Japan Times JBC 81, Nov 5 2014, “Does social change in Japan come from the top down or bottom up?”


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Hello Blog.  Here’s my latest JT column  posted as a question, not an answer this time.  Any answers?  Please post in the Comments Section below and/or at the JT website.  Thanks as always for putting this column once again in the Top Ten Most Read on the Japan Times online this month! Dr. ARUDOU, Debito


Does social change in Japan come from the top down or bottom up?

Courtesy http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2014/11/05/issues/social-change-japan-come-top-bottom/

This month I would like to take a break from my lecture style of column-writing to pose a question to readers. Seriously, I don’t have an answer to this, so I’d like your opinion: Does fundamental social change generally come from the top down or the bottom up?

By top down, I mean that governments and legal systems effect social change by legislating and rule-making. In other words, if leaders want to stop people doing something they consider unsavory, they make it illegal. This may occur with or without popular support, but the prototypical example would be legislating away a bad social habit (say, lax speed limits or unstandardized legal drinking ages) regardless of clear public approval.

By bottom up, I mean that social change arises from a critical mass of people putting pressure on their elected officials (and each other) to desist in something socially undesirable. Eventually this also results in new rules and legislation, but the impetus and momentum for change is at the grass-roots level, thanks to clear public support.

Either dynamic can work in Japan, of course. For top-down, I have seen many rules decided by decree. How about the steadily encroaching anti-smoking rules in public places? It’s no longer just train platforms; you can’t even have a lit cigarette on many Tokyo streets anymore. Some movements were instituted after government awareness-raising drives, like the nōshi wa hito no shi (“brain death is a person’s death”) campaign deployed in the 1990s to overcome apparently religious-based objections to organ donation.

These and many more examples of social engineering and official consensus-manufacturing have resulted in people changing their outward behavior, if not their outright belief in a previous system. (Who remembers that brain death was ever an issue?) And it happens pretty quickly (as in weeks or months), especially if these moves are backed up by criminal penalties. Remember when drunk driving was much less harshly punished? (I do, and thanks to Draconian penalties for even one glassful, we have the world’s only decent-tasting zero-alcohol beer.)

Bottom-up, however, takes a lot longer — years or decades — but it can be just as irresistible a social force. For example, I have seen the slow death of “old maid” bashing (remember “Christmas cakes” referring to women over age 25?), the loss of faith in overwork as proof of a person’s worth, and the stigmatization of power-based bullying (e.g., sexual and power harassment) to the point of achieving court victories. The progress of this genre of social change can be quite imperceptible, but when backed up by a media campaign after a social shock (such as a huge scandal or a horrific crime — stalking, for example), bottom-up change can happen much faster.

But these are relatively small fry. For really significant social changes, such as the abolition of racial discrimination and/or hate speech in Japan, both methods have been tried, and have failed.

Advocates (yes, including myself) have tried the top-down approach for decades, asking all levels of government and the bureaucracy to outlaw discrimination as blatant as “Japanese only” signs and rules. Their most common response is, “It’s too early; we have to change the public’s mind first.” For them, the bottom-up approach is the chicken before the egg.

But starting at the grass roots has been tried too. In fact, that’s where we started, working as hundreds of advocates for decades. I personally have spoken at hundreds of gatherings to thousands of people — even one-on-one to the discriminators themselves, calmly (yes, calmly) coaxing them to treat people with dignity and equality, as they themselves would want to be treated in a similar situation.

But in this case, the problem isn’t as simple as asking individuals to give up something like smoking on a train platform; this is an issue of excluders worrying aloud that “foreigners” are a threat to their cultural integrity in general, if not their business specifically. It may even be a matter of them saying, “I just don’t like those people, so sod you.”

Moreover, unaffected bystanders can be quite sympathetic to excluders who fear for their livelihoods (even if they are excluding a neighbor). Besides — cue vicious circle — there’s no law against them doing it. And then we return to the top-down approach: the egg before the chicken.

