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Japan Tests Its City Limits

Under pressure from a central government bent on saving money, municipalities are merging faster than you can say 'loss of identity.'

August 07, 2003|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

YAMAGUCHI, Japan — Yuji Shinya, 38, doesn't regret having stayed in this rural village of 2,000 after he left school.

Sure, many of his classmates make far more money in the big city than he ever will running a small general store. But he enjoys the slower pace. He enjoys knowing he's part of a tightknit community where local officials are neighbors and problems can be worked out informally.

But powerful winds from Tokyo now threaten to bring more big-city ways to Yamaguchi, as pressure builds to merge the village with its 56,000-strong neighbor, Nakatsugawa.

Yamaguchi is hardly alone. Across Japan, hundreds of villages face being shaken up in similar fashion under a push by the central government and ruling party to pare the nation's nearly 3,200 municipalities to 1,000 by 2005.

Proponents say fewer but larger cities will save money and improve efficiency. Skeptics like Shinya fear a different outcome: government that is less responsive and less convenient.

"We're a small village, and we're getting eaten up by the big city," Shinya said as he made change for a customer in his cluttered shop. "The high and mighty in Tokyo make decisions from a desk far from the real world. If they want to save money, they should cut their own salaries."

Small towns can choose to go it alone, but a system of carrots and sticks crafted by the central government makes it a costly proposition. "This utter despotism will only kill off towns and villages," groused one group of local officials.

Exactly how the decision to merge is made can be a bit murky. Some municipalities hold public referendums, but local officials are free to ignore the results. Other municipalities don't even bother with a vote.

Among the factors towns use in choosing a mate are proximity, shared history, and whether the prospect's job base, hospitals and shopping are desirable.

The scramble to find partners is forcing many Japanese to rethink the role of government, the limits of local identity and the importance of running their own lives.

Squabbles have broken out between suitors over garbage collection, town hall location, even, in one case, whether the resulting town would be shaped like a doughnut.

A pervasive concern is the loss of local bragging rights. Yamaguchi, the birthplace of a famous Japanese author, worries that much larger Nakatsugawa will abscond with not only its identity but also the legacy and glory of its most famous son.

Already, the city of Iwaki, which long touted itself as "the largest in Japan in terms of acreage," has been knocked off its pedestal by a merged Shizuoka and Shimizu, which is 11% bigger. Defiant, the residents of Iwaki say they'll continue to feature the claim in city literature, followed by an asterisk explaining the demotion. "After all, we've been the largest for 37 years," said city official Kazuo Hayasaka.

Names are another thorn. Most of the newly configured cities are taking the bigger partner's moniker, which doesn't sit well with the towns that lose out, especially those that trace their history to samurai days.

Even some relative Johnny-come-latelies bristle at the change. The 8,000 residents of Hawai, a town that prides itself on its links to America's 50th state and its bureaucrats clad in aloha shirts, fret that under a proposed merger with Togo and Tomari, they would lose their glamorous if rather eccentric reputation and become just another Japanese town. "That would be a real shame," said Mayor Masanao Inoue.

On rare occasions, however, residents are happy to shed their old marque. Kamikuishiki, a village at the base of Mt. Fuji, hopes a new name -- any name -- will weaken the association with its infamous Aum Supreme Truth cult residents, who in 1995 launched a sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway. The village plans to split itself in two, with each part joining a different set of partners.

Finally, there are a few who view the identity upheaval as a branding opportunity. One city has named itself after the mountain chain it's in, which is a major tourist draw. Four seaside towns were set to adopt the name Amakusa Shiomaneki in honor of a local crab delicacy until someone pointed out that it sounded like the phrase "bring on death."

And boosters in Neagari, the birthplace of New York Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui, sought unsuccessfully to have their newly expanded municipality named Matsui City in his honor.

Most proposed mergers involve towns in the same prefecture. But at least six straddle these regional borders, prompting grander turf tussles -- akin to the outcry that might result if a California border town decided to join Nevada.

Although geography tends to exert a strong influence on merger decisions, even that's not a given. Kawaba, a village of 4,000, announced plans to merge with 800,000-population Setagaya about 85 miles away, because of their decades of economic and community links.

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