Local Governments Take the Lead on Social Policy

Japanese woman smoking

From passive smoking to same-sex partnerships, Japan’s cities and regions have lost patience with national government on social policy issues.

The Japanese Diet this week finally passed a legislative amendment that will ban smoking in some public places by April 2020 – but only after the Health Ministry’s original proposals had been hacked to bits by LDP lawmakers, who watered down the scope of the law to the point where more than half of Japan’s restaurants will end up being exempt from the new rules1Tomohiro Osaki, Japan Times, 18 July 2018, “Japan’s watered-down smoking ban clears Diet. That the law passed at all this time is, at least, an improvement over the previous attempt; in 2017, LDP opponents of the bill ran out the clock on the Diet session, forcing the legislation to go back to square one in the next session.

The urgency and aggression with which the LDP’s lawmakers fought back against the Health Ministry’s efforts to curb the effects of second-hand smoke were not only dramatic, but sometimes outright embarrassing; Finance Minister Taro Aso made headlines when he questioned the link between smoking and lung cancer on the floor of the Diet last year2The Economist, 24 June 2017, “Japan’s Government is in two minds about smoking, while Lower House member Yoichi Anami was forced to apologize last month after heckling lung cancer survivors who were giving testimony to the Committee on Health, Labor and Welfare3Kyodo (via Japan Times), 21 June 2018, “Japanese lawmaker apologizes for heckling lung cancer patient during the man’s Diet testimony. Media coverage of Anami’s gaffe noted that he sits on the board of a restaurant chain; while Aso, a lifelong smoker himself, runs a finance ministry that remains invested in Japan Tobacco.

These conflicts of interest, and the resultant heel-dragging that has made the government’s response both slow and ineffectual, explain why Japan’s regional governments lost patience over this issue. Tokyo’s Metropolitan Government beat the National Diet to the punch last month, announcing a much stricter set of regulations that will effectively ban smoking in all but the smallest restaurants and bars4Elaine Lies, Reuters, 27 June 2018, “Tokyo passes tough anti-smoking law ahead of 2020 Olympics; crucially, Tokyo’s legislation is designed to protect employees from second-hand smoke, a concern which lawmakers stripped out of the national bill. Tokyo’s law will also come into force in 2020 and will cover more than 80 percent of the capital’s businesses – at which point the city will join its southern neighbor, Kanagawa Prefecture (which covers Yokohama, Kawasaki, and the Shonan region), and Hyogo Prefecture (which includes Kobe), both of which have already passed regional anti-smoking legislation.

Japan’s regional governments have lost patience – and started taking the initiative

Curbs on second-hand smoke, however, are only one of a number of major social issues on which Japan’s regional governments have started taking the initiative in recent years. Social policy has rarely been a priority for the Abe Administration – in part simply due to disinterest, but also due to the strong divisions which exist within the LDP over even relatively straightforward social questions. With the exception of the “Womenomics” aspects of the Abenomics program – which were laudable in many regards, although their impact has arguably been dampened by a failure to follow up with social policy initiatives to support working women – the national government has largely been treading water on questions of social policy for the past five years.

Where national government has faltered – either through disinterest or paralysis – regional governments across the country have begun to step up. Just as Kanagawa, Hyogo and lately Tokyo have led from the front on passive smoking, cities and wards around Japan have also far outpaced the government on social questions such as the provision of childcare and the rights of same-sex couples.

Childcare is an issue that particularly speaks to Japan’s social problems; difficulties with finding or paying for childcare impact on couples’ decisions to start families, which feeds into the nation’s demographic decline, while also making it difficult for women to return to work after childbirth, thus undermining Womenomics’ core goals. Central government’s engagement with the issue thus far has struggled to tackle the scale of the problem; the government has pushed its target for eliminating childcare waiting lists back to 2021 (from an original target of March 2018)5Mainichi Shimbun, 1 June 2017, “Editorial: Delay in goal to reduce day care waiting lists a major embarrassment. Kyodo News reported earlier this year that 35,000 children across the country remained on waiting lists, but some cities are choosing not to wait for the national government to act. Faced with hundreds of children on its waiting lists for day care facilities last year, Osaka earmarked funds to create over 4000 new slots while the city of Akashi in Hyogo Prefecture made the news by adopting a policy that covers the full cost of day care for all children after each family’s first child6Kyodo (via Japan Times), 18 February 2018, “Waiting lists persist at Japan’s municipal day care facilities. Other municipalities have preempted government efforts to recruit more child care workers, raising their salary offers for carers and offering rent subsidies in order to boost the number of children their systems can accommodate.

A growing majority of the Japanese public approve of same-sex partnerships

On the rights of same-sex couples, too, city governments have taken the lead; Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward was the first to issue partnership certificates to same-sex couples in 2015, followed by neighboring Setagaya Ward and then in the following years by Iga (Mie Prefecture), Takarazuka (Hyogo Prefecture), Naha (Okinawa Prefecture), Sapporo (Hokkaido) and most recently by Fukuoka and Osaka7Kyodo News, 28 June 2018, “Osaka to start recognizing LGBT couples from July. While these certificates can only confer limited rights to couples, and as such the number of applications for them have been limited, the contrast with the government’s attitude to the question is stark. Despite almost all opinion polls showing a solid and growing majority of the Japanese public in favor of same-sex marriage or partnerships of some kind8Sankei Shimbun (Sankei-FNN Poll), 30 March 2015, 「少年法の対象年齢引き下げに賛成82%、内閣支持率は53.6%で4ヵ月連続上昇9NHK (中央社 Poll), 4 May 2017, 「憲法 NHK世論調査 ”男性どうし 女性どうしの結婚を認めるべき そう思う51%」, the LDP has thus far refused to entertain any discussion of the issue at a national level. On this issue, it is not so much Japan’s own social problems as its international image that the government is letting down – ceding regional leadership on a high-profile progressive issue to neighboring Taiwan, where same-sex marriage is likely to become nationally recognized this year.

The capacity of Japan’s regional governments to take the lead on social issues is a positive in many ways – especially given the large proportion of the population who live in municipalities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka. There is some potential for these local moves to serve as a canary in the coalmine for the national government – raising the media profile of social questions and showing that it is politically “safe” to engage with them, or even shaming the government for its failure to do so. At the same time, however, there is a reasonable concern that local governments’ engagement with social problems like second-hand smoke, childcare provision and same-sex rights can serve as a sticking plaster that patches up the failures of a central government that finds itself increasingly distracted by scandal, internal intrigue, and pipe-dreams such as constitutional revision.

Progress is to be welcomed no matter where it comes from – but the leadership demonstrated by Japan’s regions and municipalities should not serve as cover for the Diet’s conflicts of interest and lack of attention to these issues.

Assistant Professor at Waseda University | Website | + posts

Rob Fahey is an Assistant Professor at the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study (WIAS) in Tokyo, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Milan's School of Social and Political Sciences. He was formerly a Research Associate at the Waseda Institute for Political Economy (WINPEC). His research focuses on populism and polarisation, the impact of conspiracy theory beliefs on political behaviour,  domestic Japanese politics, and the use of text mining and network analysis techniques for political and social analysis. He received his Masters and Ph.D from Waseda University, and his undergraduate degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

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