Japan's Civil Society
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Japan's Civil Society
Monday, 25 April 2011 03:47

In Japan, most things are a little bit different from in the rest of the world.  Same goes for civil society.

 

What is civil society after all?  Basically, the term civil society refers to those societal organizations which are “distinct from those of the state, family and market”, even if the boundaries are “often complex, blurred and negotiated”(according to LSE’s Centre for Civil Society).  Civil society organizations (CSOs) cover a very wide universe “such as registered charities, development non-governmental organisations, community groups, women's organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, trades unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups”.

 

In the history of Western societies, CSOs have made major contributions.  The Christian Church has always been an important provider of charity, health, education and spiritual services.  Civil society movements were behind the abolition of slavery and the granting on suffrage (the right to vote) to women.  Humanitarian services have been furnished by organizations like the Red Cross, Save the Children Fund, Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières, and Handicap International.  Protection of the environment has been promoted by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and World Wide Fund for Nature.  CSOs are very active in development projects, often in partnership with government development agencies. 

 

Transparency International (anti-corruption), Amnesty International (human rights) and Freedom House (democracy) are advocates of good governance.  The International Campaign to Ban Landmines was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its efforts to bring about the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. The anti-globalization movement has been led by CSOs like France's ATTAC.  America’s great philanthropic tradition has been pursued by foundations like the Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller and Gates Foundations.  Think tanks like the Brookings Institution from the US make major contributions to policy debates.

 

Not all CSOs are very civil.  Some NGO charities are fronts for terrorist groups, like Al Queda, and many crime organisations exist like Japan's yakuza.  But virtually all major CSOs are of Western origin.  There is no major CSO of Japanese origin.

 

To get an idea of what the notion of CSOs could mean in an ancient and unique society like that of Japan, it is worth taking a read of the interesting work of University of Washington’s Robert Pekkanen.  He argues that Japan has a very large number of small, local CSOs, like neighbourhood associations.  But it has a paucity of large professional groups, like advocacy groups.  This means that the civil society sector has only limited influence on policy outcomes.  (Curiously, perhaps the most important CSO in Japan today is the Tokyo's Kasumi Kaikan, an aristocracy club, which has been well described on the Facts and Details website -- see footnote.) 

 

To understand the situation, we must go back at look at Japan’s post-war development model.  The “Japanese Developmental State” is one characterization of Japan’s development model, as proposed by Chalmers Johnson.  There has been much debate about his work, and in particular as to whether Japan developed rapidly thanks to or despite leadership by elite bureaucrats.  But it is clear that bureaucrats, government ministers and big business had a stranglehold on Japanese society for a long time.  And the power of Japan’s bureaucrats depended to some extent on having a weak and submissive civil society sector.

 

CSOs in Japan acquired independent legal status through the legal category of public interest legal persons (PIPs).  Japan’s bureaucrats had a legal monopoly on granting this status.  However, once this status was granted, the bureaucrats retained powers of supervision, discretionary screening, administrative guidance and sanction.  So, although Japan allowed freedom of association, if you wanted to create a legally independent CSO body, you fell into the hands of the bureaucrats who sought to control you.  Amakudari, or the employment of retired bureaucrats in areas which they once regulated, was another factor.  In short, it was very hard for CSOs to grow large in Japan, and just as hard for large groups to remain independent.  This is in sharp contrast to the US where it is very simple to create a non-profit CSO.

 

As a result, most Japanese CSOs did not apply for legal status.  In surveys, they cited the main reasons as concerns about the accounting and financial reporting requirements, and the fear that they could be controlled by bureaucrats.  So, most Japanese CSOs were small, like neighbourhood associations, children’s groups, elderly people’s groups, etc.  Japanese CSOs rarely graduated to an advocacy or policy role, and they did not figure in policy debates on issues like fingerprinting of Korean migrants or whaling.  The weakness and lack of professionalism of the CSO sector is reflected in the low number of professional employees.  Civil society employment represents over 2 1/2 per cent of total employment in Australia and the UK, about 1 1/2 per cent of total in Belgium and the UK, but less than 1/2 per cent in Japan.     

 

But since the 1980s, things have been changing, and Japanese CSOs are now increasing in number and size for several reasons, both international and domestic. 

