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Editorial: Put the spirit of equality between nat'l, local gov'ts into practice

A state is created by bringing together multiple communities in which people already live. Then what kind of relationship should national and local governments have with each other?

    There have been two major changes in relations between the national and local governments in postwar Japan. First, the postwar Constitution that provides for the direct elections of mayors, governors and local assembly members abolished the prewar system under which the central government appointed governors. Still, a hierarchy has effectively remained in the relationship between the national and local governments.

    The centralized system of government eventually reached a deadlock, instead making the diversity and autonomy of local governments necessary. The Omnibus Decentralization Act came into force in 2000 to address these issues. The law, which equalized the relationship between the central and local governments, was a demand of the times.

    However, a confrontation between the national and Okinawa prefectural governments over the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within the prefecture has raised questions as to what an equal relationship truly means.

    Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga revoked his predecessor's permission for the central government's reclamation of an area off the Henoko district of the prefectural city of Nago to build a substitute facility for the Futenma base. In response, the central government initiated an administrative subrogation action to invalidate the governor's decision. In other words, the national government is aiming to exercise authority on behalf of the local government.

    The Omnibus Decentralization Act abolished administrative functions imposed upon local governments by the central government, and the national government had not invoked administrative subrogation procedures since then.

    The Okinawa Prefectural Government then launched a lawsuit accusing the central government of infringing on the prefectural government's autonomous rights. The national government's high-handed manner runs counter to the trends of decentralization.

    The issue of the lopsided concentration of U.S. bases in Japan in its southernmost prefecture is complicated by various circumstances, including history. However, the issue should be reconsidered not as a problem unique to Okinawa, but from the angle of the extent to which the national government respects the will of all local bodies.

    Such is also the case with nuclear power. The national government and electric companies are moving to restart idled nuclear plants without implementing sufficient measures to ensure safety or disaster countermeasures, even though less than five years have passed since the March 2011 outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. In restarting the plants, the central government and utilities have shown to have little concern for local residents' understanding and consensus among local communities and the municipalities near atomic power stations.

    It is certainly difficult to consider how to view conflicts between national and local governments. Basic policies, such as security and energy policies that are closely related to national sovereignty, are left to the authority and discretion of the central government.

    Still, it is wrong for the national government to try to resolve clashes between the state's logic and local governments' right of autonomy and local residents' will through the enforcement of a hierarchical power structure. The conflict between the national and Okinawa prefectural governments has continued to spiral further downward as a result.

    Local residents' understanding of the ties between the central and local governments is also changing. Ten years have passed since a local referendum was held in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in 2006, over the pros and cons of the city hosting U.S. Navy carrier aircraft. The spread of resident participation in decision-making is accelerating. As such, it is necessary to create rules under which the national and local governments will be required to respect each other's arguments and build consensus.

    What should be realized as early as possible is a guarantee of local bodies' right to file a petition and demand consultations in cases where they are in conflict with the national government's policies.

    Japan's judicial system has no equivalent to the administrative tribunals in European countries to resolve disputes between central and local governments. This is why in 2000, the Central and Local Government Dispute Management Council was set up.

    However, the council is an arm of the Internal Affairs and Communication Ministry, which is a part of the executive branch of the national government. The panel dismissed the petition that the Okinawa Prefectural Government had filed to block the relocation of Futenma base without even deliberating it. There are limits to the panel's ability to respect local bodies' opinions and arbitrate disputes between national and local governments. What is needed is a highly independent body where local governments' objections to the national government's policies will be heard.

    Article 95 of the Constitution stipulates that a special law, applicable only to certain local governments, cannot be enacted by the Diet without the consent of the majority of local residents in a referendum. The central government does not interpret this clause as applicable to the Okinawa base issue. However, Sota Kimura, an associate professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University and a constitutional expert, argues that the clause should apply to measures that limit the right of local autonomy or affects the future of local communities, such as the construction of U.S. bases or high-level radioactive waste disposal facilities.

    No law requiring consent from concerned local governments in a referendum under Article 95 of the Constitution has been enacted for at least 60 years. However, this constitutional provision is effective in forcing the central government to squarely face local residents. It is necessary for citizens to consider using the provision not only to block the national government from implementing measures that are unfavorable to them, but also to form consensus.

    There, too, are problems with local governments' responses to conflicts between the national government and other local governments. Local governments should view the situation in Okinawa, which reflects the national government's disregard for local autonomy, as a challenge to all local bodies. However, few local governments have questioned the central government's confrontation with Okinawa over the base relocation issue, or expressed solidarity with Okinawa.

    Keio University professor Yoshihiro Katayama, who previously served as internal affairs and communications minister, is highly critical of the situation. "Other local bodies are turning a blind eye to the conflict. The situation is similar to children's bullying," he says. Other local governments should take a firm stand against the central government.

    It is necessary for the national and local governments to work hard to create rules governing their relationships with each other that are appropriate in this age of decentralization. The time is ripe to hold far-reaching discussions on how to build an equal relationship between the central and local governments.

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