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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

What is the "local"? - Rethinking the politics of subnational spaces in Japan

This project aims to enhance the discussion of the “local” as unit of analysis – a discussion that is vital to avoid under-complex approaches to multilayered socio-economic and political phenomena. Social scientists are frequently concerned with the “local”, including issues such as subnational elections, local governance, the formation of local identities and communities, or local economic “clusters”. However, subnational administrative divisions are limited in demarcating the “local” as a unit of analysis and the associated socio-economic and political phenomena. Refining our conception of what constitutes a subnational “locality” – its spatial, social, formal and informal boundaries – produces new questions, reveals different stakeholders, and uncovers the impact of social constellations that otherwise remain invisible.

Contemporary Japan is a particularly interesting case in this respect. In the mid-2000s, political reforms toward decentralization resulted in a massive wave of municipal mergers, creating municipalities that are very large in international comparison and heterogeneous both socio-economically and geographically. Below the municipal level, former towns and villages have retained certain self-governing capacities and local identities; and even smaller social units (natural villages, neighborhoods, temple districts) exert important social and political functions. Moreover, the “local” in Japan can also describe territories cutting across municipalities, such as electoral districts, geographical units (e.g. basins, valleys, plains), cooperative districts, or economic “clusters”. Distinguishing between these different units of analysis holds a concrete political relevance. In the wake of ongoing socio-economic decline especially in the more rural areas of Japan, “regional revitalization” is an omnipresent and highly charged political buzzword. Yet, the boundaries of the “regions” at the receiving end of revitalization efforts are highly elusive, not least because the issues at hand vary widely even within municipalities. A kaleidoscopic array of national policies meets (or does not meet) countless sub-local and trans-local constellations and initiatives.

The project entails the organization of an international symposium at the DIJ (October 2018), which aims to bring together researchers from various disciplines (sociology, anthropology, political science, geography), who link different conceptions of the “local” to concrete political problems. The goal is to compile an edited volume based on the contributions and discussions at this symposium (edited by Sonja Ganseforth and Hanno Jentzsch).


Sonja Ganseforth Sonja Ganseforth
(Social Science, Human Geography)

Hanno Jentzsch Hanno Jentzsch
(Social Science)

Related Research Projects or Programs

Risks and Opportunities in Japan - Challenges in the Face of an Increasingly Uncertain Future

The Future of Local Communities in Japan - Risks and Opportunities in the Face of Multiple Challenges