Japan from the inside out

Fire down below

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 5, 2010

THE CONDUCT OF AFFAIRS in local government in Japan can be a lot more compelling—and contain a lot more democracy in the raw—than the kabuki drama staged by the national parties in the Diet. There’s no better illustration than recent events way down south in Akune, Kagoshima, a city of 23,000.

Last month, Akune Mayor Takehara Shin’ichi issued an executive order replacing the system for paying the 16 city council members with an annual salary to one based on a per diem rate. The average council member was paid JPY four million (about $US 45,500) per year under the old method, but can expect only about JPY 400,000 under the mayor’s plan. That’s in the neighborhood of 90% less money–a rough cut indeed. In addition, he halved the annual bonuses of municipal employees, eliminated the city council member bonuses entirely, and ordered a reduction in the fixed asset tax. The bonus reduction was also applied to personnel employed by the prefectural education committee and seconded to the city. The mayor took all these steps by executive order without submitting bills to the city council.

Takehara Shin'ichi

The contretemps began when the mayor, who took office in September 2008 after spending a few years as a city councilman himself, publicly disclosed the remuneration of city employees in 2009. Akune employs 268 people, and their salaries and bonuses totaled JPY 1.73 billion a year. That eats up the bulk of the city’s annual tax revenues of JPY two billion.

This story has quirks running out of its ears, and here’s another one: This February, the mayor challenged the city council to pass a no-confidence motion, but no one took him up on it. Finally, his four supporters on the council did it for him—they introduced the no-confidence motion, which the council then debated and rejected unanimously. The mayor, who uses his blog more often than news conferences these days to communicate with the public, wrote that the vote demonstrated the council’s full confidence in him, which his supporters seconded.

The 12 council members opposed to the mayor said they voted against it because no-confidence motions are not tools for dissolving city council, and the introduction of the motion showed disrespect for the council itself.

What they really mean is that under the Local Government Act, passage of a no confidence motion would have allowed the mayor to dissolve the city council and call a new election–not only for mayor, but for all the city council seats. That the mayor’s opponents chose to avoid that route speaks volumes about their views on the likely winners and losers in an election campaign.

Meanwhile, Mr. Takehara refused to convene the June meeting of the city council. He said his 12 opponents were obstructionists, and that he would hereafter govern by executive order. The council members then submitted a petition to the mayor based on the same Local Government Act to ask for an emergency session, but he ignored it. Municipal employees also sent a written request to the mayor asking that he conduct city operations in the normal manner, but he said he didn’t read it and had it put through the shredder.

Now the dispute has spilled beyond the city’s borders. Kagoshima Gov. Ito Yuichiro last week issued an admonition to the mayor urging him to convene the city council session to discuss the executive orders. That admonition was also issued under the terms of the Local Government Act. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications says it is the eighth time the law has been applied for that purpose in Japan. The most recent occurred last year in Chiba.

The governor claims the mayor’s actions are clearly against the law. He also doesn’t care for the mayor’s rule by executive order, but said his admonition applied only to convening the city council session. The Local Government Act specifies that admonitions can be issued when orders by municipal officers are in violation of the law or detrimental to the public welfare. The mayor is almost certain to ignore it, however; compliance is not compulsory, and there are no penalties for failing to act as suggested.

Here’s another quirk: Mr. Ito helped draft the law when he was an employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. The governor said it was formulated with the idea that the chief municipal officer would be a “person of common sense” (joshikinin), so no penalties were included for non-compliance.

The governor asked for a meeting with the mayor, but Mr. Takehara refused, calling him “just another bureaucrat” on his blog. He’s also appeared on a few selected TV stations and said he should be the one filing admonitions instead of the governor. Give the man credit for taking on all comers: He’s also picked a fight with the media. On another blog post, he wrote that “the mass media are like hyenas and I won’t talk with them. I’ll decide which news outlets I’ll talk with.”

The national government can make the same request under the law, but that request too is not compulsory and contains no penalties for refusing to abide by it. The governor says there is nothing more the prefecture can do, and subsequent steps are up to the council and the citizens.

The 12 council members in the opposition camp say they’ll launch a recall petition next month, which will require one-third of the signatures of the city’s voters. They’ve also submitted paperwork to the city refusing to accept payment under the new system of remuneration, which starts this month. The national government is sending a fact-finding team to the city, and people expect it will be part of an effort to isolate the mayor.

