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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Important Weekend at the Polls

Apr. 10, 2015

On The Focus tonight, we're looking at a political event you could call "Super Sunday." Millions of Japanese will vote in dozens of local elections. Prime Minister Abe and his ruling coalition are betting on candidates they favor so they can solidify their formidable power base. The opposition sees the vote as a chance to rebuild.

National politics aside, people are looking at one part of the country with great interest. Osaka prefecture is the second largest economy in Japan. And it's home to a number of cities and towns, including the city of Osaka. Both the city and the prefecture have their own leaders and assemblies. But some are pushing to merge them so Osaka can play in the same league as Tokyo.

As NHK WORLD's Takafumi Terui tells us, this issue will be on the minds of many when they cast ballots.

Some 320 candidates are running in Osaka's two assembly elections.

The candidates are backed by the Japan Innovation Party, Komeito, the Liberal Democratic Party, the Democratic Party of Japan and the Japanese Communist Party.

The prefecture as a whole is overseen by the Osaka governor and the prefectural assembly. But Osaka city's mayor and assembly are almost as powerful. Candidates are battling over a controversial plan to integrate the 2 political systems and create one unified Osaka government. A referendum on the issue will be held next month, after the elections.

The leader of one party wants to change the system. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto says he will integrate the city government and the prefectural government to make them more satisfactory to voters.

Another leader is taking a different stance, saying change is not necessary. Naokazu Takemoto, the LDP Branches Chairman for the Federation of Osaka Prefecture, says the city of Osaka would disappear. He added that his party would never allow that to happen, and that they are proud to have been born and raised there.

Voter opinion is divided. Some say the current system hinders efficient administration. But some worry that the integration would affect their lives, and taxes.

One Osaka City resident in his 60s says that much of what the city and prefecture do overlaps. He says his own work is related to taxation, and there's lots of overlapping paperwork. He adds that having two governments, national and local, would be enough. Another resident in her 30s says that if the prefecture and the city are integrated, the resident tax system would probably change, and she's worried about that.

The change being put to voters in Osaka could have an impact around the country. Japan has 47 prefectures, each headed by a governor. Cities, towns and villages fall under their jurisdictions. But the mayors of 20 large cities, including Osaka, Yokohama and Kyoto, hold almost the same power as prefectural governors.

An expert on regional economies says the elections can be the beginning of a new political direction for Japan. Professor Nobuo Kobayashi of Kwansei Gakuin University says the elections may affect the structure of the whole country, how to decentralize power from Tokyo to other major cities in each block, and the decision-making functions as well. He says he thinks the elections will be a model case for the rest of Japan.

Beppu: And Takafumi Terui is with us now. Takafumi, this integration plan; I understand that Osaka is trying to be more like Tokyo.

Terui: Yes,Tokyo has a governor and prefectural assembly. But, unlike Osaka, they have no powerful municipal assembly. Some analysts say that allows the governor and the metropolitan government to implement consistent and effective policies.

Shibuya: So the integration of Osaka city and prefecture would make that part of Japan more influential.

Terui: That's what those in favor of the plan want. At the root of this is a push-back against the capital, Tokyo. Osaka and Tokyo have a rivalry similar to that of Chicago and New York. People there speak different dialects. They have different tastes in food. They even ride up and down escalators on different sides.

Beppu: Right. I've heard about this, but we don't know if it's true, but in Tokyo they keep on the left because in samurai times people carried their swords on the left. Whereas in Osaka they ride on the right because people carry their wallets on the right. It shows that people have different characteristics.

Terui: Not only that...these days, people in Osaka are feeling that their prefecture as gradually losing its importance. Centuries ago, Osaka used to be the commercial center of the country. But after Tokyo became the capital, it sped ahead. And it's now a magnet for business. So the desire to come out of Tokyo's shadow is part of what's going on here.

Then there's the bigger debate about whether a political system that's been in place for more than a century should be updated. The size and economic strength of Japan's 47 prefectures vary. 30 have populations of less than 2 million. On the other hand, the City of Osaka alone has a population of more than 2.6 million. And its annual budget is more than 14 billion dollars, about the same as countries such as Ghana, Lebanon and Bolivia. Those in favor of merging Osaka city and prefecture argue that it would cut out redundant policies and make governance more effective. And they say it would be good for Japan's economy as a whole.

Shibuya: You mentioned in your report that many people are divided on this. Tell us more about the drawbacks.

Terui: Professor Kobayashi, who we just heard from, argues that giving regional areas a stronger voice to stand alongside Tokyo, and to stand out in dealings with the central government, is a good thing. But he also says officials should proceed with caution.

He has said that if administrative functions were to be streamlined and concentrated in fewer offices, then Osaka residents might have to travel farther to visit these places. He says streamlining could more or less increase the burden on residents.

Professor Kobayashi and other experts say the current system should be reviewed. But how to do that remains a question. The Osaka initiative may just help Japan find an answer.