The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Building the Foundation for Local Governance

August 31, 2012

In 2000, a set of laws designed to promote the devolution of political power came into force. Under this system, the relationship between Japan's central and local governments is essentially one of equals. Yet more than a decade after these reforms came into effect, the interaction between the center and the regions remains stubbornly hierarchical. Local governments, in particular, seem stuck in the old habit of building their policies and programs around directives from the central bureaucracy, historical precedent, or whatever everyone else is doing.

The very term for local government in Japan—"local autonomous entity" (chiho jichitai)—articulates the principle of self-government by local citizens . But the biggest obstacle to a meaningful devolution of power, as envisioned by the decentralization reforms launched in 2000, is the all-too-frequent failure of local officials and politicians to grasp this basic principle. Simply expanding the authority of the mayor or assembly does not lead to "self-government" by the people.

This raises a fundamental question: What must we do to make self-government a reality in Japan today?

Do the Regions Want Autonomy?

A full 12 years after the decentralization reforms came into force, local governments have made almost no use of the powers granted to them under the new laws. The 2000 reforms abolished the tsutatsu —ad hoc directives issued by the central bureaucracy to local governments—and nullified them retroactively. But even now the vast majority of local governments treat all communications from the central government as binding tsutatsu and follow them unthinkingly.


The reforms also did away with "agency-delegated functions," which are administrative duties assigned to local governments by central government agencies; under the new system, the duties of local governments are limited to local administrative duties and "statutory entrusted functions," and the legal interpretation of local administrative duties lies first and foremost with the local government. In short, each local authority has the right to define its own duties as it sees fit for the welfare of its citizens, given the circumstances of that locality, rather than be bound by the interpretation of the central government.

Today, communications from the central government take the form of tsuchi (not tsutatsu ) containing technical advice or recommendations with no binding authority. In the event that the state issues a tsuchi recommending a change in how a local government interprets its responsibilities, and the local government refuses, the neutral Central-Local Government Dispute Resolution Council is assigned to deliberate the matter and issue a recommendation, and if the local government is dissatisfied with that recommendation, the matter goes to court.

In short, the state and local governments are legally equals. Yet practically every local government continues to follow each notice from the central government as if it were binding. This suggests that one of the biggest reasons devolution has made so little progress is that local government officials either do not understand the new system or simply do not choose to take advantage of it.

I have given lectures about local government all over the country—although less frequently now since becoming secretary general of the Consumer Affairs Agency—and wherever I go, I hear people say, "Decentralization is coming, so we need to learn how to govern ourselves." I say to them, "Is self-government something you do because someone else's decentralization policies force you to? If that's your attitude, then put your mind at rest: As long as you think that way, decentralization isn't going to happen."

The more responsibility each individual takes for building a better community, the better the community becomes. Self-government should be a natural outgrowth of the idea that we all need to work together and take responsibility for making our community a better place to live. Most local civil servants have it backwards. Decentralization is not about sharing the power that belongs to the state with the regions. It is about sharing the power that belongs to the people with the state and the regions. The power that belongs to the people is not the kind secured through strength or wealth. It is the authority to enforce laws on all citizens to ensure that they can live in peace and equality.

Two well-known examples of this authority are taxation and urban planning. Citizens entrust their local and central government with this power in order to ensure their own freedom. We must never forget that government administration is the exercise of power. And given that this power comes from the citizens—with whom sovereignty lies—it naturally follows that government must act in conformance with their will.

Democracy at the National and Local Levels

Building a consensus from the opinions and feelings of individual citizens is the basic purpose of a democratic system. We all know that Japan is a democracy, but there is a big difference between democracy at the local level and that at the national level.

The Constitution of Japan established a parliamentary democracy, under which citizens elect officials to represent them in the Diet, and the Diet chooses a prime minister to form and head a cabinet. Under this system, people have very limited power over their government. They cannot recall their own representatives in the Diet, let alone dissolve the Diet, and they have no power over the legislative process. Nor can they force the Board of Audit to conduct an audit of a government agency. A citizen cannot even sue a Diet member in a court of law. The exercise of political power is in the hands of the Diet—not the people—as is clearly articulated in the preamble of the Constitution. In short, democracy at the national level is indirect in regard to every function of government (with the exception of amending the Constitution). Citizens can only vote for representatives to whom they entrust the exercise of political power.

By contrast, under Japan's local government system, the citizens elect both their local assembly and their local executive (mayor or governor) by direct vote in separate elections. Citizens also have considerable power over their local elected officials, including the right to recall assembly members and executives or demand dissolution of the assembly. They can submit ordinances for deliberation and demand audits. Citizens can also file lawsuits against assembly members and local executives. In short, at the local level, the legislature, the executive, and the people are on equal footing in the exercise of political power. The underlying principle of our local political system is direct democracy, in which the citizens decide for themselves.

At a practical, everyday level, however, the system is designed to put the management of local affairs in the hands of the executive and the local assembly. You might say that the foundation is direct democracy, but the framework built on that foundation is a system in which both the legislature and the executive represent the citizens. In such a system, the actions of the executive and the legislature must reflect the will of the people.

This does not mean that local governments need to conduct opinion polls and base all their decisions on the results. Rather, it means that local executives and assemblies must work hard to develop a consensus through careful and open deliberation. It also means that citizens are expected not merely to vote for their government officials but also to participate with them in the policymaking process. This is the essence of democratic self-government at the local level.

