The Powers of the Governor of Tokyo

There is less than a month left until the Tokyo gubernatorial election. According to multiple reports, Governor Koike will be announcing her reelection bid tomorrow. 

With that in mind, this blog post will explain the powers exercised by the governor of Tokyo. 

I hope this post will help encourage readers to go and vote come election day. If you aren’t voting, I hope the piece deepens your understanding on Japanese politics.

What Does it Mean to Be a Governor in Japan? 

The Japanese word for “governor” can be traced back to the Nara period (AD 710-794). The word was combined with the official government title people had back in the day to show that the person governed in a certain position. 

Before World War II, it was the job of the minister of the interior (Ministry of Interior) to appoint governors. After the new Constitution came into effect post-WWII, Tokyo officially became a local government body. This changed the appointment process to an election. Since then, governors have been directly elected by the citizens of Tokyo. 

The winner of the election serves a 4-year term, similar to the president of the United States.

Broadly-speaking, the governor of Tokyo serves as the politician, diplomat, and CEO of the city. 

  • A politician who represents the people of Tokyo
  • A diplomat who represents Tokyo in the world
  • CEO who manages the budget and employees of the metropolitan government

The relatively large population in Tokyo and budget of the metropolitan government makes the governor a powerful political figure in Japan.

Additionally, Tokyo’s influence domestically and internationally, along with its central role in transmitting information (most major media companies are located in Tokyo), makes the governor a powerful figure indirectly (beyond his/her purview). 

Can We Remove a Sitting Governor?

Surprisingly, we citizens have the power to demand the removal of a sitting governor, assembly members, and dissolve the entire assembly

There are 2 steps. First, a petition must be signed by a certain number of citizens. Once that is achieved, a simple majority of voters need to vote in favor of the request. 

  • If there are less than 400,000 eligible voters

⅓ of the eligible voters must sign the petition 

  • If there are 400,000-800,000 eligible voters

[(# of voters-400,000) x ⅙ + (400,000 x ⅓)] voters must sign the petition 

So if there are 500,000 voters, there would need to be 149,999 signatories to the petition

  • If there are more than 800,000 eligible voters

[(# of voters-800,000) x ⅛ + (400,000 x ⅙) + (400,000 x ⅓)] voters must sign the petition

What Powers Can the Governor Exercise?

  • Creating and executing the budget 
  • Submitting legislation/regulations to the metropolitan assembly 
  • Can veto and request reconsideration of legislation (Article 176 of the Local Autonomy Act)
    Can request a bill to be reconsidered within 10 days of the vote. If the results stay the same in the re-vote, that will stand. Article 176 Section 3 states that the veto can be overridden by a ⅔ supermajority of the assembly.
  • Executive decision without assembly approval can be made in extraordinary circumstances (subject to later approval by the assembly)
    Extraordinary circumstances include not being able to call a session in the assembly due to an emergency 
  • Taxation (can also create new taxes)
  • Appoint members of committees (not all) and the vice-governors 
  • Decides the number of organizations and employees working for the metropolitan government
  • Appoints and removes employees of the metropolitan government 
  • Dissolves the metropolitan assembly if a vote of no confidence is passed in the assembly (governor has 10 days to decide whether to dissolve the assembly or resign)

How Does the Governor’s Powers Compare to the Prime Minister?

Source: Ajswab (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Prime MinisterGovernor of Tokyo
Elected to be leader of the party, then nominated by the Diet Directly elected by more than 10 million voters in Tokyo (legitimacy)
Creates a cabinet and requires approval from all ministers to make policyCan make policy and decide how the budget is used on their own
Can’t override the Diet’s decisionsCan veto and request reconsideration of legislation
Shares power with ministers who are responsible for separate areas of policy Has sole control over responsibilities taken on by ministers in the national government

Interestingly enough, while the governor holds immense power, no Tokyo governor has gone on to become the prime minister.

Is the Governor Similar to the US President?

In a way. Both are directly elected by voters (except the US has the Electoral College) and can veto legislation. 

Source: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Here are some of the main differences:

POTUSGovernor of Tokyo
Can’t submit resolutions or a budget bill (only a request)Can submit resolutions and a budget bill to be reviewed and voted on by the assembly
Can’t dissolve Congress Can dissolve the assembly if a vote of no confidence is passed 
Can appoint secretaries, aides, and other top officials in the government Can appoint 4 vice-governors, 1 superintendent of education, 2 special secretaries to the governor, advisers, committee members 

Japan’s gubernatorial system has been influenced by the American and British political systems. 

