Cities, Autonomy, and Decentralization in Japan

By Edgington, David W. | The Town Planning Review, November 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Cities, Autonomy, and Decentralization in Japan


Edgington, David W., The Town Planning Review


Cities, Autonomy, and Decentralization in Japan, Carola Hein and Philippe Pelletier (eds), London and New York, Routledge, 2006, 224 pp., £65.00 (h/b)

During the early years of this decade the Japanese government set out a comprehensive agenda of reforms, including cuts in public works expenditure and fiscal reforms designed to reduce the country's public sector debt of nearly US$6.4 trillion, equal to about 150 per cent of the country's gross domestic product, the worst ratio among industrial countries. The process of reform also encompassed urban and regional development as in 2003 the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006) created the so-called 'Trinity Reform Package'. In this context, 'trinity' means the decentralisation reform process that involves three factors: reform of local taxes, reform of the local allocation tax grant (the redistribution of funds to local governments) and reform of tied funds and national government disbursements to cities and local prefectures more generally. These fiscal decentralisation measures are still being worked through, but are likely to be significant as Japan has pursued one of the most active and consistent centrally directed regional policies in the OECD over the past 40 years.

In light of these new policies a booklength study examining the background to central-local government relations, decentralisation, and city-community relations is most welcome. Hein and Pelletier's collection of essays dates from a 2000 conference and so does not cover in depth the more recent policy initiatives (see however OECD, 2005). Nevertheless, they incorporate an evaluation of earlier moves by the Japanese government set out in the Law for the Promotion of Decentralisation, 1995 (extended by further legislation in 2000). Four essays, including the introduction provided by the editors, deal with aspects of central government-local government relations. Planning historian Ishida Yorifusa examines why Japan differs from a more decentralised model of local government planning practised in the United States, Canada and most European countries. He charts urban and regional policy-making from Meiji Japan (1968-1911) to the current decade in terms of the relative shift of power relations between the central and local governments (and citizens), noting that until Japan's first City Planning Law in 1919, local governments were primarily responsible for urban improvement schemes and local zoning ordinances. The extremely centralised system that was established in 1919 survived the democratic reforms following World War II but led eventually to more administrative (if not financial) power for local government planning enshrined in the 1968 'new' City Planning Law. Since that time, the overall tenor of land use planning in Japan has emphasised (however slowly) both increased powers for local government and citizen involvement, mirroring wider moves in other industrialised countries. Another feature of decentralisation in Japan surrounds the power of the capital, Tokyo, relative to surrounding regions. In recent years politicians and bureaucrats have favoured complete removal of national government functions away from Tokyo to districts in Japan that are (slightly) less vulnerable to earthquakes. Urban planning scholar Nakabayashi Itsuki provides a historical overview of the various schemes to manage the growth of Japan's national capital. These include the ill-fated 'greenbelt' plan of 1939 and the five National Capital Region Development Plans of the national government, as well as the local plans of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. The removal of national capital functions away from Tokyo has now been abandoned, mainly due to opposition from the Tokyo governor, Ishihara Shintaro, and a lack of finance. …

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