I admit that I lean towards the top-down approach. There are plenty of historical examples of bottom-up not working when it comes to the big changes. America’s Susan B. Anthony, for example, campaigned tirelessly at the grass-roots level for women’s suffrage throughout the 1800s but failed to get the vote in her lifetime. Or in Japan’s case, the foremost grass-roots movements in Japan right now — protests against the state secrets law, remilitarization and the restarting of nuclear reactors — are gaining little traction in the face of the government’s relentless top-downism.

Moreover, many of the great grassroots successes in history got lucky. Mahatma Gandhi’s grass-roots achievement of Indian independence was aided by the fact that the grip of the British Empire had been weakened by two world wars. Nelson Mandela was lucky not to meet the same fate as Steve Biko, and to see a more liberal South African government in his lifetime. Thus, change happened because leaders made sage decisions — and there is an enormous amount of top-down inherent in that.

Personally, I have witnessed significant social change — most notably, the flowering of America’s civil rights movements after 1964. Very much a grassroots effort, it still took more than a century for equal rights to be enforceably guaranteed by top-down policymaking and criminal penalties. But I remain convinced that the social change was top-down.

As a child growing up in New York state in the 1970s, I vividly remember African-American classmates (there were a significant number in my elementary schools) feeling empowered, even adopting the swagger and proud demeanor of hero boxer Muhammad Ali, without being accused of being “uppity Negroes.” Instead, there was enormous opprobrium from teachers and other influential people for anyone who dared, for example, use racist language, such as the N-word. Even observing that somebody might be “different” because they had different skin color was simply “not done” anymore.

Why? I believe the new top-down rules set the agenda and terms of debate in a more tolerant direction. You had to accept that the “old ways” were “backwards” and no longer appropriate.

Obviously, it wasn’t perfect, and there were plenty of holdouts, disobedients and overt racists in the American example. The U.S. was still two generations away from an African-American president, and to this day a huge number of minorities are disenfranchised just because they are minorities.

But back then it was made very clear that somebody was going to get it in the neck “from above” if there were any violations of the new narrative. That’s why as kids, our overt behavior and eventually our attitudes changed — maybe not immediately into good habits, but certainly away from reinforcing bad habits.

Of course, this is the American example, with limited application to Japan. Japanese society has very different attitudes towards the outward appearance of “difference” and expression of dissent. The national narratives of inclusivity and community construction are arguably polar opposite to America’s.

Even the power of the Japanese grass roots is purported to be different. Political science professor Jiro Yamaguchi recently wrote (“Perilous spirit of the times,” The Japan Times, Oct. 28) about Japan’s “deep-seated tendency of conformism”; fellow professor Koichi Nakano has described the business of governing Japan as an “elite-driven process rather than a society-driven process.” Some even argue that a traditional, unchanging world view is what makes Japanese into Japanese, so why would anyone expect any major change?

But, again, all societies have bad habits, and racial discrimination is a doozy. How could a more positive environment be created so that the children of immigrants (many of the latter of whom are here at the bidding of the Japanese government) and international marriages will not be treated as “foreign” and sometimes be denied equal treatment?

So I ask readers: On balance, is unequal treatment to be legislated away, with people catching up through the carrots and sticks of a new legal and social regime? Or is it something that people will cotton on to eventually, as they push for reforms because it just “makes sense” to treat people (especially fellow Japanese) equally?

Is a bad social habit to be thrown out the second-floor window, or patiently cajoled down the stairs and out the front door? Discuss.
Debito Arudou’s co-authored bilingual “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan” is available on Amazon as a paperback and e-book, see www.debito.org/handbook.html. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears in print on the first Thursday of the month. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

31 comments on “Japan Times JBC 81, Nov 5 2014, “Does social change in Japan come from the top down or bottom up?”

  • Well, if my history is right, Japan never had an Enlightenment and change came from the rulers reaction to outside pressure, not from a bottom up movement. Then there was the postwar US imposed democracy, which ran in parallel with a medieval mindset. As far as I know, there have always been pockets of resistance that didn’t amount to a mass movement. The burakumin justice movement? There’s never been a major feminist or gay rights or labour movement. I’d say overall change comes in small victories over public health issues or being seen as civilised etc
    , but nothing major politically

  • I too would say its more top-down that western countries, even if its not completely top-down. Consider the warnings on public transport that feeling someone up is a crime. That’s an initiative from the local government, not from the public.

