Quadrennial unified local elections were held in Japan in April 2023. Polls to elect the leaders and assembly members of prefectures and designated cities were held on April 9, followed by municipal elections on April 23. For the electorate it is a chance to think about local politics, grappling with close at hand issues such as depopulation, an ageing society and a widening gap between rural and urban areas. We asked Professor SUNAHARA Yosuke of the Graduate School of Law, who queries the current system of local politics in his recent book “Fragmented Democracies–Competition and Legitimacy in Japanese Local Politics”, about the issues and electoral system in local politics.

Professor SUNAHARA Yosuke

Book “Fragmented Democracies”

Your book, “Fragmented Democracies” (University of Tokyo Press, published autumn 2022), is in the news. What exactly do you mean by “Fragmented”?

Professor Sunahara:

The photo on the cover of the book is an aerial view of the Osaka metropolitan area but as you cannot see the borders between the individual municipalities you can’t distinguish their territories. Nevertheless, the book’s message is that urban regions like Osaka comprise many municipalities, each pursuing its own brand of internal democracy, and which are unable to manage the urban issues that they all share. In other words, the “Fragmented” in the title refers to the difficulty, under the present system of local politics, for local authorities to solve issues that stretch beyond their own administrative borders. As the main theme for the book, I considered that the real problem we face is that even if municipalities are merged, they still cannot cooperate effectively.

Stalled cooperation between local authorities

Why hasn’t the merger of local authorities led to better cooperation between them?

Professor Sunahara:

There are two fundamental reasons. Firstly, the current system of local politics tends to encourage city mayors and representatives to allocate their government resources in the regions with the aim of election winning. The second reason lies in the relationship between national and local governments. When they need assistance, local authorities find it easier to depend on the state for help rather than on other local authorities. Even if they do collaborate with their neighbors, local authorities in the regions can’t be sure along the way about what type of support they are getting, so they tend to think it is better to depend on state support with its greater degree of certainty. And, as greater control can be applied to those local authorities that have requested support, the state does nothing to change this situation.

Rather than cooperating with each other, it seems that competition between local authorities is intensifying regarding measures such as parenting support to counter depopulation.

Professor Sunahara:

Based on the current system, Japanese local governments are fiercely competing with each other in a limited field. Currently, it is a competition to increase population, most notably. In this competition, local governments do not offer residents a possible balance of services and burdens. I think that competition to promote housing developments and childcare support programs to attract new incoming residents has intensified since factors other than population growth are not considered when evaluating their work. And the pressure of elections also exacerbates this. For example, suppose the financially strong Tokyo Metropolitan Government implements childcare support and subsidies for medical expenses. In that case, voters in other municipalities will want their leaders and councilors to implement similar policies. They partially implement those policies; however, they can only implement these policies with imposing stricter income restrictions compared to Tokyo because they cannot secure sufficient financial resources.

What can local authorities in the regions do to confront inter-municipal issues?

Professor Sunahara:

That’s a good question. To give my own opinion on what I would change, it would just be to actively create political parties across the local government borders. And if there is one more thing, I would give more responsibility to the providers of services that operate across multiple authorities and wider areas, such as water supply, transportation, and waste disposal. One of my future research projects is to dig into this theme. For example, local authorities had to coordinate the admission of patients to hospitals during the recent COVID-19 crisis, but there are more than a few countries attempting to build a system that delegates the hospitals to take responsibility for admitting patients when dealing with infections.

The bigger hospitals in a locality take responsibility for regional health, for which they are given proper authority and funding. The state and local authorities may then worry that the hospitals and doctors who have received that authority and funding will no longer listen to them. However, government responsibility should be realized through the correct selection of professional people rather than using subsidies, etc. as a control. I think it is important that local authorities are not totally responsible for everything, and properly delegate responsibility and authority to those carrying out the mandate. I think that’s what is needed to realize an effective system that transcends local boundaries.

Reconsidering the local election system

In the book, you point out the most important issue in local politics is the necessity for local political parties. The Osaka Restoration Association (One Osaka) is an example that comes to mind, but how do you view the current state and role of such type of party?

Professor Sunahara:

I think it is very difficult to create local political parties under the current electoral system. The Japanese public have gotten used to the Single Non-Transferrable Voting (SNTV) in which each voter has one vote and the candidates individually race for the seats. This electoral system strongly encourages candidates to cultivate personal votes and tends to hinder cooperation between assembly members who got elected. In the high economic growth era, assembly members representing a limited area lobbied and spoke up for their area in local assemblies, and bringing some benefit to the area was welcomed. That type of clientelist relationship is now weakening, especially in the large cities, and, with much of the population having moved across administrative boundaries, it is no wonder they want their assembly members to pursue policies that are not obsessed with one locality. However, collaboration among several assembly members to systematically represent a broad range of voters is difficult in local politics in Japan.

Given all the difficulties of establishing and maintaining a local party, it was remarkable to see the leadership of Toru Hashimoto in creating and leading One Osaka to realize a local referendum for Osaka Metropolitan Initiative. There was however an important factor helping to maintain the local party in Osaka, as the prefectural assembly members are largely elected from small electoral districts. Due to insufficient unification of the designated city wards and merging of local authorities in Osaka prefecture, each election district remained small, and the One Osaka candidates did not have to compete against each other. However, for almost all other local elections, especially in cities, electoral districts are too big to enable local parties to curb internal competition between their candidates, which makes it difficult for local parties to maintain party integration. A local party has also been established in Akashi by the former mayor, but even if all its prospective candidates are elected, they will not form a majority in the city assembly. As that may make it difficult to maintain party unity for future elections, major changes in the city government are not expected to occur easily.

It seems that the April unified local elections saw a slump in voter turnout, shortage of willing candidates, and a lack of interest from young people. For the future of local politics, how should the present electoral system be reconsidered?

Professor Sunahara:

The power of individual votes needs to become clearer. In the present electoral system, it is difficult for voters to feel the sense that the public’s desire for change will lead to changes in local politics. A vicious circle is perpetuated when voters feel individual votes don’t change anything, leading to a drop in voter turnout. At local elections, especially in electoral districts having many seats, the thresholds for winning are very low and candidates might be elected merely by maintaining the support of limited groups within the constituency. Many overseas countries, especially in Europe, are adopting proportional representation (PR) systems even for elections to local legislative assemblies. Although it may be unrealistic to think many strong local parties will suddenly emerge, I think that open-list PR, like that for the PR tier of the House of Councillors, should be introduced for local assembly elections in order for parties to work based on cooperation among assembly members in local politics.


March 2001Graduated from College of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo
March 2006Withdrawal after PhD from Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo
March 2009Acquired PhD
April 2009Associate Professor, Graduate School of Law, Osaka City University
October 2013Associate Professor, Graduate School of Law and Politics, Osaka University
April 2016Associate Professor, Graduate School of Law, Kobe University
August 2016Visiting Associate Professor, Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia
April 2017Professor, Graduate School of Law, Kobe University