Japan’s Regional Think Tanks: A Hidden Sector of Significant (Research) Potential

Anthony Rausch, Hirosaki University [About | Email]

Volume 20, Issue 3 (Article 10 in 2020). First published in ejcjs on 14 December 2020.


This paper presents an exploratory examination of regional and local think tanks in Japan. After outlining several fundamental tensions in the study of think tanks in general and providing an overview of the literature on think tanks in Japan, the paper focuses specifically on the small-scale regional think tanks that are situated throughout Japan. The conclusions of this examination are two-fold. As a case study, the examination of regional think tanks in Japan highlights the importance of such place-based think tanks to their locale. On a broader level, and as an exploratory examination of Japanese regional think tanks, the conclusion speaks to the contribution that such a focus on small-scale think tanks can make to research on think tanks at large

Keywords: Japan, think tank, regional transformation

The Tōōnippō newspaper, which covers Aomori prefecture in the rural north of Japan, reported recently that the local think tank magazine Region was to cease publication as of 1 April 2020, after more than 40 years and 496 issues. Region had been published by the Aomori Regional Social Research Bureau (Aomori chiiki shakai kenkyūjo), the think tank of Aomori Bank, which was established in 1978. The Tōōnippō article reported that the think tank will be taken over by a privately held consulting company, with continued publication of Region uncertain. The think tank focused on local economic themes and issues, with Region primarily publishing the results of think tank-produced surveys and analysis on local economy, industry and business, along with carrying submissions by local business leaders, government officials, and university faculty. In addition, the think tank has long provided columns to the Tōōnippō newspaper, often in the form of rensai columns, theme based long running columns that are viewed as highly effective in educating and informing the public on timely local issues (see Rausch 2012), starting in 1981 and continuing to the present. The Aomori Bank president is quoted in the article as saying that with the switch from a think tank to a consulting firm, the outcome would also shift from ‘thinking’ to ‘doing.’

Figure 1   Think Tank Magazine Region’s Final Issue

Source: Tōōnippō newspaper 10 March 2020, page 5:
Headline: Region Handed Over: Aomori chiiki shakai kenkyūjo dissolved

This local event, the changeover of a local issues research institute and publication of a magazine reporting on that research from an operational basis as a local bank-based think tank to a privately-held business consulting approach, provides the starting point for an examination of Japanese regional think tanks. Of course, any academic examination of think tanks, small-scale regional think tanks included, must be viewed initially in relation to and in its broadest sense as contributing to the social science literature on think tanks. In that sense, the Japanese social context and the specific regional aspects of regional think tanks will ultimately yield, if not a comparative model to the conventional view of the think tank, then additional criteria by which to view and assess the organisational forms, operational patterns and social implications of think tanks everywhere. Indeed, the literature review herein reveals that existing research on think tanks portrays the sector as a highly-contested area of social scientific study, first in terms simply of what constitutes a think tank, and secondly in terms of the form, aims, processes and consequences of think tanks that exist and operate across a range of social contexts, thematic areas of focus and specific activity and outcome agendas. As will be outlined herein, both the concept and the practice of the think tank is multi-dimensional, reflecting the sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradictory realities that characterise the sector, and which lead to various interpretations of think tank aims, operations, functions and importance. In terms of Japanese think tanks specifically, the research is comparatively minimal, with that published in English largely focused on think tanks operating in the area of international security and national-level economic policy, and cast largely in the context of knowledge regimes (Maslow 2013, 2018, McGann 2019, Imai 2013). The research conducted by Japanese social scientists and published in Japanese offers a more complete view of the sector, particularly in terms of the origins of domestic-issue think tanks as well as their policy influence and functional potential, but has not yet recognised the pressures that led to the case for the Aomori think tank outlined above. In this regard, the present paper will use the case of Japanese regional think tanks to contribute indirectly to the broad literature of think tanks in general, as well as providing insight specifically into the reality of regional think tanks in Japan while adding to what has been published about Japanese think tanks in English.

