Could the Tohoku earthquake lead to local government reform?

Author: Joel Rheuben, University of Tokyo

On 30 April, the Democratic Party of Japan’s ‘Reconstruction Vision Team’ delivered its preliminary report to then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.

The report set out in general terms a range of potential mid to long-term measures to reinvigorate the local economy and improve food and energy security in Japan’s Tohoku region in the wake of the 3/11 earthquake.In addition to proposing options such as the establishment of a special corporate tax-free economic zone (the foundations for which were set out in the Reconstruction Basic Law passed in June [and referred to in Gerald Curtis’ post of 14 August]), the report urged the reconsideration of the relationship between national and local governments more generally, including ‘keeping in sight a future State’ for the region.

The merger of Japan’s 47 prefectures into a dozen or so larger, semi-autonomous ‘states’ has been proposed since the immediate post-War era, but has only gathered steam since the 1990s. This owes mainly to the fact that decentralisation reforms since this time have largely bypassed the prefectures, instead directly devolving national powers to municipal-level governments. Following several recommendations by the Prime Minister’s Research Council on Local Governance during the early 2000s for the creation of a ‘State System’ or ‘doshusei’, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe introduced the State System Special Zones Promotion Law in 2006. He established a pilot quasi-federal power-sharing program with Hokkaido prefecture, and appointed the Chief Cabinet Secretary as special ‘State System Minister’ to oversee it. A more comprehensive State System Promotion Bill is due to be submitted to the Diet at the end of the pilot program in 2015.

But there is also nothing to prevent the creation of ‘states’ (in the sense of larger units of local government) in the meantime. Amendments to the Local Autonomy Law in 2004 made it easier for prefectures to merge, and such merged entities would be eligible to receive a small number of devolved national powers (albeit temporarily) under the Special Zones Promotion Law.

The Tohoku prefectures have been for a long time considered the most likely candidates for such a merger. Even before the earthquake, Japan’s demographic crisis was most pronounced in the north of the country, with gradual depopulation and economic stagnation affecting most towns and cities. The creation of a ‘super-prefecture’ was seen as a way to rationalise public service costs and boost competitiveness in attracting external investment. Previous governors of the three northern-most prefectures (Aomori, Iwate and Akita) had committed to a merger by 2010, but this movement lost impetus due to a reluctance by Iwate and Akita to financially support ailing Aomori. Attention instead shifted to the longer-term goal of a six-way merger taking in Miyagi, Fukushima and Yamagata prefectures.

The aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake now seems an obvious catalyst for such a merger, particularly as the government moves to create a special economic recovery zone among the east-coast prefectures.

A merger at the prefectural level could draw ample precedent from the more-than 1000 municipal governments that have merged in the past decade under a Koizumi-era program, many of them in the Tohoku region. It is likely that there will ultimately be further municipal mergers among those towns and villages with the greatest population losses, or in the area surrounding the Fukushima nuclear plant, where entire populations are being evacuated for up to the next 30 years. (Indeed it seems that plans for such a merger are already afoot.)

The creation of a single Tohoku state will now depend on west coast prefectures deciding that the short-term costs of rebuilding the east-coast prefectures is outweighed by the benefits of merging, including devolved central government powers and better economies of scale. Government expenditure and already-announced stimulus measures such as a moratorium on social security contributions in the east coast prefectures will no doubt assist in this decision.

A merger in Tohoku would inevitably lead to similar mergers elsewhere in the country, most likely in Kyushu, where prefectures have already harmonised a number of local ordinances. And in the Kansai area, where Governor Toru Hashimoto, a supporter of a state system, is simultaneously pushing on with his proposal to merge the Osaka prefectural and city governments into a single Osaka metropolis. But as with all local-government reform in Japan, any move towards an eventual Tohoku state is likely to be as slow as the recovery effort itself.

Joel Rheuben is a solicitor pursuing postgraduate studies at the University of Tokyo, Faculty of Law. An earlier version of this piece appeared here on the Japanese Law and Asia-Pacific blog.

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