Japan’s Shrinking Democracy: Proposals for Reviving Local Assemblies


As Japan’s population ages and shrinks, many of its rural communities are facing a shortage of politicians. In March, government-commissioned experts proposed to diversify the way town and village assemblies are organized. The proposals are a much-needed first step; but reviving democracy at the grass-roots will require many more fundamental changes.

Local Government in Crisis

There is a shortage of politicians in Japan. Fewer and fewer people have been willing to stand in local elections in many of the country’s smallest municipalities as their populations age and decline. In the last nationwide cycle of local elections in 2015, more than a fifth (21.8%) of all town and village assembly members were elected uncontested, with the same or fewer number of candidates for the seats to be filled. Similarly, 43.4% of all town and village mayors, being the only candidate, won their seats without elections during the same period. This lack of political competition is compounded with poor diversity in composition. Town and village assembly members are on average over 60 years old and 90% male. The dearth of willing candidates has meant that some villages, such as Ōkawa in Kōchi Prefecture, have even considered abolishing elected assemblies altogether and replacing them with the direct democracy of general assemblies.

Even as local democracy malfunctions, Japanese communities are facing ever strong pressures to improve their local governance. Since 2000, decentralization reforms have expanded the powers and responsibilities of local governments, while fiscal support from the center has declined. Social security costs are mounting in aging communities, while local revenues drop with a decline in working-age residents. A high-impact report in 2014 warned that 896 municipalities, or half of all communities in Japan, will risk “extinction” due to depopulation in the coming decades.

To revitalize these ailing localities, the administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has called for greater local efforts at innovation and self-sufficiency. Local governments must come up with their own plans to generate growth and attract residents, with continued central government funding tied to performance. Competition for revenue has further accelerated with an expanded “hometown tax” (furusato nōzei) system, which provides tax breaks to those who donate money to any municipality of their choosing. Municipalities have been vying for donations by offering ever-more-lavish gifts, such as local beef and craft beer, to donors. A record 2.5 million taxpayers, double the figure from the previous year, used this scheme in 2017.

Local governments, particularly the smallest rural ones, are thus facing multiple existential challenges: demographic and economic contraction, competition for resources, and expanded autonomy. The shortage of willing political representatives to lead their communities exacerbates these difficulties. It is no surprise, then, that debates about reforming local democratic processes have gained urgency.

Two Proposals and Some Problems

Earlier this year, a panel of experts commissioned by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) proposed two options for increasing candidacy and diversity for local assemblies.

The first seeks to professionalize the assembly by reducing the number of elected members to a handful of full-time politicians (around five) with higher salaries. To ensure diversity of public opinion, a consultative body of randomly selected citizens will also be established to deliberate, but not vote, on key issues together with the assembly.

The other plan aims to lower barriers for participation and expand the size (how much larger is unclear) of the assembly with part-time members on lower remuneration. To enable participation of those holding day jobs, assembly meetings will be held in evenings or on the weekends. Companies will also be forbidden to penalize employees who wish to take time off to serve in assemblies. Under the scheme, public servants employed by other municipalities, as well as business executives doing business with the municipal government, will be permitted to serve in the assemblies. To prevent conflict of interest and reduce workloads, these expanded assemblies will no longer have jurisdiction over municipal contracts or disposal of assets.

These proposals are a much-needed catalyst for change, but there remain some serious unresolved issues that need addressing.

In Japan’s local government system, local assemblies are primarily expected to monitor and check the executive’s budgetary plans and policy decisions, while also proposing their own policy measures. The question is whether “professionalizing” or “widening” assemblies will necessarily result in more proactive legislative bodies. Under the current distribution of power in local governments, the mayor has exclusive powers over budget formation and far greater resources from the executive office to plan and drive local policy. This structural imbalance may be aggravated under the two proposals.