Think Tanks: A Literature Review of the Multiple Interpretations

The major thrust of think tank research lies in examining the role of think tanks in policy, as the political science literature on this topic has shown that think tanks do shape both policy debate and policy outcome (Stone 1996, Stone and Denham 2004, Beland and Cox 2011). The most controversial issue in most think tank research concerns the somewhat problematic issue of definition. Early research on think tanks noted the lack of a commonly accepted definition (Weaver 1989), an issue which Medvetz (2008; borrowing from Stone and Denham 2004) referred to as the “dilemma of definition” and a research problem compounded by the fact that, as Hauck (2017) asserts, most analytical categorisations used in think tank research are detached from the reality of actual think tank activity. Obviously, think tank researchers have articulated myriad dimensions and developed various schemes aimed both at defining the sector at large as well as capturing and characterising the range of think tank types within. Weaver (1989) classified think tanks into three groups: as university-based research teams (albeit without students), as project consultants operating under contract terms (the think tank business model), and as special-issue advocacy lobbyists advancing an agenda (think the National Rifle Association in the USA). Rich (2004) focused on autonomy, defining think tanks as independent, non-profit, and non-special-interest organisations that rely on expertise in information gathering and conclusive analysis in order to obtain operational support while producing neutral information in such a manner as to inform policymaking process. McGann and Johnson (2005) and Ruser (2013) mirror the aspect of autonomy, but define think tanks more explicitly on the basis of the work they do: for the former in policy research which includes “analysis, advocacy, education, and formulation” (11-12) and in the latter as “independent, non-profit research facilities, engaged in applied research provided to political decision makers” (331). Medvetz (2008) also emphasised the focus on independence, identifying as a common premise the tenet that think tanks comprise a distinctive class of organisations that are formally autonomous from the influence of the state, the market, and the university. Expanding on the policy focus while also recognising the information dissemination function, Stone (1996) noted that think tanks must “move ideas,” which they do not only by providing policy expertise, but also by “providing a base from which to market, package, and popularise ideas and policy proposals” (1-2). However, the label think tank, and the influence that think tanks have is, as Medvetz (2008) asserts, charged with social consequence: “For certain organisations, especially those that would otherwise be described negatively as interest groups, activist associations, or lobbying firms, the term brings a cachet of intellectual authority” (2-3) they might otherwise be lacking. Finally, Hauck (2017) pointed out that as different global-national and domestic-cultural contexts were included in think tank studies, highly specific traditions—political, cultural, institutional, and in terms of expectations—emerged as being highly influential on the origin, trajectory, conceptualisation, and societal influence of think tanks.

To address the dilemma of definition in a manner that goes beyond such an extensive and varied list of definitional criteria, organisational characteristics and operational aims as outlined above, Medvetz (2008) argued for a social topology of think tanks, an expansive conceptualisation of think tanks as positioned within a social millieu, yielding a heuristic view of think tanks in social space as shown in Figure 2. This configuration of think tanks addresses their constitutively hybrid character (lobbying firm, trade association, commercial magazine, research institute, etc.) while also positioning them as discreet entities operating across four social fields: knowledge production, politics, economics, and the media. Campbell and Pedersen (2014) focused on the information production aspect of think tanks, placing them within the conceptual paradigm of knowledge regimes, as one example of the organisational and institutional machinery that generates data, research, policy recommendations, and other ideas that influence public debate and government policy making.

Figure 2   Medvetz’s Social Space Positioning of Think Tanks

Source: Medvetz (2008).

Ruser (2018) takes a different tack: based on Campbell’s (1998) ‘typology of ideas’ and by working from Abelson’s (2009) consideration of the relatively broad spectrum of think tank behaviour and influence (rather than a static definition, descriptive functions or topological space), he offers a four-dimension framework (see Figure 3) for analysing think tanks that identifies influence and implications in the form of (1) (think tank-generated) ideas that help policymakers develop policy action, (2) (think tank-generated) ideas that help policymakers legitimise policies to the public, (3) (think tank-generated) ideas that constrain (i.e., concretely identify) the range of solutions available to policymakers, and (4) (think tank generated) ideas that constrain (i.e., concretely identify) the normative range of solutions acceptable to the public (188). 
Figure 3   Ruser’s Types of Ideas and Policymaking

Source: Ruser (2018).
What is fully apparent from this brief literature review is, first and foremost, the complicated state of think tank research. The definitions are fluid, the descriptive criteria open-ended, and there are competing conceptualisations that can be offered to position think tanks with respect to their societal relationships and their activity implications. That said, it is also implied that this compilation of criteria can be selectively brought, if not to identify think tanks more robustly as a social entity, then to provide the means for description, assessment, and comparison of think tanks that exist within and across different contexts: cultural background, institutional affiliation, funding sources, organisation form, social sector overlaps, as well as thematic research focus, identifiable social agenda, and output as policy proposals and agent of social understanding if not change.

