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Friday, Sept. 15, 2000

The periphery vs. the center


Staff writer
LOCAL VOICES, NATIONAL ISSUES: The Impact of Local Initiative in Japanese Policy-making, edited by Sheila A. Smith. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2000, 136 pp., $32.95 (cloth).

For students of power and politics in Japan, Tokyo is where the action is. Important decisions are made in Nagata-cho or Kasumigaseki. Even when it comes to local issues, the central government is the key player -- or at least, that's the gospel.

The contributors to this collection of case studies would disagree. Well, five of the six would. Their investigations of various local initiatives, ranging from freedom-of-information laws to Okinawan bases, show there is room for local political actors to take the lead. The results vary, but, explained Ellis Krauss, a veteran Japan hand from the University of California at San Diego, the evidence shows "there is room for far more local initiative than the old stereotype . . would suggest."

One important arena has been laws that call for the public disclosure of information. The wining and dining of national officials, known as "kankansettai," and filching government monies through the use of fictitious business trips (known as "karashutcho") are time-honored practices. By one estimate, the two totaled over 40 billion yen and implicated over 20,000 local officials in early 1998.

For many years, that was business as usual. But in recent years, local activists have exposed those sordid practices. As a result, the public has been subjected to a seemingly endless parade of scandals and revelations of unethical practices.

Patricia MacLachlan, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, credits local activists with pushing legislation that yielded a national information law. By filing local lawsuits, activists forced the issue onto the national agenda. At a time when deregulation and administrative reform were all the rage, public-disclosure laws that checked bureaucratic discretion were hard to resist.

MacLachlan admits that local activists don't deserve all the credit. Political realignments at the national level provided an opening they could exploit. Nonetheless, she concludes that "intergovernmental relations in policy areas that have not been clearly delineated by national law can be interdependent, dynamic and unpredictable." So much for the center-led model.

Theodore Gilman, an assistant professor of political science at Union College, would disagree. His study of efforts to rejuvenate Omuta City, a Mitsui mining town in Fukuoka Prefecture, reveals a planning process almost completely under the thumb of national bureaucrats. Local sentiment was almost completely ignored. Instead, national bureaucrats and local leaders, many of whom came from the central government ministries, dominated the process.

Katherine Tegetmeyer Pak, an assistant professor of politics at the New College of the University of South Florida, finds herself between those two extremes. Her study of local responses to foreign migrants finds local governments, NGOs and national authorities creating temporary alliances that coalesce and break up depending on the situation.

Finally, editor Sheila Smith of Boston University addresses the best-known example of local activism in recent years, the Okinawa base controversy. Her detailed analysis concludes that there is room for local initiative, but not when the result is direct conflict with the national government. Courts are reluctant to challenge Tokyo on these matters. The irony, which Smith highlights, is that the central government relies on local governments to implement policies that can conflict with local interests.

In her concluding chapter, Patricia Steinhoff, a professor of sociology at the University of Hawaii, notes that generalizations are difficult. Too much depends on the particulars of each case. For example, information-disclosure laws are of interest to all citizens; it is harder to find a national constituency for the Okinawa bases.

Still, students of Japanese politics need to expand their perspective. The fixation on Tokyo obscures important political dynamics in Japan.

Brad Glosserman can be contacted at brad@japantimes.co.jp.


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