Does social change in Japan come from the top down or bottom up?


This month I would like to take a break from my lecture style of column-writing to pose a question to readers. Seriously, I don’t have an answer to this, so I’d like your opinion: Does fundamental social change generally come from the top down or the bottom up?

By top down, I mean that governments and legal systems effect social change by legislating and rule-making. In other words, if leaders want to stop people doing something they consider unsavory, they make it illegal. This may occur with or without popular support, but the prototypical example would be legislating away a bad social habit (say, lax speed limits or unstandardized legal drinking ages) regardless of clear public approval.

By bottom up, I mean that social change arises from a critical mass of people putting pressure on their elected officials (and each other) to desist in something socially undesirable. Eventually this also results in new rules and legislation, but the impetus and momentum for change is at the grass-roots level, thanks to clear public support.

Either dynamic can work in Japan, of course. For top-down, I have seen many rules decided by decree. How about the steadily encroaching anti-smoking rules in public places? It’s no longer just train platforms; you can’t even have a lit cigarette on many Tokyo streets anymore. Some movements were instituted after government awareness-raising drives, like the nōshi wa hito no shi (“brain death is a person’s death”) campaign deployed in the 1990s to overcome apparently religious-based objections to organ donation.

These and many more examples of social engineering and official consensus-manufacturing have resulted in people changing their outward behavior, if not their outright belief in a previous system. (Who remembers that brain death was ever an issue?) And it happens pretty quickly (as in weeks or months), especially if these moves are backed up by criminal penalties. Remember when drunk driving was much less harshly punished? (I do, and thanks to Draconian penalties for even one glassful, we have the world’s only decent-tasting zero-alcohol beer.)

Bottom-up, however, takes a lot longer — years or decades — but it can be just as irresistible a social force. For example, I have seen the slow death of “old maid” bashing (remember “Christmas cakes” referring to women over age 25?), the loss of faith in overwork as proof of a person’s worth, and the stigmatization of power-based bullying (e.g., sexual and power harassment) to the point of achieving court victories. The progress of this genre of social change can be quite imperceptible, but when backed up by a media campaign after a social shock (such as a huge scandal or a horrific crime — stalking, for example), bottom-up change can happen much faster.

But these are relatively small fry. For really significant social changes, such as the abolition of racial discrimination and/or hate speech in Japan, both methods have been tried, and have failed.

Advocates (yes, including myself) have tried the top-down approach for decades, asking all levels of government and the bureaucracy to outlaw discrimination as blatant as “Japanese only” signs and rules. Their most common response is, “It’s too early; we have to change the public’s mind first.” For them, the bottom-up approach is the chicken before the egg.

But starting at the grass roots has been tried too. In fact, that’s where we started, working as hundreds of advocates for decades. I personally have spoken at hundreds of gatherings to thousands of people — even one-on-one to the discriminators themselves, calmly (yes, calmly) coaxing them to treat people with dignity and equality, as they themselves would want to be treated in a similar situation.

But in this case, the problem isn’t as simple as asking individuals to give up something like smoking on a train platform; this is an issue of excluders worrying aloud that “foreigners” are a threat to their cultural integrity in general, if not their business specifically. It may even be a matter of them saying, “I just don’t like those people, so sod you.”

Moreover, unaffected bystanders can be quite sympathetic to excluders who fear for their livelihoods (even if they are excluding a neighbor). Besides — cue vicious circle — there’s no law against them doing it. And then we return to the top-down approach: the egg before the chicken.

I admit that I lean towards the top-down approach. There are plenty of historical examples of bottom-up not working when it comes to the big changes. America’s Susan B. Anthony, for example, campaigned tirelessly at the grass-roots level for women’s suffrage throughout the 1800s but failed to get the vote in her lifetime. Or in Japan’s case, the foremost grass-roots movements in Japan right now — protests against the state secrets law, remilitarization and the restarting of nuclear reactors — are gaining little traction in the face of the government’s relentless top-downism.

Moreover, many of the great grassroots successes in history got lucky. Mahatma Gandhi’s grass-roots achievement of Indian independence was aided by the fact that the grip of the British Empire had been weakened by two world wars. Nelson Mandela was lucky not to meet the same fate as Steve Biko, and to see a more liberal South African government in his lifetime. Thus, change happened because leaders made sage decisions — and there is an enormous amount of top-down inherent in that.

Personally, I have witnessed significant social change — most notably, the flowering of America’s civil rights movements after 1964. Very much a grassroots effort, it still took more than a century for equal rights to be enforceably guaranteed by top-down policymaking and criminal penalties. But I remain convinced that the social change was top-down.

As a child growing up in New York state in the 1970s, I vividly remember African-American classmates (there were a significant number in my elementary schools) feeling empowered, even adopting the swagger and proud demeanor of hero boxer Muhammad Ali, without being accused of being “uppity Negroes.” Instead, there was enormous opprobrium from teachers and other influential people for anyone who dared, for example, use racist language, such as the N-word. Even observing that somebody might be “different” because they had different skin color was simply “not done” anymore.

Why? I believe the new top-down rules set the agenda and terms of debate in a more tolerant direction. You had to accept that the “old ways” were “backwards” and no longer appropriate.

