Japan from the inside out

You say you want a devolution

Posted by ampontan on Friday, July 3, 2009

YOU’LL SELDOM SEE it covered on the front page of newspapers or on prime time television—their game is infotainment, not issues—but the political equivalent of a civil war is raging in Japan. The insurgents in this war are the governors, mayors, and other chief municipal officers storming the barricades of the central government in Tokyo.

Though both the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan claim they support greater devolution, the rebels take neither at their word. Still, the issue in Japan is not whether there will be regional devolution and a restructuring of government, but when and to what extent. Here are some dispatches from the front lines.

A pox on you both!

Eguchi Katsuhiko

Eguchi Katsuhiko

Eguchi Katsuhiko chairs a government panel for examining the state/prefecture concept, the official policy of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its New Komeito coalition partner. It would create 9-12 large sub-national entities to replace the current 47 prefectures at the level between the central government and municipalities. Supporters say this plan would revitalize the country by reducing the size and authority of the central government while curtailing the influence of the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy.

Prime Minister Aso Taro says he supports the LDP program in particular and devolution in general, but Mr. Eguchi thinks he’s full of bologna. He publicly slammed the prime minister for his failure to actively promote the state/prefecture concept, calling his approach retrogressive. He didn’t stop there; he also criticized Mr. Aso for his attitude toward devolution and civil service reform, and said those in business and financial circles were fed up with him. Neither did Mr. Eguchi spare Hatoyama Yukio, the head of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan:

Regrettably, neither Mr. Aso nor Mr. Hatoyama seem interested in reforming Japan. The bureaucracy dominates and the politicians and the people are being led by the nose. The prime minister doesn’t seem to be aware that he’s being used by the bureaucracy.

Mr. Eguchi is a supporter of small government, and he’s got a good reason:

The central government creates dependency among the people. The form of the country must be changed.

The very public criticism by Mr. Eguchi raised eyebrows because it’s unusual for the chair of a government group of this type to criticize the prime minister in public.

He’s so committed to the issue he’s written a book about it, called Chiiki Shuken-Gata Doshusei (A State/Province System Based on Regional Sovereignty). His specific proposal calls for the reorganization of sub-national governments into 12 states/provinces and 300 municipalities (or “basic governmental units”), with both levels receiving substantial authority to levy and collect many of the taxes now paid to the central government. In return, they would be given the authority to conduct those governmental functions with the greatest impact on daily life.

Mr. Eguchi is the head of the PHP Research Institute founded by Matsushita Konosuke. He’s also allied with reform firebrands Watanabe Yoshimi and Eda Kenji (click on the Tags for more), and joined them to establish a political organization this January. That organization is about to be transformed into a political party. PHP publishes a line of trade paperbacks and the monthly current affairs magazine Voice, so the group has a ready-made medium through which to make its views known.

Mr. Inside

Meanwhile, the LDP’s Koizumian standard-bearer Nakagawa Hidenao continues his daily barrage against the party’s mudboat wing. He recently threw a party at a Tokyo hotel for young Diet members (probably first-termers who owe their seats to Mr. Koizumi’s coattails in 2005) and invited that well-known loose cannon of devolution and reform, Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru.

During the meeting, Mr. Nakagawa told those assembled:

“The people’s expectations for changing the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy lie with the DPJ. They will not be with us unless we offer a compelling plan that goes above and beyond theirs…The only message that will counter the DPJ’s call for a change in government is to dismantle Kasumigaseki.”

Some of the party’s mudboaters have begun firing back. Machimura Nobutaka, the head of the LDP’s largest faction–of which Mr. Nakagawa may or may not still be a member–took issue with the latter’s promotion of a bill to completely outlaw the means through which retired civil servants find cushy post-retirement employment in organizations affiliated with the government. It also would allow for the demotion or salary reductions of senior civil servants. Said Mr. Machimura:

“We already can demote or cut the salaries of those bureaucrats under the present law. I have to think that those people who claim it isn’t possible, and that this is a new law, have some different end in view.”

Retorted Mr. Nakagawa:

“Flexible salary reductions are difficult under the government’s proposal.”

Translation: “Difficult” is often a euphemism in Japanese. It usually means that the subject under discussion is either (a) impossible, or (b) so unlikely as to be impossible in practice.

