Advice on activism in Japan
By Arudou Debito (debito@debito.org. www.debito.org)
Amnesty International Group 78 Public Meeting March 9, 2005, Jingumae, Tokyo

Activism in Japan can be a tough job, but not impossible. Even in reputedly “conflict-adverse” Japan. After over a decade of making points public, here are some lessons I've learned , starting from zero:


When you take up an issue, you must convince others that it is also worth listening to and doing something about. How I do it:

1) CREATE A WEBSITE You need an information center, and a website will act as your 24-hour setter of the record straight. Update it, metatag it (so search engines will bring in the interested strangers), and refer to it in future activities. It will save time, energy, and money--all critical in a social movement run with limited resources.

2) DOCUMENT Keep the primary sources alive. Scan articles, reproduce text, keep weblog of your old announcements and essays on the subject. Don’t forget dates and original weblinks (even if original news websource dies). Upkeep credibility and don't let old facts and cases fade into anecdote. You will hold the upper hand in any debate if you can keep verifiable facts at your fingertips, and silence critics who avoid doing research homework before commenting.


Publicity goes without saying, but you have to be active (as opposed to passive--by definition of your label) in creating and keeping up public awareness. How I do it:

1) EMAIL Build an email list of people who may be interested in your issues (ask their permission before adding--most will say yes). Takes years before it becomes effective, but I have thousands of recipients (and hopefully readers) , some of whom forward around what I write. BTW, write your email “subject lines” carefully--email filters are very thorough nowadays and not everyone checks their spam folder. Separate email lists by preference (friends, reporters, human rights lists, etc). Expect few answers to any request or call for action--be happy with the nibbles you get. Patience builds the regular readership, and earnest constancy builds credibility.

2) EVENTS AND PRESS CONFERENCES (kisha kaiken) Yes, anyone can do them--it's just a matter of your convening it and reporters attending. Contact the Press Club (kisha kurabu) connected with the agency you are trying to canvass, and tell them the time and place. Simple as that. If they come, ALWAYS have something printed up for reporters to refer to and take home--this will save time (many have already written their article and are just looking for quotes) and misquote you less. For press conferences, I suggest at most 10 minutes presentation, the rest Q&A. No more than an hour (they have deadlines) unless they still have unanswered questions. More in my book “Japanese Only” pg 137-8. Remember any article you get is a minor miracle--a major one if they get the info right. Always ask for reporters or officials in attendance to leave a copy of their meishi in a pile at the front (they will--under professional ethics they must identify themselves if asked; some won’t unless), then add them to your email list.

3) INTERVIEWS Even more miraculous is a one-on-one with a reporter. Remember that reporters are people too with values, angles, judgments, and deadlines. Topped off by editors, so things rarely, if ever, come out as you want. Take as much time as the reporter has and answer all questions that you consider constructive to the best of your ability. Tour guide them through your primary sources (they love copies). If you convince them of the veracity of your cause, and you have a vital avenue into the debate arena. But remember media propensities:

4) MEDIA BENTS Print and broadcast are fundamentally different. Broadcast is shorter in attention span, also requires soundbites, good hair, non-knitted eyebrows, charisma, and an entertainment quotient (esp Japanese TV). Print lasts longer, gets edited and quoted more liberally (often to your advantage--a sympathetic reporter will correct your linguistic mistakes positively), and is more easily dispersed by email and web. Print is also the better primary source for your info site (more reproducible). Remember the bents of your media outlets. Print bents: Mainichi and Kyodo are sympathetic, Yomiuri and Sankei are almost always conservative (and take umbrage to any criticism of Japan), Asahi is a lottery, regional papers are generally liberal but it depends on the region. Weekly magazines are just wild, so avoid. Broadcast bents: again hit-or-miss, but NHK is the most clearly censored, as witnessed in recent scandals with LDP politician pressure.

5) POLITICIANS You need to talk to them if you ever want to influence public policy. Full stop. Local and national are both surprisingly accessible, if you've gotten the issue in the press enough. Call their office and try to make an appointment. Just remember: LDP generally doesn't give a damn, DPJ is hit-or-miss but your best bet, Koumeitou only cares about members of its church, and dying JCP has a lot of bureaucracy to get through before policy movement. Smaller parties, rotsa ruck, but try anyway. See www.debito.org/lobbying041601.html As for bureaucrats--raise things with them if you want, but they will probably point back to the politicians again anyway as a defense mechanism, since public servants are allegedly bound by public policy. Do it just to say you did.

