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FEATURE: Seeds planted by 'progressive' governments still sprouting in Japan.

TOKYO, Dec. 4 Kyodo

Every Sunday evening, jazz emanates from a community center located about 10 minutes by foot from JR Kichijoji Station in Musashino, western Tokyo.

''Thanks to this community center, we've been able to do this,'' said 52-year-old Satoshi Machida, a tenor saxophone player in the Musashino Jazz Orchestra, which was created seven years ago by jazz enthusiasts in the area.

The chairperson of the Kichijoji Minami-Machi Community Council, Tomoko Komochi, 57, said, ''There's no usage charge (for the facility). The basic principle is 'voluntary participation, voluntary planning and voluntary management' by citizens.''

Beyond jazz and hobbies, activities at the center extend to welfare for the aged and anti-disaster drills.

In 1971, the late Kihachiro Goto, then Musashino mayor and secretary general of a group of progressive mayors across the country, worked out a long-term program with scholars, including Keiichi Matsushita, a Musashino citizen and a professor at Hosei University, to ''create a new hometown for citizens.''

Since then, community centers have been created at 20 locations in Musashino with their operation supported by a framework of citizens' participation.

In the first half of the 1970s, progressive local governments with their heads supported by the reformist Japan Socialist and Japanese Communist parties were at their peak.

Goto's group, inaugurated in 1964, was seeing participation by 132 mayors, or about 30 percent of mayors nationwide, by 1972. Its leader was then Yokohama Mayor Ichio Asukata, called the ''reformist star.''

In 1967, the administration of reformist Gov. Ryokichi Minobe was inaugurated in Tokyo and continued to govern the metropolitan area for 12 years. In addition to reformist governors in Kyoto from 1950, like-minded leaders were elected in Kanagawa, Saitama, Shiga, Okayama, Osaka and Kagawa prefectures in the 1970s.

Progressive local governments sided with citizens' growing opposition to rising population density and levels of pollution, and also pressed for increases in schools, hospitals, and nursery and welfare facilities, along with increases in allowances for the handicapped, aged and children.

Information disclosure, antinuclear declarations and gatherings for dialogue with citizens were also ideas that sprang from such governments.

But the oil crises of 1973 led to the gradual adoption of more conservative policies as the decade wore on, and the number of progressive local governments began to decrease.

Hyo Shindo, a professor at Nagoya University specializing in issues related to local autonomy, said, ''The high economic growth ended, and both the Socialist and Communist parties fell off. Around 1980, the Japan Socialist Party adopted a social democratic policy line, leading to a collapse in the joint struggle with the Communist Party.''

Masayasu Narumi, a staffer for Asukata for 15 years, said, ''Progressive local governments' policies were generalized and universalized, raising the level of the state policies and local autonomy.''

''But reformist heads of local governments also fell into a rut in their third and fourth terms, and relations with local assemblies, local government employees and labor unions became loose. This must be admitted. Reforms in administrative institutions did not progress,'' the 75-year-old said.

In a political reorganization in the 1990s, the now-defunct Japan Socialist Party, the foundation for progressive local governments, disappeared, and the word ''progressiveness'' does not look realistic now except in Okinawa Prefecture.

But the seeds planted by progressive local governments did become sprouts, which are now steadily growing. One such sprout is decentralization as proposed by the late Minobe and Asukata, who said hierarchical relations between the state and local governments should be done away with, and tax resources should be transferred to local governments.

In May 1995, the Decentralization Promotion Law was enacted despite resistance from ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers with vested interests and bureaucrats.

Eighty-year-old Kozo Igarashi, who was chief Cabinet secretary at the time, said, ''The long decentralization movement by Mr. Asukata and other senior officials was finally put on track.'' Igarashi, who used to be the mayor of Asahikawa in Hokkaido and was a member of the reformist mayors' group, opened the nationally popular Asahiyama Zoo while he was mayor by riding over opposition from conservatives.

In 1967 when Minobe was first elected Tokyo governor, ''Tokyo was fervent at that time. But that experience has not been taken advantage of in politics after that,'' said Shigeru Ito, a former vice head of the minor opposition Social Democratic Party who was sent to the secretariat to support Minobe from the then Japan Socialist Party.

Ito still recalls a question he posed to former Kanagawa Gov. Kazuji Nagasu on what progressiveness is, when he was told, ''It's foresight, and the passion and power to realize it.''

Shiro Asano, who was governor of Miyagi Prefecture between 1993 and 2005 and seen as reform-minded, said, ''The reformist local governments gave top priority to the environment, welfare and citizens' participation, although the targets have only been halfway achieved.''

''Baby boomers, who are about to retire in large numbers, have tasks to lead their communities to such targets after making a debut as 'community members,''' the 58-year-old former governor said.
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Publication:Japan Policy & Politics
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Dec 11, 2006
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