By Teizo Toyokawa and Shinji Abe / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersAssemblies are a key element of local governance, but many in depopulated areas are struggling to survive. While some municipalities are trying to devise measures to ensure their assemblies can continue to exist, such as improving conditions for members, the matter of creating an environment conducive to political participation by women has hardly been addressed.
“If things continue like this, our village assembly will be extinct,” Kazuhito Wada, the mayor of the village of Okawa in Kochi Prefecture, said to Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Seiko Noda in Tokyo late last month.
“If the environment improves, such as by increasing salaries and easing the ban on having a second business, I’m sure village people will decide to run for the assembly,” the mayor told Noda at the ministry building.
The village of Okawa has a population of only about 400. In the 2015 national census, 43 percent of its people were aged 65 or older. The six-seat assembly election in 2015 went uncontested.
The village’s assembly has existed on a tightrope due to depopulation and aging. The village government once announced it would consider replacing the assembly with a general meeting of village residents to deliberate the budget and other affairs.
Okawa is not the only municipality facing a shortage of human resources for its assembly. In the 2015 unified local elections, 21.8 percent of newly elected assembly members in villages and towns were uncontested.
The smaller the population, the higher the percentage of uncontested elections. Four small municipalities ended up filling fewer seats than were allocated.
High salaries pose dilemma
Some municipal assemblies have started devising survival measures. In December, the village assembly of Takagi, Nagano Prefecture, began holding sessions on holidays and at night in principle so that even company employees could act as assembly members.
The town of Ojika in Nagasaki Prefecture has raised salaries for assembly members aged up to 50 from ¥180,000 to ¥300,000 on the grounds that younger members need more money for child rearing and other matters.
Salaries for assembly members can be decided by local government ordinances — but the reality is not so simple.
“To reduce disparities with the private sector, salaries for assembly members are based on the recommendation of the Personnel Commission. Therefore, they can’t be raised arbitrarily,” an official at the secretariat of the Kanagawa Prefectural Assembly said.
If salaries for assembly members are raised within the limited budgetary framework, funds for other administrative services inevitably will be reduced.
Hideshi Yaguchi, the chairman of the village assembly of Sakegawa, Yamagata Prefecture, expressed the dilemma: “We’ll be criticized by all the residents of the village if we propose raising assembly members’ salaries.”
The village’s election for the 10-seat assembly in 2015 went uncontested.
Voters’ views of local assembly members have become harsher. In recent years, inappropriate uses of political activities funds, such as falsifying receipts, have been uncovered at the Toyama municipal assembly and other local assemblies.
In a bid to correct the current situation, an expert study group of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry is considering a proposal for the next fiscal year or later that would ease the conditions for becoming a local assembly member.
For example, the group is looking at the feasibility of allowing local public servants and executive members of organizations that receive subsidies from local governments to serve as assembly members. It is also considering a proposal to streamline assembly management and establish a system in which external policy researchers provide support to assemblies.
However, even if assembly members are given the freedom to have another job, the effect is expected to be limited in depopulated areas where there are few full-time members.
Little support for women
The participation of women in politics could be the key to ensuring the survival of local assemblies in depopulated areas. However, the rate of women assembly members tends to be lower in sparsely populated areas.
On why there are rarely increases in women assembly members, Kimiko Kubo, secretary general of the Fusae Ichikawa Center for Women and Governance, said, “Worries about balancing child rearing and household chores with political activities are keeping [them] from running for local assemblies.”
An incident in November at the Kumamoto city assembly illustrated the difficult conditions women are facing. An assembly member caused a stir when she brought her 7-month-old son to the assembly floor without prior permission. She said, “I wanted to convey the agony being endured by the child-rearing generation.” She was asked to take her son from the floor on the grounds that he can only be an audience member.
The government has set a goal of bringing the percentage of women in leadership positions in society to at least 30 percent by 2020.
Noda, who also serves as the minister in charge of women’s empowerment, said, “We want to rack our brains so that people who want to run can run.”
However, many local assemblies do not even have stipulations regarding childcare leave in their regulations. The road toward realizing “women’s empowerment,” as advocated by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, appears to be arduous.Speech