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In 1970, the French sociologist Michel Crozier wrote a seminal book titled “La societe bloquee” (“The Stalled Society”). Building on his earlier breakthrough analysis of the “Bureaucratic Phenomenon,” Crozier developed the idea that the bureaucratization of organizations and institutions had become the major obstacle to social progress.

At a time when France was healing from its most recent wave of social unrest (remember May 1968), the country was, Crozier argued, in a state of bureaucratic sclerosis with a passion for rigid decision-making processes. The French political and economic institutions suffered from a disconnect between the existence of social institutions of dialogue and the maintenance of a hierarchical top-down autocratic power structure. The forms of social dialogue had been emptied of their very substance.

France is currently going through a new wave of social protest. Strikes are being organized to protest the government’s authoritative validation of a new labor law. The apparent difficulty to negotiate with all relevant stakeholders and reach a consensual agreement on a much-needed reform is again an illustration of the pertinence of Crozier’s analysis. French society is still stalled! The institutions of dialogue are somewhat resilient in their forms but have lost their capacity to lead the necessary reforms.

What about Japan? Well, Japanese society is also stalled, in a similar way. Here too, the emptying of social institutions is stalling collective effectiveness. During the period of rapid economic growth of the postwar period, but also during the period of radical social transformation of the Meiji Restoration, Japan had created or adopted the best practices that brought its social and economic organizations to the frontier of efficiency. Toyota’s manufacturing system, the just-in-time supply relationships, the quality circles, the intra- and inter-industry collaborative keiretsu networks, etc., are all famous examples of the acclaimed organizational practices the world has come to envy and to imitate.

In the field of government and policy, the intricate balance between the administrative guidance provided by the national and local bureaucracies and the corresponding leadership of elected officials has allowed seemingly smooth decision-making and implementation of local and national policies.

Today, these social institutions appear to have lost their effectiveness. The main reason why is that the form of these institutions has taken prevalence over their content. Put differently, Japan has kept the external appearances of social dialogue, but politicians and managers have failed to adapt institutions to their new social realities. That sickness has a name: excessive bureaucratization.

One example of this regrettable phenomenon is corporate governance. Students of business administration learn that organizations need effective boards of directors to check and balance the decisions of their top managers. Research has shown that a prevalence of directors who are directly affiliated with the firm they are supposed to oversee leads to groupthink and collusion — which leads to bad decisions for the company. A healthy firm is one that can count on external directors to share their different experiences and voice their disagreement about the strategy of the firm. However, boards of directors in Japan often do not fulfill that mission. The external directors appointed to corporate boards today are either too few or too silent. The corporate scandals of recent years could probably have been avoided, or at least revealed publicly earlier, had the boards been more efficient.

This paralysis of governance is, unfortunately, also found in universities. Here is one such example, taken from my own experience in Japan. On April 1, I was requested to attend the appointment ceremony at my university to receive my new appointment. After waiting a few minutes in a meeting room, a fellow colleague and I were brought into one of the largest rooms of the administration wing, in which stood a group of about 10 gentlemen who I later learned were the trustees of the university. We all bowed, the chairman of the university (and of the board of trustees) moved forward, read the appointment declaration, passed it on to me, repeated in the same fashion for my fellow colleague, we all bowed again, and we were out of the room within approximately three minutes.

This ceremony looked to me as both a (small) waste of time and a (huge) wasted opportunity. I did not know any of these 10 gentlemen, I had barely met the chairman of the university before, and I thought the appointment ceremony would give us an opportunity to get acquainted. They could have discovered in more details who this new specially appointed associate professor was and what contribution he could bring to their university.

Conversely, I could have had a chance to learn from the trustees themselves what the university’s missions were and what main accomplishments the short history of our relatively new academic institution had witnessed. In others words, we could have started a fruitful dialogue between two critical stakeholders of the university, its trustees and its new professor(s). None of that happened; the show was done within three minutes. When questioned about this apparent lack of dialogue, colleagues later introduced me to the concept of katachi dake. The form only mattered, not the substance.

This hollowing out of social institutions is quite worrying. Not only does it incur a significant cost in terms of time wasted on purposeless activities, it also diverts the attention of administrators from the main reason these institutions were created in the first place, i.e., enhancing social dialogue.

The appointment ceremony is just one example of the many activities I see my colleagues getting involved in. For sure, some institutions are as necessary today as they were in the past and so they should without any doubt be continued and/or reinforced. But sometimes the content of the institution and the form through which it can be delivered begin to diverge. In such cases, the focus should be on finding a new form that can best continue the delivery of the intended social benefits. I am afraid people’s attention is often merely on preserving the ritualized form, sometimes long after the content got lost.

The very social institutions that have supported the many economic successes of Japan in the past have been derived from an appeal to external factors to help diagnose, rethink and remodel the patterns of social interactions and organization. To grasp the hollowing out of its social institutions, and to come up with the necessary adaptations, Japan will need to confront the relative closeness of its social fabrics. It has done that very successfully in the past; it could repeat it again now.

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government recently invited foreign economic leaders (including Nobel Prize winners) to discuss the soundness of their fiscal tax policy, they sent the right signal. Hopefully these initiatives are a sign of a true commitment toward challenging the status quo of the Japanese economy and the blockages of its social institutions.

It is time to “unstall” Japanese society, for the sake of its own people as well as those of other nations. I wish Japan could serve as an example for France to finally put Crozier’s thesis to rest.

Didier Andre Guillot is a specially appointed associate professor at Fukui Prefectural University.

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