Tokyo Decentralization V: Decentralization as a Catchphrase

As evidenced by the growing population and employment densities in the suburban rings of the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, indicating patterns of polycentric development occurring (Sorensen, 2001), there are questions emerging on whether the apparent phenomenon is directly resulted from the planning policies advocated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG). Indeed, some studies discover the lack of correlation of the policies to the development of new core cities. Results show that land availability and public interventions centered on upper-level governmental entities are the main drivers of development (Phelps & Ohashi, 2018).  

The power of the Japanese government is indeed long known as highly centralized and authoritative. There are a few aspects to the strong authority and power of the governor of Tokyo Metropolis. The governor is directly elected by about one-tenth of the national population, and has huge discretionary powers as the head of TMG, with a budget comparable to the national budget of the Republic of Korea (about 12 trillion yen) and a huge staff (about 170,000). Moreover, the governor has a fixed four-year term secured under the presidential system, and can enforce leadership under the independent system (Sasaki, 2011). It is no surprise that decentralization acts only as a catchphrase, as labelled by Hein & Pelletier (2006), instead of a concrete functioning idea.

As discussed in Decentralized Town but Centralized Power?, there are circumstances where the government advocates a decentralization of urban functions but demonstrates centralized decision-making as well as a symbol of high-level authority. Clearly, it can be seen by now that decentralization requires much larger structural changes, including a shift in the administrative system and a dispersion of power, than merely changing locations of the government center or creating new business cores. In other words, to achieve the ideal effects of decentralization, governments could not just work within their prefectural boundaries, but a cross-border collaboration between adjacent prefectures as suggested by Nakabayashi (2006) is also necessary (see more in Borders of Deconcentration). Within own boundaries, Ishida (2006) believes that democracy in local governance and the emphasis on citizens and their initiatives are the keys to achieving decentralization (see more in Decentralization of Planning Power). 

It will certainly take time for Japan, which has traditionally rooted in a top-down and highly centralized governance structure, to slowly switch to a bottom-up approach. Indeed, there are increasing ties formed between national and local institutions, and the various levels of Japanese government is not as hierarchical as it appears at first glance (Hein & Pelletier, 2006), yet continuous effort by all parties is still required to transform decentralization from a catchphrase to a truly functioning concept. 



Hein, Carola, and Pelletier, Philippe. Cities, Autonomy, and Decentralization in Japan, 55–80. London: Routledge, 2006. 

Ishida, Yorifusa. “Local Initiatives and the Decentralization of Planning Power in Japan.” Essay. In Cities, Autonomy, and Decentralization in Japan, edited by Carola Hein and Philippe Pelletier, 25–54. London: Routledge, 2006. 

Nakabayashi, Itsuki. “Concentration and Deconcentration in the Context of the Tokyo Capital Region Plan and Recent Cross-Border Networking Concepts.” Essay. In Cities, Autonomy, and Decentralization in Japan, edited by Carola Hein and Philippe Pelletier, 55–80. London: Routledge, 2006. 

Phelps, Nicholas A., and Ohashi, Hiroaki. “Edge City Denied? The Rise and Fall of Tokyo’s Outer Suburban ‘Business Core Cities.’” Journal of Planning Education and Research 40, no. 4 (2018): 379–92. 

Sasaki, N. To-chiji: kenryoku to tosei [Governor of Tokyo Metropolis: Powers and metropolitan governance]. Tokyo: Chuokoron-shinsha, Inc, 2011. 

Sorensen, André. “Subcentres and Satellite Cities: Tokyo’s 20th Century Experience of Planned Polycentrism.” International Planning Studies 6, no. 1 (2001): 9-32.


1 Comment on “Tokyo Decentralization V: Decentralization as a Catchphrase

  1. Your narrative on TMG’s efforts to decentralize the urban functions while maintaining the centralized government structure is really interesting. There have historically been plans to decentralize the primate city and to strengthen public support for establishing secondary premises in areas outside Tokyo. Soaring land price from the dramatic housing bubble in the 90s and other socio-economic factors related to Japan’s “Lost Decades” have affected these decisions. It would be interesting to see in this narrative some assessments on a particular time period/ TMG’s and the Minister’s cabinet’s attitudes.

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