Discuss Japan > Back Number > Nos.13-15 > (JAPAN POLITICS CHANGED?) At Crossroads: Japan’s Civil Society and Politics — Has Japanese Society Changed since Great East Japan Earthquake?
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Nos.13-15 ,Society  Mar 06, 2013

(JAPAN POLITICS CHANGED?) At Crossroads: Japan’s Civil Society and Politics — Has Japanese Society Changed since Great East Japan Earthquake?

1. Introduction

Photo : Tanaka Yayoi

Tanaka Yayoi

Has civil society in Japan been transformed following the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011? And has there been any kind of change in the relationship between the people and national politics? Behind such questions lies this hypothesis: “Having experienced such a catastrophe that affected the whole country, Japanese society must have developed greater fortitude and become stronger. Moreover, in response to this, certainly political thinking too has undergone changes.” Underlying such an optimistic hypothesis are recollections of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995. In that disaster, Japan itself was surprised to see that over 1 million volunteers went to the affected areas during the first month following the quake. This became the turning point that prompted parliament to establish the NPO (non-profit organization) Law.

In the case of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the amount of donations gathered was much more than after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and volunteer activities are still ongoing in the disaster-hit areas more than two years later. Every Friday morning, protests calling for an end to nuclear power in Japan are held in front of the prime minister’s office.

However, the political world is slow to respond to such grassroots activities. Or rather, it seems to have become even more passive than before the quake. I say this because in the manifestos announced by the major political parties during the House of Representatives election held in December 2012, campaign pledges regarding NPO matters all but vanished.

So we must question this hypothesis once again. Is Japan’s civil society really undergoing changes to begin with? Supposing it is, then are politicians aware of such changes? And if they are indeed aware of the changes, why is the government so slow to react?

Based on these questions, this article will examine the issue of Japan’s civil society and politics by reviewing the trends in attitudes of ordinary citizens before and after the Great East Japan Earthquake, as well as the course of actions taken in response.

2. Has Society Changed since the Great East Japan Earthquake?

First, trends in aid from the private sector in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake will be discussed, followed by a look at any changes in the Japanese public as a whole based on indicators of actions related to the disaster.

2.1 Trends in private aid in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake

(1) Donations

According to data from the government’s household expenditure surveys, donations from Japanese individuals as of the end of June 2011 vastly exceeded the previous year’s total of 380 billion yen. While the figures include donations other than those for the Great East Japan Earthquake, considering the notable rise in donations compared to the previous year, the significance of the role played by donations related to the Great East Japan Earthquake is clear.

graph : Tanaka Yayoi 1

Now, what was the situation with regard to donations given as relief support for the Great East Japan Earthquake? In Japan, donations in times of disasters are basically divided into two categories. One is called “gienkin” and the other is “shienkin.” The former is relief aid in the form of condolence or sympathy money distributed directly to those affected. These kinds of donation totaled 316.8 billion yen as of the end of May 2012, far more than the 179.1 billion yen in “gienkin” gathered after the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake.

On the other hand, “shienkin” refers to donations to groups and organizations such as local governments as well as non-profit and non-governmental organizations engaged in relief operations in the devastated areas. Major NPOs and NGOs received a total of 20.1 billion yen while donations received by local authorities in the seven affected prefectures totaled 189.2 billion yen as of the end of February 2012. These figures, however, cannot be compared to those in the 1995 case as the NPO Law was not yet in existence back then and also because of the larger number of prefectures affected this time.

(2) Volunteers

According to the Japan National Council of Social Welfare, the aggregate number of people who took part in volunteer activities via referrals at volunteer centers in Iwate Prefecture (24 centers), Miyagi Prefecture (12 centers) and Fukushima Prefecture (28 centers) totaled 1.02 million as of May 2012. As this figure does not include volunteers who did not go through the volunteer centers and those engaged in other forms of support such as packing and transporting relief supplies outside of the disaster areas, and assisting evacuees who have fled to areas outside the affected region, the actual total number of volunteers is believed to be even larger.

Yet, the momentum was not as strong as in the case of the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake when volunteers turned out in great numbers and were at the center of attention across Japan. In the year following the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, 1.37 million volunteers set foot in the affected areas, of which 1 million were estimated to have gathered within the month after the disaster. On the other hand, in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the number of volunteers was off to a slow start and while it later showed a tendency to rise gradually, the number dropped around the (Golden Week) long holiday season in May 2011 and did not increase as much as many had hoped for during the summer vacation period.

