Civil Society and Governance in Japan

AutorMichael Weiner
Cargo del AutorProfessor of Modern Japanese Studies. Director, International Studies, Soka University of America. Emeritus Professor of Asian Studies, San Diego State University

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1. Status quaestionis

THE concept of civil society emerged from the European philosophical and historical experience, and has perhaps found its clearest expression in the United States. But the concept of civil society is more than a unique historical product, and has broader significance for the development of democracies around the world.

Japan seems to possess many of the attributes of civil society. It enjoys a wealth of local associations, a wide variety of news media, and legal provisions for freedom of association and speech. But Japan is far from the consensus society it has often been depicted as. On the contrary, both political elites and the state bureaucracy have often sought to actively avoid engaging the public in serious dialogue. In Japan, what passes for «consensus» (gôi) is often in fact the muted acquiescence of lower status people to solutions imposed by higher status, more powerful leaders.

These practices, norms and ethics inherited from the Confucian tradition have historically buttressed and justified—in a word framed—the bureaucrats’ evaluation of citizen groups, often prompting their quick dismissal or suppression. These values and perceptions have also led to the Japanese state’s more general resistance to providing ordinary citizens with legal, institutional and informational access to power, and reveal the inherent contradiction between paternalistic,Page 52 technocratic-bureaucratic practices and the maturation of an effective civil society. In Japan, major decisions affecting ordinary peoples’ lives have, in the past, tended to be taken by officials without much reference or importance given to the opinions of ordinary people.

Within the framework of their neo-Confucian values, officials have approached negotiation with the public as persuasion, not open-ended discussion. As exemplified by the decades long Minamata Pollution case, initial suppression of the facts was followed by attempts to persuade local groups, or to bribe them with various incentives, to acquiesce to the official view. When that failed, officials felt justified in imposing their own view of proper policy upon the community, despite local objections. The domination implicit in the relationship between Japanese economic and political elites and ordinary people made it very hard for civil society to flourish with any sense of efficacy. This disempowerment usually, though not always, occurred through ’soft social control’—non-coercive techniques of weakening the political impulses and impact of civil society. Over time, these techniques of soft social control have been woven into the fabric of everyday life, and are commonly seen by most people not as imposed constraints, but simply as ’facts of life’. A host of more general conditions added to the disempowerment of civil society. Governments were reluctant to provide detailed information about policy issues to NGOs. Laws were written vaguely, so as to give the bureaucracy, not the citizen, the capacity to decide when a standard had been violated. Nor did the courts favor citizens in suits against government or business. Furthermore, finding a young person to lead the proposed NGO was also difficult, because the Japanese job market did not grant Japanese youth an idealistic ’searching’ period between college and corporate employment. Culture also played a role—Japanese citizens were reluctant to join and pay dues to a national organization motivated by abstract ideals such as ’environmental protection’ or ‘human rights’. If anything, they preferred supporting an organization concerned with very local and tangible causes, such as a polluting factory on their doorstep.

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The constraining structural weight of soft social control exercised by the dominant LDP (Liberal Democratic Party), allied ministerial bureaucrats, and big business interests severely hampered the emergence of a truly independent civil society in Japan. But the difficulties experienced by civil society in Japan have primarily been the product of structural rather than cultural factors. That is to say, the difficulties result mainly from the limitations of social choices available to the average citizen, not from deferential values internalized within the citizen’s identity.

The diverse definitions and interpretations of the concept of civil society share some common themes. At its core, the concept refers to voluntary organizations within the everyday social life of citizens. These organizations are ’self-organized,’ that is to say they are distinct from and not controlled by dominant institutions such as the state or corporations. On the contrary, such organizations voluntarily interact to form a citizen-based society, autonomous from and sometimes in conflict with the state or dominant elites. Ideally, the existence of civil society thus enlivens what Habermas and others have termed the «public sphere», within which citizens talk and build up their ideas and interests without reference to or interference by business leaders, politicians and government officials.

But government officials and civic leaders in Japan and elsewhere in other East Asia draw their notions of proper governance from a quite different tradition rooted in Confucianism. From the Confucian perspective, government and business elites look upon manifestations of civil society and the public sphere with inherent suspicion and distrust. Indeed, the tradition of kanson minpi (respect for authority and disdain for the masses) is deeply embedded in Japan. Historically, officialdom has monopolized the public domain, while the people, the masses, have been permitted the pursuit of private gain only insofar as it lies within the legal and political framework dictated by the government.

From this perspective, government leaders should be respected, shielded from popular demands, and given a relatively free hand toPage 54 govern Ideally, they will then use state power to pursue a wise, long-range vision of the future and nurture the nation and its people. From this perspective, the role of state and corporate leadership is to paternalistically temper and balance the competing interests of groups in society, integrating their efforts toward goals functional for the entire society. In terms of environmental, human rights, or other social problems, the Confucian perspective implies that the state will take care of the problem adequately without much need for even institutionalized democratic citizen input through voting, let alone independent citizen associations.

Given such a tradition, any attempt to analyze the concept of civil society in Japan, either historically or in the contemporary context, might seem an exercise in futility. In fact, Japan’s democracy has often been described as dysfunctional. A single, conservative political party, the (LDP, acting in concert with a powerful bureaucracy and the corporate sector, has dominated government for virtually the whole of the past half century. As cronyism and corruption scandals have become more pervasive, some have remarked on the passivity of the Japanese public and the comparatively small size and influence of citizen or social movements. Disillusionment with political corruption and the end of ‘economism’ have also contributed to a decline in voter participation since the 1990s. The introduction of a new electoral system in 1994 that reduced electoral competitiveness also dampened public interest in the political sphere. These factors, coupled with the weakening of community cohesion through urbanization, have undermined traditional patterns of voter mobilization at the community level, while lowering party support and political participation generally. On the other hand, the very forces that have facilitated alienation from formal politics and reduced confidence in political leadership have also strengthened new forms of political engagement and increased public involvement in informal channels of political activism. In other words, the failure of the past has given rise to a new set of ‘social expectations’. In the Japanese context, social expectation refers to an atmosphere that permeates society and gives risePage 55 not only to new laws, but also to a new range of social activities. The new borantia shakai (volunteer society) conveys a vision of a Japanese future with reduced state and corporate control and a more dynamic and expansive civil society.

The emergence of a civil society takes shape through a nuanced and complex process of interactions with dominant institutions and elites, not all of which need be indigenous. The global diffusion of culture and its structural embodiments in recent world history indicate the globalization of cultural and structural features of Euro-American societies. These global patterns are often sanctioned and reinforced by indigenous (here Japanese)...

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