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2009年6月18日 (木)


--The Asahi Shimbun, June 17(IHT/Asahi: June 18,2009)
EDITORIAL: Municipal merger plan

The Grand Municipal Consolidation of the Heisei Era, a government-led program that began in 1999 to promote mergers of cities, towns and villages, is nearing its end.

In March 1999, there were 3,232 cities, towns and villages in Japan. By March 2010, the number will have been nearly halved to 1,760.

Back in 1888, the nation had more than 70,000 cities, towns and villages. But the number has since been reduced to one-fortieth through extensive consolidations during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the Showa Era (1926-1989) and now the Heisei Era.

It seems practically every conceivable pattern of municipal merger or consolidation has been tried out over the past decade. Now, the government's strategy of encouraging mergers with tax breaks and other fiscal benefits seems to have reached its limit.
In view of this situation, the Local Government System Research Council, an advisory panel, recommended to Prime Minister Taro Aso on Tuesday that the Grand Municipal Consolidation of the Heisei Era be discontinued at the end of March next year.

When the government began promoting this program in 1999, the reason given was that smaller municipalities, which were experiencing serious depopulation and aging, would not be able to survive without fiscal rationalization through mergers.

The Local Government System Research Council acknowledged that the mergers did help these municipalities and assisted decentralization by enlarging local governments and enabling them to exercise greater independence. As a result, they were able to employ their own healthcare and welfare experts.

But the mergers also created problems. Some municipalities undertook urban renewal projects with specially approved loans granted at the time of merger, only to end up with heavier debt. And for residents who were used to friendly neighborhood village or town offices where everyone knew each other, the merger meant they had to travel far to an impersonal, big-city office.

This sort of discontent surfaced in the April "mini unified local elections," when voters in 17 cities--all products of mergers--voted out their incumbent mayors.
A senior offical at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications admitted, "Overall, people who don't think the mergers were a good thing slightly outnumber those who do."

Given this, it makes sense to stop and take a good, hard look at the situation.

Instead, the nation's major political parties are determined to make "local government reorganization" a central issue in the next Lower House election. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is considering introducing the so-called doshusei system to reorganize the nation's cities, towns and villages into 700 to 1,000 kiso jichitai, or "basic municipalities" with populations ranging from 100,000 to 300,000.

Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan) came up with a plan, when Ichiro Ozawa was president, to consolidate cities, towns and villages into 700 to 800 entities, and eventually reorganize them into about 300 kiso jichitai basic municipalities. With Ozawa now gone, this plan will likely be reconsidered, but the party envisions further extensive mergers all the same.

For any political party trying to sell a reformist image, it certainly helps to bring up the doshusei system and bold reorganization of local governments. We welcome policy debates aimed at ending the current concentration of power in the central government and furthering decentralization.

But if the parties are considering excessive mergers just for the sake of competing on their commitment to reform, that would defeat the purpose of reform itself. We do not want any reorganization that is an end in itself and fails to put the people's welfare first. We expect the parties to engage in policy debates that will tell us exactly how they intend to reorganize the nation in a manner that meets the public's real needs.


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