That said, volunteer activities in the various affected areas still continue two years after the disaster and many volunteers return multiple times. This perhaps is the distinctive characteristic of volunteer activities related to the Great East Japan Earthquake.

(3) Aid activities by not-for-profit organizations

Within and outside the quake-hit areas, a wide variety of aid activities were undertaken by non-profit organizations. For example, Tono Magokoro Net (the Tono City Disaster Relief Network), an incorporated NPO in Iwate Prefecture, functioned efficiently as the base for volunteers gathering from across the nation and for the delivery of relief supplies. As of autumn in 2011, it is said to have handled a cumulative number of over 40,000 volunteers, far greater than the city of Tono’s own population of approximately 29,000.

One Family Sendai, based in Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, is an incorporated NPO that specializes in supporting the homeless. But given its possession of rice stockpiles and equipment for soup runs, the group began distributing “onigiri” rice balls in Sendai in the immediate aftermath of the quake to those who had difficulty getting home as well as others affected by the disaster, totaling 26,575 servings by April 10 (that year). It also provided some 2,300 kinds of relief supplies to 404 facilities which aid from local authorities did not reach easily, such as welfare facilities and hospitals, as well as those remaining in their damaged homes or where essential utilities have still not been resumed since the quake.

Non-governmental organizations normally engaged in aid and poverty reduction activities in developing countries abroad also arrived in the affected regions soon after the earthquake, utilizing their expertise and technical know-how to conduct needs assessments in the areas and systematically carry out relief operations.

Furthermore, according to the Japanese Consumers’ Co-operative Union, it had collected donations totaling 2.28 billion yen as of Nov. 30, 2011. Including those gathered by its subsidiary co-ops across the nation, the amount totaled 3.47 billion yen. Currently, it continues to support reconstruction efforts such as by utilizing the co-op sales channels to sell produce from the quake-hit areas.

As for labor unions, the Rengo headquarters (Japanese Trade Union Confederation) had collected 835,863,286 yen in “kyuen kanpa” donations as of February 2012 (total donations in various forms collected by the Rengo organization as a whole totaled about 3 billion yen). It also dispatched a cumulative number of 34,549 volunteers on 24 missions over the half-year following the quake, involving an actual number of 6,023 persons.

According to the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives (JA Zenchu), the JA group as a whole donated about 10 billion yen in relief money in the form of aid to support reconstruction from the Great East Japan Earthquake. Over 3,000 officials and staff members of the JA group were dispatched as volunteers, engaging in activities such as removing debris from JA facilities and JA union members’ rice paddies and greenhouses for strawberries, as well as restoring collapsed rice stockpiles.

Moreover, universities also took part in the aid activities. There are 758 universities in Japan and given that activities by 473 schools have been reported by the media, it is safe to say that the majority of universities have been involved in relief operations in one way or the other, from dispatching experts to sending student volunteers.

2.2 Demonstrations calling for an end to nuclear power in Japan

Since the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, protests of various scales have taken place mainly in the central area of Tokyo. In April 2011, soon after the nuclear accident, those who started protests in Tokyo’s Koenji area were mainly people in their 30s who have been involved in campaigns demanding better treatment for non-permanent employees. This is a generation in which many people, despite being relatively well educated, have not been able to find regular employment due to the prolonged economic slump. In the beginning, it was this stratum of people who took the leading role in the demonstrations calling for an end to nuclear power in Japan. Also, among the 45,000 people who took part in the protests in April, a significant number were first-time demonstrators. They gathered by word-of-mouth on social media, attended the protests as if joining a festival, and dispersed to return home when they saw fit. In addition, their anger not only stemmed from the dangers of nuclear power plants and the fear of radiation, but was also directed at the government’s poor handling of the situation and the way it disclosed information.

Later on, the demonstrations gradually spread. On Sept. 19, 2011, a “50,000 people gathering to say goodbye to nuclear power” was held in Tokyo, with tens of thousands parading in the streets. Around this time, those who used to be involved in anti-nuclear campaigns, namely housewives and the elderly, also returned to join in the action. At protests organized by groups such as the Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs (Gensuikyo), middle-aged participants and unionized workers gathered, marching with banners and placards displaying slogans and union names. Meanwhile gatherings held by conservation groups were attended by families and young people. In a combination of old and new styles, people from various social strata took part in the demonstrations.

