What’s wrong with centralization?

Looking at history, since the Meiji Restoration, Japan has promoted centralization in order to create a modern nation. I believe this was due to the belief that the shogunate system, as in the Edo period, would not be able to catch up with advanced nations such as the United States and European nations.

This centralized system changed after World War II. The enactment of the Constitution of Japan brought about major changes in the legal system under the democratic system. Laws concerning local governance were developed, and local governments were positioned as those on an equal footing with the national government.

As a matter of fact, policies continued to be conducted in a centralized way. However, pollution and various other urban issues arose in local regions in the period of high economic growth in the 1960s to 70s. In response, local governments took steps to protect and support local residents who were in vulnerable positions. Areas such as community development and the environment are typical examples.

In this way, local governments began to act and take on this role from the perspective that even if it were a national policy, it should not force residents to make sacrifices. However, such activities of the local governments have not been implemented smoothly.

One reason is that the perspectives from the centralized system that had been developed since the Meiji Restoration may have continued to be assumed and shared by both the central government and local governments. In other words, even though the laws and regulations were in place, it was difficult to change the mindset that local governments must follow the instructions of the national government.

Of course, the national government plays a significant role in the lives of its citizens. For example, social security, infrastructure development, and the establishment of sovereignty, which guarantee a uniform standard of living for the entire nation, cannot be managed solely by local government administration.

However, if the national government were responsible for the maintenance and management in all administrative areas, the national government’s administrative functions would be completely exhausted. Since the 1980s, when such burdens and excessiveness began to be apparent in real life, the idea of emphasizing local governance has become increasingly important as a path to solving these problems.

In other words, it was necessary to clarify the division of roles between the national and local governments, transfer the national authority that had been concentrated under the centralized system to local governments, and establish a functional and efficient administrative and fiscal system. Then, in 1999, legislation to promote decentralization was enacted.

Coronavirus pandemic made division of roles between the national and local governments less visible

However, it cannot be said that the local governance system has expanded all at once since the legal reforms associated with the promotion of decentralization.

This was most evident in the pandemic caused by the coronavirus, which began in 2020. Many situations arose in which the national and local governments were at odds over the measures against the coronavirus pandemic and their implementation, causing confusion in local communities.

For example, the national government aimed to vaccinate the entire population. However, the national government was unable to send each citizen a vaccination ticket and ensure that they have been vaccinated. This is because it is the local government that manages the residence registry.

Then, the national government issued instructions to the local government. Implementation of vaccinations is classified as one of “statutory entrusted functions,” and municipalities, which are basic local governments, are entrusted with this task by the national government. Therefore, municipalities and other entities sent vaccination tickets to the residents, secured and arranged vaccination sites, accepted bookings for vaccination, and determined the amount of vaccine needed during that period.

However, in the early days of the vaccination program, there were problems with the number of vaccines requested not reaching the sites, causing delays in the vaccination process. There were also occasions when the local government apologized to residents who could not be inoculated.

On the other hand, the national government tried to accelerate the vaccination measures by establishing large-scale vaccination centers to make up for the delayed vaccinations, and at the same time, promoting vaccination in workplaces and so on. As a result, the vaccination rate of the population definitely increased, but this time, the local government was unable to confirm whether or not each resident had been vaccinated, resulting in a shortage of vaccines and, later, waste of expired vaccines that were destroyed.

How did this confusion arise? In fact, statutory entrusted functions were newly established with the abolition of administrative functions imposed on local governments by the national government, in which the national government and local governments had a superior-subordinate command and supervision relationship. They now should be performed in a business system based on the relationship between the equal administrative entities. This time, however, the national government did not clarify its responsibility for any suspected omissions in the management or delivery of the vaccine.

Was this an inevitable measure due to an emergency situation like a pandemic? Certainly there is this aspect. In addition, I believe that vaccination with the help of the Self-Defense Forces was beneficial to the people. On the other hand, however, I believe that in part this confusion and waste was caused by a sense of superiority on the part of the national government, commanding and supervising local governments.

In other words, despite postwar democratization and the promotion of decentralization since the 1990s, I have a feeling that the sense of cooperation with local governments as an equal administrative entity had not penetrated the national government. Moreover, isn’t it conceivable that it is precisely because we are in a state of emergency that the role of local governments is called for?

