The new Kansai regional league

This week saw the birth of a new unit of governmental organization in Japan in the form of the Kansai regional league , consisting of the seven prefectures of Shiga, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, Wakayama, Tottori and Tokushima. [ref]Or “alliance,” depending on the newspaper – the translation for 広域連合 does not yet seem to be standardized.[/ref] As population, wealth, and the cultural center of gravity have become increasingly concentrated in the Tokyo region, politicians and pundits have been discussing ways to decentralize administration and revitalize the country’s regions, with one widely discussed proposal from 2006 [ref]Similar proposals had been discussed as early as the 1950s, but the idea does not seem to have been taken very seriously until around 2004.[/ref] taking the form of a plan to reorganize Japan’s 47 prefectures into a number of states.

For legacy reasons, there are at present four different words for Japanese prefectures in Japanese, to, dō, fu, ken : 都道府県 (to is used only for Tokyo, dō is the last syllable in Hokkaidō, the two fu are Osaka and Kyoto, and the other prefectures are all ken) , but they are legally identical at present. Under the proposed state system, all states would be labeled as shū : 州, as for example, US States or provinces in various other countries are – except for Hokkaidō, which would keep its and avoid an embarrassing double classifier. This proposed system is therefore known in Japanese as the dōshūsei : 道州制, with the sei meaning “system.” The number of states varies depending on the exact proposal; for example a 2006 report commissioned by the Prime Minister’s office included variants for 9, 11, and 13 states, and a 2008 report from a group of interested LDP members suggested 9 and 11 state plans, which were slightly different from those of the earlier report. In all cases, the state borders would be largely based on those of the Japanese regions, which are currently only conventional, and not legal, geographic units. Despite the similar terminology, states under the Japanese proposal should not be overly confused with the US equivalent. Where US states are semi-sovereign entities in a federated alliance, Japanese states  would still be administrative units granted a certain amount of delegated authority by a centralized state, much as the current prefectures are. However, since they would both be granted more authority, and would be able to coordinate regional operations and development over a much larger area, they would be able to realize grander and more suitably local plans then has been possible under the current system of an extremely centralized national bureaucracy and relatively weak collection of rather small prefectures. At least, that was the argument being made in favor of the system.

The dōshūsei plan never really went anywhere in the end, partly because the vast majority of the population was uncomfortable with such a massive reorganization of fundamental geographic units, and also because the LDP, the party which contained most of the plan’s supporters, lost control of the government. However, demand for increased regional autonomy remained particularly strong in the Kansai region – which trails the Tokyo (Kanto) region as Japan’s secondary locus of population, industry, and culture/media – not least by Osaka Governor Hashimoto Toru, and so regional politicians came up with a sort of backdoor approach to implementing a more limited form of higher-level regional government.

As the Yomiuri explains:

Business leaders in the region first began calling on the central government to introduce a larger regional administrative system in 1955–the model proposed was termed doshu-sei–but got little satisfaction from the government’s response.

Finally, the Kansai Economic Federation (Kankeiren) turned its attention to the regional league of administrative entities. Introduced by a 1994 revision to the Local Government Law, that system has mainly been utilized by municipal governments for the joint operation of firefighting and garbage disposal services.

Kankeiren came up with the idea of applying the system on a prefectural scale. Such an alliance is allowed under the law if prefectural governments concerned and their assemblies agree among themselves, and receive approval from the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.

Unlike a theoretical dōshūsei state, which would have been delegated a certain, and significant, amount of authority by the central government, the Kansai Regional League is more of a bottom-up organization, and will have to negotiate both internally and with the central government to determine exactly how much authority it will be able to take on – both from above and below.

But it is uncertain how much authority the central government will agree to transfer to the regional league. Central government employees transferred to the regional league would likely see their employee status change from national public servant to local public servant, a condition they are likely to oppose.

Unlike the doshu-sei model, which proposed regional governments that would handle all administration of the area in its jurisdiction, the Kansai league will handle only certain matters.