The first option of a professionalized assembly may theoretically give individual members more time to monitor the mayor’s actions, but these handfuls of politicians could equally become too closely aligned to the executive. They may act as supportive advisors to the all-powerful mayor, rather than an independent monitoring body. Nor is there any guarantee that these members will heed the envisioned consultative body, which will be given no veto powers. Like many consultative processes adopted in Japan, such as town hall meetings and local referendums, a diversity of opinion may be voiced, but not necessary followed.

The second option, expanding the assembly into a larger body of part-time members, may secure greater diversity, but with reduced effectiveness. Legislative bodies tend to be weaker the larger they are, particularly when they are, as probably envisioned, composed of unorganized independents. Without the necessary coordination and pooling of resources among a large and disparate body of part-time politicians, monitoring and policy innovation is likely to become even more difficult to achieve. Considering that the expanded assembly will also have reduced jurisdiction, the balance of power will tip further towards the mayor.

In both options, moreover, it is unclear what kind of electoral districts or rules would be used to elect representatives. With an at-large system of multiple members, as exists today, representatives may become too focused on narrow geographic representation and disregard policy issues that would bring the greater good to the whole community. But an introduction of single-member districts will likely disadvantage minority voices and smaller party candidates, such as the communists, who often provide the only dissenting voice in local assemblies.

Finally, there is a question of adoption. Local communities will be given a choice of whether to adopt one of these new assembly formats or to simply maintain the status quo. It is unlikely that existing assemblies would sign on to a drastic reduction in size, greater competition, or lower salaries. Institutional inertia is strong. It is revealing that soon after the publication of the latest proposals, the national associations for city, town, and village assemblies lambasted the report. For a comparative experience in this kind of reform, when local authorities were given an opportunity to adopt a system of directly elected mayors in England, only a tiny fraction of communities adopted them.

More importantly, the latest proposals target Japan’s 928 town and village assemblies, which represent only some 10% of Japan’s population. A more substantial problem remains of how to fix local democracy in the 813 city assemblies (as well as prefectural governments). Like the smallest municipalities, most of these larger communities also suffer from inactive assemblies overshadowed by dominant mayors, limited electoral competition, and lack of diversity.

For long, the public has been skeptical of local assembly performance. Numerous surveys, such as those conducted by Genron NPO and Waseda University, reveal that voters feel local assemblies are failing to carry out their functions, lack ability and diversity, and are not adequately communicating what they are doing to the public. Turnout in local assembly elections has fallen precipitously to below 50%, even lower than the record-low House of Representatives election in 2014 at 52%. Widely reported corruption scandals and sexual harassment cases in local assemblies have only fueled more calls to reduce assembly size and lower salaries.

Why Not Parties?

One hopeful development in this largely bleak situation may be the emergence of more serious discussions about the role and need for healthy party competition at the local level.

The defining feature of Japanese local politics is its relatively weak party competition, and the concomitant lack of programmatic choices and accountability provided to voters. At the town and village level, 88% of members are independents (though a majority are conservatives affiliated with the LDP), while city assemblies are comprised of 63% independents. A majority of members in the biggest cities may stand as party candidates, but these politicians do not usually coordinate effectively together as a party in elections or in legislatures. Instead of offering a united program for the whole community, these candidates, despite sharing the same party label, essentially receive votes for their personal qualities and ties to a particular narrow constituency.

The principal villain behind this is a chaotic electoral system that results in municipalities being divided into a combination of multimember districts of different magnitudes, ranging from 2 to 20 seats, or the establishment of a single at-large district for the whole municipality (the largest of these being the Tokyo municipality of Setagaya, with 50 seats). Voters are only given one vote to cast upon one of many candidates in their district. Such multimember districts were used for lower house elections until they were abandoned in 1996. This approach was blamed for corruption-prone, personality-centered elections causing factionalism, excessive pork-barrel spending, and lack of alternation in government nationally during the postwar period.

