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Discussion Paper 1 in 2005
First published in ejcjs on 31 January 2005

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Municipal Mergers in Rural Japan

Easy on the Powerful, Severe on the Weak1


Anthony Rausch

Hirosaki University

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The 1 January 2004 the Aomori-prefectural-wide Tōōnippō Newspaper included a two-page article titled ‘Municipal Mergers — The Countdown as the Region Seeks its Future Form.’2 Pointing out that there was just slightly over one year left until the term for the Special Law for Municipal Mergers closes in March 2005, the article reported on a ‘fever pitch’ of activity undertaken by the Municipal Merger Councils—in forms both as voluntary and legal councils—which had been organized throughout the cities, towns, and villages of Aomori Prefecture. As of this point, inconsistency reigned, as some councils meandered through a trial and error process of gathering information and considering options, while others, having preliminarily determined merger partners and merger dates and established new names, had dissolved themselves, with a few municipalities refusing the merger concept altogether.

This paper presents an examination of gappei, or municipal merger, as the process of what are being dubbed the Heisei mergers unfolds in rural Japan over a three year-plus period leading up to the deadline of March 20053. The paper opens by contextualizing the broad arguments for municipal mergers as well as the prevailing reality and results of municipal mergers, describing various merger scenarios and outcomes in other settings, before presenting a brief history of such mergers in Japan and the ongoing case for Aomori Prefecture, the northernmost prefecture of Honshu. As the Heisei mergers are still unfolding, both throughout Japan as a whole and in Aomori, the paper is neither complete nor conclusive. Indeed, as the background literature which will contextualize the specific case presented herein affirms, while the preparation and processes of mergers end with official declarations and the like, the outcomes, be they success or failure, of municipal mergers take years, if not decades, to fully emerge.

Municipal Mergers: Promise versus Reality

Sancton (2003) points out that municipal amalgamation is the exception rather than the contemporary trend, noting that since 1990, amalgamations in the west, outside of Canada, have occurred only in New Zealand, two Australian states, a very few local authorities in England and post-apartheid South Africa, with municipal secession the prevailing trend in the United States. The basic premise behind the drive for municipal mergers is cost savings through economies of scale and simplification of government bureaucracies and services. Carey, Srinivasan and Strauss (1996) note that while merger plans can be drawn up with ease to achieve such goals, the fundamental tensions are ultimately between such plans, wherever and however they emerge, and the specificity of local needs and interests together with the political acceptability of addressing, to whatever degree of success is possible, those needs and interests with mergers. Sancton concurs, noting that in the Canadian case, recent municipal amalgamations can only be explained by a state-centered account of policy making, in which provincial leaders sponsored amalgamations even though there was little or no societal demand for such policy and there existed multiple other courses of action.

Examining the specific objectives of mergers, Carey, Srinivasan and Strauss outlined a mathematically derived and proven optimal scheme for the consolidation of municipalities which focuses on common sense, minimum change and what is feasible as the optimal planning factors to bring about the highest level of achievement identified as the objective. They conclude that there is an optimal case for merging, the elements of which are usually distinct from existing reality and most-often applied schemes. They outline what they call an Optimal Scheme, derived on the basis of both economic and social service variables, which provided lower costs and satisfied socio-economic feasibility constraints much better than the commonly-employed School District Scheme or the Council of Government Scheme (in a study conducted in the USA). In addition, the districts identified on the basis of their Optimal Scheme turned out to have strong parallels with the districts formed under the other schemes, an important aspect under the minimum change requirement. The conclusion of the research is that the less than ideal results (if not outright failure) of municipal consolidation that did occur in the US is often a consequence of neglecting to satisfy the specific socio-economic constraints of specific places.