    It seems that civil society doesn’t have a sense of empowerment in Japan that they do in the west. No groundswell for gay rights, womens rights, etc. In fact, the status quo is enforced by civil society. It’s not polite to go against the grain. That’s one reason perhaps why Japan is slow to change – its need top-down directives to effect change?

  • Come to think of it, Debito. Japan never ever had a bottom-to-top revolution, and even if the people tried, authorities would declare revolutions illegal, and the revolutionaries would shrug and simply say “shikata nai ne…” and go home… Methinks this is the biggest and most important difference between Japan and the outside (especially the Western) world.

  • I think it can come from the top or the bottom. There are many examples of cultural change from the top, from the Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, to the Secularisation of Turkey to Japan’s transformation after World War II. Without trying to be clever, I think social change comes most often in a developed country from the middle, that is the people with enough power to have the confidence to see something that needs changing and make that change unilaterally and the time and power to then advocate and lobby for that change (this includes entrepreneurs, artists and intellectuals among others). It’s the middle that the ruling class really listen to, and the middle that sets the trend for those “below” them. I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than that, and a few issues can fire up the bottom, but that’s my two cents.

    Worth noting that China has seen the most change as its middle class has grown, the new middle class in China are increasingly powerful. Arguably thanks to growing inequality, in some countries such as the US and UK, the opposite is happening, the middle class is in danger of shrinking and its the rich elite (1%) that then get most of the influence that’s left by the power vacuum this causes.

    Finally (really), different issues are sometimes left to different groups to make changes. I think this may be especially true in Japan. For example younger people get to set the agenda on pop culture perhaps, while older people have their voice heard more on healthcare issues. To bring it back to the question, the government/top are largely left to deal with defence and the economy, but they largely stay out of trends in sex, entertainment and food for example. Those are gross oversimplification of course, and the examples might not be a good ones, but hopefully you can see the principle I am trying to illustrate.

  • @Jim Di Griz: Regarding the WSJ article, I know 44% isn’t that big (and doesn’t represent the whole Japanese population). But it’s somewhat a bit disturbing to see Japanese having this mindset that they’re superior to westerners. I’m a bit scared of how many other Japanese that didn’t take part in the survey have this mindset.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    Probably they need both. They can’t do without either of the two. Minamata disease, the AIDs, anti-stalking law, and you name it.

  • Normally one would say bottom up. Since a society and its ‘laws/rules’ are or should be a reflection of the thinking of the general populace and its ‘norms’ over centuries. Coupled to that a Govt is elected by the people for the people, i.e. to install and administer what is wanted by the populace…or at least should do. One votes for a party that will do XX rather one that will do YY…..thus the majority of the populace gets its views implemented.

    However, this is Japan. None of the above count. Since both the top and the bottom behave in exactly the same way..that is their norm. There are some fringe elements, just like in all societies, but unlike other societies here, they are ostracised and become persona non grata for life. Strict adherence to the norm is required from cradle to grave.

    Thus change will never occur….well not measured in terms of months/years. Change only occurs in measurements of generations. The corollary is this, how many men do you see walking about with a top-knot with their katana by their side?…none. But that only occurred after a force change “over night” anyway, from the top down. Top down has been doing the same for years….as noted above, yet how much change has occurred in Japan from bottom up….none.

    Protests for change, like those in the 60s/70s were immediately squashed by those from the top, as it disturbed the norm.

    Change…not in my life time!

  • @#11

    > Change…not in my life time!

    That is exactly what I had been thinking till Nov. 9, 1989. And then something happened what no one in his sane state of mind would have expected to happen without war or at least serious bloodshed – the Berlin Wall came down, without a single shot fired.