There is speculation in the Japanese media that Mr. Nakagawa’s redoubled efforts are a counterattack against the tribal MPs (zokugiin) with close ties to Cabinet ministries (in a sense, lobbyist-legislators working for the bureaucracy) who scuttled the recent proposal to reorganize the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare.

The human howitzer

Speaking of Mr. Hashimoto, he is slinging so much lead at both the LDP and DPJ he’s on the verge of exploding into space. Keeping track of the governor’s daily activities is akin to following a spectator sport. But his sky-high ratings among his Osaka Prefecture constituency mean that both the LDP and the DPJ are desperate for his endorsement in the upcoming lower house election.

The governor knows an opportunity when he sees one, so he’s letting them have it with both barrels.

Here’s what he said about the LDP at that Tokyo hotel party hosted by Nakagawa Hidenao:

“As long as there is no change in the Kasumigaseki system, the people will think that nothing’s going to happen. The LDP and (coalition partners) New Komeito will lose the election if they approach it this way…I’d like to see you (the Diet members) introduce a compelling plan (to deal with the bureaucracy) that will astound every citizen.”

He later told a press conference:

“The LDP is not doing enough. The ruling party in government has the authority, so I hope they submit a terrific plan.”

Mr. Nakagawa agreed that the prime minister’s efforts were insufficient:

“If he can’t (come up with a good plan), the election result will be as Gov. Hashimoto said.”

Après-party, the governor let loose a volley against the government’s Robust Policy Plan for 2009:

“There’s not enough about devolution. It’s worse than last year’s plan. Last year’s plan had a chapter heading with a promise to look into the problem of local agencies (i.e., the local agencies of the central government that prefectural governments must pay to support). This year, there’s no chapter heading and less talk about the bureaucracy…not enough effort is being put into cutting expenditures.”

Salvos at the DPJ

While the Osaka governor has praised the DPJ’s stance on reforming the bureaucracy at Kasumigaskei, he’s not entirely convinced they’re serious. For example, he’s said he thinks the party will try to end bureaucracy-led government—the way things have worked here since the Meiji Era. But he’s also said:

“With the DPJ riding on the backs of (public sector) unions, are they capable of civil service reform?”

But he hasn’t had anything good to say at all about the devolution plan the DPJ is most likely to adopt. Mr. Hashimoto supports the LDP’s state/province system with three layers of government.

It’s difficult to determine exactly what plan the DPJ favors. Party members have told the media the issue divides them more than any other. DPJ boss Hatoyama Yukio has supported the LDP state/province system plan in the past, but it’s now apparent that he can’t be taken at his word for much of anything.

The plan most people think they’ll back is one that former DPJ leader Ozawa Ichiro has touted for at least 15 years: a two-level scheme divided between the central government and 300 sub-national governmental units. It still isn’t clear who wears the pants in the DPJ family, however, and they’ve yet to nail this plank into their platform. Here’s Mr. Hashimoto on the Ozawa plan:

“This image of the state is divorced from reality…No head of local government agrees with them. The people in charge of this issue in the party should hold a public debate.”


“The DPJ talks about (strengthening) regional authority, but that’s not what will happen. Central government will be stronger under a two-level structure, making top-down decision-making more likely.”


“The approach of making the central government the next highest government body above the basic local government units (without anything in between) is dangerous. It could lead to egregious central governmental authority.”

Tokyo Deputy Governor Inose Naoki, a Hashimoto ally, thinks the Ozawa idea is a warmed-over version of the governmental system in Japan during the Edo period, from the early 17th century to the mid-19th century. The Shogun sat atop the food chain, and under him were 300 primary daimyos and their fiefdoms, defined as those offering at least 10,000 koku of rice (about 51,200 bushels) as tribute.

(To be precise, most historians say there were really only 260 to 280 primary fiefdoms, and that the number 300 is used as a convenient shorthand.)

The Hashimoto charge that the Ozawa system would lead to egregious central government authority is not without merit. Japanese historians say that while the local daimyo were granted some authority and privileges, including law enforcement and the right to levy taxes, the central government was extremely powerful.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the man who prefers the role of shadow Shogun would be atttracted to that concept.

Mr. Inose recently discussed the issue with Haraguchi Kazuhiro, who holds the portfolio for the Internal Affairs and Communications ministry in the DPJ Shadow Cabinet. He told Mr. Haraguchi that the DPJ plan was too abstract for serious discussion.

One potential difficulty is that Japan has just been through a series of extensive municipal mergers. The so-called Great Heisei Mergers (Heisei being the reign name of the Emperor), have reduced the number of Japanese municipalities–cities, towns, and villages–from 3,300 to 1,800. It just isn’t possible to slash that number to 300 while eliminating the prefectures at the same time, and officials in the Internal Affairs Ministry have told the party as much.

Mr. Haraguchi sheepishly admitted to the Tokyo Deputy Mayor that the first step to attaining the goal of 300 would be a reduction to 700, but said, “we really haven’t thought this out. This is as far as we’ve gotten.”

Strong opposition to the Ozawa plan has also emerged from the National Association of Towns and Villages, an association for the municipal officers of machi and mura nationwide. (Those municipalities designated as cities are excluded.) While the association is a strong supporter of devolution, they are opposed to further consolidation because they maintain the last round of mergers did more harm than good.

There were 2,652 towns and villages before the merger mania started, and the total as of 1 June was 992, according to the NATV website. (A further complication is that there are no clear-cut definitions under the law to differentiate cities, towns, and villages. Generally speaking, cities have the most people and villages have the fewest, but some municipalities classified as towns have a larger population than some smaller cities.)

The NATV recently pried another admission out of the DPJ that the Ozawa plan is unrealistic and has to be reworked. The DPJ official who let that cat out of the bag was Osaka Seiji, the managing director of the party’s devolution survey committee.

This issue is taken very seriously by business and financial leaders throughout Japan–Keidanren, the country’s most influential business organization, is a staunch supporter of the LDP plan–but the DPJ still hasn’t decided where it stands as a party.

And they think they’re ready to assume leadership of the government?

The governors’ rebellion

Perhaps the most stunning development in the battle between local and central government was the response of the prefectural governors to the national government’s explanation of the prefectures’ liabilities for the maintenance and management costs of the local agencies of central government ministries. (For a more detailed look at the issue, try this dialogue between Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Inose.)

The Kyodo news agency conducted a survey by questionnaire of the 47 prefectural governors regarding their views of the explanation and itemization of the charges provided by Kaneko Kazuyoshi, the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport. Forty of the 47 said it wasn’t sufficient.

Of those 40, 21 gave as their reason the continued prefectural financial liability for the maintenance and management of national roads and rivers. The National Governors’ Conference is seeking its immediate abolition. The dissenters thought the information was lacking and said they were dissatisfied with the government’s partial modification of the system while maintaining its essence. (This is a hallmark of governmental operations under the LDP.)

As specific examples of the inappropriate use of the funds they’re required to provide, 33 cited construction costs for agency buildings and dormitories for the civil servants. Eighteen of the governors cited footing the bill for the personnel costs of management personnel at research institutes and agencies under the direct control of the ministry. In addition, 36 said the breakdown of liabilities in the FY 2008 budget presented by the ministry at the end of May lacked critical information.

I’m not kidding about rebellion. Of the 47 governors, only three said their prefectures would pay the money the central government is asking for. In addition, Gov. Hashimoto of Osaka said his prefecture wouldn’t pay other inappropriate expenditures in addition to retirement and pension benefits. The remaining three governors did not specifically say what they would do. The Saitama governor said they might freeze payments if they thought the information disclosed was inadequate, while the Wakayama governor said the prefecture wouldn’t hand over any money until they received a reasonable explanation.

A total of 46 of the governors said the system should be either modified or eliminated entirely (only the Mie governor dissented), and of those 46, 27 opted for complete elimination.

Now imagine what would happen if 43 of the 50 American state governors flipped the bird in unison to the federal government after being told it was time to pay up. There would be so much activity on the Internet and in the mass media it would melt optical fiber cables worldwide and smoke would be issuing from the vents of your CPU.

It sounds like a rebellion to me!

2 Responses to “You say you want a devolution”

  1. Seems to me they’re just arguing over who should pay for what, rather than the principle of small government and local sovereignty. Where’s Japan’s equivalent to Ron Paul?

  2. ampontan said

    You make a good point in your first sentence. I have a copy of the Eguchi book outlining his plan, which I haven’t read, but thumbing through it reveals too much talk about taxes and government services for my liking.

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