CONSUMER POLITICS IN POSTWAR JAPAN: The Institutional Boundaries of Citizen Activism, by Patricia Maclachlan. Columbia University Press, New York, 2002, 270 pp., $18.50 (cloth)

This excellent study richly evokes the struggle and frustrations of Japanese consumer organizations in the post-World War II era. Activists have confronted an institutionalized bias in favor of producers, and thus their attempts to seek redress have fallen short of members’ expectations. However, Patricia Maclachlan notes that there have been encouraging developments since the 1990s indicating that consumer groups are having a significant impact in arousing a consumer/citizen consciousness that bodes well for Japan’s civil society.

The first turning point in the struggle to better protect consumers came in 1968 when the government responded to demands for “institutionalization of a comprehensive system of consumer-protection policymaking and administration that accorded consumer advocates opportunities to articulate the consumer interest at the national level.”

This gesture was largely symbolic and criticized by activists as mere window dressing designed to obscure the continued bias in favor of producers. Indeed, the emphasis on growth under successive post-World War II governments meant that the national interest was identified with probusiness policies, meaning that the interests of citizens and consumers were consistently given short shrift.

The author successfully challenges some of the prevailing stereotypes and scholarship about consumer groups. She details the strategies of advocates as well as their role and impact on the national policymaking process. She also demonstrates that these groups are not nearly so beholden to producers, or systematically stymied by the government, as often asserted. Within the context of a proproducer polity, she demonstrates how consumer activism in Japan provides an interesting example “of how the politically disadvantaged can leverage small but significant concessions from state and corporate interests.” By working through local institutional channels, consumer groups have been able to rally support and influence public opinion. In certain situations they have been able to mobilize this grass-roots support to influence national policymaking.

The first five chapters provide a comprehensive assessment of consumer advocacy in Japan. Comparisons with similar movements in the United States and Great Britain provide a helpful perspective on consumer politics and the nature of policymaking.

The next three chapters present fascinating case studies on efforts to amend the antimonopoly law, prevent the deregulation of food additives and enact a product liability law. She uses these case studies to assess the ways that consumer groups have tried to articulate their interests and influence policies. The nuts and bolts of lobbying, protest, forging alliances, grassroots mobilization, lawsuits, etc. are illuminating and reveal the complexities of consumer politics. She finds that consumers fare best when the conservative elite — business, bureaucrats and the Liberal Democratic Party — is least cohesive. The 1990s, often dubbed the “lost decade,” irretrievably tarnished this iron triangle and left it more divided, suggesting that the context for consumer politics is improving.

Her examination of the product liability legislation (1994) is a cautionary tale of reform. Consumer advocates succeeded in getting a fairly strict product liability law passed. However, business groups and industry associations, with the support of the government, have effectively intervened to blunt the impact of implementation. They have done so by hijacking redress mechanisms from the courts to industry-sponsored dispute resolution centers. They are the cheapest and quickest way for consumers to seek redress, but “these organizations give both the state and business interests the ability to resolve product liability cases away from the public eye and without allocating legal liability.” In this way they have been able to evade the legal implications of the product liability law and thereby gut the potential of the legislation to rectify Japan’s proproducer bias.

Despite producers’ preponderance of power, however, consumer groups have been adept at responding to various challenges over the decades. The product liability law gives advocates a new weapon and they may soon be able to wield it more effectively. Consumers are benefiting from national information-disclosure legislation (enacted 2001) to gather evidence and may soon have better access to the courts. The government plans to double the number of lawyers within a decade, establish professional law schools in 2004 and introduce some form of jury trials. This means that the judiciary will become more accessible and activist. These mutually reinforcing developments are reinvigorating Japan’s civil society in ways favorable to consumer interests.

Just as everyone is humming Japan’s requiem, it is refreshing to read such an intriguing and compelling study that clearly demonstrates that Japanese democracy and civil society are far more vibrant than the pundits would have us believe. Maclachlan shows that “consumer organizations are taking on more watchdog functions toward both business and the bureaucracy.” In her view, “Japan’s postwar consumer organizations . . . are finally succeeding in fulfilling one of their most important objectives: fashioning a strong consumer-as-citizen consciousness in the public at large.”

Consumers are more effectively asserting their rights despite evident constraints and, in doing so, are nurturing the habits and inclinations crucial to civil society. Recent political changes and a weakening of government-business ties have created new opportunities for consumer lobbyists to shape policies. Maclachlan’s research suggests that more politicians are now standing up for various quality-of-life issues. True, there have been numerous setbacks, and important aspects of the consumer agenda remain only partially and imperfectly addressed, but she forcefully argues that the past few decades constitute a record of substantial success and an encouraging legacy for 21st century Japan to build on.

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