The Nature of Local Self-Government Following the Merging of Municipalities
- Let’s utilize neighborhood organizations -
June 23, 2008
1. As a result of the “Great Heisei Merger” the number of municipalities at the end of 2007 was 1,793, around half the number a decade earlier. The national government encouraged the merging of municipalities in order to (1) promote the decentralization of power; (2) respond to the falling birthrate and aging population; (3) enhance financial efficiency; and (4) establish new local governments to lead the next generation. In contrast to the previous “Great Meiji Merger” and “Great Showa Merger”, which were promoted after first clearly defining the role of basic local government, this recent amalgamation has been promoted not because of changes to the role of basic local government but for financial reasons, and one cannot help but get the impression that the improvement of services for residents is of secondary importance. Moreover, the government itself does not indicate a specific optimal size or number of objectives, but rather delegates this to independent mergers, and the relationship with the regional system named as Dosyusei that is recently being debated on all sides is also unclear. The initiative would appear to have been promoted in the absence of a clear grand design in respect of the desired nature of a local government system in Japan.
2. If we compare this with the structure of regional governments in the industrialized nations of Europe and North America, the scale of Japan’s basic local governments ranks alongside the U.K., overwhelmingly large both in terms of population and area. In these countries, basic local governments were originally fundamental community organizations rooted in the lives of residents, for example when the parish constituted the unit. As such, no significant amalgamations evolved and small-scale local governments have survived. Moreover, in terms of the major administrative fields for which basic local governments are responsible, in other countries these are mainly education and welfare, whereas in Japan local self-governing bodies in addition to this also promote industrial development and establish infrastructure, so they may be said to not only serve the interests of residents but also to cater to the needs of industry. Thus, the fact that (1) they are large-scale, and (2) the administration is also involved in the industry side, has resulted in a distance between residents and basic local governments. While this has made it possible to carry out bold restructuring of a kind that is not seen in other countries, namely the merging of municipalities spanning three levels, at the same time it is considered to have led to a dependency on local government for the provision of services, but without an awareness of local self-government in the true sense taking root.
3. While merging into a large-scale local government has advantages, such as being able to respond to administrative issues over a wide area, it also has disadvantages, such as the disintegration of the local community and the difficulty for residents to get their views reflected. In order to overcome this, it is appropriate to create some kind of organization to act as a pipeline between residents and local government, able to take an intermediary role between the municipality, that is now large, and the residents in ascertaining the needs of the latter. From an awareness of such issues, this latest amalgamation has entailed the establishment of a regional autonomous area and post merger special area system. However, in actual fact, the entities that utilize this system account for less than 10 percent of amalgamated organizations, and the overwhelming majority of these organizations do not go beyond the superficial functions of ratifying policies implemented by the local government head, and so cannot really be said to be performing the functions anticipated. Rather, in order to dispel the misgivings of residents with regard to the merger, it is considered that a realistic and effective solution strategy is to utilize existing local community organizations rather than create a new association.
4. Existing local community organizations include NPOs, volunteer organizations, and neighborhood organizations or residents’ organizations. Of these, neighborhood organizations or residents’ organizations are (1) founded on the notion of, in principle, all-household membership, and (2) characterized by their comprehensive involvement in regional issues, and as such possess the aptitude to act as an intermediary organization between local government and residents. Currently, around 290,000 neighborhood organizations and the like. exist, and although membership has been maintained at around the 90% level for the past 30 years, they have become less active owing to factors such as an increasing demographic shift, sluggish regional economies, and attitudinal change of residents. In order to revitalize neighborhood organisations and so forth as organizations that act as an intermediary between local government and residents, what is required in future is, (1) to create a relationship of equality with local government; (2) to establish the function of a platform for NPOs and the various other residents organizations; (3) to revitalize the organization by, for example, introducing a public election system for officers, and setting up a secretariat; (4) to proactively use IT to promote membership to young people and other residents who are not currently members; and (5) to extend the area over which specific activities are carried out. Revitalization of the activities of neighborhood organizations and so forth will not only lead to the preservation of the community, but will also help enhance the efficiency of local government, revitalize regional communities, enable local self-government to be implemented, and provide an arena for active involvement by the baby boom generation. Moreover, if through the neighborhood association, which is a familiar part of residents’ lives, an awareness takes hold in the minds of residents that they themselves are the protagonists of local government, this in turn may lead to the establishment of democracy in Japan in its true sense.
For more information on the content of this report, please contact Hideki Matsumura, the Japan Research Institute, Limited.