6) EMAILED UPDATES Once you take up an issue, you will probably have to keep it alive, in my case by email. Tips: Put your titles in CAPS and separate from text. If lots of titles, put them in a table at the top for skipability. Make sure within one screen that your readers know what they will read (there is no bigger turnoff to regular readers than getting to the bottom of an email and feeling as though time was wasted). Give brief background on case if necessary and then add a link to your info site for more details. If you have a lot of links that will interfere with the readability of the email, group them at the very bottom. Biggest problem is keeping the issue fresh--nothing I can do to advise you because it is a matter of style. If you are getting bored with the issue, I can assure you it will come through in your writing, so watch yourself.


Know about these so you can deal without losing your momentum:

1) ACTIVISM IS GENERALLY FROWNED UPON IN JAPAN. I believe it is because it is associated not with success, but with extremism. Discussion in my book Japanese Only pg. 327-330.

2) CULTURE OF INFORMATION CONTROL. Just about every organization, and especially the bureaucracy, is closed to outsiders, and getting them to own up to anything, let alone wringing any info out of them, will be nearly impossible without insiders and tenacious reporters who know how to play the game. And who can get past the:

3) PRESS CLUBS. One-stop shopping, but also self-censorship and info control . Biggest curb on watchdogism there is. More at www.jpri.org/publications/workingpapers/wp18.html

4) RESISTANCE TO CAMPAIGNING. Knee-jerk disaffection with demonstrators, overly-overt attempts to influence public. Viz. Japan Times re recent Gregory Clark non-corrections of column misquotes. Campaign anyway and ignore the knee-jerks.

5) COMPARISONS TO INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS OF LIMITED USE esp if human rights problem is construed as a matter of culture. Do make the argument that “other societies do it, so Japan should too” if you want, but don’t expect much sympathy. Cries of “cultural imperialism” are inevitable. So are other half-baked arguments from:

6) CRITICS: esp fostered by internet (read mails under japantoday.org articles for a taste). Pseudonymous trolls trashing people for sport. How to deal with them below.

7) THREATS--If you think you are immune to rough stuff here in Japan, remember Minamata photographer killed by thugs. I have had lots of threats, even death threats, but if I, say, was going to be whacked, I doubt I would have been warned. If you have a high enough profile, there is some deterrent. In any case, keep your family out of it. Culturally problematic and reprisals may be directed at them to hurt you.


1) Stay sunny and optimistic, and don’t blubber about how bad things are. Upbeat is inspirational. Tamachan Juuminhyou campaign really worked, for example: See www.debito.org/TheCommunity/ tamachanmoreinfo.html You knew this would be challenging when you started, so remember it’s far more challenging to be an optimist than a pessimist.

2) Ignore unconstructive critics. There are lots of them and one of you, and trying to answer them will take valuable time and energy away from what you should be doing--activism--by trying to convince those who will just not listen. Absorb their arguments and answer on your info site. See Japanese Only pgs 299, 311-315, 368-370.

3) Redirect questions and comments to your info site. Again, saves time and energy.

4) Be aware of counterarguments and formulate yours in advance. That is why criticism is valuable--it leaves fewer future stones unturned and offers fewer public ambushes.

5) Japan is surprisingly receptive. Remember that people will listen in Japan, even if they disagree throughout. Calmness in the debate arena is helpful, so be calm, sincere, and earnest at all times yourself. Otherwise, people will soon sense if you are insincere.


7) Remember the power of precedent and the respect for perseverance in Japan. People often will only come to believe that you are serious if you have been working at an issue for years. So do so.


I probably don't need to tell you this, but taking up a problem is almost always better than not. Even if nothing budges, at least you tried. And if it does budge, it probably would not have without your help. Either way, it's better than doing nothing about it and getting worn down by the futility of your situation.

Back to the Cover Page

"The Community" Page

Go to the "Residents Page"

Go to the "Activists Page"

Copyright 2005, Arudou Debito, Sapporo, Japan