Citizen activism in Japan

Toppling preconceptions

Jill Margerison, University of Queensland [About | Email]

Volume 3, Issue 1 (Book review 1 in 2003). First published in ejcjs on 17 February 2003.

Hirata, Keiko (2002) Civil Society in Japan, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, Hardback, ISBN: 0-312-23936-X, 208 pages.

Let’s be honest: For the past 50 years Japan was just the most successful Communist country in history. It was only a matter of time before the forces that brought down the Berlin wall and the Soviet Union felled the wall around Japan as well. (Friedman 1999, cited on page 51)

In the past, civil society in Japan has been described as passive, or even docile. Almost ten years ago, the prominent US journal Foreign Affairs published an article by renowned Japan authority Karel van Wolferen, who argued that Japanese civil society was extremely weak and politically ineffectual. He observed that political action and interest groups were not nationally coordinated. Nor were they tied to single causes, which made them unfit to act as a base for sustained and reasoned opposition to the status quo (van Wolferen 1993). A decade on, it appears this situation has undergone considerable change. Admittedly, whilst there is still disagreement as to the current size and prominence of activism in Japan’s civil society, the transformation is noteworthy, signalling the beginning of a new era with a more horizontal relationship between the state and civil society (page 2).

In her recently published work, Civil Society in Japan, Keiko Hirata focuses upon the growth and impact of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). She claims that unlike in past generations, where the rigid bureaucracy and a preoccupancy with ‘catching up’ to the west hindered the development of civil society organizations, recent global phenomena, such as globalization and the maturity of industrialization, have encouraged greater expression from Japan’s citizens. The Japanese “are no longer inhibited from objecting to state policies or demanding social justice. They are forming and joining NGOs to press their demands, and the state in turn has started paying more attention to the views of NGOs” (page 2).

In dealing with the recent rise of activism in Japanese civil society, Hirata starts by examining why Japan has historically experienced a weak civil society. She asks (page 9), “what accounts for the recent growth of grassroots activism?” Chapter one broadly addresses the economic, cultural and political transformations of Japanese society in the age of globalization and post-industrialism, and thus provides some background to the civil society phenomenon. Hirata also clarifies the term NGO in the Japanese context, pinpointing non-profit Japanese organizations that engage in overseas aid programs (page 12).

Hirata, however, is perhaps over-meticulous in her style, signposting each step in a manner more in line with the rigorous requirements set by PhD examining boards. This approach is constant throughout and in parts will tax some readers (pages 9, 50,128). Another exasperating aspect is Hirata’s tendency to pose too many interrogatives, leaving the reader with little space to assimilate them all, much less consider their implications. The following excerpt (page 19), from one such paragraph, demonstrates this stylistic flaw.

How did the Japanese developmental state inhibit a vibrant civil society? This leads to two further sets of questions, one focusing on the state and the other on civil society. First, what became the driving force of the developmental state? How did the state successfully promoted industrialization and economic growth while at the same time marginalizing and subordinating civil society? … And second, how and why did the Japanese public accept the ‘iron triangle’ of bureaucracy/ruling political party/corporate leadership? Where, in the public’s eye, did the state’s legitimacy lie? Why didn’t civil society emerge to challenge state authority?

Nevertheless, Hirata’s research is commendable for a number of reasons. Firstly, most research on the growth of NGOs and their impact in world politics has taken place in Western contexts. By addressing the role of NGOs in Japan – a non-Western yet developed country – Hirata tackles a more atypical account of state-society relations. Secondly, Hirata’s publication moves away from conventional accounts of Japanese politics, which focus exclusively on the role of bureaucrats and businesses, and reveals an emerging pluralistic Japanese society.

Hirata’s aim is to “debunk” the myths associated with Asian civil society and democracy, and she argues that it is misleading to think that East Asians remain deferential to state authority and unable to build a vibrant civil society critical of state power. Here, she refers to arguments such as those proposed by influential writer Samuel Huntington (1993), who claims that civil society is a Western phenomenon and ill suited to Confucianist East Asia. Hirata also challenges the focus of Western scholars and journalists who emphasise the oppositional role of NGOs against a resistant state. Throughout the work, she demonstrates that a dual role of cooperation and contention exists between the two sides. She writes, “Previously, governmental officials viewed NGOs with suspicion and preferred to take direction from business groups. Now, state officials have begun to view Japanese NGOs in a more positive light and listen to their opinions” (page 129).

