Japanese Law and Government/Local Government
Types of local government
Under the Local Autonomy Act, local public entities (chiho kokyo dantai) are categorized as follows:
- Ordinary local public entities
- Special local public entities
- Special wards
- Local public entity partnerships
- Property districts
- Regional development enterprises
Japan is divided into 47 prefectures.
Most of the prefectures are called ken (県) in Japanese; for instance, Kanagawa Prefecture would be called Kanagawa-ken. There are four exceptions: Osaka-fu, Kyoto-fu, Hokkaido, and Tokyo-to. As a result, the prefectures are collectively referred to as to-do-fu-ken (都道府県).
Before World War II, different laws applied to fu and ken, but this distinction was abolished after the war, and the two types of prefecture are now functionally the same. Hokkaido differs from other prefectures only in that it has regional government offices which carry out functions normally reserved for the prefectural capital; this is due to Hokkaido's great size relative to other prefectures. Tokyo-to, called Tokyo Metropolis in English, is also only slightly different from the other prefectural governments in that it offers some municipal services to the 23 cities, known as tokubetsuku (特別区) or "special wards," forming its urban core.
Villages, towns and districts
Villages or mura (村) are the smallest type of municipality in Japan, and there are no legal requirements to be designated as a village. Prefectural governments may designate municipalities as towns or cho (町). Villages and towns are organized into rural districts called gun (郡) for addressing purposes, but these are not governing entities.
Villages and towns are distinguished from cities in that governance is through meetings called sokai (総会), comprised of all eligible voters within the town or village. However, villages and towns do elect a single head, known as a chocho (町長) in towns or soncho (村長) in villages.
The Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport may designate a villages or town as a city or shi (市) if its population exceeds 30,000; once designated as a city, a municipality is not generally demoted to village or town unless it is broken up.
Cities with more than 200,000 residents can become "special cities" or tokurei shi (特例市). Special cities have additional powers in pollution control, urban planning and outdoor advertising regulation, and receive their own insurance offices,
Cities with more than 300,000 residents, but not large enough to be designated, are given "core city" or chukaku shi (中核市) status. There are currently 36 core cities.
The largest cities in Japan, with populations of over 500,000, are classified as government designated cities or seirei shitei toshi (政令指定都市). As of 2006, fourteen cities have been given this status (Yokohama, Kawasaki, Saitama, Chiba, Shizuoka, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Kitakyushu, Fukuoka, Sendai and Sapporo), and another three cities (Sakai, Niigata and Hamamatsu) are scheduled to be designated as well.
Article 252 of the Local Autonomy Law gives designated cities additional powers in social welfare services for children, the elderly, the disabled, single mothers and others.
Designated cities are further subdivided into wards or ku (区). Wards are not considered to be local public entities (Article 281.1), and mainly exist to fulfill administrative functions of the largest city governments on a more localized level.
Relationship with prefectures
Municipalities and prefectures have separate, independent government structures. Municipalities are designed to provide most local government functions (Article 2.3) while prefectures are designed to provide functions for the larger area encompassing multiple municipalities (Article 2.5).
Municipalities must follow prefectural legislation, and any municipal act in violation of prefectural legislation is considered void (Article 2.16).
The central core of Tokyo is divided into 23 "special wards" or tokubetsu ku (特別区). Despite the deceptive name, these "wards" are very similar to regular cities under Japanese law; in fact, all call themselves "cities" in English.
The ku name comes from the period before World War II when Tokyo was incorporated as a city. After the city was disbanded in 1943, most of its functions were passed down to the ku, while a few others were passed up to the prefectural or "metropolitan" government.
Each ordinary local public entity has an elected assembly (議会 gikai). In towns and villages, citizens may directly govern through a general assembly (総会 sokai) which has similar authority.
Local legislation takes the form of ordinances (条例 jorei). Ordinances have the force of law, but are subordinate to all nationwide law, including statutes, Cabinet orders and ministerial orders. Ordinance-based legislation is a right granted to local authorities under Article 94 of the Constitution, and its particular mechanics are set forth in the Local Autonomy Act.
Citizens have the ability to petition their mayor or governor to introduce a new ordinance or repeal an existing ordinance. Such a demand requires the signatures of no fewer than one fiftieth of the total voting population of the entity (Article 74.1).
The maximum penalties which may be imposed for violating an ordinance are two years of imprisonment and/or one million yen of fines (Article 14.3).
The head (governor or mayor) of a local public entity is elected by the residents of their entity for a term of four years (Article 140). They cannot concurrently serve as a national or local legislator (Article 141) or as an officer of an entity which contracts with the local public entity (Article 142).
The key duties of the head are set forth in Article 149:
- Submission of draft ordinances to the assembly
- Preparation and execution of budgets
- Collection of taxes, fines and other payments
- Review of accounting
- Acquisition, management and disposition of assets, including public facilities
- Retention of public documents
- Other administrative duties
The head may also enact regulations (規則 kisoku) related to their enumerated responsibilities. Regulations are subordinated to ordinances (and therefore to all national law), and the maximum penalty which may be imposed for violations is a fine of 50,000 yen (Article 15.2)
The head further retains reserve powers (専決処分 senketsu shobun) to act on the assembly's behalf in certain situations:
- When the assembly fails to be formed
- When the assembly cannot reach its required quorum
- When there is not enough time to convene the assembly in an emergency
- When the assembly fails to pass a resolution on a necessary action
Acts under these reserve powers must be reported to the next session of the assembly, and require the approval of the assembly at that time in order to remain valid (Article 179).
All local governments also have a certain number of commissions (委員会 iinkai) which have responsibility for certain affairs.
Municipalities and prefectures always have the following four commissions:
- Education Commission
- Election Commission
- Personnel Commission
- Audit Commission
Other commissions are regularly found in prefectures and municipalities. Prefectures generally have a Public Safety Commission responsible for police oversight and a Labor Commission responsible for overseeing labor issues.
Checks and balances
The head of a local government has the ability to veto legislation and return it to the assembly in several circumstances (Article 166 et seq.). The head must veto legislation in the following circumstances:
- When legislation exceeds the authority of the assembly or otherwise violates national law or assembly rules
- When legislation cannot be executed (e.g. because of insufficient funds)
- When administrative, disaster prevention or disease prevention budgets are lowered or eliminated
The head also has discretionary veto power over the enactment or repeal of an ordinance, and over budgetary resolutions.
Following a veto, the assembly must again deliberate and approve the proposed legislation.
No confidence resolutions
The assembly conversely has the ability to vote no confidence in the head of the local government. Such a resolution requires the consent of three-fourths of the assembly, with a quorum of two-thirds present. Following such a resolution, the head of the government has a ten-day window to dissolve the assembly. Should the head fail to do so, the head is automatically removed from office at the end of this period (Article 178).
Citizen checks and balances
Citizens have several enumerated rights to petition local governments.
|Action||Counterparty||Required signatures to initiate||Required response|
|Demand to audit business||Audit committee||1/50 of voting population||Audit must be conducted, and results must be made public|
|Demand to enact or repeal ordinance (other than those imposing taxes or public dues)||Mayor/governor||Assembly must be convened, and ordinance presented to it, within 20 days|
|Demand to remove vice-mayor, vice-governor, election commissioner, audit commissioner or public safety commissioner||1/3 of voting population||Requires approval of 3/4 of assembly members present with a 2/3 quorum|
|Demand to dissolve the assembly||Election management commission||Referendum election must be held and majority approval obtained|
|Demand to remove assembly member|
|Demand to remove mayor/governor|