Here’s the take of one free-lance journalist:

The city council is a cesspool of riken dango kyosan shugi (literally, a collusive communism of privileges and special interests). Though Japan is for all intents and purposes ruled just as it was by the interior ministry before the war, the democracy implanted by the occupying army has taken the form of “legislative assemblies” that disintermediate the rights of the people. Those who reject that are in turn challenged by the kisha club journalists, who assume those same privileges and interests for themselves and then ask if one rejects democracy.

The person speaking was the man who coined the term riken dango kyosan shugi, Katsuya Masuhiko, a quirky fellow himself. He says it describes Japan’s unique political thought and system, tacitly accepted by the people, in which the state, the politicians, the bureaucracy, the mass media, and the citizens collude to form ad hoc ties and cut each other in on concessions, spoils, and special interests.

Mr. Katsuya is generally perceived as a man of the cultural right, but he’s also a supporter of the DPJ’s Ozawa Ichiro and the pero-guri pol, Tanaka Yasuo. Mr. Tanaka is yet another quirky guy—he’s a published novelist who served as the governor of Nagano, got embroiled in a nearly identical fight with the prefectural legislature, was dumped in a no-confidence vote, and then re-elected. He claims the mantle of reformer, but opposed Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s privatization of Japan Post because he thought foreign interests would buy up the company. Mr. Tanaka formed his own political party, called New Party Nippon, and won a lower house seat in Hyogo in last September’s election. He had been loosely tied with the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, but formed an alliance last month with Kamei Shizuka’s Peoples New Party, the junior member of the coalition government.

As I wrote in the post about Mr. Tanaka (at the link), it sometimes seems as if the only person with the skills required to describe Japanese politics today would have been the novelist Charles Dickens—and even Dickens would be incapable of conjuring up a plausible resolution for the situation in Akune.

Stay tuned—this can only get better!

It keeps getting–well, more unusual, if not better. Word is filtering out that Mr. Katsuya’s comments quoted above might not be on the legit (though he did coin that expression). There’s also a report that the mayor posted municipal employee salaries on a wall at the city offices. An employee tore down the poster and was fired by the mayor. The employee sued and a court ruled that the mayor’s actions were unjustified. Mr. Takehara, however, refused to reinstate the employee and pay the person’s salary, as ordered by the court. The court then seized some of the city’s assets.

I spoke to a perfectly normal middle-aged woman of higher than average intelligence yesterday about the mayor. She said, “Of course he’s over the top,” but likes a lot of what he is doing anyway.

Some other politicians are on board, too. In addition to his supporters on the city council, Mr. Takehara is backed by Fukuchi Kiyofumi, a municipal delegate in Yamatsuri-machi, Fukushima. Mr. Fukuchi is the man who came up with the idea of paying the delegates on a per diem basis and got it passed in Yamatsuri-machi about a year ago. He insists it makes both the politicians and the citizens more aware of the rights and the responsibilities of the public servants. He cites as one example the delegates’ attendance at coming-of-age ceremonies every January. Some people thought they should get paid for that day, but the town council eventually decided that since everyone’s attendance at those events was voluntary, they didn’t need to be reimbursed.

All that is yet more evidence that rather than pound them in, the Japanese are attracted to nails that stick out, and give the benefit of the doubt to anyone perceived as battling against the entrenched interests in the public sector.

The failure to wage that battle despite their pledge to do so is the primary reason the DPJ is coming under increasing attack in weekly and monthly magazines for “betraying” the people.

Did you know that Fukui Prefecture has a dinosaur museum? I didn’t until I read that a museum survey team found the fossilized joint of the left femur of a hadrosaurus, an herbaceous dinosaur that lived in the late Cretaceous Period around 80 million years ago, in Nagasaki City. It’s the first time a dinosaur fossil has been found in Nagasaki. I added the link for the museum’s English website to the right sidebar.

That was just in time to catch the beginning of the museum’s promotion for its 10th anniversary exhibit featuring large Asian dinosaurs. It is the first large-scale exhibit in Japan of actual fossils and full skeletons.

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2 Responses to “Fire down below”

  1. Nicolas Cueto said

    Had a look at Akune city’s website. The mayor’s name is Takehara, not Takemura.

    Also there, a Town Hall video. Interesting energy in the hall.

    Wish I could comment but, not having Ampontan’s skills, just a thank you to him and I’ll leave the punditing to his much more capable keyboard.
    NC: Thanks for that, on both counts. Fixed it. I’ve really been an Ampontan lately with these careless mistakes!

    – A.

  2. RMilner said

    Can it really be true that the city council and administration spends 86% of its budget on its own salaries? Presumably they spend most of the rest on council office maintenance.

    What on earth do all the staff do all day?

    Total parasitism!

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