How did this attitude change? Hirata argues that the impact of globalization has been substantial in initiating change. She explains, “Globalization forces are so powerful that they can standardize the way people think and act” (page 60). As a result, she asserts that, in Japan, “cosmopolitan norms such as environmental protection, humanitarian assistance, human rights and democracy have become more widely accepted” (page 61). Notably, she also suggests that amongst this “new” division of Japanese civil society, distinctive feelings of xenophobia have disappeared. “In the past, the Japanese were exclusive toward foreigners and were hesitant to assist them. Today, many NGO members are eager to assist the needy overseas” (page 62). One must wonder, however, whether Hirata paints too “rosy” a picture of this transition to a cosmopolitan society.

Chapter three analyses how recent crises in Japan have reinforced many changes attributed to globalization. Hirata explains that the authority of the Japanese state has been seriously weakened from the late 1980s onwards due to ill-conceived economic policies and a series of corruption scandals involving state officials and the corporate sector. In addition to political and economic crises, the Japan of this period had its material needs met. Accordingly, Hirata argues that as post-materialists the Japanese are more likely to act in an autonomous, elite-challenging fashion (pages 91–96).

To illustrate how Japanese NGOs have become advocates for change in Japan’s ODA and foreign policy, Hirata details three short case studies in chapter four. The first case addresses issues of sustainable development involving Japanese loan aid to India. The second study involves environmental NGOs and the impact of Japanese aid on the local environment in Cambodia. The third case looks at an anti-landmine campaign. Each case demonstrates the persistence of NGOs in demanding policy change. In reference to these cases, Hirata (page 127) makes the following argument:

It is not an exaggeration to say that NGO activism has changed the relationship between the state and civil society. NGOs have been fashioning a new type of politics in Japan and NGO activities have created a challenge for domestic governance. The state has had to incorporate their demands in the domestic political process by establishing new procedures of political participation.

Chapters five and six examine state–civil society relations from two different perspectives. Chapter five focuses on the association between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and NGOs, especially the recent growth in cooperation between the two sides. Hirata explains that, until the 1990s, MOFA and NGOs had very few channels to exchange views and information, leaving NGOs with no opportunity to influence aid policy. This situation has changed over the past decade, with numerous seminars, symposia and conferences offering a platform to promote constructive dialogue (page 133). Chapter six builds upon this relationship and examines the role of Japanese NGOs in further promoting the notion of democracy within Japan. Hirata explains that Japanese NGOs now “serve as a counterweight to the state, demanding state accountability and checking and limiting state power” (page 159). She concludes by reiterating the significance of Japan’s transition away from a developmental state to a more active democracy, suggesting that there are lessons to be learnt from this evolution.

Overall, despite stylistic flaws and a lack of penetrating analysis in places, this book makes an important contribution to the field of Japanese political science. A major strength is the book’s wealth of Japanese-language research. The book also provides an opportunity to reconsider some fundamental preconceptions regarding Japanese domestic politics and contributes to the current debate over future Japanese foreign policy.


Friedman, T. L. (1999) “Japan’s Nutcracker Suite”, New York Times, 30 April.

Huntington, Samuel P. (1993), The Clash of Civilisations and the Rethinking of World Order, New York: Simon and Schuster.

van Wolferen, Karel (1993), “Japan's non-revolution”, Foreign Affairs, September-October, vol.72, no.4, pp.54–65

About the Author

Jill Margerison is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, Australia. Her area of interest is Japanese strategic security and foreign policy. She is a university tutor in international relations. Prior to her current position, she worked with JETRO and lived in Japan for a period of six years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Arts from Queensland University and a Masters of International Relations and Global Governance from Bond University. In 1990 she received a Monbushō scholarship to Keio University, Tokyo.

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