Close examination of the merger trend in Canada presents a likewise cautionary perspective. Vojnovic (2000) found that the success or failure of municipal consolidation in a case study in Canada, which in his terms was directed toward modifying the highly complex reorganization of the intricate structure of administration and politics, was dependent on the particular circumstances of the municipalities themselves, related to their distinct history as well as spatial and economic conditions. In another case study examining the thirty-five year process of government-led municipal reform in Ottawa City (Canada), Graham, Maslove and Phillips (2001) point out that the rationalization of government costs itself can not accommodate the needs for citizen-centered government and the sense of community on the one hand as well as the necessity for government influence on economic structures on the other. Based on their examination, they outline the restructuring as having progressed through three stages. The first they labelled a ‘search for technocratic elegance and moderation in all things,’ in which a major tension arose as the notion that ‘bigger is better’ was tempered by a fragile unity and a geographic split between urban and suburban-rural. The second stage saw ascendant regionalism within the region countered by tensions on a vertical administrative line, between upper-tier councils and lower-tier mayors and administrators. The third stage brought a transfer of political power, resulting in what the authors refer to as a ‘common sense revolution’ focusing attention on a search for simple solutions. The authors stress that while some elements remained the same, the original reasons for reform as well as the processes and solutions offered changed dramatically over the thirty-plus year period. The early motivations, namely long-term financial stability and comprehensive regional land-use planning, gave way over the course of the transition to a short-term and clearly ideological justification: less government was seen as better and cheaper. The two-tier regional government model that was to accommodate both local identities and regional service provision in the early period was deemed too cumbersome (read expensive) and gave way ultimately to a one-tier, one-city government. They note several contentious issues which emerged through the process, as follows:

  • Upward cost pressures: despite assurances that amalgamation would generate cost savings, restructuring brought upward pressure on costs, especially during the transition period itself.
  • Completion within mandate period: due to the difficulty of the task and the necessity for broad recognition of the legitimacy of the new municipal form, it was difficult to assess whether the reform was fully completed with the close of the mandate period.
  • Restraining municipal functions: given the need for ongoing service provision, it was difficult if not impossible to put existing municipal operations on hold during a transition period.
  • Human resources issues: with such restructuring, issues for municipal workers such as seniority rights, harmonization of wages, and restructuring of work have proven difficult to fully address.
  • Neighborhood-level citizen engagement: questions remain regarding how to best encourage citizen engagement at the local neighborhood level.

Municipal Mergers in Japan: Past and Present

Mergers are not solely a phenomenon of the west, nor of contemporary Japan. As Nakanishi (2002) points out, there have been two significant periods of mergers in Japan’s modern history. The first occurred over the period from 1888 to 1889, when the 71,314 identified ‘natural settlements’ (shizen shuraku) were amalgamated into 15,859 cities, towns and villages, justified under the reasoning of increasing the scale and relevance of the resulting respective autonomous governing bodies. The second major merger period occurred over the period from 1953 to 1956, when the 9,868 cities, towns and villages were merged to yield 4,668 municipalities. Undertaken for purposes of the establishment of a National Treasury Subsidy System, most notable in this merger period was the disappearance of over 5,000 villages and the near-doubling of the number of cities.

The current merger trend in Japan is legally based on decisions taken at the national government level. As outlined in a Municipal Merger Assistance Plan (Summary) dated August 30, 2001 (Municipal Merger Assistance Headquarters), the Government strongly promotes voluntary merger of municipalities ‘in order to maintain and improve the administrative services of the municipalities, which are the fundamental local public offices’ (online document). The mergers are to be accomplished by March 2005, when the Laws on Special Cases of Municipal Mergers expires, in accordance with the Comprehensive Program for Administrative Reform (Cabinet Decision of December 1, 2000). The Assistance Plan includes measures aimed at the expansion of local administrative and fiscal measures, and measures based on cooperation by related ministries. The former outlines upgrading and expanding a local initiative system regarding merger conferences and introduction of a local referendum system, as well as better utilization of former municipalities and local councils and increased flexibility in the designation of an ordinance-designated city. The fiscal component seeks to address the tax system, provide subsidies for promoting municipal mergers, and fiscal measures for merger assistance programs and public corporations. The Assistance Plan measures based on related ministry cooperation are categorized in the following six areas:

  • Social Infrastructure that supports a Comfortable Life
  • An Abundant Living Environment
  • Health and Medical Care and Welfare Throughout Life
  • Education that will Cultivate Capabilities of the Next Generation
  • Industry Appropriate for the New Century
  • Town Development by Cooperation and Exchange.

Also alluded to in the Assistance Plan are specific measures for coordination and cooperation in publicity activities for municipal mergers and a post-merger advisory system.

The process of municipal mergers, as outlined by Nakanishi (2002; see also Ikegami 2003) consists of two major stages, each of which include multiple internal steps. The first stage consists of interested cities, towns and villages forming voluntary assemblies, which initiate investigations and study of mergers. Closing out this first stage the assemblies undertake decisions based in legal statutes, the final of which is the decision to merge. The second stage, consisting of the application and official formation stage, includes the presentation of an official application, the decision of the prefectural governor accepting the application and the emergence of the merged municipality.

