Matsuzawa Shigefumi’s experiments

Working out in Kanagawa-ken , I had the opportunity to become familiar with Matsuzawa Shigefumi, Kanagawa’s reformist DPJ-backed governor. Mr. Matsuzawa, who worked for former Congresswoman Beverly Byron (D-MD-6) when he was younger and won three elections to the House of Representatives before being elected governor of Kanagawa in 2003, is one of those Japanese politicians who single handedly gives me some hope for Japan’s future. (I suppose I might also group Masuzoe Yoichi in the same category.)

He recently made national news by pushing for term limits in Kanagawa (explicitly suggesting that Kanagawa should serve as an example for the nation, i.e., a laboratory of democracy), which prompted criticism from the national government. His push for term limits is wholly consistent with the reformist thrust of his businesslike campaign manifesto, which he has announced should be the yardstick by which his government is measured. This may sound simple, but look at the manifestos put out by both parties in 2007 and ask yourself whether they can really be used as yardsticks. Mr. Matsuzawa’s 2007 manifesto also reminded voters of his 2003 promises, and showed whether he succeeded or failed at implementing his agenda. A token measure, perhaps, but I think it goes a long way to making candidates more accountable to voters — and I think it’s no accident that Mr. Matsuzawa won reelection by a resounding margin in April.

With that as an introduction, I strongly recommend this challenging essay by Mr. Matsuzawa at the Genron NPO blog.

As the governor of one of Japan’s most populous and economically dynamic prefectures, Mr. Matsuzawa takes aim at the notion of the revenue gap between urban and rural prefectures, suggesting that contrary to public perception, the gap between wealthy prefectures like Tokyo and Kanagawa and poorer, sparsely populated rural prefectures is not all that great, because urban prefectural governments have greater responsibilities (due to burgeoning populations) but get less revenue from the central government. Central government subsidies, according to Mr. Matsuzawa, effectively close the gap between urban and rural. He argues, in fact, that once central government taxes distributed to local governments are added to local taxes, rural prefectures like Shimane, Tottori, Kochi, and Fukui receive the most tax revenue per person, with Kanagawa receiving the least per person in all of Japan.

The problem, he suggests, exists, but is not as large as the media would have the Japanese people believe.

Accordingly, he is vehemently opposed to the government’s plan to enable Japanese citizens to pay a portion of their taxes to places where they are not in residence (their former hometowns, for instance). Mr. Matsuzawa is quick to see that the costs of this plan would be paid by urban prefectures such as his own, which are swollen with “refugees” from rural prefectures who under this plan could send some tax money home, thereby depriving his government of revenue that rightfully belongs to it. Without denying the desperate economic conditions in rural Japan (for which he credits Mr. Koizumi and his attacks on public corporations), he attacks this problem from a variety of angles. He argues that this plan violates the basic principle of “no taxation without representation” — in other words, why should the vote of someone who pays full taxes to one prefecture be worth the same as someone’s whose taxes are divided among jurisdictions ? (And from the perspective of a taxpayer, why should a taxpayer pay taxes to a jurisdiction in which he has no vote and thus no way of holding the taxing authority accountable?)

Moreover, Mr. Matsuzawa wonders how money will be transferred from one jurisdiction to another. Who will build and maintain a computer system to ensure that it happens smoothly? (And, I would add, echoing Mr. Masuzoe, can bureaucrats be trusted to handle the transactions without losing or embezzling the funds?)

I am not in a position to debate Mr. Matsuzawa’s numbers, but he provides an important reminder that in the rush to solve the “Yubari problem,” Japan’s stressed metropolises must not be forgotten.

Mr. Matsuzawa, I think, represents the best of the DPJ. (Yes, he’s officially independent, DPJ-backed, but as a former DPJ representative, it’s fair to say that this distinction is meaningless in this case.) An urban governor, he is sensitive to the needs of urban voters and aware that jaded Japanese voters, disappointed by their government over and over again, desire accountable, transparent government, even if they can’t quite articulate it that way. His critique is just one way for the DPJ to remind urban voters why they can’t trust the LDP, ensuring that by the time another general election rolls around, the DPJ will be in a position to trounce the LDP in urban Japan.

The question is whether the DPJ, under the rule of Mr. Ozawa, the “king” of Iwate, can fully stake a claim as the true representative of the interests of urban Japan, or whether Mr. Ozawa’s efforts to appeal to rural voters will undermine the party’s message in the cities. If the latter — and I fully expect this to be the case — a general election campaign will be simply a matter of two nearly identical parties struggling to balance a message of reform in the cities with pork-barrel promises in the countryside.

In this scenario, urban Japan will, as always, lose.

One thought on “Matsuzawa Shigefumi’s experiments

  1. And from the perspective of a taxpayer, why should a taxpayer pay taxes to a jurisdiction in which he has no vote and thus no way of holding the taxing authority accountable?An argument, if accepted, that would exempt gaijins from that opressive income tax here. So, is that why you want to come back to Japan?

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