The regional league will not be able to take any action without the unanimous agreement of the committee members.

Naosumi Atoda, vice president of Kaetsu University, said the Kansai regional league “will not provide leadership as efficiently as [would have been possible under] the doshu-sei system, in terms of how quickly it can implement policy measures.”

But despite the differences, the newly created Kansai Regional League (KRL) is an ideological relative of the dōshūsei plan. The geographical extent of the KRL largely, but not entirely, with the Kinki (近畿) region. To reiterate, the members of the KRL are Shiga, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, Wakayama, Tottori and Tokushima. The Kinki region proper consists of Nara, Wakayama, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyōgo, and Shiga, but the definition of Kansai is looser, and depending on who you ask may include other nearby prefectures such as Mie, Fukui, Tokushima, Tottori, and in extreme cases, even Hiroshima. [ref]At least according to Tokyo-ites, never to Kansai residents.[/ref] Since it does not even include all of the core Kinki prefectures (although Nara, the lone Kinki holdout, is going to participate as an observer and see if they like how it goes), and includes two non-Kinki Kansai prefectures, it is obvious why the KRL is named for Kansai, rather than Kinki.

As for the organization and function of the KRL:

Representatives of five prefectures in the Kinki region, Tottori Prefecture and Tokushima Prefecture will participate in the Kansai league, forming a 20-member assembly.

Each prefecture will dispatch two to five members to the committee, according to their relative population.

Governors of the seven prefectures will set up a committee to decide how to manage the league, which will work on projects judged to be best administered across prefectural borders.

At first, the prefectures will cooperate on issues in seven fields, including tourism and cultural promotion.

The operation of medical helicopter services and storage of emergency food supplies have already been identified as projects to be administered by the league.

Funding for the association will be contributed by the prefectures, with a budget of about 500 million yen planned for fiscal 2011.

I have not been able to find any English language coverage that details what these “seven fields” are, but the Kyoto Shimbun article announcing the launch of the League has a handy list. Interestingly and significantly, the offices in charge of each of these seven fields (subdivided into 31 areas) will be distributed among the member prefectures as follows.

Disaster Prevention: Hyogo
Tourism and Cultural Promotion: Kyoto
Industrial Promotion: Osaka
Medical Treatment: Tokushima
Environmental Protection: Shiga
Testing and Licensing: Osaka
Employee Training: Wakayama

The reasons for some of these choices are obvious. Hyogo, of course, was the site of the awful 1995 earthquake that devastated its main city of Kobe, so they’ve obviously been studying the topic since then. Kyoto is Japan’s center of tourism, and traditional arts and culture. Osaka is the region’s industrial center as well as the largest city with the most infrastructure. Then they get less obvious. I guess Shiga gets the environmental portfolio because they’ve kept Lake Biwa nice and clean? Is Wakayama in charge of employee training so they can go on nice isolated retreats up in Mt. Koya where they can study without distraction? Tokushima is in charge of emergency medical helicopters because… well they needed something! Tottori, for its part, is apparently not in fact a full member, only participating in the Tourism and Cultural Promotion and Medical Treatment fields, which I presume is why they don’t get any portfolio to handle. Maybe when they finally join 100% they can get the office for Desert Land Management, with responsibility and oversight for ALL of the desert in the ENTIRE Kansai region.

It’s unclear where, exactly, this experiment will go. Other regions throughout Japan are watching carefully, waiting to see if Kansai’s lead is worth following, but even much of Kansai is still somewhat unsure. Nara is still merely an observer, Tottori a half-member, and Kyoto – the prideful old capital – is concerned that “regionalism” is just a euphemism for “domination by Osaka.” While the  KRL is trying to negotiate with the national government for both funds and additional delegated power, Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications Katayama Yoshihiro is reluctant to proceed as long as Nara, a core Kansai/Kinki prefecture, is not participating. At present, the national government is willing to hand over responsibility for just 20% of the roughly 500 administrative tasks requested by the KRL. Kyoto Prefecture Governor Yamada Keiji, an unaffiliated politician who was amazingly supported by the LDP, DPJ, and Komeito for his third term criticized the DPJ sharply for not living up to their promises to promote local autonomy, while Shiga Governor Kada Yukiko [ref]Unaffiliated, ran for governor in opposition to LDP, DPJ, JCP, Komeito, with SDP support on a platform of ending wasteful public works spending.[/ref] snarked that “The DPJ is retreating quite a bit lately.”