A Japan Research Institute News Release dated September 25, 2001 reports on a survey concerning the state of progress in implementing municipal mergers. Quite understandably, at that time, the majority were most interested in ‘information gathering,’ focusing mostly on information on precedent mergers and trends among other councils and study groups. The most important issue identified at that point was negotiation with other cities, towns, or villages involved with the merger. The survey found that few councils or study groups were at that time actively trying to involve local residents, with just a fraction considering holding referendums on the issue. Tieing incentives to the merger expiry date was seen by the national government as important in promoting municipal consolidation; however many councils and study groups reported needing local leadership and specific advise in actually developing mergers, rather than incentives to promote them.

The Case for Aomori Prefecture

Aomori Prefecture, the northern-most prefecture on Honshu Island, has approximately 1,470,000 residents spread over three major cities, an additional four large cities, as well as 59 towns and villages (2003 Kensei Data Book, edited by Yano Tsuneta Kinenkai). Aomori City, the prefectural capital, has a population of just under 300,000, followed by Hachinohe City with just over 240,000 and Hirosaki City with just under 180,000 residents. The prefecture is highly dependent on agriculture, with one of the highest primary sector workforces in Japan, and ranks low on most economic and social lifestyle indices. The prefecture is comprised of three distinct, but unmarked districts: the Tsugaru on the western, Sea of Japan side; the Nambu on the eastern, Pacific coast side; and the ax-shaped peninsula that is Shimokita also on the east side. These three districts are a function of a combination of cultural history and regional geography, the result being areas with distinct and powerful dialects, characteristic and unique local practices and commodities and a clear sense of independence. Each of these three districts is centered on a major city: Hirosaki is the heart of the Tsugaru District, Hachinohe the core city of the Nambu and Mutsu, population just under 50,000, the center of Shimokita.

Hirosaki City Merger PR

An explanation packet produced by Hirosaki City in the fall of 2002 explains that municipal mergers involve the joining of several cities, towns and villages, primarily to strengthen their public finance base. Two forms are explained, one being the ‘new establishment merger,’ when ‘A town joins with B village to become C town,’ and the second the ‘incorporation merger,’ when ‘E town (as well as F and G towns) simply join(s) D city.’

The necessity for municipal mergers, according to the Hirosaki City information packet, include the increasing welfare delivery needs of the aging population, the reality of a widening lifestyle pattern, the support of national decentralization and the severity of the public finance situation. Municipal mergers are broadly (and optimistically) cast as benefiting the area in three areas:

  • Strengthening regional and municipal revitalization, specifically infrastructural improvements in roads and land use, efforts regarding local issues such as environmental protection and tourism promotion, and providing for economic revitalization together with recognition of the region’s unique character.
  • Maintaining and improving resident services, specifically providing for youth education, library and sport facilities, municipal planning, and social welfare and other specialized service provision.
  • Strengthening and rationalizing public finance, specifically in areas of organizational and planning oversight, third-sector projects, and public administration of local public, cultural and sports facilities.

Citizen concerns that are alluded to in the packet include:

  • The distance factor, specifically that increasing the distance between resident and municipal office will lower service.
  • The loss of neighborhood identity and a consciousness of local life.
  • The question of how municipal mergers will affect taxes.
  • The merits of mergers with respect to depopulation.
  • The potential for the loss of regional traditions and culture.

The overall process of municipal mergers is outlined in a three-stage progression from ‘Merger Potential’ to ‘Council Formation’ to ‘Formal Petition for Merger’ and ‘Merger Completion.’ The first stage includes activation of discussion within the region and the relevant municipal bodies undertaking surveys and study regarding the need and will for merging. The second stage begins with establishment of a Voluntary Merger Council (nin’i no gappei kyogikai), which is followed by the establishment of a Legal Merger Council (hotei no gappei kyogikai) with the authority to undertake the planning of a new municipality. The Legal Merger Council has the right to determine whether to go forward with a merger, to determine the form of the merger (new establishment or incorporation merger), assign a new name to the merged municipality, and undertake overall planning for the merged municipality. In the third stage, a petition to the Prefectural Council is lodged, after which the new municipality is declared.