 

There has been a massive growth in CSOs worldwide, especially in the advanced industrialized democracies, as both incomes and education have risen.  And though Japan was a laggard, it has started to follow this trend.  Large international CSOs blossomed everywhere as they participated in large UN conferences on the environment, women’s rights, human rights, development, etc often as part of national delegations.  And as Japan could see that it was an outlier, its officials encouraged the development of CSOs.  It also fostered the international development CSOs to work in partnership with the development cooperation programs of the Japan International Cooperation Agency.  Japan’s foreign direct investment in the US from the mid-1980s brought Japanese business into contact with American CSOs seeking donations.  The upshot was an initiative by Keidanren (Japan’s peak business association) to support Japanese CSOs.

 

Domestically, the Japanese government’s response to the 1995 Kobe earthquake, “Hanshin”, was widely judged to have been inadequate.  Japanese CSOs were considered to have been the most effective in their relief work.  And this made their requests irresistible for an easing in the laws governing the legal status of CSOs.  The government made a number of regulatory changes to CSO law from 1999 creating a new legal category, “Non-Profit Organisation Legal Person”, which is much freer of bureaucratic control.  Another factor motivating regulatory changes was that service-providing providing CSOs can be particularly useful, especially in an ageing society with a limited welfare state, like Japan.  And then there is the breakdown in trust in the elite bureaucracy, following many financial scandals and the inability of the Japanese government to find a solution to economic crisis. 

 

But just to prove that not everything is sweet and rosy, political parties have been seeking to co-opt and use CSOs to help collect electoral votes.  Retaining independence is one of the major challenges facing CSOs the world over today.

 

So, in conclusion, Japan’s civil society sector is making rapid progress, but it still lags very much behind Western countries in terms of having large advocacy organizations that can make a major contribution to national policy debates.  There are no major independent think tanks like in the US, Europe or even Australia.  All think tanks are financed or closely linked to the government, and are often amakudari organizations.  Further, there are no major citizen activist groups.  The Japanese public should be hopping mad at how badly government has managed things these past two decades, with world record public debt, anemic growth, and financially unsustainable social security and health systems.  But they are not in the streets trying to bring down the government.

 

What is also curious is that communist China would seem to have an equally, if not more active civil society sector than Japan.  Many Chinese CSOs are small neighbourhood organizations, providing social assistance.  But there are also some which protest actively, sometimes risking their lives.

 

It’s hard to resist the conclusion that Japan’s relatively passive CSO sector is to some extent a reflection of the Japanese personality. 

 

But nothing stays the same for ever.  The Japanese public voted out of office the Liberal Democratic Party after 54 years in power.  Rapid disenchantment with the Democratic Party of Japan government will encourage the populace to look for alternatives – and the LDP is certainly not yet seen as an alternative.  Disenchantment is widespread amongst Japanese youth, many of whom see little future beyond non-regular working contracts (like at Starbucks or MacDonalds) or living at home with Mum.  And increasing numbers of this youth are joining small advocacy CSOs as a way of finding a purpose and sense in life.  Japan might be gradually mobilizing itself at last.

 

Japan’s power elite should be careful. 

 

References:

London School of Economics, Centre for Civil Society

http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/CCS/what_is_civil_society.htm

Japan: Who Governs?: The Rise of the Developmental State

http://www.amazon.co.jp/Japan-Governs-Rise-Developmental-State/dp/0393314502  

The World Bank and NGOs in China

http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/EASTASIAPACIFICEXT/CHINAEXTN

 

Professor Robert Pekkanen, University of Washington

The following articles was downloaded from his website:

After the Developmental State: Civil Society in Japan, Robert Pekkanen

Journal of East Asian Studies 4 (2004), 363-388

http://faculty.washington.edu/pekkanen/

 

Facts and Details Website

http://factsanddetails.com/japan.php?itemid=641&catid=19&subcatid=120

 

According to this website, Tokyo's Kasumi Kaikan is a curious "aristocracy club" made up of 950 eldest sons and grandsons of Japan's old nobility. Regarded as the most exclusive group in Japan and made of people who would be ruling Asia if Japan had won World War II.  It does not accept business tycoons, corporate presidents or real estate developers no matter how many billion they have.  At Kasumi Kaikan's penthouse headquarters, members can shoot pool, dress in traditional costumes and compose traditional 31-syllable waka poems surrounded by ancient books, samurai swords and priceless vases and scrolls. The club sponsors classes in traditional Japanese art forms such as calligraphy and incense smelling. Although wives and daughters are not allowed in the club bar, they do much of the clubs volunteer and cultural work.  Members of the Kasumi Kaikan dressed Emperor Akihito when he claimed the Japanese throne in 1990. They also dressed Crown Prince Naruhito when he married Princess Masako in 1993. 

 

 


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