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.

    • tisho

      You’re wrong. First of all, the so called ”Those who control “the System” ” as you referred to, are not in ”shrouded in secrecy” are you claim, everybody knows who control the political, social and corporate life in Japan, they are called – bureaucrats. Japan has a very big bureaucracy. The big bureaucracy was created in the 60es when Japan shifted its economic policies from having a open and free economy to a protectionist and closed economy. There is a special word that was created to describe those people, its called – 天下り (Amakudari), it describes the relationship between the bureaucrats and the giant corporations. Bureaucrats do favors for giant corporations such as imposing high regulations and protectionist policies on foreign trade and companies in order for the domestic companies to take all the share of the domestic markets without worrying about competition. In exchange for that, when the bureaucrats retire they are given a high position in that company. This relationship is called – Amakudari. There are also plenty of books about it.

      Regarding the social change, its all about politics and education. A strong group mentality and obedience is drilled in kids brains since school. The education system teaches kids how to be obedient and group oriented. It does not teach kids how to question things, think critically, be individualistic, pursue their own happiness etc. as a result of such education at a young age, people grow up to be inner looking, group oriented, obedient, they don’t know how to question things, how to think critically and how to accept criticism. Any attack on the group is attack on the individual, as in their minds it’s the same thing. They see themselves as objects belonging to a group, the success of the group is more important than your own success, if you attack the group, you attack every single individual in it, they are the same thing in their minds.

      Now in the age of globalization and with the rise of countries which were ones undeveloped, a change is inevitable. You can’t escape it, you can only postpone it, but it will come sooner or later.

      With the rise of South Korea and now China surpassing many of the traditional Japanese industries, companies can no longer afford to provide that for life insurance and safety net, which means the corporate culture is changing. The Japanese no longer feel the need to dedicate their life to their companies, as they do not get anything in return, so many people are turning either into self employment or work abroad or part time jobs. Clearly a change is coming, slowly but surely.

      Also, with the decline of the once Japanese giants (corporations), the government sees that protectionism and closed economy does not work, and they need to open up their economy and allow the free market to work, which means allowing competition. Evidence for this is the urge to join the TPP and other free trade agreements. What will happen is that, the cozy relationship between the bureaucrats and companies also known as – Amakudari — is coming to an end.

      The education system still needs a change, quickly. There needs to be more emphasis on critical thinking, and less on group obedience.

      However, as i said, with the change of corporate culture, that would push people to pursue their own individual success as oppose to the success of their company. This would bring change to peoples minds and how they view the world.

      The push for the return of ”old Japan” even more ”nationalistic” by Abe and co. is doomed to fail. You can’t have closed economy in the 21st century, it’s simple not going to happen because your economy is going to be uncompetitive, protectionism cannot work anymore, not with all the globalization and competition happening by more and more developing countries. The need for opening up the economy, allowing free trade, competition, foreign workers and foreign skills will and already is becoming inevitable even for nutcases as Abe to realize.

      I would in about 10 years, Japan will be a very different place than it is today.

      • zer0_0zor0

        Your definition of the Japanese governments civil servants applies to the elite political appointee types, not the rank and file, generally speaking.

      • Steve Jackman

        My comment is based on the excellent book, “The Enigma of Japanese Power”. I’d recommend reading it.

      • rossdorn

        I think the basic answer to the question is, (assuming for the moment that Aroudo actually asked a question) that in Japan social change NEVER comes, if it can be avoided by those in power.

        In civilised first world countries however that question is not just very interesting, it turns out to have straight forward answer for a while now.
        While in the rest of the world it has never been any different, nowadays in Europe too the media have finally been brought into one line on every subject, that might matter.
        Printmedia is dying, less journalists are needed, so, for the copy/paste job they now do, they can be selected by ideology… and it works. There is now one and only one political correct opinion for almost every subject, and everybody follows, if he still wants to have a job tomorrow.
        So now social change comes (if at all) by those in power establishing one valid opinion on everything that is important…. This is of course the Japan way… and the public follows and government and the rest follows…
        In Japan, look at paedophile manga… look at bullying in school…
        Feel free to extend the list..

        There is no will change anything… so nothing really changes, all there is are a few newspaper articles now and then…nothing serious.

        By the wáy: The reason for this kind of progress, and also the reason why there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it, is called: The Internet.

      • Gordon Graham

        Sure, Ross…The Japan of today is identical to the Japan of 50 years ago.

      • rossdorn

        Very interesting. In the country I went to school, we learned reading and writing at the same time.

        Seeing that you probably tried to read my comment but failed to understand what it says, I suppose where you come from, that is differnet?

      • Gordon Graham

        Where I’m from students are taught that correct grammar is not only a necessary means of conveying meaning, but a medium for clarifying thought. I read social change in Japan never comes. You might want to change the tense of that assertion.

    • Gordon Graham

      So this insightful book was written by an outsider about a system “shrouded in mystery and secrecy” that he has no access to…

    • Paul

      I think you have misinterpreted val Wolferen. He does speak of a system
      where the bureaucracies, politicians and industrial enterprise balance
      each other in a system that ultimately enforces the status quo. However,
      there is not any sort of “shadowy elite” involved. He even goes so far
      as to say that if there WERE an elite, that would be better because then
      it would actually create the possibility of negotiating with them. His
      point is that there is no one group possible of enacting meaningful
      change because no one group is powerful enough on its own.

  • 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

      Really? A guy robs a convenience store, roughs up the clerk, attacks a cop, tries to take the cops gun, ends up dead, and somehow you think this relates to a discussion on social change in Japan?