The Issues for Hachinohe City

The 1 January 2004 Tōōnippō article portrayed the case for Hachinohe City at that time. With the proposed merger including seven surrounding towns and villages, the size of Hachinohe will increase 3.7 fold, gaining approximately 800 square kilometers and 56,000 residents, to a total population of just under 300,000. The article identified the following six areas of concern.

Leadership - Given that seven municipalities—the surrounding towns and villages that will merge with Hachinohe—will essentially cease to exist, the seven mayors of these surrounding municipalities will lose their seats. However, in order to ensure understanding of the specifics of each area and maintain effective communication with residents in those areas, the Hachinohe mayor has proposed establishing a special employment category for the possibly soon-to-be ex-mayors.

City Office - That city offices are charged with providing essential services to citizens is obvious; however, under the merger, debate will emerge about what constitutes ‘essential services.’ Hachinohe will obviously assume primary responsibilities related to work, school and commerce, with the offices of the seven merged municipalities serving as branch offices. The question that has arisen is, given the specifics of such branch services, to what degree can the overall structure be centralized. Further, although the Hachinohe mayor maintains that services should be close and direct to residents, budgetary considerations in areas of agricultural policy and tourism promotion will necessitate centralization.

Municipal Councils - Given that special provisions are being drawn to allow for the inclusion of all municipal council members of the seven municipalities, the resulting total number of council members will reach one-hundred and forty-six, yielding what is being called a ‘mammoth council.’ Given the post merger population, the legally-identified limit for council members for regional autonomous legal bodies is thirty-eight. With local elections not scheduled until 2007, discussion regarding provision of a meeting place and council member remuneration are ongoing.

Residence - While addresses will not change for those living in Hachinohe City itself, addresses for the surrounding merged municipalities will inevitably change. Even while minimizing the nature of the change, this will clearly bring the reality of the merger to local residents. One simple step will be to remove the ‘ōaza’ (major section of a village) reference to a village section while keeping the ‘cho’ and ‘mura’ name. However, it is also noted that it may be counterproductive to allow association with the old village to linger during the period of transition to a new city.

Taxes - Except for resident and fixed asset taxes, the circumstances of taxes post-merger has been for the most part decided. With uniformity brought to the tax rates over a five-year post-merger period, it appears that an increase in tax burden will be felt by a small number. At present, resident tax rates are fairly equal throughout the area when adjusted for respective incomes. However, with the uniformity brought by the merger, the burden on residents of smaller towns and villages is expected to rise, in some cases by as much as a quarter of the present tax. Corporate residence tax and tax on fixed assets is predicted to rise by a factor of approximately 1.2 as well.

Childcare - There is a clear need to address the present low birth rate of the area, particularly with the increasing number of mothers who are working. In the municipalities surrounding Hachinohe City, there are 81 public and private childcare facilities, with fees levied on the basis of an income scale. However, while the Hachinohe City scale includes eight tiers, the nearby Fukuchi Village has just five. The post-merger scale has been set to nine tiers, meaning that in most cases, the use fee will decrease, and with it the annual revenues and operating budgets for the childcare facilities. In addition, there are calls for more uniform rules regarding facilities offering extended hours and post-hospitalization facilities applicable across the post-merger district.

An Analysis of Mergers in Japan: Government, Municipality and Resident

Looking at municipal mergers from a sector analysis approach, with the sectors being first, the central government, second, the cities, towns and villages themselves, and third, the residents of those cities, towns, and villages, Hagiwara (2004) comes to a rather sobering assessment.

Taking first the central government perspective, mergers seem to be an all-win scenario. Given the severity of the current circumstances of public finance in Japan, mergers will, as advertised, undoubtedly reduce national government expenditures over the long term—even if they achieve little reduction in the short term. The reasoning that supports this scenario is that although there will be a need for support during and directly after the merger period, with the number of municipalities reduced and the services they provide consolidated, the necessity of overall tax transfers will be reduced over the long term. From the perspective of the cities, towns, and villages, the picture becomes more complicated. Of course, municipalities are investigating the potential advantages of mergers, particularly given the local fiscal crisis many of them are also experiencing. The promise of a finance influx during the merger period and in the short term thereafter, together with the potential penalty to be incurred in reduction of long term tax money flowing in their direction by not merging, is proving irresistible to many municipalities. However, there is a very important ‘fact of life’ that accompanies mergers which may haunt the smaller municipalities which merge.