Japan’s Think Tanks: An Overview

Before turning directly to the case for Japan, it is important to note that McGann (2019), in a work the title of which would seem to position think tanks in Asia as the true policy brokers of Asia, instead pointed to the many limitations of current Asian think tanks: lack of external funding, governmental interference, limited access to minimal human capital, etc. McGann also argued (quite correctly, one suspects) that the Western definitions applied to think tanks do not translate to Asia, a point which Zimmerman (2019) emphasised in a review of the book while lamenting the fact that, in the end, it fails to provide a “set of tools” through which to interpret Asian think tanks.
Turning to the case for Japan, the reality of think tanks in Japan must by contextualised within the long trajectory of Japan’s post-war recovery and ascent as an advancing economic power, with their emergence and role a function of the country’s governing philosophy and the tensions inherent therein. Maslow (2018) begins his assessment of the role of think tanks in Japan’s policymaking process by noting the characteristics of most criticisms of Japan’s post-war centralised government, a starting point he asserts places think tanks topologically in the context of Japan’s all-powerful governing bureaucracy. The legacy of Japan’s developmental state had yielded a dominant narrative in which a powerful bureaucracy acted as the main repository of policy ideas which discouraged the emergence of think tanks (Struyk, Ueno and Suzuki 1993), but which, with and through gradual expansion of a think tank sector by virtue of its expertise in foreign affairs, gave way to an assumption that a still powerful bureaucratic apparatus allowed, but ultimately controlled, a limited number of weak, but potentially influential think tanks that focused exclusively on foreign and security affairs (Stone 1996).
What this view of the sector means, as Maslow (2013, 2018) argues, is that the once marginal think tank sector in Japan has more recently taken on an increasingly important role in policy debates. Mirroring the emergence of the Internet and social media as significant platforms in the social realm of policy ideas, think tanks came increasingly to be viewed as key players within the halls of government, both in defense of existing defense/security and foreign affairs policy as well as in the formulation and articulation of new policy (Maslow 2013, Abb and Koellner 2015, Zimmerman 2015). Indeed, policy researchers are increasingly asserting that along with the prominence of intellectuals and academics in influencing and advising Japan’s decision makers, there is evidence of an increasingly competitive and consequential think-tank landscape, noting that think tanks are both delineated along the conservative and progressive political spectrum of policy ideas, and bringing increasing focus on local economic and governance issues as well as the heretofore dominant issues of security and foreign affairs (Shimizu, 2015, Maslow 2018). Indeed, Maslow (2018), adopting Campbell and Petersen’s (2014) terminology, outlined the trajectory of Japan’s evolving knowledge regime as increasingly manifest in the form of think tanks, which are both responding to and shaping the shifting parameters of the country’s governing structure and policy demands. While Japan’s knowledge regime in the past, up to the early 1990s, was characterised as a strong state versus weak think tanks, contemporary competition regarding policy options has yielded a new regime in which a more pluralist state apparatus is positioned both in cooperation with while also defending against a competitive constellation of think tanks (107). While admitting that both the think tank has evolved from weak to competitive and that the role of think tanks varies across policy-making regimes, Maslow (2018) concludes that the role of the think tank will be important in understanding and directing the complex dynamics of institutional change in Japan.

Given the dilemma of definition as an inherent characteristic of think tank research as outlined above, it should be clear that capturing the think tank sector for Japan should present difficultly as well. A starting point provided in English is the George Washington University Research Guide to Japan Studies: Think Tanks. The page provides information on both government government/ministry affiliated think tanks, offering approximately 16 (e.g. The National Institute for Defense Studies (Ministry of Defense), The National Institute of Population and Social Security (Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare)), as well as private sector think tanks, here numbering about ten (e.g. Daiwa Institute of Research, Fujitsu Research Institute, Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living). While the titles for the government think tanks identify their thematic focus and aim, the private sector think tank descriptions reveal both the thematic focus as well as the corporate interests: “provides each of the companies of the Daiwa Securities group with research information and system solution services,” “aims to contribute to society by effectively assisting our clients with superior intellectual capabilities” (Fujitsu), “conducts research to glean consumer and social trends from a holistic viewpoint, reaching beyond the limits of markets or sectors” (Hakuhodo). A second place to organise an initial, and wide-scale view of the Japanese think tank sector is The Nippon Institute for Research Advancement (NIRA), itself a think tank dedicated to the advancement of research in Japan, which also has a page dedicated to Japanese think tanks that includes a list of 218 registered think tanks.
Figure 4   The NIRA Japanese Think Tank Homepage