Since the summer of 2012, protests have been held outside the prime minister’s office every Friday evening. It is said that a cumulative number of 200,000 people have participated and while the numbers have shrunk, the protests were still ongoing as of February 2013. They involved no radical behavior and instead were rather upbeat. Even the police, who had been very cautious in the beginning, appear to have gotten used to it and have relaxed controls.

2.3 Changes among the Japanese people generally

The aforementioned relief activities by volunteers and NPOs, and demonstrations calling for an end to nuclear power in Japan, are changes that have taken place among citizens in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake disaster. However, it is too soon to declare them to be changes in Japan’s civil society as a whole. Below is an analysis of changes (if any) in the Japanese public in general before and after the disaster, using data from the government’s national surveys and behavioral indicators that are believed to be related to the quake.

(1) Changes in the ratio of volunteers

graph : Tanaka Yayoi 2
Figure 2. Changes in the ratio of volunteers before and after the Great East Japan Earthquake by prefecture (Unit: %)
(Source: Compiled from the survey on fundamental aspects of social life by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications)

The ratio of volunteers is one of the items in the survey on fundamental aspects of social life conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications once every five years. It refers to the percentage of those surveyed, 10 years old and above, who have acted as a volunteer at least once in a year. Comparing the survey results for fiscal 2006, in red, and fiscal 2011 following the disaster, in blue, the national average for the percentage of volunteers has not changed. While there was a slight increase in the three prefectures near the disaster areas, in the majority of prefectures across the country the figures actually decreased.

(2) Volunteer Fire Corps enrollment rate

Immediately following the quake, there was a lot of talk about the activities by members of fire brigades who risked their own lives to rescue disaster-stricken victims. Did the number of those volunteering for the Volunteer Fire Corps increase as people shared and sympathized with such efforts? Here is a comparison of the enrollment rates for Volunteer Fire Corps nationwide in 2011 and 2012.

graph : Tanaka Yayoi 3
Figure 3. Ratio of Volunteer Fire Corps members as a percentage of total population in each prefecture before and after the Great East Japan Earthquake (Unit: %)
(Source: Compiled from the white paper on fire services by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications)

Figure 3 shows the ratio of Volunteer Fire Corps members in each prefecture in 2011 (in red) and 2012 (in blue=see note below). Even here, almost no change can be observed in the ratio of Volunteer Fire Corps members before and after the disaster. Whether looking at data on the nationwide level, or focusing only on the three disaster-devastated prefectures, there has been no change.

Note: However, for fiscal 2011, the previous fiscal year’s data is used in the case of the three quake-devastated prefectures.

(3) Ratio of coverage by local voluntary organizations for disaster prevention

Is it possible that having experienced the Great East Japan Earthquake, citizens became more proactive in establishing local voluntary organizations for disaster prevention with a growing sense of “protecting one’s own safety by oneself to work hand-in-hand with the government ?” Here is an analysis of the changes in the ratio of households within the jurisdictions of such voluntary disaster management groups in each prefecture. The ratio refers to the percentage of households living in areas within the disaster prevention voluntary organizations’ sphere of action, out of all households in each prefecture.

graph : Tanaka Yayoi 4
Figure 4. Ratio of coverage by local voluntary organizations for disaster prevention in each prefecture before and after the Great East Japan Earthquake (Unit: %)
(Source: Compiled from the white paper on fire services by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications)

Figure 4 shows the ratio of households in areas within the jurisdictions of local voluntary organizations for disaster prevention in each prefecture, with figures for 2011 in red and for 2012 in blue. This ratio too was almost unchanged when looking at the national average. While it seems that the ratio shot up significantly after the disaster in some prefectures in western Japan (Kagawa, Fukuoka etc.), from the viewpoint at the national level it was only a very slight increase. Moreover, when looking at the three most devastated prefectures, while there was a small rise in Iwate Prefecture after the disaster, there was no change in the other two prefectures.