The good news is that scholars who have for some time been pointing out the similar ills of Japan’s local electoral system are now being given a hearing by the central ministries. In July 2017, another panel commissioned to investigate local assemblies proposed the adoption of proportional representation electoral rules for bigger cities and prefectures.

This type of electoral system generates party-driven politics. It leads to parties that campaign on, develop, and legislate policy, rather than disparate individual politicians promising and trying to legislate alone. Clearer partisan competition pitting the legislative party in opposition or support of the mayor/governor will generate greater monitoring of the executive, even at the risk of gridlock. Compared to individuals conducting their own campaigns, electoral costs will go down as campaigning will be coordinated. With party competition, voters will have a much easier time choosing among parties and their programs, rather than having to compare the backgrounds of dozens of individual candidates.

Once elected, the workload of individual members as well as resources to develop policy and monitor the mayor will be shared among party members, making the assembly more proactive. Party linkages across communities and support from national party organizations may also generate economies of scale in campaigning and policy know-how.

Party politics, particularly at the local level, is not without risks. Many critics claim that local parties will be subordinated to national organizations, reducing local self-governance. Although not discussed in the MIC panel, a system of local party subventions may be introduced to ensure local party autonomy. Subsidies are already provided to local assembly members individually for research purposes with little observable positive results. These should be pooled to fund a new party subvention system.

Another potential bonus of encouraging party politics locally is that it may help new and opposition parties to establish stronger roots in society. Opposition parties have been hampered by not being able to establish a presence locally against the dominance of the local LDP and its affiliated conservatives. Vibrant local competition integrated with the national level will contribute to strengthening party competition nationally.

The policy panel’s report on local electoral reform, alas, suggests that party politics may not be suitable for towns and villages, or even for smaller cities.

This has been a standard refrain: “divisive” parties are unsuitable in small communities with few social cleavages and conflicting interests. We should re-examine such assumptions. Even the smallest villages are facing critical and existential choices that may benefit from political competition organized and sustained by parties. Nor should we assume that party politics is antithetical to healthy local government. Nordic countries implement proportional representation for all levels of elections and boast effective local government. Party competition, even in the smallest communes in these model democracies, drives high participation rates and diversity in local representation.

Toward Responsible Reform

Japan already underwent a series of political engineering efforts in the 1990s—from electoral reform to decentralization—with mixed results. Some say that Japanese politics has deteriorated over the last 20 years from too much tinkering.

The hard lessons learned from this period is that piecemeal measures can harm, more than bolster, the coherence and workings of the political system. Electoral rules were changed for the House of Representatives, but not for the House of Councillors or for local elections, preventing the formation of a stable opposition. Decentralization took place, but with inadequate transfer of fiscal resources, resulting in growing regional inequality. The role of the prime minister and cabinet was strengthened but the powers of the upper house left untouched, resulting in legislative gridlock. What was lacking in part in these past experiments was an adequate understanding of how all these institutions functioned together and a political will to make comprehensive change.

In terms of reforming local assemblies, there are no silver bullets. But a narrow focus on ensuring that there are enough candidates to fill seats or secure diversity by recklessly expanding assemblies overlooks more significant structural problems. The imbalance of powers between the executive and the legislature must be addressed. Existing electoral rules that prevent coordination among members and policy competition need fixing. Cash-strapped communities will need adequate fiscal resources to carry out their expanded responsibilities. And the central government must also consider that goading local governments on to excessive interregional competition may generate more losers than winners, weakening Japan in toto.

Finally, letting communities decide from a menu of reform options, as the current proposals argue, may seem democratic. But it also may lead to an incompatible hodge-podge of different rules implemented at different speeds across Japan, causing systemic incoherence. Whatever path is taken, the general public needs to be better informed, and convinced, as to what comprehensive changes are needed.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Officials from the village of Ōkawa, Kōchi Prefecture, meet with prefectural government officials on December 1, 2017, to discuss local government options. © Jiji.)

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