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Revitalizing Japan’s regions

2015.10.13




Yuichi Seki
Professor, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: Administrative Management, Administrative Reform

Initiatives pursued by the current government

The Abe administration has set out the revitalization of Japan’s regions a major policy challenge. In his general policy speech to the Diet in September last year, the prime minster explained that he wanted to make a bold start in revitalizing the regions and appointed former Secretary-General of the LDP Shigeru Ishiba as Minister in Charge of Regional Revitalization. In December last year, the “Long-term Vision for Revitalizing Towns, People and Work” and the “Comprehensive Strategy for Revitalizing Towns, People and Work” were formulated.

Japan’s population began falling in 2005 and it is estimated that the country’s population will fall below 100 million in 2048. Given these circumstances, it is perfectly natural for the government to want to prevent the decline of Japan’s regions.

The Japan Policy Council, which is composed of private sector experts, attracted the nation’s attention when it focused on women aged 20 to 39 and pointed out the number of municipalities facing a major decline in the population has now reached 896, stating that Japan is challenged with the “extinction of the regions”. The announcement increased the sense of crisis and reinforced the need for regional revitalization.

Past measures aimed at promoting regional revitalization

A variety of measures have been implemented in the past with the aim of revitalizing Japan’s regions. The Furusato Sosei Jigyo (Hometown Revitalization Projects) policy pursued by the Takeshita administration became a heated topic of conversation for the eccentric examples of use of the 100 million yen distributed to each municipality to spend as it saw fit. A variety of measures have been implemented to encourage businesses to operate in the regions. Regional revitalization coupons worth 20,000 yen have even been handed out to people on relatively low incomes.

However, the generally-accepted view is that these measures have been ineffective. None other than the current Cabinet has cited the following five reasons why it has not been possible to halt the general trend of an exodus from the regions and to put the brakes on Japan’s falling birthrate: the vertical structure of government ministries and systems; nationwide policies that do not take account of regional characteristics; dole-out policies with no verification of results; superficial policies that do not permeate as far as the regions; and policies that seek short-term effects.

What can the central government do?

It is not yet clear whether the policies being pursued by the central government will overcome these problems. However, it is unlikely that oft-cited successful examples of regional revitalization, such as Kamikatsu Town in Tokushima Prefecture and Ama Town in Shimane Prefecture, succeeded in revitalization as a result of grants or advice from the central government. It is more likely that successful revitalization of these towns was achieved as a result of ongoing discussions between representatives of the municipal governments and local residents, local people coming up with ideas, and successful measures being implemented as a result of trial and error. This is unlikely to be something that other regions can simply imitate, nor something that can be instructed by the central government.

While it is natural that the central government should come up with a variety of policies to prevent the decline of the regions, perhaps it is important to distinguish between what the central government could or should do, and things for which there is no choice but to allow the regions to take responsibility.

The starting point for local autonomy

This is going back some time now, but I once watched a television program that introduced Akaike Town in Fukuoka Prefecture. The town had been forced to undertake fiscal reconstruction measures. The local government in the mining town had become a fiscal reconstruction organization as a result of rising expenses for items such as housing measures brought about as a result of a mine closure. The program showed how local residents had been shocked by this development and expressed their desire to rebuild the town, including helping to carry out maintenance at local elementary and junior high schools. As the residents went about doing something for their town on their own initiative, rather than leaving the administrative of the town to the mayor and local government employees, I felt that this showed the genuine starting point for local autonomy.

In order to revitalize the regions in this way, it is important for the leaders and employees of local governments to share awareness with local residents about what can be done to improve their own region. In order to achieve this, I believe it is important to allow the will of the local people to be more easily reflected in local government systems.

Deregulation under the Local Autonomy Act

Deregulation has been carried out under the Local Autonomy Act with this goal in mind. For example, criteria were abolished regarding the number of departments required by Japan’s prefectural governments in respect to population, and statutory criteria and upper limits to the number of councilors at local councils were also abolished. Surely we could go one step further and come up with deregulation policies that promote the participation of local residents? Under the direct petition system, the Local Autonomy Act allows citizens to petition local governments to enact or abolish ordinances, carry out administrative audits, dissolve the council, dismiss councilors, dismiss the mayor and dismiss key public officials. However, this system has not been utilized sufficiently. One cause of this is the difficulty in acquiring the requisite number of signatures. Rather than obliging local governments to comply with all of these regulations in a uniform manner, why don’t we use the regulations as a model to which local governments can refer and then allow them to establish their own regulations through local ordinances? If we were to do this, it is likely that local residents would develop a stronger sense of ownership over their local governments and stronger links would be built between residents and the mayor and local officials.

In addition to pursuing the current policies of providing grants to local governments, I want the central government to do whatever it can to come up with ways of building systems that increase the interest of local residents in the running of local government and contain incentives for finding regional creativity and ingenuity.

Yuichi Seki
Professor, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: Administrative management, administrative reform
Yuichi Seki was born in Gunma Prefecture in 1951. He graduated from the School of Law, Tohoku University in 1975. 
In 1975, he joined the Administrative Management Agency. 
In 1979, he obtained an M.A. in the Field of Government from Cornell University.
After working at the Management and Coordination Agency, carrying out research into the ombudsman system, and helping to draft the Administrative Procedure Act and systems for reviewing public programs, he retired from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in 2009. He was appointed to his current position in April 2015. 
His current research theme is the analysis of trends in administrative reform over the past few decades based on the history of Japanese politics and administration since before the Second World War and research into proposals for improving government administration.