For example, the national government issued a request for closure of restaurants and other businesses. However, some local governments set up their own support grant, etc., because they considered the amount of the national cooperation money to be insufficient in light of the actual local conditions. This can be seen as a response based on the difference in roles between the national government, which considered corona measures uniformly throughout the nation, and local governments, which try to take measures more in line with local conditions and from the residents’ perspective.

In short, only because of the state of emergency, it was actually not always possible for a local government to fulfill its true role by simply waiting for and following the instructions of the national government. For example, once the national government decided to provide national cooperation money or benefits, some local governments immediately paid the amount temporarily on behalf of the national government and implemented the benefits. This is because it takes time for large organizations like the national government to complete paperwork and preparation, and it takes time to make payments.

However, for stores and small businesses that cannot do without cash at the end of the month, it is too late to receive the benefit the next month. In other words, it is the local government that complements and implements national government policies as those that truly meet the needs of residents.

It is important for each of us to have an interest in local governance

On the other hand, there remains an aspect in local governments as well, in that they are still intensely conscious that they just have to wait for instructions from the national government and act as directed. This is probably because it is easier to wait for directions and work on them, in addition to not breaking away from the state of “waiting for instructions,” which existed until the prewar period. In fact, there are many such “napping local governments.”

I believe that one of the triggers to change such local government is the need to focus on local politics by revitalizing representative councils of local governments. However, on the other hand, in recent years, many local councils have been facing a shortage of qualified council members. The background to this is that local government politics had been administered since the prewar period, by local prominent families and their entourage, and the trust and interest of the local residents had been waning.

That is why, in recent years, some hold the idea that local government councils are unnecessary and a growing number of citizens insist that there is no need to pay high salaries to council members, and in response to such constituents’ voices, council member salaries have been gradually lowered. The same applies to the number of council members.

Then, even if you become a member of the local government council, you will not be able to do as much as you would like, and you will find yourself in a situation where you cannot make a living as a council member because of the low compensation.

Eventually, even when elections were held, the elected members were always the same, and moreover, they can often do little to meet the expectations of the local residents. Also, the residents’ confidence in the local councils waned, only to further reduce the number of council members creating a negative spiral trap.

Of course, it cannot be said that local councils really have no reason to exist. First, council members are representatives of residents. By bringing together representatives of different ages, genders, and occupations from various regions, the council can reflect diverse opinions in politics and have lively policy discussions for the region.

In addition, progressed decentralization will relatively increase the power of local government administration, which means that the administrative power as well as the authority of the local chief executive, who is the head of the administration, will increase. It is the role of the council to check such activities of the local government administration and the local chief executive, and to control them as the representative of the residents.

The prime minister of Japan is effectively chosen by the majority group in the Diet, but owing to the Dual Representation System, it is only natural in a local council that both the local chief executive and the council should check each other through active discussions and activities. This should help to revitalize local governance and formulate policies that point the local community in a better direction.

In this sense, it is important that not only aspiring politicians but also residents deepen their understanding of representative democracy and increase their interests in local governance. Furthermore, if this leads to greater participation of local residents in local administration, it will help to revitalize the local council.

I believe that these efforts will make local government administrations have a better understanding of sharing roles with the national government as equal an administrative entity with the national government, which in turn will lead to the national government responding efficiently and accurately to the needs and expectations of the people and building a society in which the people can live more prosperous lives.

Some wonder, “It is a municipal office, so why not follow the government ministries’ instructions?” Others say, “Why doesn’t the mayor follow the instructions of the Diet members?” The first step toward eliminating these anachronistic attitudes caused by a lack of understanding and ignorance of laws and regulations, or eliminating, conversely, the attitude of doing nothing but waiting for instructions from the national government requires lifting each resident’s interest in local governance and accelerating the drive for participation in politics.

One of the founding principles of Meiji University is “Independence and Self-Government.” Self-Government is essential for fostering the foundations of democracy because it means governing oneself, self-determination and self-responsibility. And we must not forget that it is each and every one of us, the citizens, who will practice that self-government.

* The information contained herein is current as of May 2023.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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