Source: NIRA (https://www.nira.or.jp/network/japan/)
Analysing the list, the following general view of think tanks in Japan can be outlined (see Table 1). First of all, the majority of the listed think tanks are located in Tokyo, accounting for over 52 percent, which, with another six percent headquartered in Osaka, mean that nearly 6 in ten of the NIRA-registered think tanks are sited in these two urban areas. Secondly, of the think tanks registered on the NIRA list, nearly half are joint stock corporations (45%), with public interest foundations and general foundations accounting for 19 and 18 percent each. 

Table 1 NIRA Think Tank Assessment

Table: original.
Data Source: https://www.nira.or.jp/network/japan/tt-link/index.html

Think Tank Research in Japan: An Overview

Turning to the literature on Japanese think tanks undertaken and published in Japanese, while an early focus has been on explanations for the emergence of the sector and its historical development, there is an increasing body of work taking up both the concrete implications of think tanks in the Japanese context and the potential for think tanks to make contributions toward addressing a variety of Japanese municipal policy issues as well as theorisation regarding how think tanks can contribute to new patterns of governance and community planning and social life. Taking up the former aspects first, Nakanishi (2013) cited a 2002 survey of urban think tanks that portrayed the growth of such largely municipality-based think tanks as peaking in three periods, the late 1980s, the early 1990s, and then the late 1990s. Nakanishi (2013) and Makise (2005, 2018), together with Iitsuka and Tsutsumi (2015), outline the reason for these peaks as reflecting the decentralisation policies that were being formulated in the first period, implemented in the second, with the new reality becoming apparent in the third. The Comprehensive Decentralisation Law of 2000 was the final step of a long trajectory of this policy definition, formulation and implementation that yielded a bureaucratically-dictated relationship of illusionary equality between the central government administration and local governments, a relationship that forced a dramatic shift from dependence on the central government to self-management for local governments. It became increasingly clear through this long journey that with the post-decentralisation landscape, local authorities would have to generate and manage local policy more actively, which yielded, if not necessitated, the establishment of such policy-focused local municipal think tanks. Makise (2018) points to the combinative nature of the onset of bureaucratic uncertainty that municipalities were facing at the time together with the expansion and diversification of residential needs municipalities were facing as particularly intimidating for local governments. The 2002 survey reported on by Nakanishi (2013) revealed that the dominant activity engaged in by these urban think tanks was undertaking ‘independent survey and analysis research,’ reported by 61 percent, followed by undertaking ‘requested survey and analysis research,’ reported by 24 percent. In the case of ‘independent survey and analysis research,’ determination of themes was largely a function of internal determination by the municipalities themselves (22%), essentially attempts by municipalities to define and identify their own governing needs and capabilities, versus ‘requests by an affiliated municipal institution’ (14%), implying the need to respond to widespread confusion in local governing.
While Makise (2018) divided think tanks first of all on the basis of for-profit versus non-profit status, outlining five broad categories for the non-profit sector (municipality-based, foundation or NPO-registered, academic institutional, finance institution-based, and political policy oriented), the focus of the research was on municipal think tanks, where he identified four further types: a comprehensive internal think tank, a special theme-focused think tank, an external affiliated foundation or association form, and finally, a third-sector form, usually a tie-up with a for-profit and/or a university. Tsutui (2018) points out five characteristics of municipal think tanks which private think tanks do not have: a geographical place; a direct influence on policy formation and implementation; the legal right, system opportunity, and accessible budget for undertaking survey research; a deliberative process that oversees any action; and the appropriate authority and responsibility for any action. What this points to is the complexity and overlap in think tanks forms: from relatively clear distinctions such as for-profit and non-profit to subtle variations of municipal think tanks that focus on government policy and services versus the range of institutional objectives, organisational constraints, and assumptions of neutrality that characterise (or plague) foundations, academics, and finance or policy-based think tanks. The range of topical issues that have been taken up as research topics in terms of applicability and potential for contributions by think tanks is quite varied; a full review of the extent of this literature is beyond the scope of this paper, but, for example, themes have focused on a ‘work separation’ (事業仕分け) function for the national government inherent in think tanks (Iitsuka and Tsutsumi 2015); the function of think tanks in formulating town-making policy as well as realising town-making in operational practice (Maeda 2018); the tension between think tanks re-stimulating progress on stalled local revitalisation while also providing the strategic thinking for future urban policy (Todokoro 2018); and think tanks and depopulation policy for rural areas (Shimizu 2018).
Suffice it to say, while Japanese research of Japanese think tanks at one level reflects such broad, if not universal themes as the historical trajectory of the sector and theorisation about the function, significance, and potential of think tanks in an ‘idealised construction’ of society, the question that remains is the degree to which regional think tanks also might reflect a universal set of urban and rural governance themes while simultaneously responding to the very specific geographical contexts of local places and responding with outcomes, constrained by think tank form, that address the circumstances of that context. Inevitably, ‘close research’ of regional Japanese think tanks is justified in that it should provide a more finely grained set of criteria, ultimately positioning them as a significant sub-sector within the broader construct of think tanks, with a view of the think tank not just as an instrument of policy formation, but more importantly as an agent of social change, in the form of local policy response to locally specific issues.

