Re-imaging Local Government: Japanese Efforts to Define Local Autonomy

by Richard Harris
November 18, 2010

In early March, Osaka Prefectural Governor and popular former television star Toru Hashimoto unveiled a new plan: combine the cities of Osaka and Sakai, as well as the remaining cities in Osaka Prefecture to create the Osaka Metropolis (Osaka-to), a new level of local authority in Japan.

Japan has a unitary government with certain powers reserved for the 47 prefectures. Among those powers are public safety (police, fire), education policies and direction, sewage and water treatment, and the creation of local ordinances. The new Osaka Metropolis would not have any other powers that the 47 prefectures do not already possess.

However, larger cities in Japan can also become “government ordinance cities” – many of the powers that prefectures would normally undertake become the responsibilities of the cities. Not only does this lead to a doubling-up of authority and responsibilities between the prefectural government and city government, but tax money and national subsidies that would be marked for the prefecture are instead diverted to the cities.

Osaka prefecture has two of these cities: Osaka, Japan’s third largest city, and Sakai. The prefectural government is placed in a very awkward situation; it has the second strongest economy of any prefecture in Japan, but its actual area of authority is quite limited. Furthermore, many of its responsibilities are mirrored by other local authorities.

Hence Governor Hashimoto’s suggestion: instead of having three local authorities, each of relatively similar stature, attempting to provide the same services in nearby areas, why not combine them all? The idea is not without merit. Another idea that Governor Hashimoto has also put forth is to leave Sakai City as it is and only split up Osaka; regardless, the concepts are the same.

Governor Hashimoto would reshape Osaka in the Tokyo Metropolitan Model: Tokyo, which is a prefecture and not an independent city, is composed of 23 Special Wards, which are roughly equivalent to cities elsewhere in Japan (and are even referred to as such in English documentation). The 23 Special Wards even have elected heads of government and assemblies. In addition, several other distinct cities exist in Tokyo. Osaka City, as a designated city, has 24 Wards, but they are only administrative divisions and lack the power that Tokyo’s Wards have.

The Osaka Metropolitan Model would take the 24 Wards of Osaka City and combine them into eight Special Wards, as well as taking the seven Wards of Sakai City to make 3 Special Wards. The remaining nine cities in Osaka Prefecture would be made into the last nine Special Wards, making 20 in all. Each new Special Ward would be responsible for about 300,000 people, roughly equal to the 23 Special Wards of Tokyo.

Needless to say, such a large shake-up has a number of issues. One that has been brought up is the Ward Assemblies – each Special Ward would have its own Assembly and its own elected representatives. Another is how the expanded number of local representatives would be compensated. Governor Hashimoto suggests that, at least in the beginning, representatives should be elected on a volunteer basis, while his opponents suggest that this will only pack the assemblies with those wealthy enough to do without compensation.

Another concern is the use of the Tokyo Model. Tokyo, as the capital of Japan, is administratively different than other local governments in Japan. Tokyo is the only local government with Special Wards and the designation of Metropolis (there are four different words for prefecture in Japan; while they are all translated as Prefecture into English, Tokyo may also be referred to as Metropolis). Tokyo became a Metropolis in the midst of World War II, as the wartime government sought to separate it from the rest of the country administratively so as to focus on the defense of the imperial capital. How the new Osaka Metropolis, if it comes to be, relates to Tokyo, or whether it can do so at all by national law, remains to be seen.

Governor Hashimoto also faces some stiff opposition from local politicians. Perhaps his largest detractor is Osaka Mayor Kunio Hiramatsu, who is instead seeking greater autonomy from the prefectural government, and closer relations with other neighboring cities. Sakai Mayor Osami Takeyama has also voiced some concern about the plan.

However, that Governor Hashimoto is serious about a re-imagining of local authority is without question. He has gone so far as to create his own political party dedicated to the idea, the One Osaka Party. The One Osaka Party currently posses about 30 seats out of 112 in the prefectural assembly, as well as 13 seats out of 89 in the Osaka City prefectural assembly. The next local elections will take place in Spring 2011.

Governor Hashimoto will also need to continue to court the public to support his plan: in an October 19 survey of citizens in Osaka Prefecture (including Osaka City), Asahi Broadcasting Corporation found that only 43% of respondents voiced support for his plan, with 28% against and 29% other/no response. Limiting the responses to only Osaka City found no significant change in opinion. However, Governor Hashimoto remains very popular, with an almost 80% approval rating throughout Osaka Prefecture.

While the question of how Japan’s most populous area outside of Tokyo organizes itself is academically interesting, it is important to remember the economic weight that the Osaka area holds. The Kansai area, where Osaka is located, is responsible for about 20% of Japan’s GDP, which is roughly equivalent to the entire GDP of South Korea, coming to a total of 845 Billion USD. Osaka City alone is responsible for roughly half of that (350-450 Billion USD), a number close to Switzerland or Belgium’s GDP.

There’s no real indicator whether or not Osaka Metropolis will become a reality. Still, given the economic weight of the region, it’s important to keep up with developments on that front.

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