Prefectures under the Local Autonomy Law
Under chapter 8 of the postwar constitution and the 1947 Local Autonomy Law, Japan is subdivided into 47 prefectures (1 -to, 1 -dō, 2 -fu, 43 -ken), largely equal in autonomy although the [Tōkyō]-to retains some additional municipal authority for part of its territory (former Tokyo City), and there is central government intervention in its own autonomy (police chief) because of its capital functions. All prefectures are further subdivided into municipalities: cities (-shi), towns (-machi/-chō), villages (-mura/-son) and [special] wards ([tokubetsu]-ku; not to be confused with the wards of designated cities, the latter are administrative subdivisions below municipalities). The institutions (a chief executive and a legislative assembly directly elected separately for four-year terms) – and mechanisms (by-laws/ordinances, jōrei, executive ordinances, kisoku, popular petitions, initiatives and recalls, chokusetsu seikyū (lit. "direct demands")) of local autonomy are largely the same for all prefectures and municipalities. However the extent of municipal autonomy varies by type, in descending order: three special forms for large cities (major cities designated by government order, core cities, special case cities), ordinary cities, towns and villages. The special wards are in a special category: in some areas (e.g. municipal elections), they are treated like major cities, in others (taxation), they have less autonomy than villages.
Prefectural government functions include the organization of the 47 prefectural police forces, the supervision of schools and the maintenance of prefectural schools (mainly high schools), prefectural hospitals, prefectural roads, the supervision of prefectural waterways and regional urban planning. Their responsibilities include tasks delegated to them by the national government such as maintaining most ordinary national roads (except in designated major cities), and prefectures coordinate and support their municipalities in their functions. De facto, prefectures as well as municipalities have often been less autonomous than the formal extent of the local autonomy law suggests, because
- most of them depend heavily on central government funding – a dependency recently further exacerbated in many regions by the demographic transition which hits rural areas harder/earlier as cities can offset it partly through migration from the countryside, and
- in many policy areas, the basic framework is set tightly by national laws, and prefectures and municipalities are only autonomous within that framework.
In recent decades, there have been several reforms to try to reduce the fiscal dependency of local governments. By fiscal 2007, prefectural and municipal taxes constituted 43.3% of the total tax revenue, while prefectural and municipal governments accounted for 58.9% of total government spending; central government transfers and loans still cover a substantial part of local expenditures.