Japan’s Regional Think Tanks: Local Place and Local Objectives

Turning to the specific case for regional think tanks in Japan, the most logical starting point is the Regional Think Tank Council (chihō think tank kyōgikai). The Website opens with its own explanation of what the Regional Think Tank Council is, referring to its founding in 1985 as a “voluntary organisation that aims toward independent regional and local development through local issue-focused investigatory research, quality policy proposal and deepened reciprocal exchange activities” (English summary by author).
Figure 5   The Regional Think Tank Council Homepage

Source: Regional Think Tank Council homepage (http://www.think-t.gr.jp)
The council lists 57 member organisations (as of July 2019), a number that on the one hand would imply approximately one think tank per prefecture, while on the other would seem low given the 218 think tanks on the NIRA list, and identifies as its main activities an annual Regional Think Tank Forum, members’ only Management Talks, an annual Regional Activation Essay Award, members’ only Theme-oriented Research Events, and an annual Council Journal: Regional Research Exchange (chiiki kenkyū kōryū: 2019, 99th edition).
Examination of the 50-plus member think tanks reveals the following patterns (see Table 2). As could be expected and countering the case for the NIRA data, in which the geographical distribution of think tanks was centred on Tokyo, the regional thank tank distribution is much more balanced across five major geographical blocks. In a similar manner, whereas for the NIRA listed think tanks, the joint-stock company form was the dominant organisational type, with public interest foundations and general foundation types accounting for under 20 percent each, there is a closer balance between these three types for regional think tanks, each accounting for around 30 percent (from 26.3% to 31.6%). Interestingly, this balance is reflected in the geographically-distributed list of reporting think tanks for the Regional Think Tank Monitor Survey published quarterly since 2004 by The Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training (n.d.), where foundation think tanks account for six of the 12, joint-stock another five, with universities represented by a single think tank. An examination of each of the over 50 websites on the Regional Think Tank Council page provides for such general observations as histories that begin in the 1970s and 1980s, a notable presence of banks as the financial base of both private (stock company) think tanks and public (general foundation) think tanks, and a range of activities that include the undertaking of local economic, industry, and business sentiment surveys, participation and support in regional development projects, planning and sponsoring of seminars-lectures-research meetings, and both acting as a ‘library’ of local area economic and industry-related data on the one hand and a ‘publisher-disseminator’ of ongoing research and informed opinion both in an annual journal format as well as in special issue publications on the other. The regional think tank Webpages are rich with information: tables of economic indicator data, archives of past survey results, and links to local institutions.

Table 2  Regional Think Tank Council Think Tank Data 

Table: original
Data Source: http://www.think-t.gr.jp/member.html

Five Representative Samples and Think Tanks as an Ad Hoc Sector

In order to examine more closely the character, focus, and influence of regional think tanks, five representative samples were selected from among the 57 listed with the Regional Think Tank Council. As shown in Table 3, based on a grounded-up viewing of the think tank Websites so as to develop a set of criteria that would effectively illustrate the similarities and differences among the differing think tank forms, the following criteria were identified:

(1) sponsor and financial disclosure information;
(2) undertaking of economic/industry survey research;
(3) offering case applied and for-profit business consulting;
(4) offering seminars, lectures and study meetings;
(5) producing and disseminating documents and magazine publications;
(6) maintaining an area economic indicator database for public access.

