THE STATE OF CIVIL SOCIETY IN JAPAN, edited by Frank J. Schwarz and Susan J. Pharr. Cambridge University Press, 2003, 392 pp., $25 (paper).

This impressive and wide-ranging collection of essays explores the problems and potential of Japan’s increasingly robust civil society. In analyzing institutional and regulatory developments in the context of powerful historical legacies, the writers examine how the state is powerfully shaping the evolution of civil society and vice versa.

The scope and high quality of the 15 chapters make this an important and rewarding book with wide appeal. Interestingly, the editors seem more optimistic about the prospects for civil society in Japan than many of the contributors.

Sheldon Garon surveys the nature of state control of civil society in modern Japan and the abiding distrust of autonomous associations by those who govern. Sobered by the lessons of history, he sensibly asks, “Has civil society finally reined in the managerial Japanese state, or has that state once again enmeshed a new generation of popular associations?”

Frank Schwarz strikes a more optimistic note, pointing to a series of legal reforms in the 1990s that are facilitating a reworking of state-civil society relations. By civil society, the editors refer to the “sustained, organized social activity that occurs in groups that are formed outside the state, the market and the family. Cumulatively, such activity creates a public sphere outside the state, a space in which groups and individuals engage in public discourse.”

Robert Pekkanen focuses on nonprofit organizations (NPOs) and the constraints they face in gaining autonomy and influence. His research indicates that “Japan’s regulatory environment has sculpted a pattern of civil society development in which public advocacy groups have ended up smaller, more local, less independent and more poorly funded than their counterparts elsewhere in the industrial world.” He argues that the Japanese state “has structured incentives to promote this pattern of development because it seeks to nurture social capital-type civil society groups and to discourage pluralistic, lobbying-type civil society groups.”

The state has sought to keep civil society organizations on a short leash and to limit their ability to develop sufficient expertise to act as constructive critics of state policies advocating alternative agendas. However, there is also a danger in over-emphasizing the primacy of the state. NPO legislation of 1998 has helped legitimize NPOs and create more public space for them. Grudgingly, partly as a result of the crisis in the government’s legitimacy resulting from scandals and recession since the early 1990s, and in line with global trends, the government has sought enhanced NPO participation and input. Are civil society organizations thus being co-opted as suggested by Garon? Certainly this may be the intention, but it is also true that many of them are contesting and challenging state prerogatives and parameters.

Nonetheless, Pekkanen is right to point to the regulatory context and how the bureaucrats’ “combination of discretionary screening, close supervision of operations, and sanctioning power” is undermining the vitality of the NPO movement. Precisely because of the government’s power to favor groups with legitimacy, funding and tax breaks, “not only is it hard for independent groups to grow large in Japan, but it is hard for large groups to remain independent. Even in the abstract, it is easy to understand that if a single agency grants permission to a group to form, monitors it, is able to punish it and can even dissolve the group entirely, often without effective legal challenge, that agency will hold significant power over the group.” Small is beautiful for bureaucrats because NPOs with large professional staffs can develop policy expertise that could threaten the autonomy of the bureaucracy.

Patricia MacLachlan reminds us that “citizen power” does matter and is nurturing greater transparency and accountability. She focuses on the mixed success of consumer activism in Japan and how it has evolved over recent decades. One of the important consequences has been the cultivation of “citizens” experienced in challenging the status quo. These people have come to see the need for good governance and have played a key role in supporting local information disclosure ordinances.

This grass-roots movement has enabled people to scrutinize how the government is spending taxpayers’ money and exercising authority. It also forced the government to enact National Information Disclosure in 1999. Concerned consumers are also concerned citizens, especially when they find out about corruption, collusion and abuses of power by those who govern.

Laurie Freeman argues that the media has let the people down by not doing enough to promote transparency and accountability. Rather than challenging the status quo, “the mass media have frequently worked together with, or on behalf of, the political core — capturing, subverting, misleading, or alternatively ignoring the political periphery . . .” She argues that the media has been tamed by means of the press clubs (kisha), the newspaper industry associations (kyokai) and media business groups (keiretsu). As a result, the media has participated in the “demobilization of the public sphere” and, in her view, has not given its vital support to civil society. In a nation of blog-aholics and vibrant chatrooms, she seems overly pessimistic about the role of the Internet in providing unmediated and uncontrolled access to information and an “alternative realm of civil discourse.”

Moreover, the media has been the biggest user of information disclosure laws. Revelations about scandals and questionable practices that have come from government documents released because of these laws are enabling people to know much more about what the government is up to and this is whetting their appetite for more. People have come to understand the costs of not monitoring the government and have greater access largely because the media is providing it.

Freeman may be right that the media is overly beholden to the powers that be, but it is also true that the media has been supportive of a more robust civil society, successfully advocating NPO legislation, information disclosure and judicial reforms that are gradually and incrementally making government more transparent and those who govern more accountable.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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