Maintaining functions in cities, towns and villages in provincial areas faced with growing depopulation is no easy task. The national and local governments must appreciate the urgency of the issue and implement measures to reinvigorate such areas.
The second half of the last unified local elections of the Heisei era has ended, with the heads of city, ward, town and village governments — except for those of government ordinance-designated cities — as well as local assembly members decided. In a noticeable number of cases, candidates were elected unopposed, repeating a similar serious situation that occurred in the first half of the elections.
Voting did not take place in more than 30 percent of 86 city mayoral races and close to half of 121 town and village mayoral elections. In five consecutive elections, the winner of the Hitachi city mayoral race in Ibaraki Prefecture has been confirmed on the day the election was announced. The same has taken place in 12 consecutive races for the mayoral office in Shosanbetsu, a village with a population of about 1,200 in Hokkaido.
In eight town and village assembly elections in Hokkaido, Nagano and other prefectures, the number of candidates fell below the numbers of seats in each assembly, leaving the assemblies short of representatives.
The decrease in the number of people aspiring to enter regional politics could cause a decline in the quality of local assembly members. For voters, this means a loss of opportunities to think about the future of their local governments and make better choices. It must be said that stemming the decline in regional areas will be difficult.
Some local governments and assemblies experiencing a shortage of people willing to serve in positions are starting to take necessary measures on their own initiative.
An assembly election has been held in the village of Okawa, Kochi Prefecture, for the first time in eight years. This comes after the village considered the idea of abolishing its assembly and instead establishing “choson sokai,” or general meetings attended by local voters. This success has been achieved through efforts to clarify rules on assembly members seeking to hold side jobs, thereby making it easier for local residents to run in assembly elections.
More than a few local governments have raised the low-level salaries of their assembly members.
Some have highlighted the low level of salaries received by town and village assembly members, among other things. It is indispensable to improve their treatment to some degree. Efforts should also be made to make progress in properly managing political activities-related allowances that local assembly members are eligible to receive.
It is important to run assemblies in a flexible manner through such means as holding sessions at night or on holidays. It is worth considering the idea of establishing a system to enable local government employees to be elected members of assemblies in areas other than where they work.
There is great significance to creating a system that enables a diverse range of people to stand. The central government must implement necessary legislative measures to achieve the objective.
The latest city assembly elections have seen a record number of female candidates and winners. One of the factors behind this may have been the influence of a law enacted to support women seeking to gain seats in such assemblies.
According to an estimate by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, Japan’s total population has continued to decline over eight consecutive years. While Tokyo’s population has kept increasing for more than 20 years, flight from provincial areas has been accelerating.
By squarely facing the declining population and aging society, local governments of cities, towns and villages must carefully expedite their programs on education, welfare and town building.
To maintain services for residents in their communities, it is vital for local governments to strive for efficient public administration. Clarifying the priority of policies and proceeding with feasible measures will be crucial.
It is necessary for neighboring cities, towns and villages to consider measures to maintain administrative functions through collaboration across wide areas. Prefectural and municipal governments must cooperate to formulate schemes to promote industries and tourism in a large zone and tackle them in a strategic manner.
Attention should also be paid to qualities unique to provincial areas. Natural environments are suitable for child-rearing. Vacant houses and abandoned farmland could offer opportunities for starting businesses.
It is important to create jobs that appeal to young people and venues for learning, while making use of local resources. In order for people to be able to raise their children with a sense of assurance, it is also a matter of urgency to expand child-rearing support.
By refining characteristic features of each area, including history, culture and nature, the establishment of towns in which young people can develop an emotional attachment to is sought.
Local governments should gather knowledge through constructive dialogues with local people, thereby leading to the vitalization of regional areas.
Limits to uniform system
The administration led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made regional revitalization one of its priorities. Although the administration has supported local government initiatives, through such measures as subsidies, it can hardly be considered to have produced sufficiently tangible results.
The central government must boost measures to enhance the vitality of local areas, by supporting local universities to promote their distinctive characteristics and encouraging businesses to transfer corporate headquarter functions to provincial areas.
It is vital to secure job opportunities in rural districts by promoting the expansion of agricultural exports, thus urging young people to settle in such areas.
Through a series of mega mergers in the Heisei era, the number of municipalities has been reorganized from over 3,200 to 1,700. Although there has been a certain effect in terms of cuts in the number of local assembly members and that of staff working at local governments, municipalities hit by rapid population declines have become ever more dependent on the central government.
Local finances are in crisis. The outstanding debts of local governments as a whole have nearly reached ¥200 trillion, having tripled during the past 30 years of the Heisei era. It is far from the original aim of the policy of decentralization: creating “strong local governments.”
As a result of the widened disparity in administrative and financial capabilities between urban districts and rural areas, the uniform national system of local governments has reached its limit.
While taking into account local opinions, it is important for the central government to investigate how to make local governments flexible and sufficient entities in the approaching Reiwa era, and strive to implement reforms.