 As shown in the table, there are three areas that reveal the clearest differences between the three think tank types. The first is the difference between private capitalisation by the private shareholder-based think tanks versus bank or contributing member support for the public types. That this is an obvious marker of the difference between these two types does not minimise its importance for the regional think tank sector. The second area is case-applied business consulting (as opposed to project support) as a major think tank activity, which in the former, constitutes a profit-making activity versus a non-profit endeavour for the public think tanks. And lastly, the area of magazine and book publication and provision of archives and an archived public accessible area economic indicator database as provided by the public think tanks represents a public interest function that is not apparent among the corporate think tanks.

Table 3  Regional Think Tank Council: Five Samples

Table: original
Source: respective homepages.
A final point regarding Japan’s regional think tanks, however, needs to be emphasised—a point that reflects once again Medvetz’s (2008) ‘dilemma of definition,’ only more in the sense of the use of the term ‘think tank’ than as related to defining the think tank sector by virtue of a set of characteristics. Quite by chance, my Internet searches brought me to a page titled Hachinohe City Urban Research Study Group (Regional Think Tank) (Hachinohe-shi toshi kenkyū kentōkai (chiiki think tank)).
Figure 6   The Hachinohe City Urban Research Study Group Think Tank Page

Source: Hachinohe City homepage (https://www.city.hachinohe.aomori.jp/jigyoshamuke/kenchiku_toshikeikaku/toshikeikaku/4/9145.html)
 A reading of the page reveals that the think tank represents the cooperation of the major’s office, a local high school and two local universities, with research activities directed toward area revitalisation, de-carbonisation of the local economy, disaster response preparation, town renovation and image, local tourism, local health care service provision, and utilisation of toward region-making. Established in 2009, this municipal think tank did not appear in any of the think tank listings nor did it provide any of the usual think tank descriptors that would allow for its categorisation as such in any its associated and linked Web pages. It is merely one page on a municipal Website that uses the terminology of think tank to describe what otherwise would be the expected local planning activity of any municipal government. Anecdotal yes, but also indicative of the very real reality that the term think tank is quite likely used for an incredibly wide range of municipal and private activities with neither oversight nor rigour. Virtually any municipality or local organisation can, either officially and within the laws governing foundations and non-profits as well as the bylaws that govern their activities or in a manner that is ad hoc and pursuant to a specific objective, establish themselves as one form or another of think tank.
Considering the Regional Think Tank Council member think tanks, as well as the five think tanks and the specific case for the Hachinohe City Urban Research Study Group focused on above, in terms of the definitions, models and criteria outlined in the opening of this paper, it is clear that the Japanese regional think tanks described above at once, both fit the conventional think tank pattern while simultaneously offering new points for consideration. They are independent and non-profit and non-special interest (Rich 2004), but also engage in for-profit consultancy and special-interest advocacy. They do undertake analysis, advocacy, education, and policy formulation (Ruser 2013), and they do move ideas (Stone 1996). They are engaged with academia, with the state, with local businesses, and with local media (Medvetz 2008), and they contribute to identifying constraints to policy options in a manner that also contributes to developing policy on the one hand, identifying the normative ranges of policy potential in a manner that legitimises policy to the public on the other (Ruser 2018). However, when viewed within the context of Japanese think tanks in general, the fact that they do these things under the banner of ‘think tank,’ together with the fact that, labeled as ‘think tanks,’ they present clearly alternative organisational forms, operational patterns, and social implications to the traditional sense of Japanese think tanks, is significant.


