Could you please tell us about the Japan exchange - what was the purpose of it, what did it involve and where in Japan did you go etc?
In 2018, I was fortunate to be selected to attend a Local Government Exchange and Cooperation Seminar in Japan, arranged through the Council of Local Authorities Centre for International Relations (CLAIR).
This annual study tour is open to people from Australia and New Zealand working in local government and related organisations, with an overall objective of promoting a better understanding of Japanese local government and culture. Topics are set annually and in February, I visited Japan for a study tour focusing on creating appealing and liveable towns, in the face of Japan's declining birth-rate and aging population.
Our tour was delivered in two parts. The first section was in Tokyo, learning about the local government legal and financial structures, the challenges of population decline in Japan and the national policy response, which is focused on increasing the birth-rate. The second part was delivered in Kohoku town and surrounding areas in a region of Japan called Saga.
Aside from attending lectures on local government, while in Tokyo, we also had a number of site visits, including to Tokyo Metropolitan Government, where 40,000 employees work in two 45-storey tower buildings. In addition, we visited other areas in Tokyo undergoing redevelopment, to focus on commercial, tourism and residential development.
This year there were five people on the study tour. I attended from NZ with four others from Australia: Candy Choo - Chief Executive Officer, Local Government Professionals Australia, Western Australia; Michelle Ivey - Senior Finance Officer/Acting Budget Officer, City of Bunbury; Pauline Koritsa - General Manager Business & Community, City of West Torrens; and Stephanie Szalla - Manager East Asia, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Victoria.
What were the key learnings you gained from the experience?
The tour was an amazing experience and I would like to thank those that enabled me to attend from Whakatāne District Council.
I was privileged to experience rural Japan in Kohoku - a town with 10,000 residents, where 30% of its population are at retirement age. The economy for Kohoku is predominately rice production, some horticulture and the most amazing seaweed farms in the Ariake Sea, not far from where we were based.
Kohoku has a strategy based on creating a liveable and sustainable town and has implemented a number of initiatives, with a strong focus on families including:
- Opening a child care centre to reduce the number of children on a waiting list (with an enrolment of 202 kids between the ages of 0-6);
- The development of a very large community centre, which catered for everything from education facilities, to multisports, to cultural spaces and the town library.
There was also a strong drive to deliver infrastructure, in collaboration with other councils. For example, nine councils, including Kohoku, had combined to create the equivalent of a Council-controlled organisation to finance a "Clean Centre", where waste is incinerated and electricity generated. As a result, only 10% of the region's solid waste is disposed of in a landfill.
We left Japan with a number of learnings and an understanding of key differences of local government in Japan. For example, in Japan, the equivalent of our Chief Executives are elected alongside the Mayors and other council members. In addition, as five women from Australia and NZ, our study tour members challenged the diversity in employment in local government in Japan and discovered that at least in the area of Saga, there was a policy that you can only apply for a job in local government if you are under the age of 29. It was also a pleasure to be able to travel with colleagues from councils in Australia and to share and discuss the differences and current issues across local government in NZ and Australia.
Aside from the work experience, the cultural experiences were fantastic and I was blown away by the welcome, support and work that Kohoku put into hosting us.
What were your reflections on the experience and would you recommend the experience to others?
Overall it was a wonderful experience and a great way of reflecting on, learning and challenging the local government environment in which we work.
Further information about CLAIR, including the exchange programme, is available from http://www.jlgc.org.au/our-activities/the-local-government-exchange-cooperation-seminar/