      • Gordon Graham

        Sure…and the anger that sweeps across the nation in the wake of such an incident stems from what exactly? Go talk about social change in poor black neighborhoods in America. I’m sure they’d love to hear your views on social equality.

      • K T

        So if poor, largely uneducated people in cities, mostly from single-parent families, notice that generation after generation, people who look, act, and dress like them just aren’t striking it rich, somehow that is a reflection on the people who work hard, plan for their futures, and save for a rainy day?

        You seem to really want to own your self-righteous victimhood! I did not mention race – you did. So since you opened the door, here are some facts:
        There are more poor white people in the U.S. than there are poor blacks.
        More whites are on food stamps than blacks.
        Blacks are 13% of the U.S. population, but account for 50% of the violent crime.

        There are more poor whites than poor blacks, yet poor blacks commit more violent crimes. People like you will insist that it has something to do with racism.
        There are serious problems in the black community in the U.S., which some blacks have only recently begun to address. Fixing them will take time. If you think you can be of any help, I encourage you to volunteer your time and energy.

        I did not say anything about social equality. Poor people have it tougher than wealthy people. Regardless of race.
        I don’t have the time, energy or desire to go to poor black, white, asian, native american, latino neighborhoods and talk about anything. I work for a living. I have very little free time, and choose to spend it with friends and family.

        And as for your question about anger – it is misplaced. Did you notice after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan nearly 3 years ago, there was no looting?
        Did you notice that in poor black neighborhoods in the U.S., there is always looting?
        If the Japanese people who did not loot, are not better than the black people who did loot, then what is the point in trying to be a better person? What is the point in taking pride in how you conduct yourself in public?

        People like you would never riot or loot, but defend the morals of scumbags who constantly damage public property. It is hypocritical of you.

        What you did not see in Ferguson, MO?
        Black people with jobs were not protesting, rioting or looting – they had to be at work the next day.
        I personally think the majority of blacks in Ferguson (you know, the hard working, employed, take responsibility for your actions types) were disgusted with the actions of a small group of agitators, largely from out of town, who just came to town to cause trouble.
        But all you saw was black people rioting, and you eagerly blamed a cop for defending himself. DNA proves his version of events, and the grand jury won’t file charges. Even though the experts on the ground, with access to the facts, have determined NOT to prosecute the cop, people like you just can’t let it go. You prefer the “he must be guilty – he’s white” model.

        More unarmed blacks die in Chicago (killed by other blacks) over a weekend than are killed by white cops across the U.S.A. in one year – yet people like you think there is a “crisis” of white cops killing black teens. Don’t let your bias blind you to the ever changing facts.
        The leading cause of death for black males is being killed by other black males.
        The leading cause of death for white males is traffic accidents.

        Is your brand of racism any better than the racism you think your racist actions are protecting black people from?

      • anoninjapan

        wow…you really can’t stop yourself going off topic can you. well, at least your consistent. What’s next..lifting those heavy weights again?

      • Gordon Graham

        The above was in response to a comment that has since been taken down. If you’re going to pop in with your two cents worth 3 days after a conversation has ended at least have a chirp worth two cents.

      • anoninjapan

        Oh I see…a conversation is only valid in your ephemeral time frame, rather than when read.
        Keep lifting those heavy weights…

      • Gordon Graham

        It helps if you actually know what was said before you pop off like an anxious child with tourettes.

      • anoninjapan

        Then remove your post if you’re upset by comments from others to a ref’d comment that is no longer there. Simple.

  • 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

    • Toolonggone

      Oh, so you mean, you’re gonna write up 1,200-1,500 words of essay right here instead of an author? That’s interesting…

      • Oliver Mackie

        Don’t think that’s what he was suggesting…..

    • anoninjapan

      Well, at least I see you haven’t stopped your trolling …so something’s are consistent.

      • Gordon Graham

        Apostrophes to indicate plurals? Get an education, guy!

      • anoninjapan

        It’s called a speller checker that doesn’t understand and …do I care if it’s not correct, er…nope. Clearly you do. But I guess it gives you something to focus the debate away from the matter at hand…yet again. Yawn

      • Gordon Graham

        The lady doth protest too much, methinks…

      • anoninjapan

        aaahh..the poster constantly and consistently misdirects and never addresses the question at hand.

        You must stop your trolling..it is becoming a real yawn, more than you normally are..

      • Gordon Graham

        The same old tired pap from the same old tired contributor garners the same old tired responses. I’ll continue to mock this pap as long as the JT continues to charge me for the same old tired article over and over and over again “This month I will take a break from writing the same old tired article…on second thought, it’s all I’ve got!”
        The Question at Hand

      • anoninjapan


        You simply cannot stick to the question(s) raised in the JT articles. Mis-mis-mis-misdirection, again and again.

        Serious trolling, …again!

      • At Times Mistaken

        Yeah! Hoo neds granma and spellin’ so long as u git yer pernt across! And isn’t it called “spell check,” but I digress.

      • At Times Mistaken

        On second thought, since scribes for the Japan Times are in the business of accuracy and their stock-in-trade is words maybe this venerable English daily should take just a little more care in choosing the ones it prints and correcting them when they’ve chosen wrongly.

      • anoninjapan

        evn ma spel chkr cant chck spell checker korektly :)

      • At Times Mistaken

        Say what you want about this guy’s grammar or prose style but that last paragraph is like “buttah,” no matter how you slice it. It’s as if he has channeled the spirit of Linda Richman (of “Coffee Talk with Linda Richman”). I can still hear the echoes of Linda in those final lines: “The Partridge Family were neither partridges, nor a family. Discuss,” “Grape-Nuts – it contains neither grapes, nor nuts. Discuss,” etcetera, etcetera.

  • 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.