Obviously, it wasn’t perfect, and there were plenty of holdouts, disobedients and overt racists in the American example. The U.S. was still two generations away from an African-American president, and to this day a huge number of minorities are disenfranchised just because they are minorities.

But back then it was made very clear that somebody was going to get it in the neck “from above” if there were any violations of the new narrative. That’s why as kids, our overt behavior and eventually our attitudes changed — maybe not immediately into good habits, but certainly away from reinforcing bad habits.

Of course, this is the American example, with limited application to Japan. Japanese society has very different attitudes towards the outward appearance of “difference” and expression of dissent. The national narratives of inclusivity and community construction are arguably polar opposite to America’s.

Even the power of the Japanese grass roots is purported to be different. Political science professor Jiro Yamaguchi recently wrote (“Perilous spirit of the times,” The Japan Times, Oct. 28) about Japan’s “deep-seated tendency of conformism”; fellow professor Koichi Nakano has described the business of governing Japan as an “elite-driven process rather than a society-driven process.” Some even argue that a traditional, unchanging world view is what makes Japanese into Japanese, so why would anyone expect any major change?

But, again, all societies have bad habits, and racial discrimination is a doozy. How could a more positive environment be created so that the children of immigrants (many of the latter of whom are here at the bidding of the Japanese government) and international marriages will not be treated as “foreign” and sometimes be denied equal treatment?

So I ask readers: On balance, is unequal treatment to be legislated away, with people catching up through the carrots and sticks of a new legal and social regime? Or is it something that people will cotton on to eventually, as they push for reforms because it just “makes sense” to treat people (especially fellow Japanese) equally?

Is a bad social habit to be thrown out the second-floor window, or patiently cajoled down the stairs and out the front door? Discuss.

Debito Arudou’s co-authored bilingual “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan” is available on Amazon as a paperback and e-book, see www.debito.org/handbook.html. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears in print on the first Thursday of the month. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Steve Jackman

    Social change comes from those who have the power to bring about change. So worded another way, the question is, who wields real power in Japan?

    The best book ever written on this subject is “The Enigma of Japanese Power” by Karel Van Wolferen. I was in awe of the author after reading this book because of his amazing research and brilliant insights into Japan.

    The author describes how it is the corrupt and manipulative “System” that has the real power in Japan. It is made up of a loose group of unaccountable elites who largely operate behind the scenes, so there are no consequences for them when things go wrong.

    Those who control “the System” are shrouded in secrecy, which explains the lack of responsibility or accountability in Japan. They exercise their power to protect the status-quo, since that is what sustains them. Much of what they attribute to Japanese “culture” or “tradition” has been manufactured by them over a period of time to maintain their power and control. Once, one understands this and the way things really operate in Japan, it is easy to see why it is almost impossible to bring meaningful social change.

    Debito has posed an excellent question in his article. But, I’m afraid the answer may be “neither”, unless “the System” in Japan is reformed. As long as “the System” is intact, it will never allow the status-quo which sustains it to change.

  • zer0_0zor0

    In short

    By top down, I mean that governments and legal systems effect social change by legislating and rule-making.

    ignores the context of the democratic process that puts representatives in office to “represent” their constituencies in the first place.

    something seems missing or bassackwards in the assumptions this article makes.

    I’d say that it’s more a question of how informed the public is and why they vote the way they do.

    Protest movements are ignited when the representatives aren’t representing and a breakdown scenario has occurred. They are generally a response to dysfunctionality–otherwise everybody would be watching the Giants, or whatever…

  • Oliver Mackie

    One thing that certainly seems to get the attention of both politicians and bureaucrats here is any hint of public disorder. The recent anti-Korean marches leading to quick proposals for legislative change are a good example. (Disclaimer: I am not advocating public disorder as a strategy for any cause.) If you want to demonstrate here you can, but make sure you coordinate with the police and keep it civil.
    This can be seen in either a positive or negative light, but there is a very strong sentiment among the people at large that any violent action is unacceptable.
    I am very weary of any description of any democratic society which postulates the existence of a ‘shadowy elite.’ There are elites to be sure but the opaque ones are usually just devices created (wittingly or unwittingly) to account for phenomena which the writer is unable to explain from the perspectives of their own society and/or social theory.

  • Gordon Graham

    The “top down” approach hasn’t worked so well in Ferguson Missouri it seems

  • K T

    The short answer, of course, is social change comes from all directions.
    The bureaucrats are essentially steering Japan in the direction they want it to go.

    Some change comes from the entertainment industry
    – “half” models are cute, so “halfs” are cool.
    -Korean dramas are interesting so interest in learning Korean increases, bringing in new ideas with different influences.
    As the reality of non-lifetime employment becomes the new norm, it is inevitable that the establishment will react and adapt.

  • Gordon Graham

    Laws against free speech only serve to stifle change from below…

  • Gordon Graham

    “This month I would like to take a break from my lecture style of writing”…but I won’t

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    A few good articles recently. Lose the polemics – you are a lot better writer Debito with this style.

  • iago

    Interesting question, and one that is clearly challenging to answer objectively. I guess the truth is that the grass roots movement is needed to bring attention to those with the power to make the change. Where does it start? As a frequent reader of this and similar columns, and the debates they inspire, my own view would be that much of the discourse definitely flows straight from the bottom.