Nagoya City Hall
Nagoya City Hall in Japan

The role and importance of Japan’s local government is enshrined in the Japanese national constitution. Written in 1946, and effective the following year, Article 92 of the Constitution states, “Regulations concerning organization and operations of local public entities shall be fixed by law in accordance with the principle of local autonomy.” What this means in practice is that local governments have a duty to exercise a measure of independence from the national government regarding the manner in which they operate.

As stipulated in the “Local Autonomy Law,” adopted by the National Diet (Japan’s national bicameral legislative body) in 1947, local governments elect their legislators to make policy decisions and, separately, the chief executive, who is responsible for the administration of government. Because of the Constitutional structure, local governments cannot be abolished wholesale and the principle of separating the legislative and executive functions of government is fixed with the Local Autonomy Law providing for the basic structure of local government by identifying the type of government, who the residents are, the organization of the legislative assemblies, the executive agencies, and how finances are administered. In addition to these provisions, the law describes the relationship of local governments to the national government and to other local governments. This article explores this structure of local government in Japan.

Prefectures and Municipal Governments

The first thing to note is that sub-national government in Japan is divided into two parts: prefectures and municipal governments. Prefectures operate as regional governments and municipalities operate as a basic local unit. Of note, counties in Japan are simply geographical areas and have no governance structure. The arrangement of government—national, regional, and local—is similar to a more centralized system of government.

Nevertheless, prefectures and municipal governments are not administrative units of the central government. Instead, they are incorporated entities recognized in law as “individuals.” As a result, their governing bodies are directly responsive to the residents within their jurisdiction. They have a unicameral elected assembly that determines policy making and an elected chief executive that is responsible for the administration of those local laws and laws enacted by the National Diet, which grants their authority to undertake a variety of services on behalf of their residents. Moreover, the principle of autonomy is bolstered by what is known in Japan as a “comprehensive authorization” rather than a restrictive enumeration of powers.

Notably, the boundaries reflect the existing situation at the time of the adoption of the new Constitution and local autonomy law in 1947. And so, the number of prefectures has remained stable at 47 since that time. Although there are provisions for “annexation and de-annexation” in the original law, no new municipality may be created by right nor eliminated so as to create an unincorporated area.

Prefectures range in population from Tokyo Metropolitan Government with approximately 13.7 million to Tottori Prefecture, with just over 500,000. In land area, they range in size from Hokkaido Prefecture with nearly 30,900 square miles to Kagawa Prefecture with approximately 770 square miles. Regarding municipalities, the variation is even greater. Yokohama has a population of almost 3.75 million, while the small village of Aogashima has only 159 people.

While the number of prefectures has remained the same since 1888, when the modern system began during the Meiji restoration period of Japanese history, municipalities are a different story. Before the new municipal system began in 1889, there was a great amalgamation of municipal governments (called the Great Meiji Consolidation). More than 70,000 cities, towns, and villages were merged into about 15,000 municipalities. After World War II, municipal governments were given an expanded role and authority to provide services to their residents as Japan experienced a large-scale increase in urbanization. However, the strain on municipalities’ ability to provide these services took its toll and led to a second great wave of mergers from 1953 to 1961—referred to as the Great Showa Consolidation—which reduced the number of municipalities to approximately 4,000. Finally, in the years 1999 to 2010—in what is referred to as the Great Heisei Consolidation—the number of municipal governments was reduced even further to just over 1,700.

While the consolidation of municipal governments has created tremendous variety for the ways in which local governments meet the needs of the people, the powers given to both prefectures and municipal governments have remained essentially the same for the past 75 years. So, regardless of land area or population, prefectures and municipalities, in their separate spheres of authority, exercise uniform administrative functions both as to content and standards. It is interesting to note that some states in the United States undertake a similar approach. New Jersey, for example, classifies all its cities, towns, boroughs, townships, and villages as municipal governments, gives them the same powers, and requires the same responsibilities of them all. So, the city of Newark with a population of more than 300,000 has the same responsibilities as the borough of Tavistock with a population of only 13.

Ordinary and Special Governments

Needless to say, not all municipal governments are the same regardless of the apparent uniformity that exists in Japan. From a structural point of view, governments are divided into two types—ordinary (or general) and special (which includes proprietary functions and special districts). Municipal governments are divided into 792 cities, 743 towns, and 183 villages. So, classification becomes the means by which adjustments are made for the differences that show up among municipal governments. First, cities are required to have a population of 50,000 or more residents. Towns and villages have no pre-set population requirements. Generally, towns are more urban than villages but that makes no difference in their respective responsibilities.

