The global trend of decentralization on the one hand, and, on the other, a Japan-specific link between societal transformations and gain in local autonomy, led to a significant strengthening of Japan’s local democracy. As a result of this ongoing shift of power between political actors in Japan, one central research question emerges: To which extent do these reforms impact the nature of Japan’s local democracy? The degree of effectiveness of this political reform will be studied through citizens’ participation in local elections. Taking into account the debate on social and political change in post-industrial societies, changes in non-conventional political participation will additionally be examined. Given that intermediary organizations such as political parties play a decisive role in the exchange between citizens and local governments, special emphasis will be placed on changing patterns of interest aggregation.
With regard to the political role played by central and local authorities and the citizens, numerous trends can be observed. Japan’s local political system is increasingly characterized by strong elements of direct democracy and the emergence of new actors in local politics, despite a decline in civic and political activities especially among youngsters. It will be argued that a central role in this changing system lies with networks: New networks formed by volunteers and NGOs gain in importance when it comes to coordinating votes for smaller parties and independents and thus pave the way for a power shift among political actors. The election of new political candidates challenges existing networks between conservative local politicians and LDP diet members. However, as long as budgetary streamlining is the major driving force behind these reforms, local democracy will not be a political goal itself, but rather a tool for change.
PD Dr. Carmen SCHMIDT is an Adjunct Professor of Political Sociology and Deputy Director of the Japan Research Center, Faculty of Social Sciences at Osnabrück University. She has held teaching and research appointments in the Department of Japanese Studies at Heidelberg University, the Graduate School of Social Science at Hitotsubashi University and the Institute of Social Science at Tokyo University. She is currently a JSPS Visiting Professor at Hitotsubashi University.