(JAPAN POLITICS CHANGED?) Change in Civil Society and Change in Politics | Discuss Japan-Japan Foreign Policy Forum
Discuss Japan > Back Number > Nos.13-15 > (JAPAN POLITICS CHANGED?) Change in Civil Society and Change in Politics
Society, KUDO_Yasushi, Nos.13-15  Mar. 6, 2013

(JAPAN POLITICS CHANGED?) Change in Civil Society and Change in Politics

Photo : Katayama Nobuhiko Suginami Tamotsu Yamaoka YoshinoriSince the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, many people in Japan have given donations and taken part in volunteer activities in the disaster-hit areas, and protests calling for an end to nuclear power are being held outside the prime minister’s office every week. Japanese politics found itself back in the hands of a Liberal Democratic Party administration, but was this change of government driven by changes among citizens and voters? World Vision Japan national director Nobuhiko Katayama, who is well-versed in NPO and NGO activities in Japan and overseas, Tamotsu Sugenami of the Takagi Fund for Citizen Science, a grassroots fund that supports citizen movements opposing nuclear power, and Japan NPO Center adviser Yoshinori Yamaoka, who helps support Japan’s NPO sector, discussed the relationship between changes in Japan’s civil society and changes in the nation’s politics.

Moderator: Yasushi Kudo, representative of The Genron NPO (editor-in-chief, chairman of the editorial board of Discuss Japan-Japan Foreign Policy Forum).

Participants: Nobuhiko Katayama, managing director and national director of World Vision Japan Katayama joined Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Co. (formerly Taisho Marine and Fire Insurance Co.) after graduating from university and later moved on to World Vision Japan, a specified nonprofit corporation, in 1992. He studied social development and NGO management at the University of Manchester’s Institute for Development Policy and Management in Britain in 1999. In addition to his current posts at World Vision Japan, he also serves as director of the People’s Conference Aimed at Encouraging Excellent NPOs.

Tamotsu Sugenami, secretary general of The Takagi Fund for Citizen Science After graduating from university, Sugenami worked for Mitsubishi Bank and WWF Japan, before taking up his current post in 2002. He is also involved in running various nonprofit organizations and citizens’ groups, such as being a member of steering committees of the Group of Concerned Scientists and Engineers Calling for the Closure of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, the Ariake Sea Network of Fishermen and Citizens, Ramsar Network Japan, and People’s Conference Aimed at Encouraging Excellent NPOs. Sugenami also offers consulting services on NPO operations and corporate social responsibility.

Yoshinori Yamaoka, adviser of the Japan NPO Center After working at Urban Planning and Design Institute Co., as a Toyota Foundation program officer and as a freelance consultant, Yamaoka established the Japan NPO Center in November 1996 and became its managing director and secretary general. He contributed to the materialization of the system to incorporate NPOs and has served concurrently as a professor at Hosei University since 2001. He took up the current post in June 2001. Yamaoka is now a professor emeritus at Hosei University.

External Support and New NPOs in Disaster-hit Areas

Kudo: With the disaster of March 11, 2011, as a turning point, many people have participated in volunteer activities or made donations. Is this trend in which many citizens participate in tackling social issues a sign that new changes are underway in Japan’s civil society?

Katayama: This is just an estimate, but in the 20 months since the earthquake, over 2 million people have participated in volunteer activities related to the Great East Japan Earthquake. This is almost double that of the number in the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and undoubtedly the volunteers have made a significant contribution in dealing with the catastrophe. I am involved in supporting efforts to nurture and strengthen local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the three most devastated prefectures and new nonprofit organizations (NPOs) are being launched. In Fukushima, many NPOs have been formed in response to the nuclear power plant accident and I believe the fact that society is taking these kinds of actions deserves recognition. However, these NPOs are up and running right now as there is still relief funding, but I think they will gradually become more financially strapped as time goes by. We must help nurture these new NPOs so that they firmly establish their base in the local communities and be able to act together with ordinary people in society. To that end, I believe we are at a critical moment right now.

