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Flowering of civic activism

by Jeff Kingston

MAKING JAPANESE CITIZENS: Civil Society and the Mythology of the Shimin in Postwar Japan, by Simon Andrew Avenell. University of California Press, 2010, 356 pp., $24.95 (paper)

In recent years the growth of civil society in Japan has attracted considerable attention. The invaluable contributions of Japanese volunteers in Kobe following the 1995 earthquake lead to legislation in 1998 that facilitates establishing nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations. In the ensuing years these groups have developed substantially as evident in Tohoku where volunteers have made a major difference in relief efforts.

In June, the Diet made it easier for these groups to be designated as organizations that people can donate to and receive a tax benefit for doing so. This tax reform is expected to help fundraising and boost prospects for often underfunded and understaffed organizations.

While in Kobe 1995 government officials were clueless in dealing with volunteers, it now relies on them to assist in disaster response and expects them to play a crucial role in helping people and communities recover from 3/11. Overall, in the first four months after the Tohoku earthquake, there were 499,300 registered volunteers, while 1,305,000 people volunteered in the first four months after the Kobe Earthquake.

The numbers, however, neither tell the story of how much more difficult it is to operate in Tohoku nor reflect the organizing role of NPOs and NGOs that has made volunteers more effective.

So how did this flowering of civic activism happen?

Simon Avenell analyzes social movements in post-World War II Japan and elucidates how state and corporate actors have influenced and co-opted them. In doing so, he unravels popular myths about citizen movements. Along the way we learn a great deal about the nature of democracy, grassroots political participation and the role of nationalism. This is a well-argued and -researched book that sheds light on neglected aspects of Japan’s renascent civil society.

Avenell focuses on the intellectual history of social movements over the past half-century. His fascinating study of the struggle against the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty between 1958-60 shows how political activism shaped prevailing views about what it meant to be a citizen. In subsequent years this oppositional activism grew, as evident in the anti-Vietnam War campaign and environmental movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Surveying the current scene, one wonders what happened.

The author traces the transformation of civic movements to the mid-1970s when there was a decisive shift in favor of cooperating with state and corporate actors.

Many activists cut their teeth in the student movement of the 1960s and became disenchanted with extremism. Earlier activism was branded a failure, although Avenell disagrees, leading to a strategic shift by activists toward mainstreaming civic activism and downplaying confrontational tactics. This meant working within the community and building ties with local governments, bureaucrats and corporations.

The government encouraged useful civil groups as “faced with lower economic growth after the first oil shock and a rapidly aging population, bureaucrats (especially in welfare) began to actively support independent forms of volunteering and civic activism in the 1970s.” Corporate Japan also took action to encourage the right type of civil activism. From the mid-1980s, for example, the Toyota Foundation provided grants and “crucial institutional support for movement intellectuals championing a new era of constructive and symbiotic activism in Japan.”

Avenell further explains how state institutions shaped the space that NPOs operate in and nurtured an apolitical civil society. This process of taming social movements marginalized groups challenging the state while channeling civic consciousness and activism into activities serving the state. As an example he cites the outsourcing of various social services to NPOs.

While acknowledging NPOs have gained “unheard-of social legitimacy” since the 1990s, Avenell stresses that this owes “much to the relentless efforts of influential civic activists to mend broken bridges with government and corporate elites (and vice versa) and to distance civic activism from its earlier moments of contention and protest.”

Since Kobe 1995 he asserts, “Japan experienced nothing short of a rebirth, a re-imagination, a burgeoning and a revolution in its civil society,” but this has also involved, “shrewd official management of social energies.” It also seems, however, that some NPOs have shrewdly exploited the available political space to advance their agendas and not all are apolitical or deferential.

Avenell concludes that volunteerism has become “a clever form of mobilization extremely efficient for the reduction of costs, especially in the realm of welfare.” Maybe so, but it has also become a lifeline for the beleaguered citizens of Tohoku where NPOs are gaining considerably more legitimacy, influence, funding and, for some, perhaps more autonomy.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian studies, Temple University Japan.