(4) Ratio of blood donors

Next is an analysis of the changes in the ratio of blood donors. Having experienced such an unprecedented catastrophe as the Great East Japan Earthquake, would there not be more people who would take action to help those suffering from injuries and illnesses?

graph : Tanaka Yayoi 5
Figure 5. Ratio of blood donors in each prefecture before and after the Great East Japan Earthquake (Unit: %)
(Source: Compiled from information on blood-related operations by the Blood Products Research Organization)

Figure 5 is a graph showing the ratio of blood donors in each prefecture before and after the Great East Japan Earthquake (see note below). Red represents the rates for 2011 and blue for 2012. Even here, it can be seen that there was no change at the national level. However, about half of all prefectures saw a rising trend, albeit only slightly. What should be noted is that the blood donor rate in Fukushima Prefecture has dropped markedly from before the quake. This could be the result of Fukushima residents themselves avoiding going to donate blood in the face of prejudice such as that from some blood bank centers which, according to media reports, rejected blood donors hailing from Fukushima Prefecture. The two other disaster-hit prefectures (Iwate Prefecture and Miyagi Prefecture) also saw no changes.

Note: Rate of blood donations is the percentage of people, out of each prefecture’s total population aged 15 to 69, who have actually given blood. (Those who registered but ended up not being able to donate blood because they did not meet requirements or for other reasons are not included.)

From the above analysis of changes in each prefecture before and after the disaster with regard to the four indicators deemed to reflect altruistic behavior and acts to assist others in relation to the Great East Japan Earthquake, no changes could be observed in general.

There is indeed an aggregate of 1 million volunteers engaged in relief activities in the disaster-stricken areas. But in the Japanese public as a whole, the percentage of those joining volunteer activities not only did not rise, but even showed a tendency to sfall slightly. For that reason, it would be hard to say that Japan’s civil society in general has changed and become stronger as a result of the relief operations, such as donation drives and volunteer activities, and protests triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake.

2.4 The general public’s political consciousness

(1) General election voter turnout

Voter turnout is one of the most common indicators for observing civic engagement. That is to say, it is believed that if citizens take an interest in social matters and would proactively express their opinions, they would exercise their right to vote.

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake, Japan has been faced with a mountain of grave issues such as reconstruction of the disaster-stricken areas and the issue of nuclear power. One could therefore suppose the Japanese public would want to entrust politicians to resolve these matters and exercise their voting right. Here is an analysis of the changes in voter turnout in each prefecture for the House of Representatives elections in 2009 and 2012.

graph : Tanaka Yayoi 6
Figure 6. Voter turnout by prefecture for the House of Representatives’ single-seat constituencies before and after the Great East Japan Earthquake (Unit: %)
(Source: Compiled from Asahi Shimbun)

Figure 6 shows the voter turnout by prefecture for the House of Representatives’ single-seat constituencies before and after the Great East Japan Earthquake. The 2009 voter turnout is shown in red and the 2012 voter turnout in blue. As is clear from the graph, the voter turnout after the disaster was drastically lower than that in 2009. The 2009 lower house election was the general election that set the stage for a change in administration after the long years of dominance by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the heightened interest among the public on the whole is believed to have pushed up the voter turnout. In other words, the voter turnout in 2009 could possibly be higher than normal.
Another comparison was therefore made between the voter turnout for the lower house election in 2003 and that in 2012 (see note below). The result was that the former was 59.86 percent, slightly higher than the 59.32 percent for single-seat constituency voter turnout in the 2012 election. The voter rate has still fallen.

Note: The general election in 2005 was not used for comparison because it was held amid keen interest from the public after then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dissolved the lower house over the privatization of postal services.

(2) Why so passive about elections?

Why did the voter turnout decline? Perhaps one could explain it by saying that the act of not voting itself expresses the will of the people. In the 2012 lower house election, a vast number of new political parties were formed – said to be the most since 1945. Yet none of the parties provided a clear answer to the issues of reconstruction, nuclear power and employment.

During the election campaign, many voters expressed opinions such as “there is no party I want to vote for,” or “I don’t know which party to chose.” As a result, more people did not go to vote. Consequently, the decline in voter turnout itself is a reflection of public opinion. It is perhaps, so to speak, the electorate’s mute resistance. This, however, is not a healthy way of expressing the popular will.

Behind such mute resistance is discontent with politics. According to an opinion poll conducted by Asahi Shimbun in December 2011, when asked if they thought political parties are acting for the people, 85 percent of the respondents said the parties are not. To the question of whether political parties have become better than before in fulfilling their campaign pledges, 80 percent said they did not think so. These trends did not improve even in 2012. In view of the fact that the approval rate for the administration at that time fell to 9 percent, public discontent can be said to have deteriorated (Mainichi Shimbun, July 30, 2012).

