Local rumblings

Mainichi Shimbun, Saturday 24 February 2001

Local governments raise only 30 percent of their revenues on their own, and depend on the central government for the remaining 70 percent. This fiscal reality has given rise to the phrase 30 percent local autonomy. With the central government forever breathing down the neck of local authorities, it is no wonder that calls are being made for political decentralization.

When Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka stated that he was going to discontinue several dam construction projects, he reminded us that quite a lot can be accomplished at the local level if one sets one's mind to it. Only time will tell whether Nagano Prefecture is ground zero of a political movement that may eventually transform Japan.

Tanaka fired the first shot in his incipient revolution when he declared at a media conference that the construction of concrete dams should be avoided as much as possible ... because they impose a burden on the global environment that cannot be overlooked.

It is not our intention to debate the pros and cons of specific dam construction projects. And we are also aware that some people were offended by Tanaka's language, which seemed to imply that all dams are harmful.

On the other hand, we also believe that many dam projects ought to be given closer scrutiny in light of changes in the economic environment and industrial structure. Any projects that are out of step with the times ought to be reassessed by local residents and other concerned parties.

But Tanaka's plea to move beyond dams stands out because it focuses attention on the burdens imposed by public works projects. Until now, central and local government officials have almost always emphasized the benefits accrued from public works while ignoring associated costs and burdens. Tanaka has recast the debate over public works by addressing issues such as our responsibility to protect the Earth's environment.

The rumblings in Nagano are complemented by the innovative tax schemes that are being hatched at the local level. A year ago, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara suddenly proposed a novel tax on large banks. His suggestion was given a thumbs down by Hiromitsu Ishi, the chairman of the government's Tax Commission.

We also expressed our misgivings but considered his proposal refreshing because it presented a challenge to all those officials in central and local government who had squawked about fiscal crises but whose sense of helplessness had prevented them from taking action.

Not surprisingly, Ishihara's tax proposal sparked a nationwide discussion on new methods of taxing banks, and seemed to have encouraged local governments to come up with other novel ways to generate revenue.

In 1995, we were taken aback when former Tokyo Gov. Yukio Aoshima announced, soon after taking office, that he was going to cancel the World City Exposition, which was to be held on the Tokyo waterfront. But he was unable to follow through on most of his policies, and his reforms fizzled.

Is Tanaka's insistence that we consider the burdens public work projects impose on society simply a manifestation of a revolt whose impact will be felt only in Nagano Prefecture? Or has he started a revolution that will eventually spread throughout the country? Tanaka is acutely aware that the answer to these questions will ultimately depend on whether sincere dialogues will unfold between local residents and their representatives in local assemblies.