Commentary / Japan

Support smaller think tanks in Japan

by Robert D. Eldridge

For all the talk about the importance of think tanks and the expansion of civil society as an alternative to the official bureaucracy in Japan over the past two and a half decades, Japan’s think tanks leave much to be desired. Indeed, they are dead in the water.

According to the Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, published annually by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Project, only one Japanese think tank was among the “Best Independent Think Tanks” worldwide, and this for a country that until less than a decade ago had the second largest economy in the world. Other categories in the most recent survey were equally dismal.

While there may be some biases and other issues in the report produced in the United States, it does not excuse the lack of Japanese representation, a problem that is homegrown to Japan.

Sadly, even the big think tanks that are widely known domestically, well-funded, and seemingly respected do not perform well when competing internationally or even regionally here within Asia.

Put more frankly, while there is of course some good work coming out of Japan’s few major think tanks, overall they are a great disappointment at many levels.

All are based in Tokyo, where they feed off of government and corporate headquarters (much like U.S. think tanks that are concentrated in Washington and New York). Yet, despite the concentration of power and wealth, and a monopoly of contacts and information, they are still doing poorly when compared globally.

Most are headed by former officials or ambassadors, who have “descended from heaven (amakudari)” or by individuals — professors, former newspapermen, business leaders — specifically chosen to head these organizations as unlikely to shake things up too much. Cautious by nature (how else would they have gotten to the senior-most position in their respective careers?), they may be good at maneuvering politically or diplomatically representing the organization, but are not necessarily good at research or “thinking,” or leading desperately needed reforms.

Many of those who do the thinking themselves as researchers come handpicked from the major universities in the Tokyo area, and thus do not always embody the broader thinking of society or even their field.

It is very much a closed shop. While they do utilize their international connections and thus seek to provide some value that way, their contacts are extremely limited and boringly homogeneous, thus creating an intellectually incestuous environment otherwise known as groupthink.

It is kept closed due in part to unspoken stipulations put in place by the main source of funding — the central government — or perhaps more correctly, by the hesitation of the organizations to bite the hand that feeds them. This is unfortunate for all involved — the taxpayer, the researcher, and the consumer of any information published or the recommendations (however generic) produced.

There is some good news out there, however. In contrast to these few artificially propped-up think tanks, there are hundreds of smaller think tanks and personal offices that do great independent thinking and research, despite lacking just about all fundamentals — money, connections, access, location, staff, prestige, etc. — that the larger places have.

Based on more than two decades of interaction and affiliations with both types (including my current assignments), I believe it is these smaller organizations that businesses and the government should most encourage from now on. There is unfortunately no trickle-down effect when supporting exclusively the larger organizations. As such, the smaller organizations should be given the chance to grow, through more opportunities for funding, allotted projects, etc.

That said, the value of these smaller organizations is their independence and flexibility. Therefore, the funders must allow these smaller think tanks the maximum freedom to think with the least amount of administrative burden. Groupthink is the death of an organization and a society. Out of the box thinking should be rewarded, not forced back in. As Albert Einstein once said, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

In order not to have to rely on big business and/or the government for all or even some of their funding, I would like to see these smaller entities band together to create an organization. Perhaps it could be called the Japan Association of Small Thinktanks and Personal Offices (JASTPO) or the Japan Network of Private Think Tanks and Offices (JNPTO).

It is said there are some 100 think tanks in Japan (a 2014 study further cites 286 policy research organizations). My research has shown there is actually even more, and many times that if you include the small, personal offices that may have just one or two people in them that are nevertheless doing important, cutting-edge work in their respective fields, and one-person juku teaching a class or other skill for adults in the owner/lecturer’s own field. Because they lack a flashy presence, or the money or means to promote themselves, they tend to go unnoticed, however.

Perhaps the major newspapers and regional newspapers collectively, and/or their broadcast equivalents, could all join together to create a transparent fund to support the association or network. In turn the research results would be shared equally with any news organization that wanted it, thus ensuring the rapid and hopefully wide dissemination of the results.

One of the advantages of the above association or network would be the interdisciplinary nature and geographical diversity of it. If two annual meetings of the association, plus monthly or quarterly meetings by field or region, were held, I am certain a great deal of synergy would be created, including learning how to do accounting, fundraising, publishing, public relations, etc., from each other.

Not only would this association be great for the morale of these smaller organizations — as it must be very lonely for them doing interesting work but not being recognized — but the collaboration and innovation that emerges would help in the development of the regional communities in which they live and work. They could become valued brain trusts for their towns.

With healthy, vibrant think tanks around the country, rather than just a select few based in the capital, we would see increased internship opportunities for young people (which would help give them a greater appreciation for their studies as well as help them clarify career choices) or actual employment (allowing them to choose to remain at home and work locally rather than moving to Tokyo), as well as larger civic participation in policymaking and idea-generating.

Precisely because they are not closely aligned to the central government or even all in Tokyo for that matter and can offer alternative and diverse opinions, these hundreds of smaller think tanks and personal offices — essentially small to medium-size enterprises — around the country may hold the key for Japan’s rebirth, or at least alternative directions, in the new Reiwa Era.

Robert D. Eldridge is a former tenured Associate Professor at the Osaka School of International Public Policy and author of the forthcoming book (in Japanese) University “Reform and the Rebirth of Japan” (Koyo Shobo, 2020).