In Japan, prefectures and municipal governments are independent of each other, and there is no hierarchical relationship. Each has different functions, though prefectures can ‘advise’ municipal governments from a regional perspective on a variety of matters.

The types and level of services offered by cities varies widely based primarily on population. The Local Autonomy Law, therefore, establishes further key classifications of cities. The largest cities are classified as ‘designated’ cities. Generally, this designation applies to cities with a population of more than one million, though technically any city with a population of 500,000 or more can be classified as such. By April 2019 there were 20 “designated cities.” The importance of this designation lies in the powers granted to the city. In many spheres, they have expanded sphere of operations similar to the powers of a prefecture in providing public education, social programs, public works, business licensing, and planning/development.

The next classification is what are known as “core cities.” These are cities that have a population of over 200,000. In April 2019 there were 58 “core cities.” Again, they have certain enhanced powers that may be similar to “designated cities,” except for the fact that prefectures may handle such matters more efficiently. Cities make an application to the national government to be designated as a “core city,” with the final approval determined by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. Included in this classification is what are known as “former special cities.” The category “special cities” has been abolished, but they keep their classification and authority. As of April 2019, there are 27 “former special cities.”

Lastly, there are also three types of “special governments” in Japan. First, within the prefecture of Tokyo Metropolitan Government, there are 23 “special wards,” which operate as cities, except for certain services that are provided by Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Secondly, there are “local public cooperatives." These are formed by two or more municipal governments to provide a service that would be more efficiently undertaken collaboratively than by a single municipal government. Finally, there are “public property districts,” whose primary function is to manage a public property asset of the local community.

The Legislative Function

Regardless of the type of size of the municipality, the operation of municipal government is consistent. The legislative function consists of a single chamber, called the “assembly,” which is made up of democratically elected members. The assembly is the policy-making body of the municipal government. The number of assembly members is determined by ordinance of the local government, and the term of office assembly members is four years.

The assembly is directly responsible for making certain government meets the needs of the residents and is held to account for policies and actions of the local government. Only members of the assembly and the chief executive may submit bills to be voted on, and the assembly adopts the municipal budget and passes all ordinances that govern the municipality. Additionally, the assembly has authority to inspect every aspect of the administration of the local government even though the administration is overseen by a separately elected executive. The assembly can review documents and request reports from the executive branch, investigate the actions of staff, and demand the appearance of people to testify at its hearings. The assembly generally holds four sessions per year to undertake its business, although special sessions may be called to deal with specific issues.

The Chief Executive

The chief executive—in the case of a municipality, the mayor—is likewise elected by the residents of the municipality to a four-year term of office. As the title indicates, the chief executive is responsible for all executive functions of the city. The chief executive has general control over all executive agencies and is responsible for preparing the budget for consideration by the assembly, and for implementing the adopted budget. While the assembly must adopt the budget, it may only reduce the chief executive’s requests and cannot add new items to it.

Notably, the government administration also includes the creation of “administrative committees.” In Japan, the administrative committees consist of Education, Elections, Personnel, Agriculture (mainly in rural areas), Public Facilities, and Auditing. The Public Safety Commission is reserved specifically to prefecture governments since municipalities have no role for police. Even though these committees are responsible for the daily operations in their specific subject areas, the mayor has overall responsibility for their work.

Like the mayor-council form of government in the United States, the chief executive has the power to veto resolutions made by the assembly. This veto power is exercised in two ways. First, in a general sense, where the chief executive objects to resolutions passed by the assembly. This veto is usually in those circumstances where there is a policy difference. The assembly, of course, can override the veto, subject to certain specific conditions. Secondly, the chief executive is mandated to veto certain actions of the assembly that are considered to be illegal on their part, which is somewhat unique in terms of veto power.

This separation of powers between legislative and administrative functions is similar to U.S. presidential structure. However, similar to the Parliamentary form of government, Japan empowers the assembly to have a check on the chief executive through the provision of a “no confidence” vote. In the situation where the executive and the assembly are at odds, the assembly may hold a vote of “no confidence” in the chief executive. If successful, the chief executive can dissolve the assembly and call for election for a new assembly. In the end, this impasse is resolved by the residents of the city at an election to select their assembly members to make certain their current views on the matter are supported. Should the reconstituted assembly pass a second vote of no confidence, then the chief executive is removed from office.

We see many similarities in Japan’s local government structure and democratic governments throughout the world. The primary tenet of local government is assuring autonomy at the local level. Such an emphasis recognizes that the needs of people vary across the country, and that the local government is best positioned to meet the unique needs of the people within their jurisdiction.

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