Momentum building toward a transformed Japan

by Jeff Kingston

The “lost decade” story of teetering banks, an imploding Nikkei and skyrocketing unemployment has been overdone, and overlooks many interesting and dynamic developments. Too much of what is happening in contemporary Japan cannot be explained by media images of social gridlock and economic stagnation.

Since the late 1990s, a series of legal and institutional reforms have laid the foundations for a more robust civil society. Mutually reinforcing developments such as significant legislation in 1998 facilitating the establishment of nonprofit organizations, compelling information disclosure by the national government in 1999, and an ongoing overhaul of the judicial system that began in 2002 are already profoundly affecting relations between the governed and those who govern.

Japan’s civil society is a work-in-progress, and much remains to be done.

Skeptics focus on the evident shortcomings of the reforms, while in my book due out in September (see footnote), I look at reform as a gradual and incremental process that is gathering momentum.

Critics point out that various problems remain unresolved, while my barometer of Japan’s transformation is based on the magnitude of how much has already been achieved so quickly. Social change is not like switching on a light; subtle shifts often happen in the shadow of prominent continuities.

Now, for instance, it is easier to establish NPOs; more than 16,000 have gained legal recognition since 1998. The demographic time bomb means there will be an increasing need for social welfare services delivered by NPOs, and the government will need to nurture them as partners.

The cascade of corporate, financial and political scandals in the 1990s has also created a crisis of public confidence in the government which has forced it to reach out to citizen groups. NPOs are challenging the government’s desire to keep them on a short leash, and are struggling to gain greater financial autonomy by lobbying for more liberal tax incentives.

Meanwhile, citizens, NPOs and the media can now demand access to government files and make the government’s business the public’s too. This is why upcoming revisions to this legislation are crucial to close loopholes and improve implementation.

Judicial reform was on nobody’s radar screens before 1999, but it is now happening with breathtaking speed in a nation better known for its dysfunctional democracy.

The government is creating a more accessible and proactive judiciary. As part of this strategy, it sanctioned the opening of law schools in April 2004, with the aim of doubling the number of lawyers. It has also mandated speedier trials, citizen judges to sit on the bench, an intellectual property rights court, changes in the training and promotion of judges and a slew of other judicial reforms. The aftershocks of these tectonic reforms will reverberate powerfully over coming decades.

It is important to acknowledge that many of these reforms are happening because they enjoy support from the nation’s Establishment. Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) has been a powerful advocate of empowering NPOs, open government and a more proactive judiciary. Greater transparency and accountability in government and increased participation of people involved in NPOs and other voluntary activities is already a reality. People are less reverent and beholden to those in authority and are much better informed about the costs of failing to monitor their activities. They are demanding more open government and now have the institutional means, in the form of proactive NPOs and a somewhat feistier mass media, to exercise and expand newly won legal rights for information disclosure.

The 1990s served as the wake for Japan Inc. Real and wide-ranging reforms have been driven largely by a sense of crisis. While these reforms may not revive the Nikkei and root out political corruption, they are reshaping Japanese society in important and positive ways.

For example, the realization of national information-disclosure legislation took more than two decades. The spread of local disclosure ordinances from 1982 over a 15-year span to every city and prefecture built a momentum and created precedents that few would have anticipated at that time.

Considered separately, each of these local initiatives to promote transparency in government seemed of little consequence. However, taken together as part of a larger, long-term trend, we can now appreciate their significance.

Japanese today are reaping the rewards of these earlier struggles. This is a powerful reminder that the consequences of reform percolate only slowly through the polity. The Japanese media has become a leading user and advocate of information disclosure. The media is rousing people to action, uncovering abuses and facilitating the monitoring of those in positions of authority. To be sure, the press is more beholden to authority and vested interests than it might be, but in the short period since the national information-disclosure law came into effect, it has played a vital and positive role.

Perhaps more surprising has been the support for information disclosure by the judiciary. Courts are proving to be far more supportive than anyone had anticipated, and have thereby generated further momentum for transparency. In addition, politicians are winning elections by embracing open government.

Indeed, anyone still uncertain about the depth of change experienced in Japan in recent years should consider how far the mighty have fallen.

The nation’s mandarins, once revered and respected, have plummeted furthest. In a series of scandals engulfing virtually every government ministry, the best and the brightest have been caught with their hands in the till, asleep at the wheel or driving the getaway car. Revelations about negligence, incompetence, malfeasance and over-generous compensation and post-retirement sinecures have drawn public ire. The age of information disclosure has placed their actions under closer scrutiny and pressured them to meet rising public expectations and standards. The shenanigans of the elite bureaucrats, once tolerated, have now become the public’s business. They are being forced to address the crisis in the government’s legitimacy that they have spawned.

Many Japanese myths and taboos have taken quite a beating in recent years. Issues that never saw the light of day have now become subjects of vigorous media coverage and public debate. Connections between yakuza, politicians and bureaucrats are regularly reported. Cherished notions of stable, harmonious families have melted away in the face of widespread reporting on domestic violence, surging divorce and suicide rates, teenage prostitution, and growing challenges to patriarchal bias and gender roles.

Japan’s economic misery, social despair, systemic corruption and aging society are often cited as proof of Japan’s demise, but I argue that they have led to a reconsideration of the verities of contemporary Japan that has in turn helped to propel the quiet transformation. The foundations of civil society are being laid on the rubble of Japan Inc. Civil society in this country is under construction — and for once it is not a done deal.

It is premature to either dismiss the potential of these reforms or expect that they are the magic cure for what ails the nation. They will be realized fitfully and incrementally over the coming years, a gradual process depending mostly on the actions and choices of the Japanese people. How they respond and participate, and who they elect and boot out of office, will influence the shape and breadth of the transformation.

One can expect vigorous resistance from those who stand to lose most from reform, transparency, accountability and a less reticent public. Perhaps the most encouraging development is that the ways and means of the old system have been so thoroughly discredited that there is no turning back; present and future problems are forcing a reinvention of Japan.