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Editorial: Redefinition of municipalities needed amid population decline

The ongoing population decline in Japan is expected to drastically change the future of its local autonomy. Many municipalities would no longer be able to independently maintain their public functions and services that have heretofore been taken for granted. Local bodies are facing the urgent need to redefine their own roles.

The streamlining of public elementary schools is underway across the country. The town of Naganuma in the Sorachi district of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost prefecture, is set to integrate all five public elementary schools in the town into one in the spring of 2020. According to the town office, the number of elementary school children in this town with a population of roughly 11,000 is estimated to drop to some 400 from the current 500 or so in six years from now. Some residents have resisted the move, but the town decided that at this rate schools would no longer be able to provide group learning and other group activities.

According to professor Yuji Nemoto at Toyo University, the number of elementary schools across the country is estimated to plunge by about one-third to 6,500 from the current 20,000 or so in around 2050 on the premise that the number of schoolchildren drops by 30 percent and that each school has 18 classes. The estimate further assumes that about 850 cities, towns and villages will no longer run elementary schools on their own but will jointly operate them with neighboring municipalities, suggesting that some municipalities will have no elementary schools within their jurisdictions. The norm that each municipality is responsible for primary education will no longer be viable. "School abolition and integration should be pressed forward in a systematic manner in order to provide education at institutions of an appropriate size," Nemoto emphasizes.

In 2014, a report released by former Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Hiroya Masuda and others rang a shocking alarm bell, predicting that about half of municipalities in the country may vanish. In response, however, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe mapped out a policy of regional revitalization, distracting the public's attention from the issue of depopulation. This has contributed to the ongoing delays in painting an effective policy vision for the future based on the assumption of continuing population decline.

According to the government's estimate, about 80 percent of municipalities with a population of less than 10,000 each will see their population dip by at least 30 percent by 2040. The population decrease will inevitably lead to a drop in demand, making it difficult for municipalities to maintain water supplies and other infrastructure.

Japan has a two-tiered local governance system of prefectural and municipal governments. As a result of megamergers of cities, towns and villages over the years, the number of municipalities has dropped to about 1,700, but the basic structure of local autonomy remains the same.

There are opinions that mergers of municipalities should further be promoted as population decline is expected to progress. However, if municipalities that turned their backs on the so-called "great mergers of the Heisei era" were forcibly integrated, there would be a serious backlash from residents.

Given that the idea of each municipality maintaining full-scale public functions has its own limits, it would be more realistic for neighboring municipalities to create common spheres with their public functions consolidated in urban cities. Under such a system, prefectural governments will need to take over many tasks that have heretofore been shouldered by municipal governments, raising the need to review the role-sharing between prefectural and municipal governments.

Likewise, town development plans will also require a change in thinking. Local governments will need to consolidate urban areas while demarcating areas not set aside for living, in stark contrast to old administrative policies of expanding housing areas through incessant land development.

Since such reforms will require relocation of residents, it is imperative to take a long-term approach. In the city of Toyama, local authorities are advancing an urban strategy of running streetcars between multiple urban areas that are serving as key centers. The city of Yubari in Hokkaido has been consolidating housing areas that were once dispersed as those for miners under a 20-year plan, persuading elderly residents to relocate. It is also a challenge to utilize deserted areas without turning them into ghost towns.

When an urban city becomes hollowed out with an increase of empty houses and vacant lots, it will pose a threat to regional security and disaster prevention efforts. However, it takes a tremendous amount of time and money to identify the right holders of abandoned land and buildings for regeneration.

In the United States, land banking programs operated by nonprofit organizations for managing and reusing unused property is proving effective. Japan will need to look into adopting a similar scheme so public agencies can revitalize areas that formerly hosted towns.

Municipalities are made up of local communities, and local autonomy ought to be a system where residents can decide on the future of their own communities. Unfortunately, residents in local communities in Japan have tended to rely on administrative offices, instead of proactively engaging in independent discussions.

Measures to address population decline inevitably entail painful efforts. The governors and mayors of local governments and local assemblies are called upon to provide candid explanations about the realities to local residents to gain their understanding for countermeasures. On the other hand, residents should also share their aspirations in transforming their communities into new towns. To consolidate ever sprawling urban quarters into limited areas that are rich with greenery spaces and parks is not a backward-looking mission.

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