2015 marks twenty years since the Great Heisei Mergers (municipal mergers) were implemented. These municipal mergers advanced rapidly through regulations such as revision of the Special Mergers Law in 1995 and the Omnibus Decentralization Act in 1999. The number of municipalities decreased greatly from 3,234 in 1995 to 2,395 in 2005, and then to 1,718 in 2015 (the number of municipalities is current as of April of that year). During this period, people in these cities, towns and villages have gotten used to municipality names which were unfamiliar at first.
Municipality mergers were intended to improve the efficiency of public administration and finance, as well as to increase the ability of government workers. However, mergers have been linked to problems such as a decline in surrounding areas, a weakening of the mutual solidarity among the government and citizens, and a decline in citizens services. These problems are particularly prevalent in agricultural areas, and there are cases in which the increased efficiency realized by municipality mergers has led to a decline in community-based services.
As described above, municipality mergers pose the risk of weakening of regional infrastructure which supports the lifestyle of citizens. However, in the majority of agricultural areas, there has been no rapid decrease in regional vitality despite an aging population. This is because agricultural areas retain the rural communities which are the base of activities for regional citizens.
Rural communities located in the rural districts of Japan have functioned as collectives which are closely linked to production and daily life. For example, in addition to agricultural functions such as management of farm roads, drainage facilities and common forests, collective usage of agricultural instruments, mutual supplementation of labor, and cooperative shipping of agricultural products, rural communities have also served an essential role in daily activities such as ceremonial occasions. During the twenty-year period from 1990 to 2010, the number of rural communities has fallen only slightly from 140,122 to 139,176, a miniscule decrease of 0.7%. When compared with the previously introduced trends in the number of municipalities, it is clear that rural communities still have a strong foothold.
Even so, as the population continues to grow older, it is easy to imagine how the population will steadily decrease in agricultural areas which are on the outskirts of municipalities created through mergers. In actuality, communal functions are weakening in conjunction with the decreased size of communities (decrease in the number of farmers and household composing the communities). This trend is particularly prevalent in hilled rural areas faced with severe production and living conditions. In many communities, issues such as stagnation of agricultural production activities are overshadowed by greater concern for devastation of regional resources such as agricultural land and forests, and for collapse of residential infrastructure.
In response to such conditions, debate regarding the restructuring of communities began upon entering the 2000s. Agriculture and agricultural communities have been supported by the generation born between 1925 and 1935. All members of this generation will be 65 years or older in the 2000s, resulting in rapid aging and population decrease with a focus in hilled rural areas. This creates concern regarding a weakening in the number and quality of leaders for communal functions. The true urgency of the situation is exemplified by the issue of "disappearing communities" which was announced by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism in 2007. At the time, the disappearance of communities attracted much attention in the mass media. Another important factor was the implementation of systems affecting communities. In addition to the previously mentioned Great Heisei Mergers of the 2000s, another representative system was the Direct Payment System in Hilly and Mountainous Areas. These changes in conditions both inside and outside of rural communities served to accelerate debate for community restructuring.
One aspect of community restructuring that is attracting attention is the formation of broad communities which encompass several communities. A questionnaire survey implemented for municipalities throughout Japan indicates that broad communities have been established in approximately 30 percent of municipalities. The majority of such broad communities operates as independently based on elementary school districts, while also receiving financial and personnel support from the government. There are a wide range of organizational activities spanning from regional autonomy to involvement in actual regional activities (event operation, environmental protection activities, disaster-prevention and traffic safety activities). While supplementing existing community activities, these broad communities operate many diverse projects including the establishment of new projects. These activities are attracting attention as the formation of "small bases" (maintenance of community lifestyle spheres) as part of movements in regional revitalization.
The features and characteristics of broad communities can be summarized as follows. The first issue is related to the organizational structure of broad communities. Specifically, while retaining the autonomy functions of existing communities, restructuring is implemented based on separate functions. The internal organization of broad communities consists of committees and sub-committees which possess a wide range of levels. These committees unify to create a broad community. This federation is involved in regional management, while actual regional activities are operated by the committees and sub-committees which are part of the internal organization. This means that broad communities possess the characteristics of a management organization and an implementation organization.
The second issue is related to the content of activities by broad communities, which are positioned as comprehensive entities responsible for various projects. In order to ensure the continued existence of the organization, it is important to balance the profit sector which seeks the profitability of projects (sales of goods, events, etc.) and the non-profit section which seeks social contribution (regional resource management, mutual aid, etc.). Moreover, in terms of the profit sector, it is necessary to consider financial support received from the government in addition to profits raised by the organization itself. Government support is not provided simply because broad communities have a weak financial infrastructure; rather, such support exists because broad communities have social characteristics. This perspective also indicates the importance of balancing profitability and contribution in the activities of broad communities.
The third issue is the involvement of leadership personnel in broad communities. The personnel required by organizations include leaders responsible for organization management and implementation teams responsible for regional activities. The securing and cultivation of such leaders and teams is an important issue. However, as the population continues to age, the current community unit is limited in terms of supplying personnel. In response, formation of a broad community makes it possible to expand the scope of securing personnel and to assign the required personnel. Furthermore, personnel must be obtained from outside the organization, not from the inside. This is because external personnel possess new values and ideas, and propose new activities. As such, external personnel have the potential to become new leaders of organizational operation.
Broad communities are characterized in terms of organization (dual nature of management organization and implementation organization), projects (balance of profitable projects and non-profit projects), and personnel (securing of leaders and implementation teams, and internal/external personnel). Broad communities are expected to supplement existing communities and to serve as a new receptacle for regional vitalization. However, mechanisms based on conventional rural communities will not automatically change into broad communities. In the future, it will become vital to create an opportunity and to establish an autonomous role for leading the formation of a broad community. In actuality, the government, Agricultural Cooperatives and local citizens currently provide various support such as leading the establishment of organizations and facilitating operation after said establishment. Nevertheless, government has an especially large role to fulfill in terms of financial and administrative support.
Twenty years have passed since the Great Heisei Mergers. In order to prevent a decline in regional vitality for peripheral areas created by mergers, the government is once again being asked to promote the formation of broad communities which will fulfill a leading role in rural development.