Kudo: In the disaster-stricken areas, communities have been completely destroyed. In this situation, who bears the leading role in rebuilding a new community from the ground up? Would that be the volunteers (from outside) who move in to live there and work on their missions, or local residents and nonprofit movements founded spontaneously?

Katayama: People from the outside are the ones providing the impetus. Now, as the outsiders are beginning to retreat, there are also quite a number of disaster survivors who have stood up to take action as they realize that, after all, they have to do this themselves. From what I know, over half are local NPOs.

Anti-nuclear Power Demonstrations outside PM’s Office a New Phenomenon

Kudo: Mr. Sugenami, you have been supporting movements against nuclear power, so may I ask if the anti-nuclear demonstrations outside the Japanese prime minister’s office are truly something that began at the citizens’ own accord?

Sugenami: I have been involved in movements related to nuclear power prior to the March 11 disaster, but I think the activities outside the prime minister’s office are of unprecedented scale. I myself attended a rally at a time when there were about 300 participants to see how things were and clearly this momentum was something different from the sort of social movements we have seen so far. As many as 200,000 people gathered in July last year, according to figures released by the organizers, and this was a truly significant number. When a rally was held in Yoyogi Park in September, 170,000 attended and even now almost 3,000 people gather in front of the prime minister’s office every Friday. What is different from demonstrations in the past is that each and every participant gathers information by themselves and decides to express their will by joining many others to make their voices heard. This differs markedly from the kind of institutionalized protests organized by labor unions and pacifist organizations up to now. People joining the demonstrations are from all walks of life, but one of the distinctive features is that many are in their 20s or 30s who either come by themselves after work or in small groups with acquaintances. I believe that they come to stand face to face with police officers guarding the prime minister’s office and the parliament as they ponder the issues that this is what authority is and that they themselves must take action and express their will. I consider this a significant change. Although the number of participants has fallen compared to what it used to be, the fact that the demonstrations are still being held even after almost a year is in itself a major event among mass movements up till now. I have no doubt therein lies a sign of change. Moreover, citizens are setting up stations nationwide to measure radioactivity and financial resources are beginning to flow into such kinds of activities. These three trends are what I see taking place around me.

Demonstrators Brought Together by Twitter

Kudo: Who are the organizers behind these rallies and what is the purpose of the demonstrations?

Sugenami: Among the core members of the demonstrations are some who are already engaged in the nuclear power agenda. However, they are different from those who have been protesting against nuclear power in Fukui, Fukushima, Niigata and Aomori where the nuclear power-related facilities are located. These are people who have taken part in such movements in Tokyo and its vicinity. And then there are those who, faced with the realities of the damage caused by the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant triggered by the earthquake, have strong feelings about both the tragedy of the nuclear accident itself and the government’s handling of the situation. Connecting with each other through Twitter and other communication channels, they swung into action. The first demonstration in Fukushima Prefecture was held in May 2011 in Iwaki, and then as momentum built up participants felt the need to get the message across to the prime minister’s office that they are against restarting the nation’s idled nuclear plants. It was a congregation of the simple assertion that right now, putting nuclear power plants back into service would spell trouble and danger. So from the 300 people at the start, the numbers increased as the weeks passed. I believe that it is these people connected through social networking services like Twitter and Facebook who are the force behind the demonstrations.

Paid Staff Members as Backbone of Support for Volunteer Activities

Yamaoka: I have long been involved in supporting NPOs and other organizations. In the case of this earthquake, it is NGOs that have built up their strength from over a decade of experience in overseas relief operations and well-established NPOs from across Japan that first arrived in the devastated areas and conducted various aid activities. Furthermore, some 300 incorporated NPOs have been founded locally and are now supporting quake survivors’ daily lives through a broad range of unique activities. However, while new groups may be energetic, they often have weak organizational underpinnings. So there is the issue of how to strengthen them. Organizations cannot operate with volunteers alone. As in the case of international cooperation organizations, most of the first ones to arrive in disaster zones are paid staff members. It is the presence of these paid staff members that enables the start of all kinds of work to coordinate among volunteers. In that sense, I believe recognition of the roles played by paid staff members is important. Back in the Hanshin-Awaji earthquake in 1995, the spotlight was only on volunteers. But this time, I think awareness has arisen significantly that not only so-called volunteers but organizations supporting and running the volunteer activities as well as the paid staff members working for such organizations must all be on a solid footing.

