I have developed a research program on civil society. The key objective of my research is to document major “change” or “transitions.” 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. If we understand how civil society functions in our society, we will also understand whether citizens have access to politics and to shape governance. This notion was the catalyst to start focusing on civil society two decades ago as a doctoral student.

As a social anthropologist by training, I argue that civil society needs to be re-conceptualized from its Eurocentric origins, as the idea often refers to a particular set of relationships between the state and individuals in the West. 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 such a particular ethnocentric gap, by bringing Japanese as well as Asian civil society’s experiences squarely into the global discourse on civil society. For example, I have been trying to push the scholarship forward by exploring the cultural and historical particularities of the Japanese meaning of “civil society,” or shimin shakai, and examining how this concept has been interpreted and practiced at the grassroots 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. These book projects were supported by the Abe Fellowship (SSRC), Postgraduate Fellowship funded by DFG Risk and East Asia at the University of Duisburg-Essen, and the Advanced Research Fellowship by Harvard University Program on US-Japan Relations.

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 inter-dependencies 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. My civil society project has been supported by Japan Foundation as well as the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute Research Cluster on Asian Civil Society.

Ongoing Book Projects:

1. Antinuclear Citizens: Action Narratives in Post-Fukushima Japan

The book is a decade-long ethnographic inquiry into Japanese civil society’s reactions following the triple disaster of March 2011. That is, the catastrophic earthquake, the devastating tsunami, and the consequent radiation leakage caused by the subsequent meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

This triple disaster has destabilized the Japanese nuclear governance, which was formulated by an epistemic community surrounding nuclear policy called a “nuclear village.” A long period of institutional and policy stasis was punctuated by this crisis which led to dynamic institutional and policy changes. The primary agent for change is what I call “antinuclear citizens”—conscientious citizens who envision a sustainable life in a nuclear-free society. They have fully realized that nuclear power threatens human life and that life with nuclear power is unsustainable. This book addresses a key question, asking how grassroots civic actions for exploring sustainability have been shifting national and global agendas.

The scope of the analysis focuses on civil society. Civil society shapes new terms of political debate: it frames issues, defines problems, and influences agendas. Through it, new ideas and grassroots insights are infused with Japanese nuclear governance. It even helps generate a new policy paradigm and practices toward creating a post-nuclear society. Furthermore, civil society’s contribution to the policymaking process can have distinct practical value through its processing of key assets, such as technical information as well as knowledge and expertise. Civil society has been effective and powerful in times of crisis and yet stronger when its task is getting an issue on the policy agenda.

I developed a type of narrative, what I call “action narratives,” which illuminate my commitment as a researcher to document and cocreate knowledge about the issues that citizens face, and jointly generate actions for social change. My narratives are socialized commitments for envisioning our future. I have documented ordinary people’s actions as they survive and navigate a new reality in post-Fukushima Japan. The search for sustainability requires the development of collaborations in society that are grounded by voices arising from civil society. Throughout my research, I address a key question: how have grassroots civic actions exploring sustainability shifted national and global agendas?

2. Why Did Civil Society Fail?: Japanese NPOs in New Public Governance

The year 2018 marked the 20th anniversary of the Law to Promote Specified Nonprofit Activities, known as the “NPO Law” for its formalization of non-profit organizations (NPOs) in Japan. This was a momentous Japanese civil society project that more than 50,000 NPOs are currently active (as of Nov. 2019). These NPOs have increasingly taken on responsibility for local communities’ social welfare delivery, including health and education, via co-production policy with local governments. Co-production can be seen as a substantive policy tool utilized by governments demonstrating a preference for the use of collaborative forms of governance to implement policy goals. However, the question has recently arisen whether this Japanese third-sector instrument is “successful.” One observable indication of “failure” is the currently increasing number of NPO dissolutions; the most recent number shows that more than 16,000 NPOs have been dissolved. I estimate one third of these defunct NPOs engaged in co-production. I explore the question: Why did this co-production experiment with civil society fail? By failure, my focus is on government-civil society partnership via co-production practices. My analysis considers “disbanded” NPOs that fall under this relational lens.

A decade ago, in my book The Failure of Civil Society? The Third Sector and the State in Contemporary Japan (SUNY Press 2009), I pointed out the possible failure of Japanese civil society due to NPO activity. This is based on my ethnographic research at SLG (pseudonym) – one of the largest community-oriented lifelong learning NPOs in Japan. My two-decade long investigation suggests that the institutionalization of NPOs has been a calculated re-organization of the Japanese public sphere designed to establish a small government in the post-welfare state through shared responsibility for social services originally delivered by the state with volunteer-driven NPOs. Such an organizational form might effectively facilitate the practice of a neoliberal state; however, it is not conducive to encouraging independent, citizen-oriented activities. My case SLG appeared successful. SLG changed the Japanese traditional style of state-led learning. It was even part of local efforts to delegate power to citizens in a participatory governance structure for a pluralistic democracy. However, SLG dissolved itself in March 2018 mainly because of the municipal government’s decision to cut its funding for the community-oriented lifelong learning project. I have started collecting interview data mainly from former SLG participants and local officials about their thoughts and experiences on why the co-production project failed. Discussions around SLG reflect the reality of the Japanese civil society landscape over the past two decades, in which NPOs are central.

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.

3.1 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 are 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.

Copyright © 2008−2022 Akihiro Ogawa