A host of local governments across Japan are actively working out their own measures and making media announcements as they scramble to respond to the novel coronavirus pandemic and its fallout on the regional economy.
While the national government is required to indicate basic principles for crisis management, local governments actually have many roles to play. The state should flexibly adopt local bodies' measures that are full of ingenuity and insight and build a constructive relationship with them.
In tackling the coronavirus crisis, local authorities appeared to have gotten ahead of the national government in mapping out a series of countermeasures.
The government of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost prefecture, heralded the move to ask residents to refrain from going out at the end of February to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government devised a system to pay what it calls "cooperation money" to businesses that have temporarily shut down in response to the capital's request. The government of Osaka Prefecture in western Japan was also quick to make it a basic rule to accommodate coronavirus carries with mild symptoms at hotels.
In the meantime, there was some confusion between the national and local governments in the process of issuing a state of emergency. The epitome of such conflicts was the one between the central and Tokyo governments over which businesses to request temporary closures to, which resulted in a waste of time.
Under the revised special measures law on new types of influenza and other infectious diseases, the central government is supposed to put together a basic plan and leave its operation to prefectural governors in principle. In reality, however, it is sometimes unclear who holds the ultimate authority, or there are cases where the law's provisions do not match the actual state of affairs. It will be necessary to review the arrangement down the road.
That said, we cannot support discussions that are aimed at unnecessarily beefing up state control.
In spite of these unprecedented circumstances, local governments have been responding to them in a relatively flexible manner. While the national government has adamantly refused to pay compensation to businesses that complied with temporary closure requests, the cooperation money system devised by the Tokyo government was adopted by many other prefectures. Just when the state was lagging behind in conducting polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, the governments of Wakayama Prefecture in western Japan and Yamagata Prefecture to the north aggressively implemented PCR testing on residents.
Behind the swift moves lie the prefectural governments' proximity to local residents in grasping their specific needs and flexibly addressing them. Central government ministries and agencies, on the other hand, are plagued by red tape and rigidity.
As decentralization of power has progressed, local bodies have undertaken a wide range of practical tasks. Amid the outbreak, many heads of local governments have been explaining the situation to their residents in their own words. It can be said that this reflects the narrowing gap between the central and local governments in their comprehensive capacity.
Certainly, there are limits to what local bodies can do on their own in managing a crisis. There are concerns over the central government leaving the responsibility entirely to local bodies, or local government chiefs prioritizing their regional interests. There will be an increasing number of cases that require coordination by the central government over issues where conflict of interest arises in regions.
Yet it is of great significance that the diversity of local bodies is now working positively in this time of emergency. The central government should respect the roles of local governments and try to maintain good communication with them.