Gap among Different Regions in Public Awareness on Relief Support

Kudo: What I am worried about is civic awareness. While I think those citizens who went to the disaster-hit areas to participate in volunteer activities are impressive, is it not true that, frankly speaking, far-reaching movements with regard to the quake disaster and the nuclear power issue have not gained momentum among the general public? For example, regarding the acceptance of debris from the disaster-hit areas by other municipalities across Japan, all sorts of opposition has arisen, although not in all regions concerned.

Katayama: Relief support for the disaster zones came overwhelmingly from the Kanto and Tohoku regions. There was also some from Hokkaido and the Chubu area, but from the Kinki region westward the figures drop sharply. There seem to be differing degrees (of public awareness and interest in participating in aid activities.)

Kudo: But companies too have dispatched many volunteers.

Yamaoka: Corporations provided volunteers and donations. After the Hanshin-Awaji earthquake, donations came in the form of “gienkin,” which was sympathy money directed to the quake survivors as individuals. The so-called “shienkin” that is used to support NPO activities hardly figured at that time. This time, there were of course the “gienkin” donations, but aside from that a substantial amount of “shienkin” donations was received and it covered things like NPO expenses and costs to operate “buses for volunteers” to transport them to the disaster areas. This kind of “shienkin” played a very significant role and it is said that in terms of the total amount of such donations related to the quake, about 600 billion yen was involved. What was particularly unique this time was the system of buses for the volunteers. Although something similar but on a smaller scale was operated in the aftermath of the Chuetsu earthquake in Niigata in 2004, in the case of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, everyone went to the devastated areas by train on day trips. Meanwhile, this time, one must stay for at least a few days (due to the distance and location) and it would have been difficult for individuals to travel to the areas by themselves. So, everybody went together on the buses for volunteers. I believe people sent by corporations made very effective use of these buses which made it much easier for them to get there.

Kudo: However, in evaluating the government’s reconstruction efforts, even the Reconstruction Agency is slow in handling matters as it is merely coordinating among turf-conscious ministries. As a result, the process of disposing of debris is also being delayed more and more. In the face of this, the local authorities are having a hard time because the government is not doing its job. In such a case, if the mechanism for reconstruction is not working properly, one would think it is only natural for citizens to speak up and debate these issues. Yet that has not happened.

Yamaoka: That is because even for the local reconstruction plans, residents have different opinions to begin with. In this case, as the damage done by the tsunami was all too extensive, a consensus cannot be reached among residents on such issues as whether to relocate the community to higher ground or to make use of embankments instead. Town-planning organizations I know of are also working with local town-planning groups, but in all cases they come to a deadlock in the end as none of the communities could reach a consensus and say “Alright, let’s go with this proposal.”

Civic Participation in Reconstruction after Disasters

Kudo: Perhaps what is necessary is to rebuild the way a community should be. The leading role should be given to the residents themselves; then there are the not-for-profit organizations, and popular awareness. It is not very clear how all that is playing out. In the case of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, the citizens took part in the reconstruction.

Yamaoka: In the case of Hanshin-Awaji, it was a region with many residents’ groups and citizens’ groups, or better to say community planning organizations, to begin with. Yet it was the administrative offices that held the power and authority. The bureaucracy expeditiously compiled the plan for re-zoning the land for reconstruction and, despite strong opposition from citizens’ groups, rather high-handedly made the decisions and proceeded with rebuilding the communities. Meanwhile, in the case this time, with the exception of Sendai, the affected areas are not large cities. Besides, many of the local governments have lost their ability to function as a result of the tsunami. So the situation is completely different. At the same time, many of the disaster-hit areas are located along the Sanriku coastline and are depopulated areas with hardly any NPOs. These are very closely-knit communities and so the approach to reconstruction is totally different, I believe.