While contributing to the literature of think tank research by offering, not just a Japanese case, but also the regional Japanese case, this research at first glance does little to solve the fundamental dilemma of definition that continues to haunt think tank research. Indeed, much of the content confirms that the broad and loosely designated, established and existing criteria used to classify and categorise think tanks—institutional affiliation, organisation form and funding sources, as well the research focus, operational agenda, and policy output and impact—do little to define the broadest extent and potential of the sector, and even less when confronted with the specifics and specific circumstances of locales within Japan. While also suggesting that there is an ad hoc, loosely-defined and under-recognised sector of think tank activity in regional Japan—those municipal offices, foundation-banked research centres, and quite possibly informal groups that have designated themselves a think tank—what the content of this paper argues for is, at a minimum, recognition of this subsector, if not more intentionally, a research agenda, one that can develop and justify a set of criteria capable of capturing such scale dimensions in think tanks and accommodate their assessment.
However, further to contextualise this conclusion relevant to the Japanese Studies focus and the importance of regional think tanks in their locale, I will cite two opinion pieces published very recently in The Japan Times online newspaper that speak directly to both this ‘scale dimension’ for Japan and the importance of recognising such independent and local think tanks. In a 20 January 2020 piece, Miyake (2020) confirms the scale problem of Japan’s think tank sector, first defining Japan’s major think tanks as “either government-affiliated research institutes or subsidiaries of megabanks, huge financial institutions, global trading firms and other big private corporations,” and then lamenting that such think tanks undertake objectives that match government priorities or the wishes of big business. While Miyake cites lack of scale, lack of access to essential information, and lack of new faces in top positions as hampering the success of more independent-oriented think tanks, he asserts that it is this independence from traditional form that is required of the small independent think tanks that he would like to see emerge. However, what he appears to be asking for he also admits would likely be largely ineffective in bringing meaningful change. Predating Miyake’s piece is a 9 December 2019 opinion piece in which Eldridge (2019), like Miyake, first outlines the shortcomings of the think tank sector in Japan: most notably, its concentration in Tokyo and its dependence on amakudari—the selection of former politicians, bureaucrats, and business leaders to lead think tanks in a manner that is unlikely to “shake things up too much.” He accuses the think tank sector of being much like the upper levels of the Japanese media: a closed shop. He goes a step beyond Miyake though, when he notes that there are “hundreds of smaller think tanks and personal offices that do great independent thinking and research, despite lacking just about all fundamentals—money, connections, access, location, staff, prestige, etc…,” before somewhat counter-intuitively, if not contradictorily, asserting that “it is these smaller organisations that businesses and the government should most encourage from now on,” a base of support that both of these think tank analysts seem to prioritise, while also asserting would be counterproductive to their independence and effectiveness.
It is in these two contexts—first, the established and conventional form of the large scale, bureaucratically-, if not corporate-affiliated, foreign policy and macro-economic policy focused think tank in Japan, and second, the declarations regarding the importance of an independent think tank sector for Japan together with the calls for support for think tanks that counter this traditional form—that the case for geographically-affiliated, central government-independent, and local issues/local opportunities-focused regional (and local) think tanks presented herein takes on significance. While the regional think tanks introduced and outlined above do mirror the established criteria presented herein—the definable characteristics of organisational form, activity aim, operational process, and socially-relevant outcome—and fit within Medvetz’s (2008) topological field and Ruser’s (2018) behaviour and influence framework— regional think tanks—whether they are corporate-private or municipal-public—also represent a different notion of the think tank: they operate in a different context, they aim for different objectives, and they yield different outcomes. Instead of a focus on security, defense and macro-economic policy, regional think tanks prioritise specific local aims and issues: local economic vitalisation, local area image-making, local disaster risk alleviation and a climate change agenda, and local health, welfare and education. Instead of proposing policy alternatives to the central and distant governing bureaucracy, regional think tanks aim to provide struggling local governments—and small businesses—with accurate and detailed information with which to make appropriate local policy—and business—decisions. And while operating within a social space comprised of knowledge production, political policy, economic reality, and media connectivity (after Medvetz), and tasked with fulfilling the expectations and identifying the constraints inherent in these four sectors (after Ruser), regional think tanks focus on free and open dissemination of the information they produce, through think tank publications on the one hand and a focus on education and activation of local human resources through training seminars and the development of professional connections on the other. In short, the regional think tank is truly a think tank dedicated to the future of a specific place, if not even ‘place’ in its most abstract sense. And, similar to most social science research themes, the broad trajectory of think tank sector research surely benefits from this closer look at the variety, the significance, and the potential of highly specific regional and local think tanks, precisely more of which further research on Japanese regional think tanks can offer.


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About the Author

Anthony Rausch is professor at Hirosaki University, Japan. He obtained his PhD from Monash University and has published on issues relevant to rural Japan. He is author of Japan’s Local Newspapers: Chihoshi and Revitalisation Journalism (Routledge), Japanese Journalism and the Japanese Newspaper: A Supplemental Reader (Teneo Press), and co-editor of Japan’s Shrinking Regions: 21st Century Responses to Depopulation and Socioeconomic Decline (Cambria Press)

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