The purpose of the power to dissolve the assembly is to ensure no gridlock occurs.

Both sides are given an opportunity to break the deadlock by either issuing a vote of no confidence or dissolving the assembly. This gives the governor much-needed power to continue pursuing their agenda. 

In America, the power to dissolve Congress was deliberately excluded by the Founding Fathers. 

What Kind of Governors Did Tokyo Have in the Past?

According to a prominent professor who has written a book on the governor of Tokyo, there is a pattern that emerged post-WWII. 

  1. Post-WWII: Previously appointed governors are elected to continue serving as governor
  2. 1960s: A period of rapid economic growth saw Liberal Democrats (Abe’s party) who pushed regional development named governor (more than ½ during this period)
  3. 1970s: As the economy stagnates, scholar-types who focused on social welfare and the environment were elected
  4. 1980s: A recession leads to a financial crisis for local governments. Fiscally conservative bureaucrats who promise reform are elected
  5. 1990s~: As a push to decentralize government gains momentum, charismatic politicians emerge as governors

In terms of policy, governors followed the “pendulum model,” swinging back and forth between a focus on hard (economic) policies and soft (livelihood/welfare) policies. 

  • Governor Azuma (1959~1963; 1963~1967)

Served during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and pursued hard policy like large scale infrastructure projects 

  • Governor Minobe (1967~1971; 1971~1975; 1975~1979)

Criticized Azuma and focused on soft policy such as social welfare and education 

  • Governor Suzuki (1979~1983; 1983~1987; 1987~1991; 1991~1995)

Focused on hard policy including the development of the multi-centered city proposal and waterfront city

  • Governor Aoshima (1995~1999)

Criticized Suzuki’s spending on development projects and focused on soft policy including making Tokyo a recycling/eco-friendly city 

  • Governor Ishihara (1999~2003; 2003~2007; 2007~2011; 2011~2012)

Aligned hard policy with PM Koizumi’s reform-minded policies, focusing on revitalizing Tokyo economically

What are Some Trends We See in Gubernatorial Elections?

  1. Incumbents who run for reelection always win
  2. Incumbents win more votes the 2nd time around
  3. A new type of governor always succeeds the incumbent
  4. The race is always competitive—more than 10 candidates compete in almost every race unlike other governor races where incumbents are unopposed 
  5. Most candidates win as independents—party affiliation is unnecessary 

Challenges Future Governors Face

The winner of next month’s election will most likely focus on hard policy to recover from the so-called “corona-shock” that damaged the economy. There will also be a need to address the health care system that almost collapsed amid the pandemic.

Therefore, a candidate who can balance both soft and hard policy will win the election.

Governors will have to deal with an “aging Tokyo” as well.  

As the number of senior citizens increases, governors will have to find ways to allocate money to healthcare, welfare, and the pension system critical to social welfare. In addition, governors will need to come up with ways to make money to strengthen aging infrastructure such as roads, bridges and the highway system. 

The excess centralization of people and industries in Tokyo must also be addressed in the near future. Scientists calculate that a major earthquake directly hitting the Tokyo area (which accounts for approx. 20% of Japan’s GDP) would paralyze the entire city and lead to significant damage to lives and property. 

Many suggest it could happen in the next 30 years.

In order to prevent massive panic and damage, the governor should work with the national government to revitalize regional economies. This should help companies and people move out of Tokyo and into newly developed regions. 

It will be important to seek out the candidate who can come up with policies addressing these problems. Voters should read candidates’ campaign pledges and listen to their speeches instead of relying on name recognition

Next month’s election will decide the way the city deals with mid- to long-term issues. My hope is that after reading this, people understand the importance of this election. 

Sources (Japanese):

Image: Cabinet Public Relations Office (CC BY 4.0)

One thought on “The Powers of the Governor of Tokyo

  1. Damn that’s a lot of budgetary power
    Tokyo strikes me as the world’s most extreme case of a “local” official having more power than almost everyone else in the nation
    Closest equivalent in the US would probably be the Mayor of New York City, but if you compare city population to country population Tokyo has NYC beat by a looooongshot

    Liked by 1 person

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