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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Local leaders pin hopes for decentralization on election


Staff writer

OSAKA — The 1868 Meiji Restoration that brought Japan into the modern world originated in provinces far outside the capital when local leaders rebelled against what they saw as a corrupt, ossified Edo-based government and bureaucracy that was stifling freedom and innovation and had no national vision.

News photo
In demand: Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto answers reporters' questions after a meeting with Makoto Koga, chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party's Election Strategy Council, at the party's headquarters in Tokyo on Thursday. KYODO PHOTO

That may oversimplify history. But if Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto and his local government allies, Miyazaki Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru in particular, get their way, the next Lower House election may lead to something similar. Hashimoto and a few others hope the poll will be a mandate for change regarding the most basic concepts of political and bureaucratic power and the relationship between Tokyo and regional governments via decentralization of power.

"Japan has had a prefectural system of government for 140 years. But it's time for decentralization and consolidation of smaller local governments with more autonomy, which is why I support the idea of dissolving the prefectural system and creating a Kansai 'superstate,' " Hashimoto has repeatedly said.

But over the past few weeks, the governor has turned that rhetoric into more visible political action, directly lobbying other local leaders and stepping up his public campaign to promote decentralization of power at the national level.

This will, he and his supporters hope, eventually lead to the consolidation of local governments into perhaps a half dozen superstates nationwide. By meeting with like-minded local leaders to form a new political group and meeting central ruling and opposition party officials to push the group's cause, Hashimoto said he is determined to see how committed the parties will really be to making decentralization a major issue once the Lower House election campaign begins.

Decentralization, and the idea of a Kansai superstate within a group of such states that is far more autonomous from the central government than prefectures are, is a concept the Kansai corporate community and ruling coalition that helped Hashimoto get elected in 2007 have long embraced.

It's also, the governor claims, about the only way left to save not only Kansai but also Japan from bureaucratic and political stagnation that will be a great handicap in competing against rising Asian powers India and China.

In late June, Hashimoto made headlines nationwide when he announced he was dissatisfied with ongoing discussions in the bureaucracy and the political parties about decentralization and was thinking about forming a new group of local officials to push the Diet and central bureaucracy to take decentralization seriously and educate the public.

Speculation immediately began that Hashimoto was positioning himself to run in the general election, which he vigorously denied. And reaction to the new group, so far, has been less than what Hashimoto had hoped.

Senior politicians, including former internal affairs minister Kunio Hatoyama, offered support for the new group. Prominent local politicians, however, while agreeing with Hashimoto on the need to decentralize, were opposed to or lukewarm about joining a new group just before the election.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara declined to participate, while Osaka Mayor Kunio Hiramatsu criticized the move. It remains unclear to what extent Higashikokubaru, one of Hashimoto's staunchest allies, will participate. The mayors of Yokohama and Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, are on board, though, and Hashimoto will continue to try and recruit new members at the national conference of governors next week.

Hashimoto's recent moves come as the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc and opposition camp are discussing what to put in their election platforms. He has hinted that if the Democratic Party of Japan was serious about making decentralization a major issue, he may be inclined to support the DPJ.

In reply, the DPJ's Katsuya Okada, in a bid to get Hashimoto's support, said this week that decentralization was an issue his party was focused on, although Hashimoto and other local leaders have long criticized the ruling and opposition camps for not doing enough.

"Political party platforms are just bureaucratic pieces of paper. There is no explanation of what will happen, how it will happen, or what it means to ordinary people if decentralization takes place," Hashimoto told reporters in Osaka Thursday.

That press conference came a few hours after a meeting in Tokyo between Hashimoto and LDP heavyweight Makoto Koga, who heads the party's election strategy council. On Sunday, LDP Secretary General Hiroyuki Hosoda criticized Hashimoto, telling supporters in Tokushima it was absurd to say a certain party would be supported if they announced a certain policy, and that there were limits to giving out money to local governments, given Japan's huge public debt.

Hashimoto, for his part, blamed the central government for failing to have a national vision. "It's not just about local governments demanding the central government give them financial resources or more autonomy. The problem is that the system of government is broken and has to be changed at the national level before decentralization can occur," he said.

Hashimoto refused to say whether he would commit to one party or the other on Thursday, insisting he was taking a wait-and-see attitude. But with the Tokyo metro poll outcome expected to influence the Lower House election, Hashimoto and other local politicians tired of being dictated to by Tokyo bureaucrats will continue their negotiations with, and step up the pressure on, decentralization with members of both the ruling and opposition parties.



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