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Nobuo Sasaki

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Direction of Large City Reform - Osaka Metropolis Plan

Nobuo Sasaki
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: Political Science

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Large cites are no longer affluent

Historically, large cities have been assumed to be places of wealth and affluence. Even in Japanese politics people focus on provincial cities and agricultural communities, all the time remaining uninterested in the policies of large cities. Indeed, it is often said that rural areas are overrepresented, while in the Tokyo area we do not even know who is responsible for something as important as electric power within the domain of energy policy. In a sense, large metropolitan areas lack management capacity and public governance.

The abandonment of urban policies and the concomitant loss of interest in large conurbation systems due to the illusion of affluence have in fact produced enormous waste and excessive expenditure, which has contributed to Japan's crisis. The social infrastructures of large cities like Tokyo and Osaka, including their water supply and sewerage systems, roads and subways, which were rapidly constructed in the postwar years, are all approaching their moment of renewal in tandem and will require massive investment. Meanwhile, people who used to think that large cities could accept anything are now changing their view as those cities are now caught in a spiral of aging populations and falling birthrates, increasing temporary and part-time work and skyrocketing welfare payments. The urban degeneration once experienced by big cities, such as New York and London, has now become a reality here. Yet in spite of all this, Japanese politicians remain largely unaware of the crisis in our major cities, which they still see as a force for growth. But the reality is different. And the problem is particularly serious in cities like Osaka, which are noticeably in decline.

The up and running Osaka Metropolis Plan

If the country cannot be changed through central government, then change must come from the regions. The Osaka Metropolis Plan, which aims to rationalize the management of metropolitan Osaka, was finally transferred from the drawing board to reality following last year's double election. The idea is to curb Osaka's declining influence by making it more competitive through various reforms. These include abolishing Osaka City and Osaka Prefecture and switching to a new "metropolis system" to revitalize the city.

There is no doubt that in recent years Osaka has lacked leadership. The central area has been controlled by the Osaka city government, while the Osaka prefectural government has, practically speaking, been unable to get involved within Osaka City despite its role in governing the wider area. Prefectural and city facilities abound within the same areas and the services they provide are conspicuous in the way they overlap. Moreover, the governing structures of Osaka City and Osaka Prefecture, with their vast amounts of bureaucracy, exist side by side. It has led to friction between them - sometimes called the Osaka Hundred Years' War - that has generated enormous waste. Boldly streamlining and unifying them into a single Osaka Metropolis would revitalize leadership. The resulting emergence of a stronger Osaka would also help to alleviate the excessive concentration of planning and control in Tokyo.

Incomplete large city systems - The current situation

Of course, opinions on this differ. Some people see the Osaka Metropolis Plan as nothing but political masquerading. Others take the view that even reforming the system will not lead to the revitalization of such a large city. At the core of the issue, however, is the Japanese system of government itself.

Japan has two special systems for handling large cities. One is the government ordinance city system, which treats cities with a population greater than 700,000 as prefectures, and the other is the metropolis system. However, neither system is a complete "large city system", nor do they give much of a free hand to the self-government of large cities. A government ordinance city is merely a "special case large city" of municipalities whose operations are devolved by a special law. Even the metropolis system is a centralized and anomalous self-government system that treats special wards as internal bodies. For instance, a metropolis corresponding to a prefecture will shoulder some of the municipal work, such as water supply and sewerage, fire fighting and transportation. It will also collect property tax, which is the basic source of local government income, and fiscally control its special wards in virtue of its right to levy the property tax.

The reform of this system needs to be done right away, but the government is not taking action. Realistically, is it better to select a government ordinance city or a metropolis system as a model for reform? The answer depends on the objective. A binary administration or dual administration for a large government ordinance city of about two to three million people and a prefecture is intolerable. Wouldn't such a region be better off with a metropolis system? Although the weak autonomy of special wards is an issue, such a system would secure the level of unity needed to run a large city and is more likely to enable the development of a strong large city administration. Perhaps this should also be the focus of the Osaka Metropolis Plan.

What is the key to the Osaka Metropolis Plan realization?

There are people around the world who say that a "metropolis system" is only for a capital city and cannot be applied elsewhere. But existing legislation does not support this view. The possibility of an Osaka Metropolis or Chukyo Metropolis apart from the Metropolis of Tokyo has not been ruled out. The problem in establishing an Osaka Metropolis is how to combine a system of special administrative regions to strengthen the autonomy of citizens with a wider system to secure the unity of this large city and enable strong leadership. This is where the success or failure of the plan lies. A city state model could be selected, not for Osaka Prefecture as a whole but limited to its metropolitan districts, which would become independent from the rest of the prefecture, just as Germany's city states split from their states, and would include wards and counties with juridical personality. This time, however, the aim seems to be a new Osaka Metropolis in which, using the Metropolis of Tokyo as a reference, eight or nine special wards and municipalities coexist within the entire prefectural region.

Commission from Mayor Hashimoto to be a Special Advisor

I am currently under commission as a Special Advisor to Osaka City in regard to the construction of a new system of local government that will form the core of the Osaka Metropolis Plan. But abolishing Osaka Prefecture and Osaka City and establishing a new system of wards within three years is no simple matter. The only historical example is the emergence of the Metropolis of Tokyo, when Tokyo Prefecture and Tokyo City were unified by the wartime government. The current 24 administrative districts of Osaka City will be rearranged into eight special administrative regions, and a basic local government body will be created with a publicly elected leader and assembly. As well as the huge administrative adjustments this entails, including switching over the prefecture and city's internal operations and transferring their personnel to new positions, there are also a number of political hurdles to overcome, namely, both Houses in the National Diet voting to change to an Osaka Metropolis, the National Diet passing relevant laws, and a local public referendum showing majority agreement. It will be a long and hard road for regions to travel by themselves in order to resolve the inconsistencies of large city systems long neglected by the Japanese government.

And yet large cities will decline if nothing is done. Creating a country with regional power requires principles of regional self-determination and autonomy. In this respect, Osaka is a testing ground for the future reform of Japan. If we can leave behind a system of national politics characterized by indecisive government and create a new metropolitan system by ourselves, a wave of reform could spread to other regions and become the trump card in Japan's revival as it confronts this important crossroads and considers how to revitalize its large cities.

Nobuo Sasaki
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: Political Science
Professor Sasaki was born in 1948. He gained a master's degree from Waseda University's Graduate School of Political Science and a PhD in Law from Keio University. After working for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, he became a professor at Seigakuin University in 1989 and a professor at Chuo University in 1994. His area of specialization is urban government administration. His other positions include Chairperson of the Japanese Society for Local Democracy, member (political science) of the Science Council of Japan, and news commentator for the Tokyo MX television station. He has been Special Advisor to Osaka City since February 2012. His publications include: Metropolitan Governor [Tochiji], Chuko Shinsho; The Wider-Area Local Government System [Doushusei], Chikuma Shinsho; Local Assembly Members [Chihougiin], PHP Shinsho; Research in Urban Government Administration [Toshigyouseigaku Kenkyu], Keiso Shobo. He has received the Japan Society for Urbanology Prize and the NHK Regional Broadcast Cultural Award.