Japan’s NPOs Not Used to Getting Involved in Politics

Kudo: I think the issue with nuclear power plants has become an important opportunity for many people to realize how something that has been taken for granted until now is in fact sitting on such a fragile and dangerous structure. I believe this kind of awakening could then develop into the democratic issue of political participation by voters as sovereign members of society. Is this sort of critical thinking spreading among the public? Particularly in last year’s general election, many political parties took up positions against nuclear power, but in the end it did not become a point at issue and the Liberal Democratic Party, which advocates restarting the nuclear power plants while giving consideration to their safety, won a landslide victory. If there is indeed a change in civil society, how was that reflected in political trends? Or if the two were not linked, what were the problems behind it?

Katayama: In terms of the relationship between NPOs and politics, I believe the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was relatively close to NPOs. It has called for working together with the NPOs on the “new public” policy and to create a more open society. That is why we too had high hopes of the DPJ. Yet when it actually assumed the reins of government, things turned out to be different. One after another, things did not work out properly. Then there was the earthquake disaster. Right there, the view changed and the DPJ was seen to be no good after all. However, when it comes to whether the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is outstandingly impressive, I guess the feeling was more like, well, it is at least better than the DPJ. I do not think people turned to support the LDP because the party reflected their opinions or that the LDP is right in its policies. In that sense, I believe we can say that Japanese NPOs are still rather inexperienced in making political maneuvers or engaging with political parties and the government to realize the policies they advocate or the things they want to get done.

Japan’s NPOs Get Along with Authorities

Kudo: After all, from the politicians’ point of view, the citizen sector does not generate that many votes and does not become the basis of support for them. So I guess politicians felt the limitations of the power of civil society. Besides, do NPOs in Japan have the power to influence politics?

Yamaoka: Not at all. NPO representatives running in various local elections so far have all been defeated. The only one in which an NPO representative won is perhaps the election for Sapporo mayor. It is common sense to us that NPOs do not garner votes. If anything, although the DPJ had in place policies that value the role of NPOs, it did not mean that people in NPOs automatically shifted to support the DPJ because of that. In the world of NPOs, each person has his own stance when it comes to elections.

Kudo: As often described in the field of development assistance, the level of aid steps up from relief operations to helping self-reliance, and then in the final stage comes support for institutional design and policy recommendations toward self-sustainability. Through that process, the ideal development is for the citizenry participating in it to also work together and mature, as well as to engage with politics. Why does it seem so difficult for such a cycle to happen in Japan? Is it that Japanese NPOs do not associate themselves with politics?

Yamaoka: Japanese NGOs and NPOs do not associate with politics and instead deal with administrative authorities. They liaise with the administrative offices and that is the end of the story. That is why they have never really come up with the idea of influencing politics in order to press the administration into action.

Katayama: Since the issues handled by each NPO are different, each of them goes to the respective government offices to resolve these matters one by one. I think there is a strong view among NPOs and NGOs in Japan that, rather than trying to influence politics or to approach political parties, they would rather stay politically neutral.

Why Nuclear Power Did Not Become a Point at Issue

Kudo: The controversy over the issue of nuclear power had the potential to prompt a sweeping review of the circumstances we have been placed in up to now. This could easily have come in the form of “politics versus civil society” but in the last election this kind of significant development did not emerge. Why was that so?

Sugenami: In that election, there was a substantial amount of votes cast in criticism of the DPJ government, and those I believe went to the LDP and the Japan Restoration Party. It is still unclear why the nuclear problem did not become an issue. From what has been discussed so far today, I think there was also a need for the NPOs too to make an effort to change. They should have compiled information on policymaking and arranged better planning, and should have been more proactive in disseminating information on various topics. Those aspects I think had been rather weak. In order to make their voices better heard, I think there are many points they should have improved on, such as fundraising and expanding their organizations. Moreover, I do not think the mechanism of party politics in Japan is in itself completely mature yet. In terms of policymaking competence, even if it exists in the political parties as a whole, they have traditionally been very much dependent on administrative organization. In order for that too to change, there are many things that the citizen sector must contemplate. However, I think civil society does not have such capacity yet.

