Michihiro Kayama, chairman of CLAIR

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Japan is eager to learn from
local government worldwide

By Michael Burton*

17 March 2008: Japan’s local authorities needed to be able to handle globalisation, said Michihiro Kayama, chairman of Japan’s Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR) on a recent visit to the UK. “We have to make sure we know what’s going on in the world so we don’t become isolated,” he explained.

Japan takes a keen interest in the pattern of local government overseas and runs its programme through CLAIR. The organisation has 80 staff in Tokyo and eight overseas offices, including London, with some eight to 15 staff in each, mainly seconded from Japanese local government. Its brief is to both promote links between the outside world and Japan through exchanges, and help Japanese local government deal with global issues. It does not, however, promote inward investment.

Mr Kayama is a civil servant by background, with a 40-year career, which ended in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. Two years ago, he became chairman of CLAIR, which he helped create some 20 years ago with funding from Japanese local government. Ostensibly, CLAIR was set up to manage Japan’s highly respected exchange student programme, JET, but the move also reflected a wider desire in Japan for more overseas links. The country, after all, only opened up to the West in the mid-19th century, and this year celebrates the 150th anniversary of the first links between it and the UK.

Some of the main issues in Japanese local government are more than familiar to the UK. First, there is ongoing reorganisation, reducing the number of prefectures and municipalities from 3,232 in 1999 to 1,804 in 2007, with the average population in each increasing from 39,00 to 71,000.

Unlike in the UK, the process has been voluntary, at least in theory. Those councils which refused to merge found themselves forced into efficiency drives, shared services and staff reductions, which put them in much the same position as those which merged.

Part of the reason is due to financial pressures. As Mr Kayama says: “Everyone wants the best public services while paying as little as possible for them. It has been a big problem for governments and, indeed, the last general election was centred around tax issues.”

He believes, however, that if all taxes are put together, the total take is little different in Japan than from other developed countries, adding: “The difference is in the burden of tax, which in Japan is more on income tax, while in the UK it’s more on spending.

“Nevertheless, in a flat economy, income tax doesn’t rise, so the government has to shift the emphasis on to spending. My own view, though, is that overall tax is not much different between the industrialised countries.”

Roughly, Japanese local government is funded by 30 per cent in taxes raised by councils plus a ‘local allocation’ tax of 20 per cent, redistributed by the Government, plus the rest centrally-funded through grants.

The ‘postcode lottery’ is also an issue. There is a strong framework of nationally-prescribed services, with pressure to bring in more private sector involvement.

Councils are mostly run by politicians, who claim they are independent, even though they may have party affiliation – so localism is strong. Associations represent city mayors, town and village councils, and their respective political leaders also have their own associations.

This year, the UK-Japan relationship has a particular topicality because of the 150th anniversary celebrations of the signing of the treaty. Events are planned with councils in Aberdeen, Newcastle and Medway, where some of the original visitors to Japan originated.

Michael Burton is editor of the MJ (formerly the Municipal Journal)

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