The Changing Face of Decentralization Moves


With the Liberal Democratic Party’s emphatic victory in the December 2012 lower house election, it looks as though there will be substantial changes to the way that administrative reform to decentralize power in Japan is implemented from here on out.

There is a good chance that the discussion will pivot away from talk of expanding the powers of the current prefectures and municipalities, turning instead toward a more general reassessment of today’s regional government systems. Above all, the pressing matter at hand is how the new administration of Abe Shinzō will deal with a proposed bill to reorganize Japan’s current 47 prefectures into a smaller number of larger blocks—a system known as dōshūsei.

The LDP’s Manifesto Pledge

On November 15, the day before Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko dissolved the lower house, one bill was hurriedly put together. Had this bill passed, it would have become possible to transfer authority from local bureaus of central governent institutions (like the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism) on a regional basis to groups of local governments. In the end, though, this bill disappeared when it was not submitted to the Diet.

Dialing back the role of the central government’s regional bureaus was to be an important theme in decentralization reforms. This proposal met with a severe backlash from central government agencies, though, and local governments failed to present a united front on this issue, in the end backing off. This process had finally reached the stage where a cabinet decision could be expected, but in its election campaign manifesto the LDP noted its opposition to reforming the regional bureaus, a plan that had been moving forward under the now opposition Democratic Party of Japan. The general opinion is thus that it is likely be shelved for the time being.

Alliances, Timing, and the Bill’s Vague Construction

With this idea off the table, attention is now being paid to the dōshūsei proposal. This scheme would see the current 47 prefectures of Japan merged into a smaller number of larger regions with more power. The LDP has pledged to enact a basic law toward this end in the near term and aims to implement the new system within five years.

Shindō Yoshitaka, minister for internal affairs and communications in Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s new cabinet, will be responsible for this reorganization of Japan’s regions. He has publicly stated that he thinks such reform is necessary and has shown a positive attitude toward its implementation.

Abe himself is also a proponent of the reform. During his first stint as prime minister (2006–7), he set up a meeting of experts to discuss the issue, headed by Watanabe Yoshimi, the minister in charge of administrative reform at the time. Abe remained mostly quiet on this subject when the DPJ was in power, due to the gap between his views and the DPJ approach. But given recent talk of legislation to redefine Osaka as a metropolitan district like Tokyo, as well as other related topics, he appears to have regained his interest in reforming the system of regional governments.

Another important factor for the ruling parties is the possibility of alliances with the Japan Restoration Party, Your Party, and other groups making up the “third force” on the national political stage. The House of Councillors election to take place in July 2013 provides an opportunity for the Abe administration to resolve the “divided government” problem, with the two houses of the Diet split between ruling and opposition forces. The dōshūsei idea is one of the rare issues where interests will be aligned not only within the governing LDP–New Kōmeitō coalition, but also with the Japan Restoration Party and Your Party. After the election, it could be the glue that binds the coalition together with that “third force.”

Exactly how the dōshūsei system might take shape is still uncertain. The outline put together in September 2012 stopped short of serious detail, instead merely specifying such principles as significantly curtailing the role of the state.

The basic law that the LDP is currently considering essentially does little more than launch a national commission to examine the dōshūsei issue. It calls on the cabinet to set up an office to promote dōshūsei, chaired by the prime minister, and establishes a committee comprising Diet members and outside experts. This committee will work on a detailed plan for the new system and must submit its report within three years. The bill was likely crafted in this way, without any item-by-item discussion, to ease its passage.

Needed: A Long-Term View

Despite the very provisional nature of this proposed basic law, it will still be difficult to actually get it submitted to the Diet. Shindō Yoshitaka has prudently stated that more in-depth discussions will be needed before the legislative process kicks off.

Dōshūsei will impact the very existence of Japan’s prefectures, so there are of course many local leaders, not least prefectural governors, who are either ambivalent about the new system or outright against it. Japan currently has 47 first-order subnational jurisdictions: a “metropolis,” Tokyo (classified in Japanese as a to); a “circuit territory,” or , Hokkaidō; the urban prefectures (fu) of Kyoto and Osaka; and 43 other prefectures (ken). Together these are described as todōfuken. This framework has not fundamentally changed for over 120 years, and its roots run deep on both social and cultural levels. Making a serious change to this system will require a tremendous amount of political energy.

The DPJ, still the number-one party in the House of Councillors, is fundamentally wary of implementing dōshūsei. Until the upper house election this summer, the Abe administration will have to focus on economic policies and concentrate on not ruffling any feathers. There is little motivation to hurry to submit the bill early in the ordinary session of the Diet beginning in January. When the time does arrive, the thirtieth Local Government System Research Council is likely to play the leading role in any rethinking of Japan’s regional administration through its discussion on the country’s major metropolitan areas.

One must also question how serious the LDP is about pushing these reforms through. The party has demonstrated its support for dōshūsei, but its campaign manifesto pledged opposition to transferring power from the central government’s regional bureaus to local governments. This shows a lack of consistency.

On the subject of how the country will operate under dōshūsei, the LDP’s proposed basic law says administration must be undertaken “in a manner that takes a nationwide view.” There is room to interpret this in a wide variety of ways. One would be that the prefectures will be grouped together nominally into larger “states,” with no fundamental rethinking of government at that level.

Some in the political world view dōshūsei solely as an initiative to cut administrative costs. Others even see it as an opportunity to do the exact reverse of decentralization, giving the central state greater sway over the regions. It is important for some basic ground rules to be laid first. Japan’s population is falling and rapidly aging, two trends that will increasingly sweep the metropolitan areas in years to come. Political parties must take a long-term perspective in considering how to distribute administrative services and responsibilities among national, regional, and local governing bodies.

(Originally written in Japanese on December 27, 2012.)

politics alliance reform DPJ LDP elections local government decentralization demographics population dōshūsei bureaucracy