9 thoughts on “The new Kansai regional league”

  1. I’m missing something in this statement:

    “Under the proposed state system, all states would be labeled as shū : 州, as for example, US States or provinces in various other countries are – except for Hokkaidō, which would keep its ō and avoid an embarrassing double classifier.”

    Why not just use the ō classifier for all the proposed states? And why isn’t the shū classifier not embarrassing for Kyushu should it become a state (I don’t recall the length of the second u in Kyushu, but Kyushu-shū would sound odd either way)?

  2. @ Michael, I think he meant “Hokkaidou would still be Hokkaidou, and not Hokkaidou-shuu”.

    @Roy – actually, To, Dou, Fu and Ken are not all legally identical. For example, in Tokyo-to all
    local taxes are routed up to the prefectural government and then redistributed down to the various towns, wards and cities. This is not the case in Ken and Fu, which is one reason why Gov. Hashimoto of Osaka-fu has argued for making Osaka into Osaka-to, so you would not have Osaka-shi running its own unique infrastructure as redundant to Osaka-fu infrastructure. But that can only legally be achieved (under the system as it exists now) if Osaka changes to a “to” from a “fu.”

    Fu and ken are basically interchangeable, with the difference being largely moot now (although it did mean something in the Meiji period, apparently), and dou also being largely synonymous with ken and fu although if memory serves there is some unique connection to the central government that only Hokkaido has and which the others don’t? I think this also means Hokkaido gets some tax funds by virtue of being Hokkaido, and it would not get those if it was “Hokkai-ken”? I seem to have learned that somewhere, but they say memory is the first to go.

    I forget what the second to go is…

  3. @Michael: Sorry about that, LB is correct; I accidentally erased the “d” from dō when I pasted the ō character in. As for Kyushu (九州), you’ll note that the “shu” there is the same one used to label states, 州. I’m not entirely clear, but I think that under the doshu system, Kyushu would still be called “Kyushu”, not “Kyushu-shu.” Of course, this then raises the question of how translations into English and such would work. Would 関西州 be translation as “Kansai-shu” or “The State of Kansai” or whatever?

    LB: If you enclose comment text in parentheses within the same block then WordPress treats it as strikethrough. I fixed your comment for you.

    As far as I can tell, there is absolutely no legal distinction between 都道府県 as such, as far as the national law on local governments is concerned ( Yes, Tokyo and Hokkaido are anomalous in some ways, but I believe that is due to both their internal legal structure and to other legal arrangements they have with the national government, and not – strictly speaking – due to the fact that they are a “to” and a “dou.”

    Hashimoto does have a plan for reorganizing Osaka-fu into Osaka-to ( but as far as I can tell, the name change is completely irrelevant except as a signifier of the reorganization. It may be true that action from the national government, as well as of Osaka-fu and its constituent municipalities, would be legally required, but I am fairly sure that there is absolutely no legal reason that this reorganization could not be implemented while still retaining the “fu” designation. I think the name change suggestion is arbitrarily included in the plan just because his desired government structure is modeled after Tokyo-to.

  4. Great post, and it will be fun to see where this experiment goes. A few comments:

    1. I think “Regional Consortium” is the translation that I saw in one scholarly article on this topic, which I think prefer. You are right in that it was introduced to create a framework for cross-entity cooperation that, with a few isolated examples, never went anywhere.

