I have been developing a research program on civil society.  My first book, the award-winning The Failure of Civil Society?: The Third Sector and the State in Contemporary Japan (2009, SUNY), is an ethnographic study of a Japanese voluntary organization, a non-profit organization (NPO) – the seed of the institutionalization of civil society under the 1998 NPO Law.  This book documents that civil society is an instrument of greater transparency that heightens social accountability and improves the governance of public institutions.  Building on elements of my first book, I have completed a second book titled Lifelong Learning in Neoliberal Japan: Risk, Knowledge, and Community (2015, SUNY).  This book presents that civil society also plays an important role in human services provision as a form of coproduction—the core of new public governance thinking in contemporary advanced democracies.  Coproduction is a substantive policy tool used by governments that prefer collaborative forms of governance to implement policy goals. These book projects were supported by an Abe Fellowship (SSRC), a Postgraduate Fellowship funded by DFG Risk and East Asia at the University of Duisburg-Essen, and an Advanced Research Fellowship by Harvard University Program on US-Japan Relations.

Recently, in my third solo-authored book, Antinuclear Citizens: Sustainability Policy and Grassroots Activism in Post-Fukushima Japan (2023, Stanford), I took on an intellectual challenge: integrating my ongoing studies on civil society in Japan with my persistent interest in public policy.  Primarily inspired by the anthropology of policy scholarship – one of the most innovative fields in contemporary anthropology, I have been studying policy-in-practice (what it does) rather than policy-as-proclamation (what it should be), thus illuminating how Japan’s nuclear policy impacts the welfare of our society and how antinuclear citizens negotiate the meanings of their experiences.  In this book, I argue that civil society is a source of innovation in identifying real problems and presenting them to government officials, policy elites, and public audiences.  Since its experiences are embedded in everyday life, civil society organizations spotlight better and more sustainable solutions: they can both shape new terms of political debate and frame issues, define problems and influence agendas.  Civil society can infuse new ideas and grassroots insights into Japanese nuclear governance and even help generate a new policy paradigm for a postnuclear society.

My anthropology can function as a public witness to our times.  My mission is to make a powerful statement against the state-dominant discourse by presenting local voices and experiences and highlighting the limits in social and political life. To achieve this mission, I developed the “action narrative,” which I defined as a researcher’s commitment to document and cocreate knowledge about the issues that citizens face and to jointly generate actions for social change.  I propose action narratives as a new research strategy for anthropologists interested in public policy.  They are a direct reflection upon the praxis of action research led by Professor Davydd Greenwood, in association with narrative theories focusing on the social construction of reality framed by language, knowledge, and metaphor.  Since I trained under Professor Greenwood at Cornell University, action research has been a core of my work. In my first book, I defined my goals as a professional researcher as helping to empower ordinary people and forwarding the democratization of society by practicing action-oriented research.  Since 2001, I have been practicing action research at an NPO that promotes community-oriented lifelong learning in eastern Tokyo, in a place called “Kawazoe” (pseudonym).  I have also documented the development of an action research project that I have undertaken for the last two decades.  For me, action research is my own commitment to collaborative and cogenerative knowledge production between a researcher (myself) and collaborators, which proceeds in an upward spiral that comprises planning, action, and evaluation, eventually solving problems that people need to address.  Through ethnography, I have also portrayed the culturally nuanced practices and understandings that I have observed in the context of Japanese civil society.

My action narratives are indeed socialized commitments for envisioning our future.  At the heart of my anthropology is a new relationship born out of a series of civil society actions.  With regards to Japan’s nuclear policy, my experience of documenting ongoing efforts to seek sustainability led to taking action for social change.  Armed with action narratives, I can start problem-solving in the real world.  In my research process, I encountered Citizens’ Action for Fukushima Justice: Fostering the Chernobyl Law in Japan.  The group is working to create a Japanese version of the Chernobyl Law, which aims to protect the lives, health, and livelihoods of citizens amid radiation disasters.  The only way to achieve this goal is to avoid radiation exposure, which can be accomplished by evacuation and, eventually, permanent relocation.  Citizens’ Action for Fukushima Justice advocates a series of local policy ordinances on the right to settle out across the country and aims to enshrine it in national law.  Initiatives for local policy developments have begun in several municipalities.  The livelihood reconstruction projection for the victims of the nuclear accident is not a self-driven initiative but a public project of the utmost importance.  The citizens’ actions to create local policy ordinance for the Chernobyl Law in Japan are part of this endeavor.  It is difficult to solve this problem with the traditional approach to public works, in which solutions are left to a handful of experts (politicians, chief executives, bureaucrats, etc.) to implement.  A new style of public works projects led by citizens is essential, where we all cooperate and support and cheer each other on.  This type of project can only be initiated through proactive citizen engagement.  In every era, while it is these proactive citizens who drive society forward, action-minded anthropologists can also work with them to effect change.

Extending my civil society and policy research, in the next five years, I focus on two projects:

Project 1: NPOs in Japan: Why Coproduction with the State Failed

The project aims to investigate the transforming role of civil society in human services provision as a form of coproduction within New Public Governance (NPG) frameworks.  The project engages with exploring sustainable models for coproduction of human service delivery in an age of neoliberal austerity, especially focusing on the tension between civil society and governments.

