Getting Back on Track: Revitalizing Local Assemblies in JapanPolitics
A Town Assembly in Saitama
On May 27, 2018, I acted as facilitator in a public meeting in Ranzan, Saitama Prefecture, discussing the number of members and compensation for the town assembly.
Ranzan, located in the center of the prefecture, has a population of 18,000 and is about 90 minutes by train from central Tokyo. The number of residents was growing until a few years ago, sparking something of a housing boom, but the population has begun to decline and now empty houses dot the rural landscape.
The 14-person town assembly is typical in that it is predominantly made up of older men—there are only three female members and the average age of the group is 63.9. Town councilors receive a monthly salary of ¥224,000. In recent years there has been a decline in younger candidates running for seats and starting in 2015 members are no longer chosen by public vote. The town council called the public meeting out of a growing sense of crisis at the lack of interest in politics and the assembly and the consequent danger of the body being unable to secure sufficient members.
With regard to the composition of the assembly, one meeting attendee commented that there needed to be measures to increase the proportion of female members, while another expressed that reducing the number of positions would allow for greater compensation. A third person offered the opinion that it would be better to have more members to make discussions more active.
Concerning compensation, one person suggested keeping it the same but holding assembly meetings during the evening and on weekends to allow members to hold regular jobs in addition to their public duties. One attendee was surprised by how little members were paid and thought that it would be a negative factor in family members agreeing to a person running for office, adding that without an increase in compensation young people would be reluctant to throw their hat into the ring. Another idea was to consider exactly the roles and duties of the assembly and use these to determine how many members were necessary and how much they should be paid.
As these opinions illustrate, it is not unusual for people to openly admit to being unaware of what their local assembly or council members do, while incidents of inappropriate use of public funds have led many residents to regard regional assemblies with a critical eye. At the Ranzan meeting, council members said they expected most of the feedback to be negative but were surprised by the predominance of positive comments appreciating the importance of the assembly and taking a forward-looking view of how to reform its activities and organizational system.
I believe this was due to having a third party—myself—explain about local government systems and local assemblies at the start of the meeting to give attendees some level of knowledge about the topic and act as facilitator to prevent participants getting carried away by emotion. Often when assembly members provide explanations or direct this kind of meeting, they immediately oppose any criticism directed at them, and the meeting descends into heated squabbling.
According to figures by the National Association of Chairmen of Town and Village Assemblies, Japan’s town councils are overwhelmingly male, with just 9.9% of members being women. Their average age also tends to be high, with 52.1% of members in their sixties and 22% in their seventies. Among the male members, 29.5% work in agriculture and 21.9% are retired or have no other job.
The shortage of assembly members, particularly in their thirties and forties, is due to a number of factors that keep people from seeking office. Specifically, the scant compensation is unenticing to potential candidates who are paying off mortgages or considering their children’s education. In addition, it can be difficult to take days off work for assembly activities, and many people fail to see the advantage in becoming a member before retirement.
The average salary, including annual bonuses, for town and village assembly members in Japan is ¥3.6 million, which comes to less than ¥300,000 a month after taxes. As there is no pension or retirement payment system, members must put aside money for these from their basic compensation. Elections are held every four years, so there is no long-term job security. It is also hard to balance assembly duties with work responsibilities. Members at the very least must attend the opening day of an assembly session, which means taking a day off work. Many younger council members may worry how taking days off will affect their reputation within the company, and few would consider leaving their job to take a public position for lower pay and reduced job security.
Eyes on the Next Election
Solving the shortage of assembly members requires broad change, including in compensation and other working conditions for members and greater cooperation by the private companies that employ them. I think, however, that the heart of the problem lies in the fact that regional assembly members do not see the appeal of their positions.
In Japan, municipal assembly members and mayors are both directly elected. While mayors hold executive power, assemblies act as a check by exercising their voting rights. For example, the fiscal 2018 budget for Ranzan is ¥11.2 billion. Under the Local Autonomy Act, the assembly has the power to decide how that money is distributed, and if it opposes an action the mayor cannot go ahead. When a large budget item comes up, the assembly discusses and agrees on how to appropriately and effectively use the town’s funds. Considering how council members are intimately involved in solving issues and working to improve the town’s future, it is an extremely worthwhile and motivating job.
Yet, around the country most assembly members do not see it this way. This is largely due to local residents having a different view of members’ jobs. They may imagine, for example, that members should convey complaints about roads to the town or village office and apply pressure to get them repaired. Another common idea is that they should attend weddings, funerals, and other formal events or face losing votes in the next election. In municipalities where this kind of attitude prevails, members spend four years working on getting reelected, putting all their efforts into winning votes rather than developing policies that benefit the town as a whole. As they only end up associating closely with certain citizens, the rest of the population comes to take a jaded view of the role of assembly members. While being ready to listen is important, prioritizing individual cases over properly formulating overall policy is putting the cart before the horse. It is no way for members to win respect and trust. Without changes in the way assembly members are selected, the basic problem will remain of citizens seeking personal benefits through assembly members, and those members only thinking about the next election.
A Vital Role
Nonetheless, some assemblies are striving to tackle the issues they face head on. In Iizuna, Nagano Prefecture, the average age of assembly members is 66.8 and recruiting new members has become a pressing problem. In a bid to bolster participation in municipal proceedings the city assembly in 2010 introduced a system whereby residents can partake in discussions on drafting policies. As a result, four of five new members elected in 2017 already had experience under the system. The input of mothers raising children also led to the elimination of some childcare costs.
When the city assembly in Kani, Gifu Prefecture, planned construction of a new facility supporting families with young children, it held a workshop with mothers and passed on their opinions as policy suggestions to the mayor. The mayor then referred to these suggestions when designing the facility. Pleased that their opinions had helped to shape policy, some mothers formed their own nonprofit organization, which now manages the facility. It is a good example of an assembly helping citizens to exercise autonomy.
The city assembly in Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, is also actively listening to local residents. An elderly woman at a public meeting said that she was no longer physically able to clear snow in front of her residence, which meant that she could not go shopping or to the hospital. She said that when she contacted the city hall she was initially told that residents were responsible for clearing their own driveways as city workers could not be expected to clear snow for every person in the town. However, the assembly spoke with other citizens and set up a volunteer group to clear snow from driveways. The group came to operate throughout the city with financial support from the local government. This case shows how assemblies can tackle problems which municipal administrations are unable to.
As society undergoes rapid changes, there is a need for assemblies to contribute to managing local areas. If assemblies can fulfil this role and their original function as one wing of local government, members will recover trust and a sense of pride. This begins with members themselves changing the basis for their election and conveying this to citizens.(Originally published in Japanese on June 21, 2018. Banner photo: A public meeting in Ranzan, Saitama Prefecture, held on May 27, 2018. Courtesy Ranzan Town Assembly.)