While East Asia’s and especially China’s economic growth has become a major driving force of global change, developed countries struggle to readjust their social, economic and political institutions to the challenges of financial crises, shrinking populations, and the rising demand for and costs of social welfare. As an economically and technologically highly advanced society, Japan finds itself at the intersection and forefront of these regional and global changes. As Japan seeks to redefine its role and responsibilities in regional and global affairs, two decades of low economic growth, rapid demographic decline, and the impact of the 11 March 2011 triple disaster (also known as 3.11), have generated a sense of national crisis. Yet, debates about a power shift toward China and the decline of Japan, including the latter’s ‘lost decades’ remain ambiguous if not contradictory regarding the questions what this decline actually entails and what social and political institutions are in crisis. This raises the following research questions:
- What structural, i.e. ‘real’ societal, economic, domestic-political, international changes challenged which institutions of post-war Japan from the late 1980s onwards?
- How have these challenges become framed in crisis narratives by whom?
- What institutional changes have these narratives provoked, enabled — or hindered?
- If no change is to be found, who staged resistance with what counter-narrative?
- What is the potential of the (envisioned) institutional changes to alleviate the original causes of the crisis, i.e. the structural ‘real’ challenges identified at the outset?
- What are the implications of these findings for the respective policy area and for the future of Japan as a whole?
- And, what can the transformation of the Japanese state tell us about similar social, economic and political transformations in East Asia and in Europe, including their international political reverberations?
Contribution to International Research
The case of Japan has a great potential to enhance theorizing on global change, including with the broadening of perspectives beyond Europe. Manuel Castells, for instance, including the Asia-Pacific and Japan in his seminal work, argued that in the Information Age, states are caught between and called into question by the opposing trends of globalisation on the one hand and powerful expressions of local collective identity on the other. According to Castells, this compels states to decentralize power to local and regional political institutions. Hence, ‘nation-states may retain their decision-making capacity, but, having become part of a network of powers and counter powers, they are dependent on a broader system of enacting authority and influence from multiple sources. The theory of power, in this context, supersedes the theory of the state’. Therefore, analyses of power relations can only be done meaningfully with reference to specific policies, such as they are analysed in this project. Pointing to the negative social and environmental consequences of industrialization, that is ‘first modernity’, as well as the dissolution of old certainties in the present times of the ‘second modernity’, the prominent sociologist Ulrich Beck, similar to Castells, argued that, paradoxically, states must de-nationalize and internationalize in order to fulfil their national interests. He and other Risk Society theorists therefore see a new form of states emerging through the mechanism of a ‘cosmopolitan moment’, that is in essence the realization by people that they have to deal with each other beyond national boundaries in order to find solutions to the major problems of our time, and to build effective frameworks of global governance. Indeed, if the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe has not put in doubt the very purpose of the state and its institutions, what else would? Yet, the political consequences of profound socio-economic change, the conceptions of emerging network states and cosmopolitan states in particular, remain tenuous. As Craig Calhoun points out, there remains a teleological (Eurocentric) bias toward cosmopolitanism, and Richard Samuels noted in his analysis of 3.11 crisis management and post-disaster politics, that the call has been ‘for recovery, not for change’. However, the questions what precisely is being recovered, and, whether this recovery is sustainable, remain to be answered.
Research Design and Methods
The project leaders invited sociologists and political scientists from inside and outside of Japan, who work on variety of policy fields and cover different issue areas within them. They approach the above set of questions through the analysis of societal change, narrations of crisis, and institutional change from the range of the thematic perspectives including: economic inequality; demographic change; civil society in the aftermath of Fukushima; science, technology and innovation; macroeconomic policies; educational reforms and globalization; populism and the political system; foreign policy crisis management; official development assistance and cooperation, and security politics.
These are embedded in an overall conceptual framework, which accounts for social, economic and political developments and the pertaining discourses that, usually, display a loss of orientation and prescribe a return to Japan’s post-war trajectory of economic growth and social stability. In this vein, the contributions problematize ideas of ‘decline’ and ‘crisis’ in their respective issue areas. After the surprising end of the Cold War and the fallout of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis created a ‘new normal’ for the world economy, and the burst of the ‘bubble’ in 1991 and the Triple Disaster of 11 March 2011 created a ‘new normal’ for Japan, the participants examine the discrepancy between Japan’s ostensibly ongoing national crisis despite the reality of the relatively safe and secure Japan against the background of increasing societal problems and deepening individual hardships. This enables the participants to adopt a fresh and more insightful perspectives at the policy responses to the perceived crises. Together, the findings of each contribution provide a more comprehensive understanding of the transformation of the Japanese state. At the same time, these findings connect the case of Japan to the broader debates about global socio-political change including the transformation of modern industrial societies and democratically governed welfare states.
To reach sufficient analytical depth and ensure substantial coherence across the contributions, the participants were asked to relate their methodological approach to that, which scholars like Colin Hay have developed for the study of social and political change in the United Kingdom. This methodology is particularly suitable for the present project because it entails an explicit conceptualization of ‘crisis’ as a process of institutional change, that is linked to an advanced theorization of the modern or post-modern/post-industrial state. Hay argues that the state, comprising ‘a diverse array of specific, but none the less interdependent, agencies, apparatuses and institutions’, lacks a clear and substantive unity. That is, despite that state agencies and institutions ‘claim their authority and legitimacy to intervene within civil society and the economy’, the state itself shows very little capacity to behave as a coherent, singular actor; its unity must first be accomplished. According to Hay, it is precisely in phases of institutional transformation that this relative unity is greatest. Hence, the very form of the state resides in ‘the crystallization of past strategies’, that is, in the legacy of former projects of structural transformation.