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Saturday, Sept. 1, 2007
New minister looks to close the rural economic gap, aid LDP
Close the widening economic gap between urban and rural areas. Plainly put, this is the goal of Hiroya Masuda, the newly appointed internal affairs minister overseeing local government policies.
Though it has its roots in the five-year administration of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the Liberal Democratic Party's crushing defeat in the July Upper House election has added urgency to this directive.
Faced with mounting dissatisfaction among rural voters, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has turned to Masuda, the reform-minded former governor of Iwate Prefecture, to win back the faithful in the LDP's traditional strongholds.
One of just two nonpoliticians in the Cabinet, Masuda ended 12 years in office as Iwate's governor in April. Having pledged to the public to serve only up to three terms, Masuda kept his word and did not run again.
"I took the (Cabinet) post to be a bridge between the central and local governments," Masuda said in a recent interview.
The 55-year-old former Construction Ministry bureaucrat is also state minister in charge of decentralization.
To this end, he has pushed for reviewing the cookie-cutter way that the central government allocates subsidies to local authorities.
"It denies the uniqueness of local governments," Masuda said. "It makes communities similar to one another."
Masuda, who built a reputation as a determined cutter of costs during his governorship, said he instructed ministry officials to come up with new ideas to revitalize rural regions that will not involve increasing subsidies or public works projects.
"It is no longer the time to simply spend money on public works projects," Masuda said.
As a member of an advisory panel to Abe on decentralization, Masuda has been a strong advocate of shifting greater financial power from the central to the local governments.
Masuda is also pushing to integrate prefectures to create bigger administrative blocs at the local level.
"My stance is to continue promoting prefecture integration," he said. "Prefectural integration is the ultimate goal of decentralization."
But the important point for now, Masuda said, is to educate the general public on the issue by holding symposiums in various towns and cities.
Because of his connection to Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, Masuda's appointment to Abe's Cabinet raised eyebrows.
Ozawa, who hails from Iwate Prefecture, backed Masuda when he first became governor in 1995.
But in the interview, Masuda sidestepped an attempt to draw him out on Ozawa and Abe.
"What I witnessed of their political tactics in my years as governor was no different from what any other person has seen," Masuda said. "I'm a nonpolitician who has served for only a week in the Abe Cabinet. . . . I don't have enough information to compare the two."