Sat, 11 Jan 2003

Feisty new breed of governors makes waves

Akihisa Aoyama The Daily Yomiuri Asia News Network Tokyo

Are some prefectural governors vocal critics of the central government or reformers? With voters set to choose governors in 19 prefectures in this year's unified local elections, the time is ripe to examine the role prefectural governors have come to play.

In his New Year's speech made Monday to senior officials of the Tokyo metropolitan government, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara said the officials should not hesitate to say anything in front of central government officials as there is no point to questioning which officials are ranked higher.

"It's not a question of who comes first," Ishihara said. "I want you to realize that those working for the central government know little about what is actually happening in people's lives.

"Central government bureaucrats won't make a move unless you're stubborn enough to make them angry," Ishihara said.

Ishihara's style has always been to whip up confrontation, and these days outspoken governors are the ones that receive the most attention.

Iwate Gov. Hiroya Masuda, for example, stressed that municipalities are good at addressing various issues closely related to the public.

"The local government reform envisioned by (Prime Minister Junichiro) Koizumi's Cabinet is nothing more than housecleaning by the Finance Ministry, whose only concern is the central government's fiscal reconstruction," Tottori Gov. Yoshihiro Katayama said.

Gifu Gov. Taku Kajiwara even called for the creation of a charter of rights for municipal governments. "We shouldn't let the Public Management Ministry do everything related to institutional reforms," he said.

Why have governors come to make such pointed remarks?

One reason is that we are now at the start of an age of decentralization of power. These remarks also reflect the situation in the nation's political nerve centers of Nagatacho and Kasumigaseki, where any swift or fruitful moves are hard to make due to conflicting interests of ministries and agencies, as well as those of lawmakers lobbying on behalf of particular industries and groups.

In addition, governors are in an advantageous position compared with Diet members in terms of making public political statements as they are fewer in number and represent more people than do mayors. Having used the public's distrust of central politics as a lever in winning their own elections, the governors can act on their own judgment.

Unconventional governors tend to stand out even as many governors dedicate themselves to building connections with the central government.

However, the job of governor is not so simple.

Existing prefectural governments were created in 1888. Since then, the division of the local governments has not been changed. Their function has been virtually that of acting as the central government's local administrator.

In this age of decentralization that system is being fundamentally questioned.

International Christian University Prof. Masaru Nishio believes prefectural governments will face three kinds of changes as city, town and village governments merge to enhance their functions.

They will be obliged to take over the administrative functions of small, isolated municipalities in the wake of some mergers.

The need for prefectural governments to manage city governments also will be questioned if there are only four or five municipalities in one prefecture as the result of mergers of small municipalities. For prefectures with populations of less than 1 million in Shikoku, Sanin and parts of Kyushu, prefectural mergers will become highly likely.

From now on governors will be burdened with the difficult task of dismantling and reorganizing prefectural governments during the course of decentralization.

The era of prefectural governments controlling municipalities under the guidance of the central government has passed. The decentralization of power will lessen the role of prefectural governments.

It is time for governors to consider in earnest whether prefectures should be merged or whether the country should build a provincial system in which such governments have greater authority over a wider area by courageously dismantling prefectural governments in a such a way as to give new powers and responsibilities to city, town and village governments.