Thursday, 09 April 2015 17:06

Localism in Japan - Collaborative Planning or rule by the Courts?

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A top-down tradition

Japanese planning was seen as a means of creating functional modern cities to catch up with the West. The system has been top-down and technocratic, focused only on the physical aspects of development. It has been described as “authoritarian”, very hierarchical, and dominated by central government. Statutory plans are quite rigid and detailed. Administration of regulations was the means to achieve these ends.

Machizukuri began in the 1960s as a protest against this type of planning. It literally translates as “town building” but carries the nuance of community planning and design. In the 1960s environmental legislation was weak and there were protests against pollution and new development. In response, local authorities began to create stronger planning guidelines.

A new localism

During the 1990s the Japanese economy was depressed. In that period Machizukuri morphed into a more general system of local governance. There was a notable upsurge in local citizens’ movements which seek to enhance their local environments. John Friedmann, the distinguished US planning academic, says that while Machizukuri is “not a precise term and has multiple and contested meanings. What is beyond dispute is its importance for the ways Japanese cities are being governed today, no longer exclusively at a distance from central ministries, but more frequently through the synergies of local effort.”

Professor Yukio Nishimura from the University of Tokyo has commented how Machizukuri developed in an experimental way with public and private sector co-operation at local level for projects like the creation of new “vest-pocket parks”, conservation of historic houses and even the drafting of local master plans.

As the on-going economic depression debilitated local and central government, local communities came to play an ever more significant role. The result is summarised by the professor as follows: “The question has been changed from how to make the local community participate in planning process to how to enable the local community to become major actor to play a central role for the community business. Machizukuri, therefore, has become a burning issue for planning.”


Legislation in 2000 gave local governments new planning powers. Nishimura says this amounted to “an end of hierarchical to-down planning system in japan for the first time.” Further legislation in 2003 allowed non-profit organisations to participate in the management of public assets. This further strengthened the Machizukuri system.

However, others are not so sure that that the centralised nature of Japanese planning has been superceded. Dr.Kuniko Shibata pointed to cases where attempts by local authorities to set more stringent standards than in national legislation had been overruled by the courts. She commented “it seems all but impossible for local planning authorities to use legally binding planning tools to ensure that land-use is in line with local interests.”

Voluntary agreements, weak consultation

Local bodies have used voluntary development agreements. These request developers to contribute towards the costs of public facilities such as schools and nurseries; or to provide roads and parks, for example. However, these agreements are not part of the planning legislation and can be challenged through the courts. Rulings indicate that “the practice has been interpreted as only acceptable as far as local authorities ask developers for ‘voluntary cooperation’”.

Furthermore Japan’s courts do not recognise amenity and environment as legitimate concerns in planning decisions. The public interest is only conceived in national terms. Dr.Shibata summed up the situation as follows: “public administrations in Japan are not obliged to inform and consult citizens about proposed plans, nor do local ordinances and guidance have adequate enforcement power to make developers comply with controls.”


Japan has seen a significant rise in a form of localism. This can take different forms but has a strong focus on developing co-operation between public and private sectors to deliver local environmental improvements. John Friedmann cites this as an example of how “places can be ‘taken back’ neighborhood by neighborhood, through collaborative people-centered planning.” However, it appears that central government remains the key player in the statutory planning system in Japan, and that the courts still uphold this national supremacy. Thus, to succeed in practice, Japanese localism depends on voluntary agreements with developers.


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