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.

Currently, I am involved in a book project dealing with energy. My key research interest is exploring how ordinary citizens are translating the lessons of Fukushima into viable energy projects that aim to improve natural disaster resilience. Rather than focusing on the breakdown of conventional social institutions following the Fukushima disaster, my project considers how new social ideologies, practices, networks, organizational forms, and political spaces are emerging in Japanese society. Of critical importance here is understanding how new forces and structures both grow out of, and depart from, prior conditions. Further, my project seeks to broaden this analytical framework beyond the nation state. How, for instance, are sociocultural or political economic developments in Japan part of, or responses to, larger global processes or world systems?


Energy Culture: Lessons for a post Fukushima Japan

This book gauges the potential of building a global green economy in the post-Fukushima era through the examination of current cases of Japanese green energy production. Energy has become a significant global issue, particularly following the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that caused radiation to leak from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011. This disaster singlehandedly destabilized energy policymaking and production practices. My research reveals an opportunity for a new energy production infrastructure, built from the bottom up, signaling a shift from the traditional centralized, top-down policymaking toward more decentralized, participatory, self-reliant forms of regulation. Desired now are new paths to renewable and sustainable energy, greater local control over green energy production, and more meaningful public participation in the decision-making process to create a greener global economy.

For example, I have observed the role of social enterprises—defined as non-profit organizations (NPOs) initiated by groups of citizens through the material interest of capital investors to benefit the community—in creating new social value by stressing the use of energy from alternative, sustainable sources. Social enterprises (or shakaiteki kigyō in Japanese) indeed play a vital role in harnessing energy from these green energy sources at the grassroots level. Such environmentally friendly energy production is gaining significant attention by both scholars and practitioners, creating a new social economy focused on enterprises and organizations whose primary objectives are the creation of new social values and the facilitation of community solidarity rather than profit seeking. Social enterprises are, meanwhile, at the core strategy of European social economy; for example, in 2011, the European Commission announced a policy package called the Social Business Initiative, designed to help social enterprises create wealth, jobs, and innovative solutions for Europe’s social challenges.

Social economy is currently experiencing rapid progress around the globe, renewing an important theory: co-production, first introduced in the 1970s by Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues, which analyses the role of citizens in the provision of public services. Co-production can achieve higher-quality services and/or result in the provision of more services, often at a lower price, than is possible without citizen participation. However, to date, little has been written about co-production in renewable energy, and even fewer studies focus on co-production for green energy through social enterprises.

Globally, the green power industry has reached a new stage in its development. Some renewable technologies have become more affordable, particularly in developed markets, making them cost competitive with fossil fuels. Now, the focus is on the challenges ahead in promoting these renewable technologies in the face of opposition to this shift, and identifying institutional frameworks, including the feed-in tariff system, required to make green energy more attractive. Today, an awakened global consciousness is heralding the active shift toward the use of green energy worldwide, away from conventional energy practices. Green energy innovation has become mainstream, and this research will consider the long-term global effects of these new values, practices, relationships, and institutions as they relate to the construction of a global green economy and increased alternative energy consumption.

This book explores how grassroots’ actions by civil society or energy-focused social enterprises are at the forefront of the pro-green global trend.  It addresses contemporary energy issues by promoting innovation in theory and methodology, and engaging in interdisciplinary dialogue with the social scientists who address energy and the environment. Furthermore, it documents new case studies from Asia and Europe that illustrate how the theoretical domains of environmental anthropology can be explored through insights derived from ethnographic traditions, methods, and perspectives.


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 Mr. Louis Dai

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 project 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. Findings on media-civil society synergies and their capacity to promote new values for the general public will be discussed in workshops, academic journals, policy papers, and a documentary film.

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


Long-Term Project on 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. In early 2015, 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. It should come after the Upper House election in summer 2016. 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 almost 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 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) and this was one of the few works documenting the emerging peace movements in contemporary Japanese society. 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