(Hihata S. 1878. Kaisei Shinano no kuni saiken zenzu: zen. [Nagano] : Nishizawa Kitaro)
In a continuation of municipal amalgamations that have been occurring since the Meiji Restoration (1868) , there is new talk of eliminating Japan's current 47 prefectures and creating about a dozen "regions". See Japan Times article here.
Though the argument is made that creating large regions will allow for greater decentralization and local autonomy, one wonders why it is always the centers of political and economic power, rather than local communities, that push for such structural reforms.
Through an examination of the post-war land reform from the perspective of the central government and its contradictory needs to promote economic growth while maintaining its constituency of small-scale farmers. Mary McDonald* has argued that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP 自民党) has preserved some of the principles of land reform while gradually reregulating agricultural land to allow for new capital formation both external and internal to agriculture. Preservation has come with slow movements towards capital expansion that have allowed arable lands to stay largely in the hands of a spatially diverse constituency and also through price supports for key crops, namely rice. In this way Japan’s conservative regime has worked its way slowly towards a new constituency by appeasing expansionist voices from urban areas while promoting a switch to producer focused (rather than household) landholding in the key rural areas.
In other words, the post-war period has seen a political balancing act played out over the landscape as LDP leaders have worked to increase economic growth in urban areas while appeasing their rural base. However, it seems now that the scale is tipping. Massive depopulation of rural areas (with accompanying migration to urban areas) along with a rapidly aging popuation means that protecting the countryside is less and less of a political or economic necessity.
From the perspective of local communities, this move towards regionalism is troubling. The series of amalagamations that took place in 2005 under Prime Minister Koizumi have already left many rural areas isolated and without access to basic necessities, namely medical care. Here in Otaki there is no longer a full-time physician.
Massive municipal entities will also be disatrous for Japan's already ailing forests and other natural areas. Even after the 2005 amalgamations many newly-formed cities are having difficulties managing the large areas of forestland they have acquired. Often, forest-management takes a backseat to the many problems and issues confronting the urban centers of these new cities. Forest management is often left to volunteers (see my previous posts: Forestry and fall leaves and Spirit and forests)
*McDonald, M. G. 1997. Agricultural Landholding in Japan: Fifty Years After Land Reform. Geoforum 28:55-78.