But why are Japanese voters taking such a negative approach as to give up their right to vote? If they are dissatisfied, should they not express their views boldly as voters? Perhaps underlying such passivity is a peculiar kind of sentiment that the Japanese people have toward politics.

In the Asahi Shimbun opinion poll, in response to the question of whether they want to be involved in politics, the figure for those who answered negatively stands out: 37 percent said they do, while 54 percent said they do not. Reasons cited included disappointment and discontent with politicians’ recent performance.

That is not all. In Japan, it is often said that “one gets tainted when becoming involved in politics.” This kind of saying reflects the “dirty image” that the public has of politics.

In fact, many Japanese people have this impression with regard to politics. A 2008 survey conducted by the Institute of Statistical Mathematics (cross-national study on citizen participation in politics and community service – survey report on Japan) asked respondents for the levels of confidence, divided into four categories, that they have in professions such as civil servants, doctors, judges, police, politicians, journalists, teachers, religious groups and NPOs. The result was that regarding parliament, a combined 68 percent said they “do not trust it very much” or “do not trust it at all,” while 27 percent said they “trust it very much” or “trust it somehow.” The figures were exactly the same for parliamentarians. Furthermore, for political groups, 71 percent said they “do not trust them very much” or “do not trust them at all,” while 23 percent said they “trust them very much” or “trust them somehow.” While the levels of confidence for the central government bureaucracy and for mass media were also at the lower end of the scale, that for politics was the lowest. This kind of trend did not develop recently but is believed to have existed for at least the past 30 or 40 years.

3. Why Do Politicians Ignore Civil Society?

How do politicians regard civil society in Japan? From recent trends, it is hard to imagine that politicians think much of the role of civil society. To find out the reasons we can focus on the campaign pledges during the 2012 House of Representatives election held after the Great East Japan Earthquake and the political arena’s response to the protests calling for an end to nuclear power.

3.1 Disappearance of NPO-related policies

(1) Changes seen in the 2012 lower house election

During the House of Representatives election in December 2012, each of the political parties announced their manifestos. Yet there was something different from their previous ones. NPO-related measures vanished from the manifestos of the LDP, DPJ and New Komeito party. In the manifesto of the Japan Restoration Party, a new party, there was a call for the public to achieve economic independence, but there was no mention of NPOs. It was the first time such a silence had occurred as NPO-related policies have been stated in the major parties’ manifestos at every election since 1998 when the NPO Law was enacted.

Also, this phenomenon is exactly the opposite to that of the 2009 lower house election which resulted in the change of administration. In his policy speech after taking the reins of government, then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said he would make civil society and non-governmental, non-profit organizations the center of Japan’s nation building, and announced the “new public” catchphrase. He then worked on tax reforms for donations and directed large budgetary allocations to promote NPOs and social entrepreneurship. Yet in its manifesto in 2012, although “new public” was mentioned in the introduction as if it were a stylized epithet, the DPJ’s concrete policies did not include any that were NPO-related.

NPO-related policies were also removed from the LDP’s manifesto. Not only that, but the manifesto actually assumed a patriarchal tinge. For example, it called for promoting volunteer activities in junior high and high schools in order to foster patriotism and discipline. Moreover, while using the phrase “people first,” what that really referred to was merely listening to the people’s views at the regional level and for them to be reflected in the operations of the local LDP chapters. What is called to mind in this kind of description is a far cry from the image of a nation of people who will act independently and subjectively. In fact, it gives the impression of being anachronistic.

(2) Why have NPO-related policies disappeared?

Why have NPO-related measures vanished from the manifestos of major political parties? In order to find out the reason, one must look into the process through which NPO policies have been established.

The NPO Law (Law Concerning the Promotion of Specific Non-Profit Organization Activities) was enacted in 1998, after the active roles played by volunteers in dealing with the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995 triggered strong support from the public for a system to incorporate such activities in support operations of this kind. While legislation in Japan is usually established by bills submitted by the Cabinet, this bill was introduced by lawmakers and enacted by a unanimous vote. The law stipulates 17 areas of activities, but almost all were activities in delivering services such as in the areas of welfare, education and culture. There was no stipulation regarding policy recommendation and advocacy activities. According to former House of Representatives lawmaker Koichi Kato of the LDP, who played a central role in the enactment of the NPO Law, these kinds of activity had not been taken into consideration at the beginning.

