Divorce is up; population growth is down. Spitting on the street: in; holding the door: out. Politicians waver back and forth on policy, their party platforms neither here nor there.

It seems at times that Japan is going nowhere fast. But before packing your bags and heading out in despair, consider this: In many ways, Japan is getting better -- and not just in an economic sense.

Obscured by all the bad news, including the recent child-on-child killing, is a swelling undercurrent of positive change that despite its considerable scope goes largely unnoticed by the public.

At least that is the view of Jeffrey Kingston, a professor of history at Temple University in Tokyo. A 17-year resident of this country, Kingston has written a book that explores how grassroots activity and legal, institutional and policy reforms spanning the last two decades are now bearing fruit -- creating a kinder, gentler Japan. The book, titled "Japan's Quiet Transformation: Social Change and Civil Society in the 21st century" (Routledge), will be published in September.

"I think there's a lot more going on here than initially meets the eye," said Kingston. "You can make a strong argument that they've laid the foundation for a more robust civil society."

Hold on. A more robust civil society? Despite their shortcomings, aren't the Japanese already renowned as the most civil people on earth? And, anyway, what exactly is a "civil society?"

Scholars explain that the institutions (the free press, say, or established religions) and groups (nonprofit and community organizations) that occupy the middle ground between the state and the family, are the flesh and bones of civil society.

In civil society, players such as these pursue neither commercial profit nor the national reins of power, but instead foster and involve themselves in matters of common concern, while also lobbying for relevant reform. Civil society and tyranny are mutually exclusive.

Japan's civil society does rank high compared to many, perhaps most, countries around the world -- especially those with weak economic infrastructures or where ruling regimes simply ignore such groups or suppress their activities.

Still, the Japanese public's passivity in tackling, or even acknowledging, problems such as child abuse, sex-related crime and political corruption means civil society here still has a way to go before it could be said to be functioning with vitality.

Indications are, however, that Japan is trying to close the gap on its First World peers. Current legislative efforts include an array of measures aimed at preventing child abuse, expanding child- and elderly-care leave, harmonizing work and family life, abolishing sexual harassment, boosting temporary-worker protections, enforcing information disclosure and achieving judicial reforms -- many of them passed only in the past few years.

What's more, people are lining up to help. Since 1998, when Japan enacted a law to ease the formation of NPOs, some 16,000 have registered, while more than 64,000 others are striving to make a difference without that official status, noted Kingston.

"From the mid-1990s, Japan has gone from being a society in denial to one that is implementing sweeping social reforms that are having a strong impact on citizen-state relations," he said.

What makes this indicative of a more dynamic civil society, rather than just some warm and fuzzy passing phase, are new forms of cooperation that transcend boundaries of immediate self-interest.

One remarkable, though little reported, example is the 1% Club. Administered by the Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) -- the powerful umbrella group representing Japanese industrial associations and more than 1,000 companies -- the 1% Club was created in 1990 as a steering body for members who wanted to contribute at least 1 percent of their pretax profit to social causes each year. Today, the main beneficiaries are academic research programs, the arts and education.

What's in it for corporate Japan? Hopes of shedding its sleazy image acquired from decades of scandals, for one. "Philanthropy has come to be seen in a new light as companies place a greater emphasis on gaining trust and understanding from society," said a January 2004 Nippon Keidanren report on corporate giving. A survey of its members released in January showed that respondents' philanthropic donations totaled 119 billion yen in 2002, a 9.9 percent increase on the year before.

Prompted by these and other developments, The Japan Times set out to test Kingston's thesis by looking at how Japanese from various walks of life, dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, are endeavoring to build a stronger civil society.

In other words, we looked for: