Increasing Participation

The lecture series „Current Political Affairs and Civil Society in Japan,“ organized by the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies and the URPP Asia and Europe, took place on four evenings in October and November of 2014. The aim of this event was to take an in-depth look at Japan’s current political affairs, with particular emphasis on the perspective of changes and continuities of Japanese civil society.

Julia Obinger

Koichi Hasegawa (Tohoku University) spoke on the connection between Japan’s civil society and the Fukushima nuclear accident. He argued that this accident raised important questions concerning Japan’s civil society: What role did civil society play prior to the accident, how did it react to the accident, and what impact has it had on Japan’s nuclear policies following the accident? Under the assumption of a relative weakness of civil society, Hasegawa focused on societal, organizational, and local community-level activities. He explored his questions by analyzing documents and news clippings pertinent to the accident, participant observations of protest activities, and a comparative analysis of Japan’s nuclear policies with Germany’s policy shift towards a nuclear power phase-out. Hasegawa argued that, after the accident, energetic citizen protests became frequent and the structures around which protests and public demonstrations were organized strengthened substantially over time. He concluded that civil society has begun to influence public policy, and is fostering a deeper public discourse, while advancing policy proposals especially in the area of energy policy.

Jeffrey Broadbent (University of Minnesota) presented his insights into the power relationships between the Japanese state ministries and civil society. His thesis is that the these ministries (bureaucracies) enjoy considerable autonomy from control by the Parliament (Diet) and the Prime Ministerial Cabinet: the national structure of power at its core consists of a shifting power game among three main actors, the Ministries, the corporate-organized business sector, and the political coalition in control of the Lower House. The specific pattern since 1955 has been the Economic Ministry (MITI, since 2001 METI), the most important business association (Keidanren), and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Since the 1990s, the opposition Democratic Party (Minshuto) has gained occasional political power, but even then, while cooperating with the Environmental Ministry, has faced intransigent opposition from METI and Keidanren. Even though the number of associations in civil society has mushroomed, since the so-called NGO law (established in 1998) readily provides the status of nonprofit corporation to them, the conservative ministries, in conjunction with the LDP and Keidanren, have worked to corral and control this burgeoning herd of local associations. Broadbent argued in his presentation that one of the most effective methods of control, very much continuing to the present day, is for ministries to give local associations funding, but in return to place a retired bureaucrat on their Board of Directors in order to shape the stances and policies of the association. In its latest instance, this method of social control has very much reduced in size, duration and institutionalization the ground swell of protest against the resumption of nuclear power.

A more realistic look

Ellis Krauss (University of California in San Diego) took a closer look at Japan’s current political leader, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. The latter has been called an “Asian Hitler” by the Chinese, while his rightwing domestic supporters see him as the first leader to finally give a “true” accounting about Japan’s actions in the Pacific War and to make Japan into a “normal” nation militarily. Krauss argued that the assessment from each side is exaggerated yet Abe’s foreign policy is something of an enigma, evading straight answers to its major difficult issues, e.g. Japan’s dangerous conflicts with its Asian neighbors. He pleaded for a more realistic look at the rational and irrational dimensions of Japan’s current foreign policy from the perspective of Japan’s own national interests.

To conclude the series, Robert Pekkanen (University of Washington in Seattle) spoke on neighborhood associations and local governance in Japan. With 300 000 local branches, neighborhood associations (NHAs) are Japan’s most numerous civil society organizations. NHAs also contribute in complex ways to local governance. His talk provided a multifaceted empirical portrait of Japan’s neighborhood associations by drawing on an extensive body of empirical data derived from the first national survey of NHAs carried out in 2007. Pekkanen examined how local associational structures affected the quality of local governance, and thus the quality of life for Japan’s citizens and residents. His study of NHAs also illuminated the way in which these ambiguous associations can help refine civil society theory and contribute to social service provision, cooperation with local governments, and political participation among others.

The lecture series provided a unique opportunity to get first-hand insights into contemporary Japanese civil society and current political affairs from leading experts in their fields. It is clear that these issues will remain high up on the agenda of international Japanese studies.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 4/2015, p. 18)