Japan enacted the Law to Promote Specified Nonprofit Activities (NPO Law) in 1998.  This was a momentous project that spawned over 73,000 NPOs in more than past two decades.  These NPOs have increasingly taken responsibility for local communities’ human service delivery via coproduction policies and practices, becoming progressively significant in providing services and creating social change to better meet the emerging needs of service users.  However, the question arises as to whether this civil society group is successful.  An observable indication of its failure is the increasing number of dissolutions of NPOs; the most recent figures show that more than 20,000 NPOs have been disbanded (as of December 2022).  SLG (a pseudonym), which I have documented as a case study, was a leading example of the coproduction of lifelong learning service delivery in Japan, and in 2018, after 18 years of operation, it was disbanded.  Nearly two decades ago, in my dissertation (converted into my first book), I pointed out the possibility of failure of Japanese civil society (specifically NPOs) due to the nature of their activity.  I argued that such an organizational form might have effectively facilitated the functioning of a neoliberal state that pursues decentralization under austerity; however, it was not conducive to encouraging independent, citizen-oriented activities.  This project carefully examines the question: How did this civil society involvement of coproduction fail?  The analysis is based on all my fieldnotes over the past 20 years, combined with new interviews with former SLG volunteers and government officials and policy document analysis.  It is expected to generate a significant body of reflexive knowledge on Japanese civil society experiences and propose better models that will contribute to new policy formulation and debates.

Project 2: Revitalizing Civil Society in New Realities in the Indo-Pacific Region: Innovations in Japanese Civil Society Engagement in Strengthening Democratic Institutions

The Indo-Pacific region, particularly South and Southeast Asia, is shifting away from typical Least Developed Countries toward varying degrees of Middle-Income Countries. The nature of income poverty has been camouflaged, but new disparities and inequalities have surfaced. Furthermore, historically marginalized populations and their voices are persistently excluded from civil society. Meanwhile, foreign investment is aggressively sought, and Chinese investments play a major role in shaping economies. Democracy and its various practices, institutions, instruments, and tools have been challenged, ignored, and even suppressed or compromised in the rush to pursue economic reforms. As a result, authoritarian tendencies have taken root in governance. Different forms of religious extremism and radicalization have created heightened conflicts within countries and beyond. These factors, among others, impact the traditional role played by civil societies in the region.

The legitimacy and role of civil society in participating, engaging, and advocating on broader democratic and governance issues are questioned by authorities and sometimes by “new” civil society actors. As a result, the space for civil society has been de-legitimized and curtailed. The media, an integral partner of civil society, is also under threat. At another level, civil society itself is changing. New forms of civil society actors, sometimes referred to as “uncivil society,” are on the rise in the region. This has created tensions and space-claiming conflicts within civil societies. Meanwhile, the younger generation’s choice of engagement in civil society is taking a very different shape and form compared to that of the older generation. An interactive research process with old and new civil society actors in the region is striving to generate novel thinking about how civil society should reestablish its legitimacy, role, and strategies in the new realities. This project draws on the existing knowledge of Asian civil societies, which suggests that civil society’s legitimacy, role, and space have been threatened, curtailed, and restricted with the rise of different tendencies of erosion and weakening of democratic institutions and practices.

My colleagues from the Asian Civil Society Research Network and I will engage in an interactive research process with key civil society actors to jointly take stock of the status of civil society vis-à-vis broader contextual changes and dynamics to identify the degree of its legitimacy, role, and space in strengthening democratic institutions and practices. To better facilitate the research process, we will collaborate with such Japanese NGOs, which began their activities in the 1970s, and have been committed to strengthening democratic institutions in the region ever since. However, the extent to which they play a role is significantly underestimated. Their contribution to Japan’s Track II diplomacy is invaluable.

Our interactive research strategy is action-oriented, and it uses an action-learning case study approach. Action research allows us to identify stories and experiences that can be objectively narrated and reconstructed. This is followed by a rigorous analysis of, for example, the degree of success/failure under a variety of conditions, the web of actors, and a reflection of how things could have been done differently. In the end, action-oriented research opens up space for learning from each other, discussing the state and nature of civil societies, understanding the push/pull factors that determine civil society actions, and developing response strategies that enable civil society to navigate challenges and opportunities.

This project seeks to document civil society’s experiences with resilience, adaptation, improvisation, and innovation related to its role and strategies. It will generate various types of context-sensitive knowledge conceptualization informed by the narratives of different civil-society actors that are coping, surviving, failing, and thriving in specific challenging contexts under different conditions.

Project 3. Peace and Security in the Indo Pacific

I have a long-term research project on peace and security in the Indo 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. 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.


  • Security Paradigms and Social Movements: The Changing Nature of Japanese Peace Activism. Asian Journal of Social Science 46(6): 725–747 (2018)
  • Peace, a Contested Identity: Japan’s Constitutional Revision and Grassroots Peace Movements. Peace & Change 36 (3): 373–399 (2011)
  • Protecting the Right to Live Peacefully: A Report from Takae, Okinawa. Global Change, Peace & Security 22 (3): 377–383

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 © 2008−2023 Akihiro Ogawa