Despite the best intentions of mergers, broad regional inequality will undoubtedly emerge and grow, as the central and presumably larger municipality, by virtue of centripetal pull that attracts both money and people, leave the outlying areas poor and further de-populated in relation to their more-urban, and therefore advantaged counterparts. Inevitably, finance, development, services, culture and ultimately even presence will focus on the core at the expense of the periphery. The prospect of a long-term post-merger finance influx specifically for these smaller towns and villages is doubtful. This can be illustrated by data showing that for five municipalities of the proposed South Tsugaru Merger (12 municipalities centered on Hirosaki City), the annual revenue generated through regional subsidy transfers from the central government account for just over a quarter of the Hirosaki City municipal budget for the fiscal year 2002, while for the remaining four towns and villages, the rate was from a low of 49 percent to a high 61 percent. Clearly smaller towns and villages depend to a higher degree on such subsidy transfers—transfers which will be consolidated to be shared both with other similarly small towns and villages as well as the core city such as Hirosaki after the merger. It must also be noted that the fixed-cost expenditures versus revenues ratio for Hirosaki City is also higher, at just under 85 percent for fiscal year 2001, than that of the surrounding towns and villages, which were just under 80 percent. This suggests that Hirosaki is burdened with somewhat less budget flexibility, meaning that a consolidation of regional tax transfers through mergers would benefit the strained budgets of bigger municipalities more than the less strained budgets of smaller towns and villages. Complicating this is the present fiscal health of both small municipalities and larger core cities. As will be noted in the following section, much attention has been given to the fiscal state of potential partners in the exploration and proposal of potential mergers. No core municipality wants to take on a debt-ridden smaller town or village; likewise no town or village wants to merge with a fiscally-strained core city.

The perspective of the residents is even still more complicated, albeit by virtue of questions of information and understanding. In a preliminary public perception survey of 100 respondents undertaken in December 2003, Hagiwara found that approximately 40 percent felt they couldn’t judge whether mergers were necessary or not, with 87 percent stating that they did not have enough information to do so. Hagiwara questions whether a process characterized by step-by-step progression from ‘problem self-identification’ on the part of residents to ‘issue-dictated information distribution on mergers’ and ‘opinion formation regarding mergers’ has occurred. His concern that resident opinion formation based solely on a ‘leadership agenda’ misses the most important component of self-determination in a decentralizing system in which local municipalities see residents taking on increasingly important roles in governing at the local level is one that can not be ignored.

Aomori Prefecture 2004

The year 2003 opened with a Tōōnippō newspaper article reporting that over sixty percent of prefectural municipalities had joined merger councils, the majority still however Research or Voluntary Merger Councils (Tōōnippō, 2003.1.1). A July 2003 article reported that of 3185 cities, towns and villages nationally, approximately 1700 were participating in Legal Merger Council actions, a national average of 44 percent. While Chubu, Chugoku, Shikoku and Kyushu had the highest rates of participation—over ninety percent in the case of Gifu and Shimane Prefectures—Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kanto and Kinki reported low rates—with Aomori reporting a 34 percent participation rate (Tōōnippō, 2003.7.3). As of January 2004, eight of the 14 geographic areas identified within Aomori Prefecture have progressed to the Legal Merger Council stage, with five of those eight having made decisions regarding type of merger, timing of merger and the name of the merged municipality. Three of the fourteen were at the Voluntary Merger Council stage, with one still in the research stage, and two having abandoned efforts. The proposed Hirosaki block was the largest of the councils numerically, claiming twelve members, followed by the proposed Hachinohe block and Mutsu-Shimokita block, each with eight (although the population of the Hachinohe block will vastly outnumber that of Mutsu-Shimokita). Most other councils are made up of two, three, four, and five members, with thirteen municipalities unattached.

A close reading of the coverage of merger activities as reported over the year 2004 in the local Tōōnippō newspaper reveals the twists and turns of the process and the issues of most concern that have to be dealt with in some cases and have caused municipalities to secede from merger efforts in others. A 3 January article alludes to the debt held by smaller municipalities as a hindrance to mergers, this because of the post merger necessity of absorbing such red ink by the core municipality. Over the year successes as well as secessions, dissolutions and collapses are reported as they occur. A 14 January article heralds the first prefectural merger to be agreed to, which was then reported to be made official on 1 July. Summer and fall saw withdrawal, cancellation or collapse in areas on both sides of the prefecture, most notably however in the major Pacific-port city of Hachinohe and in the Mutsu City-centered Shimokita Region.