Soon after the enactment of the NPO Law, the Koizumi administration took office. Since then, administrative and fiscal reforms as well as structural reforms have become major policy issues. Amid such developments, attention turned to NPOs as new players to shoulder public service needs in place of government agencies. Thus NPO-related policies, mainly on establishing the tax code for donations, came to be included in the manifestos of major political parties. In addition, the NPO sector was also stipulated as a player to implement various policies such as medical and welfare services, and employment measures.

However, in the 2012 lower house election, NPO-related policies suddenly disappeared. Why? There are five possible reasons:

The first is that appropriate measures could not be found. For the taxation system for donations, the DPJ administration had introduced tax breaks and also significantly eased qualification requirements for NPOs. Therefore, as major policies had already been implemented, it is possible that political parties were unable to come up with other measures to present.

Secondly, supporting NPOs does not bring in votes. While organized votes can be obtained in the case of industry groups, those involved in NPOs who exercise diversity and liberty do not act in line with such a custom.

The third is a backlash against the DPJ administration. As mentioned earlier, soon after the DPJ took office it announced the “new public” policy vision. It is likely that the other parties did not want to table policies similar to those of the DPJ.

Fourth is the matter of results from NPO-related measures. Since the NPO Law was enacted, NPOs have been given roles to implement various policies. But after 15 years perhaps its effectiveness is now being called into question. Moreover, the large budgets of unprecedented scale implemented under the DPJ government have yet to result in notable achievements.

The fifth reason is the deterioration in the image of incorporated NPOs. Currently, there are 46,000 incorporated NPOs, a markedly high rate of increase in incorporation even when compared with other not-for-profit bodies. However, there is also a growing number of incorporated NPOs being established as a means to receive administrative subsidies or as part of corporations’ marketing strategies. As a result, NPOs engaged in civic activities with a social mission and those that are not are intermingled, like a jumble of wheat and tares. During a parliamentary budgetary committee meeting toward the end of 2012, when DPJ Secretary General Goshi Hosono cited NPO-related measures as part of the DPJ government’s achievements, he was met with jeers from other lawmakers who noted “there are questionable NPOs.” This worsening image could be one reason why NPO-related measures have disappeared.

3.2 Why do politicians not respond to demonstrations calling for an end to nuclear power?

As mentioned earlier, since the nuclear accident in Fukushima, protests demanding an end to nuclear power have been held mainly in downtown Tokyo. Yet, the political world has been slow to respond. Last year, the political parties’ manifestos during the lower house election were decorated with phrases such as “abandon nuclear power” and “graduate from nuclear power.” However, none of the parties got to the point of presenting a clear solution. In short, such phrases were included in the manifestos simply as an election ploy to grab attention from the public and the media.

In its manifesto, the LDP, which regained power in the lower house election, said that as its energy policy for now, it “plans to promote as much as possible renewable energies and energy-saving measures, aiming to establish an economic and social structure that would work without relying on atomic power.” However, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is showing signs it will approve the restart and new construction of nuclear power plants, just as if all the protests calling for abandoning nuclear power were being placed out of sight.

Why are politicians not responding to the demonstrations? One answer could be that if the government reacts on each and every occasion to the protests, it would be unable to carry out state affairs. But one must not miss the fact that there remains in Japan a public feeling that the impact of protests itself cannot be acknowledged. According to the Asahi Shimbun survey in 2011, 63 percent of respondents said they feel uncomfortable with demonstrations, almost double that of the 33 percent who said they do not feel so. This shows that there are many Japanese people who resist protesting.

Why is there such a resistance? This is believed to have originated from the historical characteristics of Japan’s postwar social movements. That history goes back to the peace movements and campaigns against atomic and hydrogen bombs in the 1950s. In the 1960s, there were movements against the Japan-U.S. security treaty, as well as those against the Vietnam War and the construction of Narita airport. Campaigns of such nature then gradually died down but violent movements by extremists in the latter half of the 1970s once again flared up. In the 1980s, while there were social movements on environmental protection, these lacked the enthusiasm there once was.

According to sociologist Eiji Oguma, social movements in postwar Japan have three distinct features. First, they are extremely peace oriented; secondly, they have been heavily influenced by Marxism; and thirdly, they carry strong moralism, meaning they regard themselves as elites and therefore must give up their private lives to serve poor laborers.

