November 30, 2004


Information Sharing and Disclosure in Niseko, Where Citizens Come First

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.27 (November 2004)
"Initiatives and Achievements of Local Governments in Japan" Article Series No.8

Since Japan's Devolution of Power Law came into force in April 2000, an increasing number of local governments have adopted original sets of basic ordinances for municipal governance, known as Basic Municipal Ordinances. With the aim of ensuring citizen participation in local government, Basic Municipal Ordinances clarify the process of citizen empowerment and specifics of participation systems in accordance with local circumstances and policy issues. Because this type of basic ordinance overrides any other type of municipal regulation, it is often called the "local constitution."

Niseko Town in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, was the first municipality in Japan to enact this kind of ordinance. With the aim of enhancing local pride, the town established a local constitution, in this case called the "Basic Ordinance for Town Planning" in December 2000. This ordinance emphasizes information sharing and citizen participation.

Creating Rules for Information Sharing

Located southwest of Sapporo, Niseko is surrounded by the beautiful landscape of nearby Mt. Youtei, called the "Mt. Fuji of Hokkaido" and Mt. Niseko-Annupuri, part of the Niseko mountain range. With a population of about 4,500, its main industries are agriculture and tourism. It has long been one of the most popular ski resorts in Japan, and about 1.4 million tourists annually visit Niseko in order to experience the abundant nature in nearby national parks. "Niseko," the town's name, means "a cliff jutting over a riverbank deep in the mountains" in the language of the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido.

The present mayor, former town official Seiji Osaka, has been consistently promoting town-planning based on citizen initiative since his inauguration in 1994. Convinced of the value of sharing information with citizens and keeping an open administration, he started by widening citizen/township communication channels.

Today the town not only publishes its annual budget, but distributes it in booklet form to all households as a way of conveying information about yearly administrative tasks to citizens. For better understanding, difficult terms are replaced with everyday words; for example "bond issue" is replaced with "debt," and so on. The booklet also illustrates town statistics with graphs and figures that can be compared with facts about other municipalities.

Rules for information sharing stipulate that any group of about five residents can request a meeting with the mayor or town officials, to be arranged by the town at the residents' convenience, either during or after office hours. It also offers citizens opportunities to exchange opinions about community issues in order to plan a better budget. In addition, a suggestion box system has been introduced to gauge public opinion through letters, fax, or e-mail; rules guarantee that each communication receives a reply. These methods ensure citizen access to township information.

Since November 1995, the town has worked to incorporate residents' views by organizing meetings for each town planning project where citizens can express and discuss their views. In this system, the town does not merely present a nearly-complete plan for comment; rather, every resident freely participates in the planning process from the very beginning, and several discussion meetings are held in order to build a satisfactory consensus.

In the course of trying out this system, the town was able to make workable decisions that incorporated its residents' active, constructive suggestions. Specifically, residents participated in planning the establishment of a travel information center, the Niseko View Plaza, and developments in the Shiribetsu River Basin.

With these experiences as a basis, the town made further efforts to establish rules for information-sharing and decision-making systems in which open access to information would not be disrupted by changes in the town's leadership or by the actions of individual town officials. The result was the establishment of an Administrative Procedures Ordinance in 1996, a Freedom of Information Ordinance and a Privacy-Protection Ordinance in 1997, and finally a Basic Town Planning Ordinance in 2000. (Japanese only)

Information-Sharing Leads to Various Types of Citizen Participation

The formulation of Niseko's Basic Environment Plan, established in 2002, was for the most part accomplished through residents' input gathered through a public advertising campaign. During a two-year planning period, meetings were held at least once a month, and as often as twice a week. Because rivers, groundwater and other elements of the water cycle have contributed a great deal to both local industries and residents' lives, "A Town of Water Environments" was adopted as the main theme of the environment plan.

A non-governmental citizens' group, the Niseko Environment Association, prepared the draft of the plan. In researching the wild plants and animals found in the town, this group also held workshops that involved the community in these studies, a method that is being increasingly used nationwide, and drew up a map featuring the main characteristics of the town.

The completed draft was reviewed at the town's plenary meetings and was made available to the public via the Internet. After being discussed by an Environmental Council consisting of residents, the draft was officially adopted as the town's Basic Environment Plan. (Japanese only)

In December 2003, Niseko Town enacted a Basic Environment Ordinance, which stipulates that the results of implementing the Basic Environment Plan must be reported in the form of an annual township "Environment White Paper."

Since 2000, the town has introduced a document filing system that enables all town officials to quickly search for and view official documents. Citizens are also allowed to directly search for documents held in shared filing cabinets at town hall; moreover, anyone can access the town's electronic documents through the Internet. (Japanese only)

In 2002, the town opened an interactive learning center, nicknamed "Asobook," meaning "play book." The township obtained a former post office building and held several discussions about how it should be used involving a planning committee composed of members chosen from the public. Finally, in response to the town's information disclosure policy, the building was remodeled as a place where township documents would be stored and disclosed to the public; it also functions as a library.

With its theme of enjoying books, the Asobook center is managed by 63 volunteers belonging to an "Asobook Group," composed mainly of mothers living in the local community. They choose books, manage the lending library, and hold various events to provide residents with an opportunity to get to know one another. (Japanese only)

At one time, the town had a plan to construct a landfill facility for general wastes. Although relations were tense between the town residents near the planned site, the town's information sharing and disclosure policy became the key to solving these difficulties and the landfill was completed in 2002. The landfill plan remained open to the public from the draft stage, and the construction site was determined through briefings for local residents and discussions at citizen' meetings. After the site was determined, however, residents living close to the site still strongly opposed it.

These opposing residents asserted that the discussion process was not transparent and that documents had been falsified. In answer to this, the town provided them with all the necessary information and continued discussions with them. The town and the opposing residents finally reached a consensus, and agreed to work together towards building a better landfill facility, reducing waste and increasing the recycling rate.

Kenya Katayama, deputy chief of Niseko Town General Affairs Division, says, "Wisdom can be found in most people. By promoting complete information sharing and disclosure, local governments can eliminate the preconception that many people have about government's tendency to conceal unfavorable information. In this way, citizens can build a relationship of trust with their local government and come to participate actively in the local administration."

In recent years, the movement to seek justice, freedom of information and public participation in decision-making on environmental issues has become a worldwide phenomenon. European countries adopted the Aarhus Convention, which sets minimum international standards relating to these rights and came into effect in October 2001. European countries are now making efforts to improve their domestic legal systems in line with this convention.

People's lives reflect local circumstances. People should be able to live safely and comfortably no matter who heads the local government at any particular time. Systems of complete information-sharing and citizen participation similar to the one being promoted by Niseko Town are expected to spread throughout the country as a way of achieving this aim.

(Staff Writer Kazumi Yagi)

[For your reference]
Niseko Town (Japanese only)