In praise of … the Japan Local Government Centre

Chris Game

The Guardian newspaper has what it calls a daily editorial encomium: a short, benign tribute to a person or phenomenon featuring generally somewhere on the fringe of the day’s news. Entitled ‘In praise of’, its recent subjects have included Arunima Sinha – the first woman amputee to scale Everest – half-term holidays, male skirts, and Ringo Starr. This uncharacteristically uncritical blog is a lot longer than a Guardian encomium, but comes in a similar spirit.

The Japan Local Government Centre (JLGC) is the London (Whitehall) office of the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR) a joint organisation of Japanese local authorities, supported by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and dedicated to ‘localised internationalism’: the fostering of international relations at the local level in Japan and the promotion of local Japanese culture and activities abroad.

It is the institutionalisation of a Japanese instinct that the British, not least in local government, tend not to share: a belief in the benefits, both intrinsic and instrumental, in seeking to understand how other countries do things. In addition, therefore, to its branches in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures (similar to our counties) and 20 designated cities (a case in point of a practice from which we could well learn), CLAIR also has seven overseas offices. The London office’s remit covers bits of northern Europe and Scandinavia, plus a responsibility for responding to research requests from the Japanese local authorities who provide most of its funding and a majority of the dozen or so staff.

That research function is one explanation of the extensive contacts we in INLOGOV have enjoyed over the years with JLGC, its rotating directors – mostly seconded from the Ministry of Internal Affairs – and both Japanese and UK staff. But far from the only one.

My personal association dates back to 1997, when I had the good fortune to be selected as a member of one of the Centre’s early annual study tours – in my case as one of a group of 10 mainly local government officers for a heavily subsidised and enormously enjoyable 10-day visit centred on Yokosuka City and Kanagawa Prefecture, just south-west of Tokyo. Unforgettable is almost as overused an adjective nowadays as incredible, but in this instance it is literally true and it paved the way for numerous succeeding contacts, relationships and revisits – from the latest of which, as it happens, I have recently returned.

I might well have blogged about it anyway, but that wouldn’t have justified the ‘In praise of’ peg, which by Guardian convention requires a relevant news item. That news item is (I shall resist typing ‘of course’) Japan400. In truth, the title refers to the yearlong programme of cultural events commemorating 400 years of diplomatic, trading and cultural relations between our two countries – as conducted through myriad organisations like CLAIR and the JLGC.

But the undoubted focal point of the year’s celebrations came on June 11th – exactly 400 years since the Clove, an aptly-named ship of the East India Company, finally made it across the East China Sea, up past Nagasaki to the south-west island of Hirado, and became the first British-commanded vessel to land in Japan.

The nautical detail is vital – especially for any like me, who, on first hearing of Japan400, were confused by thinking we’d already celebrated this quatercentenary more than a decade ago. I recalled clearly a fellow member of that 1997 study tour – Peter McLean, from the then Gillingham Borough Council’s Business Liaison Office (and the first UK local government officer I met who had a bilingual English/Japanese business card) – impressing upon us at every conceivable opportunity how the first Englishman to set foot in Japan, in 1600, had famously and indisputably been William Adams, a seaman from, yes, Gillingham in Kent.

Indeed, Peter, as was his wont, went further: presenting us all with a little book about the great man, The Blue-eyed Samurai, and his remarkable story of finding favour with the Shogun, becoming his trusted adviser, shipbuilder and the only officially recognised Western samurai, being granted a house and land, and spending the rest of his life in his adopted country.

All true and authenticated, and duly celebrated in 2000 in what by then, following Gillingham’s merger with Rochester, was the unitary Medway authority. William Adams was indeed Japan’s first English tourist, but – the big BUT – the ship on which he sailed was equally irrefutably Dutch: part of a Dutch fleet, owned by the Dutch East India Company, and commanded by a Dutch captain.

The Clove’s arrival 13 years later was very different. Though the voyage itself was hardly, as it were, plain sailing, it was heading from the outset to a known and at least minimally settled destination, and there was none of the drama occasioned by Adams’ landing. Quite the contrary, for the convoy commander, John Saris, brought official letters and gifts from King James I, and in turn was warmly welcomed by the local ruler – which I suppose makes it the more appropriate event from which to date the establishment of diplomatic and cultural relations.

It also offers a really clunky segue back to my own recent visit, during which I too met and was welcomed by local rulers, although they tend nowadays to take the form of elected prefecture governors and municipal mayors, rather than daimyo and samurai. I’m hoping to write something loosely comparative on local government leadership in the UK and Japan, and thought I’d take advantage of the invitation of a friend and former colleague to observe his ‘campaign’ for re-election as mayor of Setouchi, a ‘new city’ of about 40,000 residents in Okayama prefecture, roughly midway between Osaka and Hiroshima.

There are two sets of inverted commas in that last sentence, both intended to signal distinctive usage. First, the city. Though in area roughly the size of Manchester, Setouchi isn’t in truth a city at all, but rather the product of a 2004 merger of three real towns that now, of course, have lost most of their governmental identity – rather like Gillingham and Rochester. And Setouchi too is an artificial name, derived from ‘Seto inland sea’, in which as few people actually live as in the River Medway.

In much the same way as we have been relentlessly merging real places into ever larger and artificial constructs like Medway, the Japanese have been engaged on a fiscally incentivised merger spree that has to date cut the number of municipalities from over 3,200 in 1999 to barely 1,700 – one striking difference, though, being that some of the meaningless names adopted by their new creations at least sound more attractive than ours – Sakura (cherry blossom) City, Asagiri (morning mist) Town, and the like.

That, however, is not my point here. Rather, it is to note that this governmental engrossment, and the substantial reduction in the number of local politicians, seems to have done little to stimulate either greater electoral competition or greater voter participation. Japanese mayoral elections can take place in almost any month, but in over a quarter of the 80 held in April of this year the mayors were elected or re-elected without a contest; and in over 60% of the cities in which elections did take place, voter turnout hit record low levels. Political parties in this country aren’t the most popular of institutions, but democratically a weak and ineffectual party system is surely worse.

My friend was also re-elected unopposed, and, while I’m sure that was a testament to the breadth of his personal appeal, the excellence of his mayoral record, and his undoubted political negotiating skills, even I would be that much more reassured, had he not also been unopposed when first and previously elected.

It did not, incidentally, mean that there was no ‘campaign’ at all for me to witness, following my 6,000 mile journey. There were the personal posters, on publicly provided display boards, that are an integral part of all Japanese elections; loudspeaker campaign cars, organised hospitality, and endless meeting, greeting and exchanging of business cards. But it’s the final picture – the triumphal and collective BANZAI! (in which the ‘distinguished foreign guest’ enthusiastically participated) – that most truly captures the spirit of this particular election: considerably more acclamation than confrontation.

game japan

None of which should be taken to suggest that Japanese mayors, particularly of larger cities, aren’t important political figures with substantial powers and influence, or that the country’s local politics is invariably low key. Last November’s mayoral election in Okinawa, for example, became effectively a referendum on the challenger’s platform of removing all US bases from the city and replacing the US-Japanese Security Treaty with a treaty of friendship – albeit one that he lost by quite a distance.

As for the politician currently receiving by far the greatest media coverage, both nationally and internationally, and performing the Farageiste role of scaring the hell out of the established political parties in the run-up to next month’s Upper House elections, Toru Hashimoto isn’t in Parliament at all, but the mayor of Osaka.

More of which possibly in the nearish future. For the present, though, simply a grateful reflection that, were it not for the JLGC, it’s quite likely that I’d never even have got interested in this stuff.


Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

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