Given this combination of features, although social movements might have gain popularity and surged temporarily, people gradually distanced themselves from them. Those who remained then competed to recruit members or expand their influence and became radicals, only to find the general public keeping an even further distance from them. Behind the awkwardness that Japanese people feel about demonstrations is this kind of memory of social movements in postwar Japan.

Politicians must have thought that the demonstrations calling for the abandonment of nuclear power after the nuclear plant accident in Fukushima were just the same as past social movements. When I asked a lawmaker who was invited to a workshop held by The Genron NPO in 2012 why he did not meet with protesters who gathered in front of government offices, I was struck by his answer that “many professional activists are taking part in the demonstrations.”

In spite of the ongoing protests in front of the prime minister’s office demanding that Japan abandon nuclear power, the LDP government has announced its plan to restart idled nuclear power plants. It must have concluded that these demonstrations too are “acts by professional activists. As in the past, eventually people will distance themselves from this and things will settle down.”

However, the anti-nuclear power protests in 2011 appeared to be different from movements inheriting the traditions of moralism or Marxism. As discussed earlier, even many people who had not been involved in demonstrations took part this time. There are various possible reasons: for example, that they have developed an awareness of being a concerned party in the nuclear power problem and decided to take action after seeing the administration’s sloppy handling of the nuclear power issue and feeling they could not just leave things in the government’s hands.

Meanwhile, the political world must have thought the administration would not be affected even if this kind of trend in civil society is disregarded. The reason is that not only did the LDP win a landslide victory in the last lower house election but the voter turnout fell substantially. Taking that into consideration, it is possible that it has come to the conclusion that the demonstrations did not embody the will of the electorate and that there was no impact on the election and subsequent government.

4. Conclusion – Civil Society and Politics at Crossroads

Lastly, let us consider the questions posted at the very beginning.

“Can Japanese civil society be said to be undergoing changes? If it is changing, are politicians aware of such changes or not? And if politicians are indeed aware of them, why is the government so slow to respond?”

In the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, there were indeed citizens and NPOs that worked to support the restoration and reconstruction of the disaster-hit areas. Changes have arisen among citizens. Yet they can hardly be considered changes in civil society as a whole. Rather, despite such a catastrophe, no changes were seen in indicators for altruistic behavior or acts to assist others, and downward trends were even observed in several of the indicators. The fall in voter turnout was particularly striking. Many Japanese people are aware that the nation faces a mountain of social issues such as post-quake reconstruction and the nuclear power problem. Yet the desire to exercise their rights as a voter and push the political world to resolve the issues is weak among ordinary people.

On the other hand, politicians also lack perspective with regard to citizens. In particular, this was reflected clearly in the election pledges in 2012. However, it is hard to imagine that politicians and others in the administration are unaware of changes among the people. It is unlikely that the massive amount of media reports on private sector aid for the disaster areas and demonstrations calling for an end to nuclear power have failed to draw the attention of politicians who are naturally sensitive to social trends. But for them to be slow to respond to the currents of civil society was probably due to the judgment that election results and the regime would not be affected.

Given the above, by no means can an optimistic conclusion be reached. Rather, there is cause for concern. If the trend in which citizens themselves abandon their right to vote and politicians fail to turn their attention to putting the people first becomes even stronger, the result would be the weakening of society’s oversight of the government through elections and thus lead to further deterioration in the quality of politics. The people must become aware that a political situation in which they feel they cannot trust is, in fact, a mirror reflecting the condition of the electorate itself.

To that end, it is necessary to reduce the distance between civil society and politics in a sound manner. In addition to improvements to be made on the politics side, there are many other challenges that must also be overcome, including inherent sentiment and customs regarding politics that lie within us.

The very first step will be to nurture the buds of change that have sprouted among citizens as a result of the Great East Japan Earthquake and to translate that into the fostering among more people of an awareness of being a party concerned.

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Translation of an article written exclusively for Discuss Japan – Japan Foreign Policy Forum (February 2013).

Yayoi Tanaka, president of Japan NPO Research Association and associate professor of the National Institution for Academic Degrees and University Evaluation. She completed her master’s degree at Keio University’s Graduate School of Media and Governance and received her Ph.D. in International Public Policy at Osaka University. She had served as a senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, an advisor at the Japan Bank for International Cooperation’s development assistance operations evaluation office, and a visiting associate professor at the University of Tokyo’s School of Engineering before assuming her current posts.

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