A new way to vote
Jun. 22, 2017
Japan's aging society and declining population are creating challenges for many rural communities. In some towns and villages, there are no longer enough people to run in local elections. One village that's been struggling to keep its local assembly afloat is now considering an unusual solution: setting up a council where voters participate directly in the decision-making process.
Okawa is a mountain village in southwestern Japan with a population of about 400, one of the lowest in the country.
The average age of the village assembly members is about 70, and some are considering retirement.
Kiyozumi Ito is one of them. He has been an assembly member for 15 years, but is coping with chronic pain and is becoming more and more forgetful.
"I know that we can't go on like this," he says. "But it's not easy to find a solution."
Ito has tried to get residents to run for the assembly, but no one has put their name forward.
One possible candidate is 36 year-old forestry worker Motohiro Fukushima. He says the assembly would take too much time and doesn't pay enough for him to raise his two kids.
"I'm going to need money in the future," he says. "I couldn't make ends meet on those wages."
Running the village will be complicated if any of the current assembly members retire. That's because Japanese law requires elections to be held if there are too many vacant seats, and that can be costly.
Okawa Village has already reduced the number of seats in the assembly, but this did not solve the problem.
It is why the mayor is considering a more radical option. Instead of just having a traditional assembly of elected representatives, residents will be able to vote on issues directly in a voters' conference.
"We'll have a village assembly election in 2 years," says Okawa Village Mayor Kazuhito Wada. "In order to prepare for the chance that there aren't enough candidates, I've ordered village officials to look into establishing a voters' conference."
Wada says that initiating these discussions will make people think about the issues facing the village assembly. He says he is working on the assumption that the assembly will continue, possibly alongside a voters' conference.
"The mayor clearly stated that areas facing extreme depopulation feel a sense of crisis," says Okawa Village Assembly Chairman Akira Asakura. "I totally agree with that."
An expert who specializes in local autonomy is encouraged by Okawa's unorthodox solution.
"I think a voters' conference gives people strength," says Jun Katagi, a professor at Waseda University. "It could be a boost to the community, because residents are deciding their futures for themselves, instead of leaving it to someone else."
But Katagi says it will be challenging to ensure equal participation in the process.
It is a problem more towns and villages across Japan will face in the coming years, and any will be watching closely to see how Okawa's democratic experiment plays out.