EDITORIAL: Government's decentralization policy lacking full commitment
The government on March 22 announced its basic policy on the relocation of central government ministries and agencies to outside the greater Tokyo metropolitan area. Now, we have to wonder how serious the government was in the first place about its relocation plans.
As part of the Abe administration's much touted regional revitalization initiative, the government had widely called on prefectural governments to host the central government ministries and agencies that were being considered for relocation.
But, as it turned out, only the Agency for Cultural Affairs will be moving from Tokyo to Kyoto for certain in a few years.
The government will conduct further studies and make its final decision by the end of August regarding the relocation of the Consumer Affairs Agency and the Statistics Bureau of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which have been invited, respectively, by Tokushima and Wakayama prefectures.
But as for the relocation of the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency, the Patent Office, the Japan Tourism Agency and the Japan Meteorological Agency, in which five prefectures have shown interest, the government decided not to pursue the matter any further, noting that "these agencies' functions cannot be expected to be maintained or improved" by moving them out of Tokyo.
Also, many local governments had offered to host various research and training institutions that are now in Tokyo, but only one institution will be fully relocating.
Japan's declining population renders the decentralization of government functions an urgent matter. Shigeru Ishiba, the minister in charge of regional revitalization, pointed out the symbolic significance of doing so when he said, "The government cannot make any persuasive case (in favor of the relocation of its ministries and agencies) if it doesn't do anything about it and only asks businesses to move out of Tokyo."
But such an argument seems to have petered out.
The biggest problem seems to be that the government lacked any big-picture perspective on how to redefine government functions in their entirety.
Without a clear, firm idea of which ministries and agencies should be relocated where, the relocation policy lacks substance.
Ministry and agency officials are kept busy by Diet-related duties, and the adverse effects of forcing them to commute long hours have been discussed for years. Such concerns should have led to discussions on coordinating inter-ministerial responsibilities and transferring functions that do not have to be carried out in Tokyo to outside the capital.
But discussions within the government were effectively limited only to how to maintain the current functions after the ministries or agencies move out of Tokyo, and failed to address broader issues, such as organizational reforms.
The government's just-announced relocation policy includes the reinforcement or even creation of local offices of some of the ministries and agencies. This gives us concern that the government may even be thinking of organizational expansion.
The Cultural Affairs Agency, which is the only entity relocating out of Tokyo, is a successful case of the Kyoto business community's persistent efforts to bring the agency there. Kyoto is the heart of Japan's traditional culture. We hope the parties concerned will carefully proceed with the relocation, with close attention to every detail, to ensure that the agency will take advantage of being located in Kyoto and enrich the administration of cultural affairs.
Under Minister Taro Kono, the Consumer Affairs Agency is as interested as the Cultural Affairs Agency in moving out of Tokyo. However, its planned relocation to Tokushima Prefecture has been put on the back burner for now "for fear that the move may negatively affect the agency's intended function as a consumer protection organ."
We hope the final decision will be made after thorough debate, not in a top-down manner, so that the public will support the decision.
It is unfortunate that the most powerful ministries were never considered for relocation, and there were no offers from regional governments to host them, either.
The announcement of the government's relocation policy should not be the cue for ending all conversations on the subject. We must continue striving to define the sort of government organizations that meet the needs of our times.