    So even in Japan, things may change all of a sudden, as unlikely as it may seem. Never say “not in my lifetime”… 😉

  • OneMoreBill says:

    The non-Japanese constituency in Japan is small and politically marginal, kept that way by design. At the same time, the natives are indoctrinated to think exclusively about identity, to embrace a mythical inborn Japaneseness and to fear nonconformity. Why should they care about the status of a few NJ in their midst? They may care once our concerns begin to impinge on theirs in a big way. But that will require opening the door much wider to immigration, which seems unlikely. When it comes to rights and recognition for NJ, the issue of whether change is up or down seems academic at this point. What has always mattered most to our political/social status is stimuli from the outside in. Everything else is housekeeping.

  • No such thing as bottom-up social change anywhere in the world in human history. Revolutions come when social discontent reaches a critical mass, but the revolutionaries are all organized by manipulative megalomaniacs (another term for “politicians”) just like the governments they overthrow.

    Even without revolutions, social change comes from the top down. Changes in laws shape social norms and culture over time. The laws are changed by elites (judges, lawmakers, non-democratic and democratic rulers), and people get used to it. This is the human condition in society.

  • From friend CP:

    On the top/bottom question, I wonder if we can make a generalization?

    For bottom-up changes: Large numbers of people embrace an idea that
    they feel is congruent with their values, or of direct relevence to
    their lives, AND (this is key) they believe that it is achievable, so
    their pressure for change becomes irresistable to the ruling class
    (insert “authorities” if you prefer to avoid Marxist jargon).
    Examples might be votes for women, getting cruise missiles off
    British soil, or de-criminalisation/legalisation of pot.

    For top-down changes: The ruling class or their government decides to
    take responsibility for something that will clearly benefit large
    numbers of people indirectly, but which large numbers of people are
    not motivated to expend time and energy campaigning for. Examples
    would be abolition of the death penalty, and public health-related
    issues. I’m not sure where same-sex marriage comes, but probably
    here. Fox hunting?

    It is instructive that during the IRA bombing campaign in London in
    the eighties, the gutter press was demonising the republicans and
    clamouring for the return of the DP. Thatcher’s government, even
    while they were hammering the coal miners and their communities, and
    other groups of organised workers, never even tabled a discussion in
    parliament. (Of course, there is legal niceity here about proving
    premeditation to kill, but…) If the Tories had been interested in
    bringing back hanging, there would have been widespread support for
    it. They chose not to.

  • I am deeply skeptical of top-down social engineering. If a social change is reasonable, then presumably enough people will realize that that they will make the change on their own. If it is imposed before people are ready to accept it, they will come to resent it and find ways of not complying with it. I think PSA campaigns such as those against molestation are a great idea, but I doubt that top-down change should go any further than that.

    That said, justice delayed is justice denied, and I think the corollary of what I just said is that there needs to be effective bottom-up activism in order to bootstrap the process. It sounds like that’s not happening enough in Japan.

    Also, I recognize that what I wrote mostly draws on my experience in Western-style societies; although I have visited Japan, I have not been there for an extended period. Given the top-down orientation of much of Japanese thought, I suppose it’s possible that top-down social change would work better. However, based on what I read on this blog, I’m not holding my breath: even in Japan, most of the successes you have reported here are on the grassroots level.

  • Altho’ I’m a Brit, and hazy on the details, isn’t there an instructive distinction between the bus boycott (Mongomery, Alabama, 1955) that ended segregation and “desegregation busing” by order of the government in the 70s?

  • Yet more evidence of top down:

    “..Japan’s biggest newspaper has issued a controversial apology for using the term “sex slaves” when referring to women who worked in brothels set up for Japanese soldiers in World War Two. Yomiuri Shimbun said its English version should not have used the phrase as it implied the women were coerced….”

    “..This is definitely another victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his right-wing nationalist supporters. They have long sought to change the way Japan views its World War Two history…”

    Aaahh…calling a rose by any other name neh?!

    * http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-30241569

  • @ John K #23

    From Yomiuri’s statement;

    ‘ Japanese edition and its English edition called The Japan News, the newspaper said that the expression “comfort women” was difficult for non-Japanese to understand.’

    Of course, another case of NJ not ‘understanding’ Japan’s ‘unique’ ‘culture’. Sheer racist arrogance.

