Photo/IllutrationA campaign board being set up ahead of the town assembly election in Tatsuno, Nagano Prefecture, in early April (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

One item that caught my eye in news coverage of recent unified local elections was about a man who won a municipal assembly seat, only to decline it soon after.

The man had made a snap decision to run for the Tatsuno town assembly in Nagano Prefecture upon learning that there were too few candidates for the number of seats up for grabs.

He won the election uncontested, but backed out two days later on grounds he “could not obtain the support of his family and community.”

This unprecedented development caused a major headache for town officials in charge of election affairs, according to the Nagano edition of The Asahi Shimbun.

Such an outcome may not be a big surprise given how “routine” a shortage of candidates and uncontested elections have become of late.

“It’s not surprising that few people want to become an assembly member today,” said Satoshi Machidori, a professor of political science at Kyoto University.

Tight finances do not allow assembly members to try something new or ambitious, and any error will be ruthlessly criticized. You would have to quit your job to run for an elected office even though the salary of an assembly member is not sufficient to make up for the lost earnings.

What needs to be done, Machidori said, is for voters to redefine what they expect of their elected representatives.

One approach is to give them heavier professional responsibilities and raise their salaries. Another is to simply think of them as “amateurs” tasked with keeping the heads of local governments in check.

This would mean allowing them to remain gainfully employed, and paying them only a daily allowance--or modest remuneration--for their services as assembly members.

I tried to envisage an amateur assembly session.

Here’s how it may look: A school teacher rushes into the assembly chamber after a full day’s work; an assembly member in a T-shirt takes the floor for questioning; and children's voices can be heard from time to time from an adjoining childcare facility.

The deliberations would be serious, lively and open.

As for any task, a deadline needs to be set. I expect every municipality to start discussions immediately to determine the "look" of its assembly and implement whatever reforms are needed before the next election.

Speedy action is crucial if any “headache” is to be averted four years from now.

--The Asahi Shimbun, April 24

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.