Yamaoka: In last year’s election, votes actually went to parties that were most ambiguous on the issue of nuclear power. Political parties that made the nuclear problem the main point at issue won very few votes. In other words, civil society did not focus on a certain party in relation to the spread of anti-nuclear movements and views. The problem of nuclear power did not become an issue, or perhaps one can say, no one really cared.

Sugenami: I think the electoral system was also part of the problem. That is the issue of the large number of wasted votes, a basic characteristic of the single-seat constituency electoral system. We must create a mechanism that can easily reflect the will of the people as much as possible or devise some means to that end. If the system is left as it is, whenever policy fails under the two major parties, a change of government may take place. That in itself may be a good thing, but given the wide range of issues at hand it also means trusting the party of choice with all its other policies too. So if one is against nuclear power but approves of the party’s other policies, one would be at a loss as to how to pick a party to vote for. That is how the nuclear issue failed to become an issue in the end.

Citizen Sector and Democracy

Kudo: However, nothing will happen unless citizens themselves raise their voices to initiate such discussions as changing the electoral system. Yet such opinions have not arisen from the general public.

Yamaoka: There are many different issues that the public are confronted with, like what to do with welfare and how to resolve the issue of bullying at schools. But society does not have that much influence over such individual policies. I hope that efforts will be made to nurture more full-fledged and reliable NPOs that are capable of supplying information and making policy recommendations. However, even if that is achieved, it is not as if groups dealing with welfare problems and groups supporting the poor would immediately join hands and stand up to call for the abolition of nuclear power. Even among groups that share the same mission in providing assistance to the poor, there are people with various views and opinions with regard to nuclear power.

Sugenami: The issue of the electoral system is an essential part of democracy. There are indeed groups that have been working on issues such as disclosure of information. On the electoral system, there are lawyers pursuing the problem of disparity in vote-weight, and groups such as the Japan Federation of Bar Associations have tabled proposals on what to do with the single-seat constituency system. However, this is something that citizens should attach considerable importance to if they really want to build a democratic society.

Challenge Ahead – How Civil Society Can Face Up to Politicians

Kudo: How about you, Mr. Katayama? How do you think the relationship between citizens and politics should be built from the viewpoint of fostering a stronger society?

Katayama: How civil society thinks of its relationship with politics will be the new task ahead. NPOs have rarely engaged with the legislature due both to cultural and institutional factors. For civil society in Japan, what kinds of political issues it should think about is also a new challenge. That said, I do not think this means all NPOs must get involved in all kinds of political activities. With regard to the appropriate distance to be kept, civil society in Japan has come this far having maintained a substantial distance from politics. In a certain sense, I believe this is good judgment on the part of NPOs. Politicians should take responsibility in politics, while we will work on our own and do our part in handling issues in local communities. The task from now on will be what to do when NPOs run up against Japan’s institutional problems and have to confront or cooperate with politicians.

Yamaoka: In many ways, I think Japan’s civil society is at a transition period right now. In political terms, I feel that it will still take a bit more time and accumulation of experience for society to mature to that stage. The “citizens” and “voters” discussed here are, I believe, not the same. For example, I have been working at the Japan NPO Center all this time. At the NPO Center, all staff members and directors have the same views with regard to the point that we must consolidate the mechanism for NPOs in Japan and develop it further. But when it comes to whom or which party to vote for in an election, I believe it differs even within the board of directors. One director may vote for the DPJ, another may go for the LDP, and yet another may support the Japan Restoration Party. In that sense, their behavior as a voter and behavior in an NPO as a citizen do not match. It is not a one-to-one scenario. Therefore, as we seek to develop our political senses as a member of the citizens’ sector, an NPO staff member or a volunteer, I believe the question is how to nurture ourselves at the same time as a voter.

Japan’s NPOs Not Yet Capable of Making Policy Recommendations

Katayama: That would be, for example, for each and every citizen to exercise his political responsibility as a voter and not to easily give politicians a blank check. For every person to decide on their voting behavior after having fully understood the political issues at hand is the way citizens should be and in this sense “citizens” equals “voters.” However, in civil society, when it comes to groups engaged in social issues, take for example groups tackling problems with the elderly, must they all make political statements? I doubt it. If they come to realize that issues concerning the elderly are a major political task faced by Japan as a whole and that, since it cannot be resolved by administrative agencies alone, they must take the issues to the legislature for discussion, then perhaps these groups will move to take political action. Yet, until now, NPOs have only been dealing with their immediate concerns and have limited experience in going further from there to the point of making policy recommendations. I feel that we are still at a different stage from that of enhancing political consciousness among each and every citizen, and of having NPOs engage politically as institutions.

Kudo: But no matter what the issues are, they would not be resolved if policies are not implemented. Are you saying that we are at a stage where problem-solving is not yet part of the equation?

Katayama: I believe the NPOs are partly responsible. For example, the problems of an aging society are an extremely serious issue in Japan and yet NPOs do not think about its solution in terms of social security policy. That is the kind of task faced by the NPO side.

Kudo: I tend to believe that there are many things they can do if they tried, such as sending open letters to the various political parties or organizing workshops for voters to learn about the issues.

Katayama: That is where we NPOs are inexperienced and immature, and what we need to work on.

Role of NPOs and NGOs in Creating Platforms for Discussion

Yamaoka: As mentioned earlier, I believe NPOs play an important role in accumulating various data, making proposals or raising awareness of various issues, and creating channels for discussions. However, NPOs in Japan have little competence in accumulating data and making policy proposals, and given their weak research capacities and funding they do not have many assets in investigative research. Furthermore, there is a lack of effort in Japan to establish forums or other channels for open debates and discussions by the public. Instead of just protesting against nuclear power, I believe it is also the NPOs’ role to set up platforms where all sorts of opinions can be discussed squarely, including what it truly means to have nuclear power. We have not adequately fulfilled that responsibility so far.

Katayama: Debates in which organizers try to lead participants to their way of thinking or position and exchanges that become too technical are not places of discussion where the average citizen can take part, and these tend to end up being rather narrowly-focused discussions. We must ensure an atmosphere in which ordinary people can join in the discussions naturally. As there is still a stereotypical image among the public that people at NPOs are rather unique and weird, we must make an effort to change that also.

Sugenami: There are of course things that NPOs and those in the so-called citizen sector must work harder on, but I think that after all, political parties and organizations must change even more. In particular, politics is way too disengaged from citizens. Citizens too must be more aware of the fact that the distance between the two is too wide. To put it the other way around, while the LDP has traditionally been linked to industry groups such as agricultural cooperatives, the DPJ too has ties with business associations and labor unions. That is why much of the DPJ in substance did not differ much from the LDP. Given this kind of distance from politics, I think this is the time for citizens too to think about how they should express their political will and how to be involved in political decision-making.

Kudo: In last year’s election, while the LDP won a crushing victory, voter turnout was invariably low. In that sense, the LDP’s landslide victory did not come amid heightened interest among many voters. In other words, an overwhelming number of people did not cast their votes. If voter turnout had gone up as voters come to realize that it is about time for them too to seriously think about the issues, then perhaps one can say that change has begun in politics. But that was not the case. After the quake, an overwhelming majority of Japanese people were in a position to oppose nuclear power, and yet this was not reflected in the citizens’ actual political behavior.

Yamaoka: In terms of political involvement, NPOs that operate on the national level do have interest in national politics, but most local NPOs focus their attention on local governance, which is of a totally different nature from national politics. In particular, when it comes to policies in local regions, there is practically no such thing as legislation initiated by lawmakers to begin with. In national politics, there are sometimes bills sponsored by parliamentarians like the NPO Law and the Basic Act on Suicide Prevention, and there are even some that are sort of initiated by citizens. Meanwhile, there is scarcely any case of local assemblies passing such new laws. Therefore, there is no such practice among local residents or local civic organizations to attempt to make use of assembly members to realize new policies.

Another Role for NPOs: Creating New Citizen Culture

Kudo: You all have been involved in various capacities in aid for the disaster-hit areas and on the nuclear issue since the earthquake. What is your definition of “citizen”?

Katayama: I think the discussion we are having today is on how to view “citizens” from the perspective of political relations. From our point of view as an NGO engaged in international cooperation, the number of volunteers or citizens involved in international activities has not increased that much over the past decade. However, my definition of “citizen” is that people who can make various kinds of decisions as an individual separate from the main grouping one belongs to can be considered “citizens.” For example, many supporters of World Vision Japan are ordinary people. Housewives, working wives, the average male company employees, they all come to join our international cooperation operations. I do feel strongly that a sense of social consciousness is beginning to grow among ordinary people. However, I feel we are still far from seeing such individuals express their own political will or take part in social or political movements. Getting involved as a volunteer is alright, but I do not think the individuals’ consciousness has developed to such a point as to attempt to change their way of engagement with politics or the social mechanism, or to venture into taking a leading role in such social reform. That said, such a great number of people show up for the rallies against nuclear power every Friday. Seeing these ordinary citizens gathering and that even people on their way home from work are among those joining, I do feel the potential of citizenry. Traditionally in Japanese culture, political activities come with the image of being unpleasant or biased. I think it is the responsibility of NPOs and NGOs to figure out how to create a culture in which these kinds of political activity are just natural and normal for citizens to be engaged in.

Increasing Possibility of Civil Society Becoming Politicized

Yamaoka: I too think that “citizens” are those who can take some sort of action or speak after analyzing society’s circumstances from a position that is not conformed by one’s affiliation. The number of people who sometimes become “citizen-like” may be on the rise, but I do not think they can be considered as “citizens” in a permanent manner. There are still very few people who have established a firm and sound position as a “citizen.” In that regard, we can say that Japan’s civil society is still only at its rudimentary stage. That is something to work on from now on.

Sugenami: What I am concerned about are the changes in social structure. As the number of people in temporary employment continues to grow, there are more and more people in insecure positions and with little influence in society in general. Be it in the industrial sectors or in local communities, reflections of such disparity are spreading in civil society.

Kudo: That is to say that it is possible that civil society may become politicized? When such issues as poverty and social gaps turn into discontent, surely this will develop into a political issue.

Sugenami: That in itself is, in a certain sense, the healthy side of it and I think it would actually be good to go further in that direction. But the process of translating this into social statements and actions has made even less progress than expected. While there is the potential, we are not yet there at the stage where it could trigger change in politics.

NPOs Must Grow for Japan’s Social Reform

Kudo: Indeed, there are growing numbers of people who are aware of their role as citizens and have an interest in social issues. However, we are still far from the point where these people can bring about significant political changes. Japan has returned to LDP politics, but this was not due to an awakening among voters and citizens.

Katayama: I agree. Japan is really behind others in this regard. In the case of NPOs in Japan, even though they make desperate efforts to tackle the tasks right in front of them, they do not think far enough to consider the social structural problems at the root of the issues. NPOs must change themselves with that kind of thinking in mind and those transformed NPOs should present their proposed solutions to the public in a comprehensible manner. Unless they provide the platforms for discussions and disseminate information, this country will not change. Since I work in the field of international cooperation, I can also see the situation from an outsider’s point of view and this time I feel very strongly that for the sake of social reform in Japan, Japanese NPOs must work harder.

Kudo: Thank you.


Translated from roundtable talks on “Change in Civil Society and Change in Politics” (The Genron NPO, February 2013).