The major issues identified in the articles included the increase of council members post merger, the adjustment of services and the loss of identity that name changes will incur. The merger of several smaller municipalities with a larger core municipality will inevitably entail a reduction in the necessary number of resulting municipal council members, begetting the question of who stays and who goes. Residents questioned the many changes that will occur in services, regulations and procedures, with articles describing, for example, ‘welfare office reductions’ (19 January), the ‘impact of mergers on local lifestyles’ (4 February), the ‘difference in garbage collection categories’ (11 February), ‘water-works post merger?’ (20 February), ‘inquiries regarding the nature of municipal organizations’ (2 March), ‘negotiations regarding subsurface water use’ (26 July). The loss of identity was referred to directly in several articles, with a 24 January article pointing to the emotional attachment to the names of old countered by the connotation of freshness that emerges with a new name, concluding that efforts must be made to ‘create a new emotional attachment to the new names of the region.’ An article the following day pointed to the difficulty in creating new names, as mergers among the main districts within the prefecture had proposed 13 names incorporating identical elements (for example, the use of Tsugaru in the western half of the prefecture or Nambu in the eastern), thereby minimizing the difference between such municipalities, and presumably the accordant potential for such emotional attachment that can be created for such an municipality. That notwithstanding, new names were emerging throughout the latter half of the year, as in the joining of Nakasato and Kodomari Villages to form Nakakodomari Town, the merger of Kizukuri, Morita, Kashiwa, Inakadate and Shariki Villages to form Tsugaru City, and Sotogahama Town from the merger of Kanita, Tairadate and Minmaiya Villages.

There were several articles that heralded the promise of mergers, as in a 24 February article which reported on a symposium held in Hachinohe City which concluded that ‘mergers would be good for business, reactivating agriculture and tourism.’ A 28 February article reports on the sentiments of the local chamber of commerce in Hirosaki that ‘the economic change brought by mergers is welcome,’ with the added assertion that ‘development is better than keeping an old name.’ In a 26 March article, the prefectural governor weighed in, noting that a key to aiding the region was the promotion of regional mergers. However, there were articles citing a time pressure, such as a 8 August article which cites ‘pressure without a reason to merge as the term limit draws near is not justified.’ There were ripple effects of the merger activity as well, as a 25 January article reported on the merger of 13 local agricultural cooperatives, forming a merger of seven major merged groups, and a 27 February article reported on the merger of five chambers of commerce in the Tsugaru City area.

While the major cities of their respective districts, Hirosaki in the western Tsugaru and Hachinohe in the eastern Nambu, provided the pull to create merger blocks, neither were completely successful. While undertaking a long series of individual meetings between the Hirosaki City mayor and the mayors and council members of the potential members, not only was a Hirosaki-drafted plan rejected due to ‘a lack of trust,’ by year’s end two municipalities had seceded, citing concerns regarding the coordination of health care, fire, and garbage services. The process was in many cases tempered by both idealism on the one hand, as municipalities prioritized their own independence over mergers, and the difficult reality of municipal administration and service provision, as above, on the other. Yet, a calculated appraisal of reality contributed to support for mergers in other cases, as other municipalities throughout the prefecture cited population loss and the severity of public finance constraints as powerful motivating factors for amalgamation.

Several smaller municipalities in the Hirosaki City-centered Tsugaru South block argued the necessity of a neighborhood framework complete with extensive explanation meetings for local residents. To their credit, the Tōōnippō did run several sets of multiple-column series exploring specific aspects of the merger issue. The first set considered the paradox of independence versus isolation for rural municipalities, outlining the financial reality for many as balanced only be seeking, in the case of an area in western Aomori Prefecture, independence on the basis of accommodating nuclear power generation and waste facilities. The second set of columns detailed the controversy surrounding the post-merger reality of municipal council membership and the importance of respecting residents’ views. The third set introduced several opinions held by leaders in government, presenting information on a range of ideas, from the preferred process of mergers to an outright rejection of mergers as appropriate policy. The fourth set devoted all the columns to the first merger in Aomori Prefecture, New Gonohe Town and the fifth set focused exclusively on the birth of a new Tsugaru City. The sixth set of columns focused on resident reaction to mergers, noting both resident opposition and resident acceptance, if not full support, while concluding that any governmental directive that impinges so directly on local lifestyles ultimately demands that residents question leadership.

