[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Decentralization can be beneficialThere is no Kansai State in Japan because Japan has no states. Instead, Japan has 47 prefectures, with each prefecture having a number of cities, towns and, in the case of Tokyo, wards. The idea of creating a wide region-based level of government suggests discontent over the current setup that offers interesting perspectives on recent discussions of decentralization in Korea.
Today, Kansai is a region comprising of nine prefectures in and around the Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto area. The region has 24,000,000 people, or 19 percent of the national population, but only 11 percent of the land area. It accounts for 19 percent of the GNP of Japan, and would rank as the eighth largest economy in the world if it were an independent country. Ever since the capital moved from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1868, Kansai has viewed itself an economic and cultural counterweight to the growing influence of Tokyo. The decade-long slump has hit the Kansai economy harder than any other region, which has hardened its discontent with national policy from Tokyo.
The idea of a Kansai State has been tossed about in the media for years, but the most concrete ideas emerged from a meeting of Kansai corporate executives and civic leaders earlier this month. The proposal calls for close cooperation among the prefectural governments in economic and infrastructural development as well as in developing detailed proposals to change laws to give states legal status in Japan. By putting economic cooperation before formal political integration, the process of creating Kansai State mirrors that of European integration.
Discontent with the hegemony of Tokyo can be found in other regions of Japan. The northern island of Hokkaido has long asserted its regional identity. The southern island of Kyushu has strong regional identity and is actively pursuing regional cooperation. The southernmost island of Okinawa, meanwhile, has a complex relationship with Tokyo that is troubled by the history and the presence of a large number of U.S. military installations.
The contrast with discussions of decentralization in Korea is interesting. The push to create a Kansai State is a bottom-up regional movement, whereas discussions about decentralization in Korea have come top-down from president-elect Roh Moo-hyun and his aides. Politicians and media commentators in Korea have spoken up for decentralization, but their efforts have rarely stirred sustained public interest. Likewise, regional political and business leaders in Korea rarely band together to advocate decentralization, and even if they do, most of their efforts are overlooked. In Japan, the private sector has taken a leading role in pushing decentralization through appeals to the media and politicians.
Discussions about Kansai State refer less to examples of decentralization in other countries than recent discussions in Korea. This suggests a confidence that Kansai and the rest of Japan can develop an acceptable model of decentralization without relying heavily on examples from other countries to bolster the argument. That confidence itself has deep historical roots because Japan, unlike Korea, was not unified into a centralized state until 1868. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), the Tokugawa family developed an elaborate system of control, but management of most domains remained in the hands of local feudal lords. The domains outside Tokugawa rule acted almost as independent nations. Decen-tralization in Japan, then, means a return to historical norms.
If regions lack experience, human resources, and, above all, the vision and confidence, to take over from the central government, then decentralization creates more problems than it solves, at least in the near term. Though bottom-up decentralization has yet to produce results in Japan, the vision and confidence are there, ready to take over when Tokyo lets go. The implication for Korea is clear: Ready the regions first.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser