The objective of my research is to document major “change” or “transitions” occurring in Japan and East Asia today. I address cultural, social, and political changes, using civil society as an analytical lens. I explore the ways in which civil society groups challenge these changes.

Civil society sustains modern democratic participation, and it is one of the most dynamically expanding sectors on the globe. Each culture molds its own version of civil society, and in doing so reflects its most important values, such as individual liberty, public solidarity, pluralism, and nonviolence. However, most of the work in this field is premised on normative theoretical formulations originating in Western intellectual thought. Meanwhile, my research fills a particular ethnocentric gap, by bringing Japanese civil society’s experiences squarely into the global discourse on civil society. As a sociocultural anthropologist, I explore the cultural and historical particularities of the Japanese meaning of ‘civil society’ or shimin shakai, and examine how this concept has been interpreted and practiced at the grass-roots level.

I am the author of two solo-authored books—the award-winning The Failure of Civil Society? The Third Sector and the State in Contemporary Japan (SUNY 2009), and Lifelong Learning in Neoliberal Japan: Risk, Community, and Knowledge (SUNY 2015). These books illuminate the Japanese state’s political project, which aims to generate a particular set of relationships between the state and the individual in a strategic manner under the name of civil society. More specifically, these books have enhanced anthropological understanding of neoliberalism by highlighting the reorganization of the Japanese public space through the institutionalization of non-profit organizations (NPOs) under the 1998 NPO Law, and the creation of new ‘disciplinary’ knowledge generated by the state’s policy of promoting lifelong learning.

Also, recently I have edited the Routledge Handbook of Civil Society in Asia (Routledge, 2017). This work has expanded my research scope on civil society. Accounts on civil society in Asia lag behind many studies on economic and political interconnections in Asia. There are deepening ties and interdependencies within and between the regions of Asia, due to globalization and the growth of regional organizations. A cross-discipline approach works well to analyze civil society and to explain it in the context of different cultures and histories. Doing so yields a more holistic, multidisciplinary understanding of Asian civil society. I showcase this in this edited volume, which features 21 country/region reviews and 14 thematic issues. I believe the Handbook provides a good start for all of us to push the boundaries of Asian civil society scholarship forward.


Ongoing Projects:

1. Nuclear Culture: Lessons for post Fukushima Japan 

This book project documents efforts for securing human security both at policy and grassroots levels by exploring new possibilities for civil society’s involvements in Japan’s nuclear policymaking in the post-Fukushima era. After the catastrophic earthquake and radiation leak from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011, one of the major issues Japanese society faces is how to revise its nuclear policy. During the post-World War II economic development phase, Japan relied on nuclear power to fulfill its energy demand. Among Japanese civil society nowadays there is a strong initiative toward achieving renewability and sustainability of energy, and for greater local control over energy production, as well as more extensive public participation. Furthermore, it has been linked to transnational anti-nuclear activism, as my fieldwork extends from Fukushima to Bataan in the Philippines and Sinop in Turkey. Nuclear policy directly relates to national security, as plutonium, a byproduct of the nuclear fuel cycle, is used to make nuclear weapons. Having Hiroshima and Nagasaki experiences, my ethnography documents Fukushima as another site for reflection on the nuclear in the everyday life in Japan.


2. Embedding the Apology in the Media: How Civil Society Contributes to Reconciliation
Toyota Foundation Joint Research Grant (D16-R-0167) 2017-2019, with Claudia Astarita, Hiroko Aihara, and Louis Dai (Walking Fish Productions, Melbourne)

Documentary Film: Civil Society and War Reconciliation: Rethinking History to Embrace Memory – Voices from Postwar Japan, Germany, and Italy. Directed by Claudia Astarita, Akihiro Ogawa, and Hiroko Aihara with Louis Dai (2019) – click here

Lasting reconciliation with former enemies after a war is a difficult and often distressful process. Peace is not a top-down practice and the entire civil society must be involved to make it successful. Official apologies have often been perceived as a symbolic yet effective tool to promote peace and reconciliation, and international regimes are often quoted as the optimal structure to consolidate stability. This documentary untangles the connections between formal apology, regime building and peace in a post-war context, illustrating the critical role of media and civil society in influencing collective memory and fostering reconciliation. The case studies of Japan, Germany and Italy provide empirical evidence on how media critically shaped the narration of post-Second World War events and how this interpretation is instrumentally linked to the rhetoric on peace and stability. Interviews and archival research will be used to elaborate on new cognitive frameworks and paradigms to transform media, and in particular new media, into powerful tools to spread new values and perspectives, embedding civil society in a virtuous reconciliation process.


3. Peace and Security in the Asia Pacific

I have a long-term research project on peace and security in the Asia Pacific. I have been conducting research and publishing on the on-going politics of Japan’s constitutional revision, and targeting Article 9, the article on war renunciation and pacifism. Japanese politics is stepping into a new arena: It is the first time Prime Minister Abe is believed to have mentioned the specific timing for a potential national referendum, an inevitable step toward revising the Japanese constitution. To hold a national referendum on revising the constitution, two-thirds of the members in both chambers of the Diet must vote in favor of it. For the amendment itself to take place, more than 50 percent of the public must vote for it in another poll.

My research is grounded in public interest anthropology. Since my graduate days at Cornell, I have been committed to action-oriented social research through the democratization of knowledge in both research and practice. I aim to produce ethnographies on contemporary Japan and East Asia. I hope, however, that my work transcends these strictly defined goals. My long-standing interest in civil society has been motivated by academic curiosity, as well as by my aspirations as a citizen, to examine the grassroots of, and possibilities for, social reform in contemporary societies. I have engaged eagerly in finding ways to empower ordinary people at my field sites, by capturing grass-roots’ voices, and going beyond national borders in the course of my collaborative ethnographies. I sincerely hope that my research helps ordinary people democratize their arguments as they pertain to the Japanese constitution, and leads Japanese people to view the revision challenge in terms of their own constitution, rather than in term of the one drafted by the United States seventy years ago.

Since 2005, from the time that I was a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard, I have been conducting ethnographic fieldwork on a new social movement against the constitutional revision led by the Article 9 Association. It is a major peace movement in contemporary Japan, and Nobel laureate and author Kenzaburo Oe leads the association. I documented the concept of peace as a dynamic, contested representation of Japanese identity through various distinct narratives. The finding was published in Asian Journal of Social Science in December 2018, and Peace & Change: A Journal of Peace Research in July 2011 (also published as a reprint in Critical Readings on Contemporary Japanese Politics, Jeff Kingston, ed. Brill, 2012). Further, a research note sketching ordinary people’s lives near the US military base in Okinawa was published in Global Change, Peace &Security (October 2010). While publishing for both academic and popular audiences, my goal is to produce a book manuscript that approaches the Japanese constitutional revision from an anthropological perspective. It is hoped that this book will bring a new account in a direct manner to the recent ‘activist-turn’ in social movement research, since my account provides a more robust analysis of real-life situations, based on interviews with activists, and my own personal experiences.



Copyright © 2008−2019 Akihiro Ogawa