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Kansai alliance and decentralization in Japan

The expanded Kansai regional alliance, which has the promise of becoming the first such organization to achieve efficient administration beyond prefectural boundaries, is hard at work.

In this connection, there is no need to be obsessed with prefectural administrative borders in effect since the Meiji era (1868-1912). Transport conditions and the communications environment have changed drastically since then. We have high expectations for the independent initiative taken by the alliance, which could lead the way into an era of decentralization.

The alliance’s budget for fiscal 2011, starting in April, has been set at about 470 million yen and will be shouldered jointly by alliance members ― five prefectures in the Kinki region, except Nara, plus Tottori and Tokushima prefectures. The seven member prefectures will be allotted projects to be promoted by the alliance in an integrated manner.

About 210 million yen ― nearly half of the alliance’s budget for next fiscal year ― will be spent to help finance Hyogo Prefecture’s emergency medical helicopter service when it is jointly operated in Kyoto and Tottori prefectures.

Costs can be cut if the service is undertaken jointly instead of single-handedly. The air ambulance service can meet residents’ needs because the three prefectures have snowy areas and localities far from key local hospitals that serve as medical centers in times of emergency.

Since the alliance’s inception in December, its seven member prefectures have been working out how they will cooperate in providing emergency medical services ― including the helicopter service ― over a wide geographical area. Cooperation is also expected to make progress in implementing measures to tackle new types of influenza, promote tourism and deal with disasters.

The seven prefectures must ensure their residents feel the concrete benefits of the alliance, which will foster support for the move.

It is also necessary to make sure administrative reform steadily bears fruit. Clearly dividing administrative functions between the alliance and each prefectural government could eliminate the waste of administrative duplication.

The alliance aims to become a vehicle for decentralization of powers promoted by the government while taking charge of administration in the wider Kansai area.

Tottori Prefecture in the Chugoku region and Tokushima Prefecture in Shikoku have joined the alliance, but Nara Prefecture in the Kinki region is not. Nara contends it is possible to conduct administrative functions over a wide area if prefectural governments cooperate with each other, and that they do not need to form an alliance of prefectural governments.

Local agencies of central government offices divide jurisdiction according to administrative blocs, including Kinki, Chugoku and Shikoku. Can the alliance members work together if the current situation remains?

Solid cooperation involving all regional governments is indispensable if a regional alliance is to take over improvement and maintenance work for national roads and government-designated “first-grade” rivers currently undertaken by local agencies of the central government offices.

Discussions are ongoing in the Kyushu Hokkaido, Tohoku and Kanto regions to form organizations that would implement administrative functions over wide areas. The greater Kansai regional alliance’s efforts are worthy of note as a precursor of such moves.

(The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 21)
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