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Records show gov't guiding discussion on local autonomy panel

This screen capture shows an internal affairs ministry website providing outlines of discussions at the ministry's research panel on local assemblies. (Mainichi)

Records of discussions at a Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications panel obtained by the Mainichi Shimbun show details of exchanges that were excluded from a version made public by the ministry.

The records depict a senior ministry official leading discussions at a closed-door panel on the future of municipal assemblies toward the direction the ministry was aiming for.

Local legislatures across Japan have faced increasing difficulties attracting enough members to fill their seats, due mainly to depopulation and aging, especially in the countryside. Some municipalities have considered the option of replacing their assemblies manned by fulltime elected legislators with general councils of all registered voters.

The issue of a general council was supposed to be one of the major themes to be discussed at the research panel, as then Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi told a press conference in June last year, just before the panel was set up, that the body would indeed talk about that particular subject.

However, according to undisclosed records for the panel's first meeting on July 27, 2017, Shigetaka Yamasaki, director-general of the ministry's Local Administration Bureau, said, "I am very reluctant about (establishing) a general council," expressing a negative view about the rule- and decision-making option for municipalities. Yamasaki was not among the eight members of the panel, but he attended every meeting as an "organizer."

In the third meeting on Oct. 20, the ministry abruptly presented its draft proposal regarding legislative bodies for local municipalities. One option was a legislature formed by a small number of fulltime members, and the other was a rule-making body staffed by many part-time legislators. Some members sounded surprised by the ministry's move, with one member asking, "Are you trying to rush this?"

Then in the fourth meeting on Nov. 21, Yamasaki was quoted as saying, "We're going to include the set (of two options) in the (panel's) report. You must make decisions for smaller bodies (municipalities)." Eventually the panel report was compiled within the framework described in the ministry's draft proposal.

The report published March 26 of this year dismissed the general council because "the system was created in the Meiji era (1868-1912) when the number of voters was limited, and it is difficult to implement in a modern society with many voters." Instead, it proposed the two options for local legislatures outlined in the Oct. 20 meeting.

The proposals faced criticism from mayors and governors across the nation because they were compiled without listening to the opinions of municipal assemblies, and included factors such as weakening the authority of local legislatures by depriving them of the power to decide on contracts and property disposition.

Regarding the ministry's decision to shut off the panel's discussions behind closed doors, Meiji University professor Tokumi Odagiri, a specialist on local governance who chaired the panel, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "The secretariat (ministry) had very strong intentions to review the system of local autonomy from scratch, including easing the dual representation arrangement (of electing both heads of local governments and assembly members)."

Odagiri continued, "The secretariat indicated that they wanted the (panel's) discussion to be carried out in a quiet environment without outside influence, and I also judge that appropriate."

The Mainichi Shimbun requested an interview with Yamasaki. But his subordinate, Hiromi Yoshikawa, who heads the ministry's Local Administration Division, responded instead, and explained that research panels at the Local Administration Bureau "are having free and vigorous discussions with ministry officials participating."

University of Tokyo professor Toshiyuki Kanai commented that while it is acceptable for a government ministry to set a direction for discussions at its research panel, it is problematic that the exchange was done behind closed doors. "Masking who said what and publishing outlines of discussions appearing to show that only experts spoke can be described as manipulation of impression," said the professor, adding that all records, including voice recordings, should be disclosed.

(Japanese original by Satoshi Kusakabe, General Digital News Center)

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