Japanese local government has its basis in the Constitution of Japan, which recognizes local government as essential to democracy and which establishes it as part of the state's system of governance. The core legislation relating to local government can be found in the Local Autonomy Law, which divides local public entities into two major categories.
The first category consists of municipalities, which are further broken down into cities, towns, and villages. The second category consists of prefectures. Under this two-tier system, all districts of the country belong to one of the 3,229 municipalities and at the same time fall within the boundaries of one of the 47 prefectures. In addition, within the prefectures and municipalities, there exist many special local authorities, comparable to special districts in the United States and special purpose bodies in Canada.
A comparison of local government in Japan and in the United States and Canada reveals two important features of the Japanese system. First, despite decentralization efforts in recent years, government in Japan is still highly centralized compared to the U.S. This is evidenced by both the absence of municipal courts as well as by the adherence of the prefectures to the national constitution, rather than to their own individual constitutions, as is the case in the United States. While Canada also has only one constitution, which applies to both the federal government and the provinces, the system is distinguished by the large degree of control granted to the provinces over such key areas as health care and education.
A second key feature of local government in Japan is the high degree of uniformity, with administration based exclusively on the strong mayor system. The Local Autonomy Law grants local authorities basically identical organizational forms and functions, with the exception of Tokyo's central districts and the 12 large metropolitan cities, despite the differences which exist between the authorities in terms of area and population. This emphasis on uniformity and central guidance is rooted in the belief that the quality and level of services should be on the same plane throughout the country. To achieve this goal, authorities are committed to the principle of applying nationally devised solutions and plans to all problems and situations, rather than establishing ad hoc organizations to deal with circumstances as they arise. The central government retains primary responsibility for the formulation of policies guiding local government administration in such areas as finance, social welfare, education, and planning. All of this is made possible by the Japanese local government structure and in particular by the Ministry of Public Managements, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunication, the national agency responsible for matters concerning local government.
Source: Japan Local Government Center (CLAIR)