Education About Asia

Grassroots Democracy and Civil Society in Japan

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The way that civil society connects to and supports democracy in Japan differs in important ways from what we find in the United States. Of course, the fundamental logic of the connection is essentially the same—in both countries, civil society groups support democracy and governance through providing services, ideas, and generating connections among citizens. However, the patterns or configurations of civil society in the two countries are quite distinct, and as a result, we find important differences in how the two civil societies contribute to their respective democracies. In what follows, the concept of “civil society” is defined, and the respective roles of civil society in Japan and the US are compared. Then, neighborhood associations (NHAs), a key component of Japanese civil society, are addressed in some detail with a focus upon their domestic function and, comparatively, their roles in generating social capital and NHA-related problems. The essay also includes two related teaching exercises.

Civil Society: What is it?

Civil society is the organized non-state, non-market sector of society. That means it comprises almost any voluntary group not aiming for profits in the market (companies, etc.) or control of the government (e.g., political parties). Religious groups of all kinds, women’s groups, 501c3 nonprofit organizations,
charities, sports leagues, the American Medical Association, environmental groups, etc., all make up parts of civil society. We all know that social science definitions are often contested, and the definition of civil society is no exception. Scholars argue about whether labor unions or business organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, should be counted, whether media companies need to be included, and what we should do about groups espousing violence. Without wading into those debates, it probably matters more that we are crystal-clear about our definitions—and what the implications of changing those definitions would be—than which definition we adopt; although there is a lot of agreement among scholars, it seems unlikely that a single definition will ever satisfy everyone.

Japan boasts a distinctively varied network of local civil society organizations, most notably its neighborhood organizations (NHAs).



Haddad, Mary Alice. Politics and Volunteering in Japan: A Global Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Pekkanen, Robert. Japan’s Dual Civil Society: Members without Advocates. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Putnam, Robert. Making Democracy Work. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

——————. “Bowling Alone.” Journal of Democracy 6 no. 1 (January 1995): 65–78.

Schwartz, Frank J., and Susan J. Pharr, eds. The State of Civil Society in Japan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Tsujinaka, Yutaka, Robert Pekkanen, and Hidehiro Yamamoto. Gendai nihon no jichikai chounaikai (Neighborhood Associations and Local Governance in Japan). Tokyo: Bokutakusha, 2009.