    In English, ‘ianfu’ = imperial Japanese army sex-slave.

  • #24JDG

    Our postings almost crossed.

    This is the very slow road down to Hitler’s version of the world and how history and others are to view the world through Hilter’s eyes and not others whose are less myopic.
    I hope this is a serious wake up call to the US/EU et al. Even to the point of citizens from those “comfortable” locations boycotting Japanese goods as form of protest.

  • This interesting and I cannot help but draw long bow comparisons with the ICJ decision on whaling and the Hague Convention on Child Abduction

    So Japan wants to be part of the international world but constantly stonewalls and yet when pressured , finds “unique” alternatives .But now some unpalatable
    gaiatsu has been applied and must be somewhat of a blow ,especially as a representative (foreign….Quelle Horreur ) will be sent to Japan to facilitate the
    required changes.

    It appears that Japan has,in spite of repeated requests since 2009, been in violation of FIBA (Basketball’s International governing body ) statue rules and is now suspended indefinitely by FIBA from international competition ,and if a satisfactory outcome is not achieved , Olympic competition .(more Quelle Horreur)

    So it seems that the old boys corporate teams do not mesh well with the more grass roots community teams .

    Looking forward to the endless saga of more apologies and resignations .



  • “…”JBA accepts the FIBA decision and will implement actions towards our organisational reform and lifting the sanctions in cooperation with FIBA,” the JBA said in a statement…”

    How many times have we heard these similar sounding statements when the big boys club they covet to be a member of chastises them for none compliance.?

    and of course followed by the:

    “..while Japan’s minister in charge of sports Hakubun Shimomura said this month the government would intervene in the issue as a mediator…”

    Aaahhh… you don’t understand our “unique” racist, exclusionary, secretive, corruption behaviour”….so we need to provide an interpretor so that you do understand we want to keep the status quo and thus never question or seek corporate governance!

  • @ Jim, #28. Haha, dont the J nationalists know that in these postmodern times, you cannot stop Hollywood. That is the fake culture that Japan has chosen to embrace, so they reap what they sow. Even Hirohito loved Disney, and was buried wearing his Mickey Mouse watch.

    Love how a J pop guitarist is playing a war criminal. I wonder how that will go down with his fans in Japan? They probably wont care or will deny it away.

    Like I said, in a hyper postmodern society in denial like Japan, fictions trump realities, and the cinema will defeat revisionism, if revisionism is excluded from the dominant hollywood narrative, which is controlled by America.

  • Ah. Unfortunately, the J pop guitarist in “Unbroken” is half Zainichi Korean. This is going to give ammunition to the J nationalists opposing the film, but isnt it symptomatic of the problems Japan is facing.

    “He will play the role of Imperial Japanese Army sergeant Mutsuhiro Watanabe nicknamed “The Bird”, and Unbroken will be Angelina Jolie’s second feature film as director.[43] It is scheduled to be released in December 2014.[44] Miyavi commented that as the movie was somewhat sensitive to the Japanese people, he had hesitated as to whether he should take this role. However, after meeting with Angelina, and since the underlying theme of this story is forgiveness, he wholeheartedly decided to accept it.[45] ” Wikipedia.

    “after meeting Angelina”. Like I said, Hollywood trumps all other considerations.

  • More evidence of ‘top-down’ in Japan;
    Abe goes out of his way to annoy the neighbors, they criticize him, Abe stands there with the proverbial ‘who, me?’ look of innocence on his face, and the J-public fall in line with his attitude of hate:

    N.B. They hate the USA too (after all, those evil western values of democracy and human rights).

    Surely, if enough Japanese just believe it enough, and repeat it back to themselves enough, then history will change, right? And then the Chinese and the Koreans will be falling over themselves with thanks for Japan, whilst America ‘admits’ that it tricked Japan into a war, just so that it had the excuse to commit the ‘war-crime’ of nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
    These right-wingers are mentally unstable. It can’t be long until the US media catches on to the fact that the US’s ‘best friend’ in Asia actually hates them, can it?


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