Keys to Citizen Participation

When I served as mayor of Abiko in Chiba Prefecture, I instituted a variety of systems designed to encourage citizen participation in local government. Among these was the Public Service Privatization Proposal System. Under this system, the city of Abiko provides the public with access to detailed information on all its public programs, including plans, budgets, and personnel expenses and accepts proposals for outsourcing or privatization from businesses that believe they could provide the same services more efficiently. A panel of outside specialists, citizens, and city officials assesses the proposals, and if the panel deems that it would benefit the public, the service or program is transferred to the private sector.

When I took office, there were organizations that had been receiving subsidies from the city for more than 30 years. When subsidies turn into vested interests in this manner, other organizations are unable to compete. I thus "reset" the program, cancelling all subsidies and inviting applications from all organizations seeking public funding, which were reviewed by citizens in open committee meetings. The conclusions of those committees determined how the municipal funds were granted. All government grants are ultimately funded by taxpayers, and governments have a duty to use such money on programs that offer the greatest benefit to the citizens.

I also opened up the city's entire budget-drafting process. The process starts with requests submitted by each department. We put all the budget requests on the city government website, together with the results of the reviews of those requests, and provided citizens with opportunities for feedback at every stage. Opening up the budget process in this way helps residents understand how government programs are prioritized. It gives voters an overall picture of local policy and administration.

These are some of the systems that we designed to promote citizen participation. But designing systems isn't the most important thing. After all, such mechanisms are pointless unless citizens take an interest in the city's programs and make use of them. The most important thing is for government workers to take every opportunity for face-to-face dialogue. I was mayor of Abiko for three terms, or 12 years, and I sometimes feel that I spent most of that time discussing one thing or another with the citizens. At the same time, their support is the one thing that sustained me. Talk about how best to build communities has a tendency to grow contentious, but only by discussing each issue seriously and face to face will people genuinely develop an interest in local policy and community development. Such efforts need to be made not just by the mayor but by all municipal officials, including administrators and assembly members.

It's especially important not to set aside certain aspects of local administration—such as hiring decisions or allocation of grants—as off-limits to citizen participation. In fact, I believe that those are precisely the areas where citizen participation is the most crucial. In the process of screening and reviewing grant applicants under the Public Service Privatization Proposal System and the grant allocation system, citizens gained a familiarity with the businesses and organizations seeking grants and the reasons they were chosen or not chosen. The city also enlisted citizen participation in the hiring process to ensure it was conducted with complete fairness. A sure way to reform government is to invite citizen scrutiny in the very areas you don’t want them to see.

The Need for a Local Referendum System

However hard the mayor and assembly work to get citizens involved, and however actively individual citizens take part in government, though, there will be times when the policy decisions of the mayor or assembly are at odds with the will of the people. For this reason, every local government should have a mechanism enabling revisions to government decisions. This is why Abiko established a system whereby a referendum on any decision is held, without fail, if one-eighth of the city's eligible voters (residents aged 18 or older) request it. If the result indicates that a government decision runs counter to the will of the residents, the government must amend that decision to reflect the popular will as expressed in the referendum. The mayor and the municipal assembly are required to honor the results of the referendum.

A Taxing Issue

In discussions of participatory democracy at the local level, it is impossible to skirt the issue of government finances. Some people have cited Japan's uniform residential tax as one reason decentralization has made so little progress here. Citizens are bound to demand more and more services if they know the tax rate will remain unchanged regardless of what they receive.

What would happen if a local government were able to set its own tax rates? The mayor of the fiscally constrained city of Yubari in Hokkaido might have said to the people, "Let's build a theme park to attract tourists and boost the local economy. To finance it, I propose that the local tax be raised by two percentage points for the next two years. But from the third year on, once the park is up and running, the rate will be lowered by three points." The residents would then debate the proposal quite seriously, knowing it would affect them directly. Directly linking benefits and costs is the best way to get people to behave as stakeholders and take responsibility for their own community and its policies.

Recently Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto has made the case that all revenues from the consumption tax should be used to fund local government. I agree that the consumption tax would be an appropriate source of funding for local government in the sense that it is regionally neutral. But we must bear in mind that the consumption tax is a national tax, and as such its rate is determined by the Diet. There can be no true local autonomy until local governments can flexibly set their own tax rates.

No "Right Answer" in Local Administration

Usually, the first step in launching a government program is objective analysis. Officials gather all kinds of quantitative data, subject them to rigorous examination, and then come up with a plan based on the findings. But you don't need human beings to crunch numbers. The real starting point for community building should be a determined will to make things better. Policy without such a will is an empty shell. Objective analysis is necessary to give concrete shape to that will, but it should not be the starting point for public policy.

Of course, each person—including elected officials—has their own notions of what is needed to make their community a better place. And so building a consensus through dialogue among citizens, administrators, and assembly members is exactly what local governance is all about.

There is no such thing as a "right" local policy. Most of us have been taught since childhood that there is a right answer to everything, and our education system has trained us to search for that answer. A job in which where there is no right answer can therefore be rather challenging. But at the same time, reaching out to people and building a consensus among them can be truly rewarding. If local administrators make an ongoing effort to do this, I'm confident that the "backwards" thinking of which I spoke will right itself and local officials will learn to think for themselves. When they're able to stand on their own two feet, we will finally see true local governance in Japan.

Based on a May 19, 2012, lecture at the Tokyo Foundation. Report compiled by Akiko Inagaki , program officer, Tokyo Foundation.

    • SENIOR FELLOW / Professor, Social Systems Research Institute, Chuo Gakuin University
    • Hirohiko Fukushima
    • Hirohiko Fukushima

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