Local Governance in Contemporary Japan: Pressing Challenges and Innovative Approaches

Panel Code
Closed Panel

Given Japan’s highly centralized postwar political system, the municipal level has long received only limited attention by political scientists in Japan and abroad. However, following a series of decentralization reforms and a wave of municipal mergers in the mid-2000s, municipalities have become focal points of Japan’s manifold socio-economic and political challenges, including demographic shrinking and depopulation, economic decline, and increasing social inequalities. Not least due to the effects of political and fiscal decentralization, municipalities have also emerged as social and political testing grounds for how (and how not) to resolve these challenges.
The papers in this panel address a variety of current issues for local governance in Japan, based on both in-depth qualitative case studies and cross-municipal comparison. Nagai investigates three cases to show how (and how differently) municipalities deal with the task to integrate immigrants, thereby also challenging the usefulness of national-level policy assessment tools. Kremers highlights local initiatives of sustainable resource and energy use in rural Japan. He argues that despite advantageous natural conditions and a high degree of know-how, political centralism is the major reason why Japan – like other leading economies – falls short in combating global warming. Jentzsch draws on an in-depth case study to analyze the recent promotion of so-called regional self-management organizations as a means to shift the responsibilities for the revitalization of peripheral areas to the residents themselves. Vogt and Onishi investigate a case of local self-governance based on direct democracy and joint and direct citizen administration of the municipal budget as a potential model for local revitalization. Hijino focuses on the under-investigated political dynamics behind measures to attract residents to depopulating municipalities. Using campaign literature from municipal elections, he analyzes the actors driving, contestation over, and discursive framing of policies to repopulate municipalities. Taken together, the papers illustrate the heterogeneity of local governance in Japan as well as the social and political factors underlying this heterogeneity, and their implications for understanding macro-level change.