Municipal mergers and dissolutions in Japan

Municipal mergers and dissolutions carried out in Japan (known as shichōson gappei (市町村合併) in Japanese) can take place within one municipality or between multiple municipalities and are required to be based upon consensus.

Merger policy

The government's stated goal is to reduce the total number of Japanese municipalities to 1,000. The government did not provide a distinct timetable.

Japan had around 1,822 municipalities at the beginning of 2007, considerably less than the 2,190 on April 1, 2005 and a decline of 40 percent from the number in 1999. The 1,822 municipalities include 198 villages, 777 cities and 847 towns.

The municipality merger promotion law was revised to ease the burden on debt-ridden local governments and to create larger municipalities so more administrative power could be transferred to the local level. The law's deadline passed on March 31, 2006.

Record of changes

Reasons for merging

As of January 2006 many municipalities in Japan contained fewer than 200 residents. Japanese municipalities require skilled workers. 40% of Japan's GDP consisted of debts from local governments. Japan merges local governments to expand residential area per municipal government, create different school attendance boundaries for elementary school and junior high school students, and to allow more widespread use of public facilities.[1]

Socio-political context

Most of Japan's rural municipalities largely depend on subsidies from the central government. They are often criticized for spending money for wasteful public enterprises to keep jobs. The central government, which is itself running budget deficits, has a policy of encouraging mergers to make the municipal system more efficient.

Although the government purports to respect self-determination of the municipalities, some consider the policy to be compulsory. As a result of mergers, some cities such as Daisen, Akita temporarily have very large city assemblies.

Some people see it as a form of federalism; they consider that the ultimate goal is to change Japan into a union consisting of more autonomous states. So far the mergers are limited to the local municipalities. Mergers of prefectures are also planned in some regions of Japan.

Past mergers

There have been three waves of merger activity between Japanese municipalities, the largest being in 2005. This recent peak is sometimes referred to as "the great Heisei mergers" (平成の大合併 heisei-no-daigappei) as a way of distinguishing it from the earlier two.

The first peak of mergers, known as "the great Meiji mergers" (明治の大合併 meiji-no-daigappei), happened in 1889, when the modern municipal system was established. Before the mergers, existing municipalities were the direct successors of spontaneous hamlets called hanseison (藩政村), or villages under the han system. The rump han system is still reflected in the postal system for rural areas as postal units called ōaza (大字). The Meiji mergers slashed total municipalities from 71,314 to 15,859.

The second peak, called "the great Shōwa mergers" (昭和の大合併 shōwa-no-daigappei), took place in the mid-1950s. It reduced the number of municipalities by over half, from 9,868 to 3,472.

Municipal mergers in the island prefectures of Hokkaidō and Okinawa, have followed different tracks.

Naming of new municipalities

Naming a new post-merger municipality is not a negligible matter. Disagreement on a name sometimes causes merger talks to break down. If a city is far larger than other towns which join it, no arguments take place; the city's name simply survives. However, if their sizes do not differ significantly, lengthy disputes ensue. Sometimes the problem can be solved by adopting the district's name. Another easy solution is a simple compounding of the names, but this method, relatively common in Europe, is unusual in Japan. Instead, they are often abbreviated. For example, the Ōta (大田) ward of Tokyo is a portmanteau of Ōmori (森) and Kamata (蒲), it seems that Ōkama was not chosen because of its likeness to 'okama', a derogatory word for homosexual. Toyoshina, Nagano is an acronym of the four antecedent villages: Toba, Yoshino, Shinden, and Nariai.

Another common method is borrowing a well known nearby place name and adding a direction, like Nishitōkyō ("West Tokyo"), Kitakyūshū ("North Kyūshū"), Higashiosaka ("East Osaka"), Shikokuchūō ("Central Shikoku") and recently Higashiōmi ("East Ōmi").

Other towns sometimes use nouns with pleasant connotations, such as peace (平和 heiwa), green ( midori), or future (未来 mirai).

A characteristic of the Heisei mergers is a rapid increase of hiragana names. The names of Japan's cities used to be written in Kanji exclusively. The first instance of "hiragana municipalities" was Mutsu (むつ), renamed in 1960. Their number reached 45 by April 2006. They include Tsukuba (つくば), Kahoku (かほく), Sanuki (さぬき), Tsukubamirai (つくばみらい), and Saitama (さいたま), which was upgraded to a designated city in 2003. The recent merger of Minami Alps is the first example of a katakana city name.


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