local Government to the Ballot Box

The role of the new law vis-à-vis Japan’s regional system is groundbreaking. It opens the way for a shift from a regional system under the uniform jurisdiction of national law, to one in which decisions can be autonomously made at the regional level, at least to a limited extent.

In June 2010, shortly after the new DPJ administration was installed in office, the Japanese government issued a Cabinet decision outlining a strategy for local sovereignty. It enunciated the principle that the central government and local communities should work together, while respecting independent decisions made at the local level—rather than the central government making decisions unilaterally and imposing them on local communities. Thus, while the Osaka Metropolis plan may seem to have arrived out of the blue, the discussion is actually part of an ongoing trend.

The establishment of special wards will not only have to be approved by local assemblies but will also have to pass local referendums. For the Osaka Metropolis plan to be realized, Osaka residents will ultimately have to give their consent in a citywide referendum.

Article 95 of Japan’s Constitution sets forth procedures for local referendums on the enactment of laws concerning specific local governments. Apart from matters such as the recall of a local assembly or the head of a local government, however, Japan’s system of self-government is wary of endowing local referendums with legally binding force. Local assemblies are particularly antagonistic toward referendums. Even for a merger of multiple municipalities, a public referendum is not a required procedure.

Nevertheless, the new law stipulates that, in at least some cases, the “fate” of a local government shall be determined by a local referendum.

Two Years Until the Make-or-Break Osaka Referendum

Within the government and the ruling and opposition parties there is considerable doubt that the Osaka Metropolis plan will ever become a reality. The cooperation shown by parties from both sides in passing the new law was merely intended to steal the thunder from the Osaka Restoration Association, the new political organization led by Hashimoto that is advancing into the national political arena. Now that it is certain that the newcomers from Osaka will have a voice in national politics, the other parties have an ulterior motive for trying to avoid an outright confrontation with them, in anticipation of the forthcoming lower-house election. Rather than oppose the new legislation and be labeled “anti-reformist,” they have apparently opted to leave the hard work to local governments.

The biggest hurdle to realizing the new plan will be reorganizing the existing city of Osaka and dividing it into the new special wards. Under Hashimoto, publically recruited ward mayors have just begun presiding over the 24 existing administrative wards. Unless the work of reorganizing the existing wards into eight or nine special wards gets underway immediately, it will not be completed in time for the transition to the new system, scheduled to take place in the spring of 2015. Drawing up the boundaries of the new wards will be a difficult task in view of the considerable disparity in revenue expected to exist between them.

Creating new special wards without racking up huge administrative costs will also be a challenge. Hashimoto has indicated that he will delegate a significant amount of authority to the special wards, but Osaka Prefecture and the city of Osaka, unlike Tokyo, lack a strong financial base. There is deep-seated concern within the central government over the difficulty of operating the new system without greater allocation of national tax revenues to local governments or some other new source of funding. It appears that a great deal of new legislation will be required before the new system can be launched.

Even if the Osaka Metropolis plan is carried out, under existing law Osaka Prefecture will still be called "Ōsaka-fu" in Japanese, rather than "Ōsaka-to" (Osaka Metropolis). If, as Hashimoto and his followers are demanding, the prefecture’s name is changed to Ōsaka-to, to place it on par with Tōkyō-to, this will also require new legislation.

In any case, the plan’s fate is ultimately in the hands of the residents of Osaka; it will be a test of how deeply Hashimoto’s message that Osaka’s revival depends on reforming the mechanisms of self-government has sunk in. The Osaka referendum, which will be held in the spring of 2014 if preparations go smoothly, may serve to symbolize both the significance of the new system and the remaining hurdles that block its implementation.

(Originally written in Japanese on September 13, 2012.)

local government decentralization Hitora Tadashi Osaka metropolis plan special wards local referendum