    2. On that note, 広域連合 isn’t the only part of the 地方自治法 that is essentially unused. A handful of random frameworks were inserted into the law for institutions and systems that have basically never arisen. For example, the 国地方係争処理委員会 — State and Local Dispute Resolution Committee, or something like that — has cost the taxpayers a billion yen since it was set up. It has a standing committee of five members, appointed by the government with the consent of both houses of the Diet, yet has only handled two disputes in its decade-long history (and rejected the claims by local governments in both cases).

    3. “As far as I can tell, there is absolutely no legal distinction between 都道府県 as such, as far as the national law on local governments is concerned.”

    Correct. The only differences is that, while all prefectures have the ability to set up 支庁 under the law, until the Koizumi-era, Hokkaido was the only prefecture to use it as an effective form of sub-prefectural administration.

    4. The idea that the central government doesn’t want to give the new Kansai Union extra powers because Nara isn’t a part of the new union is indefensible — especially after the years of pro-autonomy rhetoric by the DPJ. This is a great new initiative by the local governments that should be applauded.

  5. Thanks Curzon, I was hoping to get some confirmation soon on those assertions from one of the lawyers.

    Incidentally, it occurred to me a little after I write the post, when I was reading an article about some sort of transit news back home that this situation reminded me a bit of “interstate compacts” in the United States. Although the framers clearly had interstate compacts in mind when drafting the Constitution (since article 1: section 10 has a provision requiring congressional assent for their creation) none was actually created until the Transportation Authority of New York and New Jersey was formed in 1921. However, once that bridge was crossed – err no pun intended – they were established for all sorts of reasons and now there are a substantial number ( :: Wikipedia lists about 20, no idea how incomplete that is, but it at least misses the Drivers License Agreement that replaces the Drivers License Compact.)

  6. The differences between the four types of prefecture date back to before the 1947 local autonomy revamp. Tokyo-to was set up in 1943 when the national government consolidated the city and prefecture of Tokyo and put them both under direct national control; Hokkaido was also a nationally administered territory before the end of the war, analogous to Sakhalin and the League of Nations mandates in Micronesia. “Fu” go back to the very beginning of the Meiji era — they were conceived as a way to distinguish bakufu-ruled zones (major cities and treaty ports) from local daimyo-ruled zones.

    It’s sort of like how some American states call themselves “commonwealths” even though the distinction means absolutely nothing today.

  7. The Kinki region proper consists of Nara, Wakayama, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyōgo, and Shiga, but the definition of Kansai is looser, and depending on who you ask may include other nearby prefectures such as Mie, Fukui, Tokushima, Tottori, and in extreme cases, even Hiroshima.

    Isn’t it the other way around? I always thought that Kansai was the core collection of Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, and Kobe, while Kinki was a larger (non-defined, even by convention) region including Shiga, Mie, Tokushima, and even Fukui.

    As a friend of mine who now lived in Tondabayashi and works for Panasonic explained to me, “people in Shiga think they are part of Kansai, but they really are not.”

    While folks in Tsuruga speak with a strong Kansai-like dialect, they don’t self-identify as being part of Kansai. Funnily enough, people from Tsuruga just identify with Tsuruga, rather than with Wakasa (people in Obama, who speak with a strong Kyoto accent) or with Fukui (people from the old Echizen domain further north, who speak with a weird Tohoku/Hokuriku dialect that disappears once you reach Ishikawa).

    Anyway, whether or not people in Fukui or other neighbouring prefectures identify with Kansai, they are all focused economically and culturally on that region, so it’s fair to identify them as being part of Kinki, especially Shiga.

  8. Great story, I’ve learned a lot with this post and subsequent comments.

    I guess Shiga gets the environmental portfolio because they’ve kept Lake Biwa nice and clean?

    On a lighter note, yesterday’s Asahi Shinbun (Kyoto edition) was running a story on a new study which found that Lake Biwa’s biodiversity has decreased by half in the last years, so not really confident on Shiga’s ability on handling her natural resources.

  9. The current disaster crisis has led to what I think is the first operation of significance by the Kansai Regional Consortium, which is using their disaster management office to coordinate response by all member prefectures.

    Statement from Osaka Prefecture Governor Hashimoto:


Comments are closed.