As of September 27, reported in a 1 October Tōōnippō newspaper article, there was one fully legal merger, thirteen legal merger councils, and 31 cities, towns, and villages that at this point are uncommitted. The majority of the mergers are set to be enacted in March 2005, and will account for a population of 951,098 prefectural residents, the largest being the Aomori Namioka merger with 318,732 and the Hachinohe-Nango merger with 248,608 and the smallest Sotogahama Town, located at the northern tip of the Tsugaru Peninsula, with 9,170. As of this date, the Hirosaki area, with 13 municipalities, had not been successful in establishing a merger plan.

Conclusion: the Deadline Approaches; the Outcome Uncertain

The Heisei mergers were promoted by the national government with aims related to more efficient utilization and increased flexibility of local municipalities together with fiscal improvements in both subsidy provision and the tax system. As described in a preceding section, six broad areas have been identified as long-term objectives: social infrastructure, an abundant living environment, health and welfare, education, industry, and town development. The local aims are, naturally more locally relevant, identified in the Hirosaki City Merger PR package as revitalization and infrastructural improvements, maintaining and improving resident services and strengthening and rationalizing public finance. The PR plan also alluded to issues and areas of concern, which together with the description of the Hachinohe merger plan, are revealed in the progression of articles that appeared in the Aomori-prefectural wide Tōōnippō newspaper over the course of 2004. These issues and concerns can be categorized as merger-related issues, which focus primarily on first, information dissemination to residents and second, post-merger, near-term council membership, the former which will be resolved by local fiat of merger councils and the realization of mergers in early 2005 and the latter by the inevitable reckoning of elections and post-merger accountability.

Perhaps more important, however, are the locally relevant objectives of the mergers, the realization of which will be borne out over upcoming years. One major question will be the degree to which the centripetal forces of the core municipalities can be countered by the quest for uniformity in plan and equality in outcome with respect to the smaller outlying areas. This will be particularly true for those mergers which can be characterized by a major core municipality, present-system Aomori, Hachinohe or Hirosaki Cities, for example. Other more concretely defined questions will also emerge. Have these mergers addressed regional and municipal revitalization? Have these mergers addressed the maintenance and improvement of resident services? Have these mergers addressed the efficiency of public finances? As outlined in the brief introduction of other cases earlier in this paper, the success or failure of the Heisei mergers, likely apparent only years after the March 2005 deadline, will in the case of Aomori Prefecture, most probably be dependent less on the planning and execution of the mergers than on the specific circumstances of the Tsugaru, the Nambu and the Shimokita Districts of the rural, far-north of Japan.


1 From an unpublished undergraduate thesis, ‘The Influence of Municipal Mergers on Residents,’ by Hagiwara Koichi, submitted to Hirosaki University, Faculty of Education, March 2004.
2 The Tōōnippō is the de-facto prefectural newspaper of Aomori Prefecture, with a wide readership and high credibility. All translations of articles titles herein are by the author.
3 The term gappei is written in the characters meaning together, total, fit, match, and put together or combine in the first character and put together in the second. The term gappei can be rendered in English as merger, amalgamation or consolidation.


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About the author

Anthony S. Rausch is Foreign Lecturer at Hirosaki University, Japan and a Doctoral Candidate at Monash University, Australia. His research interests center on rural Japan and have focused on volunteerism, education, the media and economic and cultural revitalization. He has authored and co-authored books on the Tsugaru District of Aomori Prefecture (tsugaru shamisen and Tsugaru lifestyle) and is completing his dissertation on cultural commodities in local revitalization.

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Copyright: Anthony Rausch
This page was first created on 31 January 2005. It was last modified on 30 January 2006.

ejcjs uses Dublin Core metadata in all of its pages. Click here to enter the Dublin Core metadata website The Directory of Open Access Journals includes ejcjs within one of the most comprehensive online databases of open access journals in the world. Click here to enter the DOAJ website.

The International Bibliography of the Social Sciences includes ejcjs within one of the most comprehensive databases of social science research worldwide. Click here to enter the IBSS website

The electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies is permanently preserved at research libraries worldwide by the LOCKSS electronic data storage system. Click here to be taken to the LOCKSS homepage.

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