Radical decentralization

Aso Taro, looking hungrily to his next bid for the LDP presidency, has continued his campaign to remake his image with an article in Voice in which he discusses the need for a radical reorganization of how Japan is governed, including both a consolidation of prefectures into larger “states” and a transfer of authority, including tax authority, to the regional governments. In case anyone needs a reminder of why this argument is important, The Economist has an article about the dependence of prefectures and localities on Tokyo here.

Not surprisingly for a contemporary Japanese politician considering radical changes to Japanese governance, Mr. Aso appeals to the Meiji Restoration, pointing to the effectiveness of the centralized system built by Meiji elites — and sustained by postwar elites — in first fending off the European empires and then promoting the rapid development of postwar Japan, making Japan, he argued, into what may have been the world’s most efficient and equal society.

Facing the reality of faltering regions, however, Mr. Aso recognizes that drastic changes are needed to revitalize Japan; the central government is not up to the task:

In order to stop centralized rule, a drastic transfer of work on the domestic affairs side to the states is necessary. That is, public utilities, industrial development, and social welfare. Also, so that we can think for ourselves and work for ourselves, taxes must also be handed over…The central government will become much smaller scale, specializing in foreign affairs and the administration of justice — the work of thinking about Japan in the world.

The goal is to enable local and regional governments to undertake whatever measures they think will best promote the rejuvenation of their jurisdictions, i.e. the states will be the laboratories of Japan’s recovery (and perhaps even democracy).

Meanwhile, in Tokyo the rump central government will be, in Mr. Aso’s words, “small but strong.”

As a federalist, I find much of value in this proposal. The central government has failed, again and again, for the past two decades (or more). The LDP has enabled and exacerbated these failures. Piecemeal measures have not been enough to correct these failures, and the bureaucracy remains opaque and all-too-unaccountable. Regional governments under Mr. Aso’s system could have the same problems as the central government has had, but the hope is that by being closer to the people, they will be more accountable.

Incidentally, I imagine that Mr. Aso’s conservative colleagues find some value in this new system, seeing as how it would allow them to continue to be blind to Japan’s social and economic problems and focus exclusively on the question of Japan’s place in the world. At the same time, this plan is a non-starter within the LDP, just as even modest decentralization faces fierce opposition within the party. I expect that even within the LDP’s prefectural chapters this plan would draw opposition — look at how LDP members from prefectural assemblies rushed to Tokyo to show their support for the continuation of the special road construction fund.

For a politician bent on taking control of the LDP, Mr. Aso has opted for an unusual path to power.

2 thoughts on “Radical decentralization

  1. Anonymous

    Maybe he is betting on another Meiji-type period of reform coming.By the way, what do you see as the odds of dramatic changes taking place in, say, the next 10 years? Examples of dramatic change might be radical decentralization, moving most of the government out of Tokyo, or ending the US alliance.


  2. Once again, Taro Aso manages to come up with policy proposals that I love, while coming off as kind of a self-serving sort of guy. If he could correct the latter impression, he could be another Koizumi…


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