Although local government in Japan centers on the 47 directly elected prefectural assemblies, the day to day affairs of public administration are performed at a lower level of local government – the municipality. Each prefecture is divided into about 60 municipalities, with a total of just over 3,200 in the country as a whole. Each municipality has a town hall where people go to pay local taxes, or to register births, marriages and deaths, or to attend meetings concerning local affairs, and so on.
Municipalities can be one of three types: city (shi), town (cho), or village (son). This distinction is often used to separate urban (shi municipalities) from rural areas (cho and son municipalities). The distinction can be misleading, however, since the type of municipality does not always offer a true reflection of the nature of the landscape and environment within each area. Some ‘urban’ municipalities, for example, include wide tracts of mountainous countryside where many small, isolated rural communities are found. Conversely, many ‘rural’ municipalities, especially those close to major cities, have lost all their farm land in recent years to suburban development.
One of the reasons for this situation is that in 1956, under the ‘Merger of Municipalities Law’, many smaller ‘rural’ municipalities were consolidated, and merged with a neighboring ‘urban’ municipality. This was done to help alleviate the financial difficulties experienced by small rural districts. In other cases, where suburbanization has changed the character of former rural areas, the official procedures required to change the designation of a municipality are simply too slow to keep up with actual events. However, the maintenance of ‘rural’ status is one of the factors which helps preserve a ‘village’ atmosphere in urban, built-up environments.