Silencing the Voices in Tokyo’s First Ever Local Referendum

Is Japanese Civil Society Really Flourishing?

Chris Burgess, Tsuda College [About | Email]

Volume 15, Issue 1 (Article 1 in 2015). First published in ejcjs on 19 April 2015.


This paper evaluates the state of civil society in Japan using Tokyo’s first ever local referendum as a case study. The paper challenges the conventional academic discourse that paints Japanese civil society as flourishing. Behind this discourse is a narrow definition of civil society centering on the presence of non-profit organisations and associations such as NPOs increasingly incorporated and appropriated by the state. The state-led institutionalisation of civic organisations has pushed many ordinary people to be more active and vocal in the public sphere reflecting the growing difficulties citizens at the grassroots level are having in making their voices heard. A prime example is the citizen-initiated referendum by local ordinance (RLO) which has become increasingly common over the past few years. The paper concludes by arguing that frustration at the grassroots level reflects broader changes occurring in Japanese politics at the national level pointing to a civil society that is far from flourishing.

Keywords: Japan, civil society, (local) democracy, referendum, civic action, voice.

1. Introduction

1. Introduction

“Screaming tactics differ little in essence from terrorist actions” (2013/11/29)

“Is democracy really compatible with fear-inducing noisy protests?” (2013/12/01)

Ishiba Shigeru, LDP Secretary-General, commenting on demonstrations around the Diet building against the Secrets Protection Bill (Yomiuri Shimbun 2013a)

On Sunday, May 26th 2013, something quite remarkable happened in Kodaira City, Western Tokyo. Over 50,000 citizens voted in Tokyo’s very first citizen-initiated local referendum (jūmin tōhyō) on the issue of whether a 50-year-old plan to construct a road should be reviewed or not. The Kodaira referendum came at a time when civil society in Japan is said-to-be flourishing. Although the Kodaira referendum was the first in the capital, recent years have seen something of a referendum boom nationally. In February 2015 alone, referendums were held in Tokorozawa and Yonaguni, Okinawa.

At first glance, the Kodaira referendum would seem to fit in with what may be called the civil society rising discourse, the idea that effective civic activism has flourished in Japan in recent years and conservative dominance is being challenged. Tsujinaka (2003: 115) for example, argues that Japanese civil society is booming, as evidenced by ‘increasing pluralisation and growing maturity.’ Hirata (2002: 1) talks of the ‘recent spurt’ of a civil society that has ‘finally emerged on the scene.’ Takao (2007) describes a vibrant civil society and the formation of a new civic nation. And post 3/11, Gonoi (2012) sees increased public participation in direct democracy as proof that Japanese citizens are now finding their voice. Similarly, Cassegard (2013: chapter 8) discusses the ‘resurgence’ of political activity and the ‘recovery’ of youth activism. But are louder citizen voices necessarily a sign of a healthy civil society? Is it possible that citizens’ voices may have grown louder in recent years precisely because their words are increasingly failing to reach those in power? The Kodaira referendum points to the latter: the Kodaira ballots have—to date—still not been opened, thanks to an amendment passed in a special session of the local assembly a month before the vote which set a minimum turnout as a condition for their opening.

This paper evaluates the state of civil society in contemporary Japan using the Kodaira referendum as a case study. It examines the participation of local residents in one locality, and the moves by local government to limit that participation. The central question is: is Japanese civil society flourishing, as is often claimed, or actually floundering? Section 2 defines civil society. Section 3 describes the emergence and development of civil society in Japan, from the ANPO demonstrations of the 1960s and the rise of NGOs in the 1980s, through the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 and the post 3/11 anti-nuclear demonstrations. Section 4 looks at the history of the referendum in Japan in general and the case of Kodaira in particular. Finally, section 5 situates Japanese referenda in comparative international perspective. The conclusion discusses the future prospects for civil society—and democracy—in Japan against the background of consolidation by political conservatives and growing nationalism.

2. What is Civil Society?

The classical definition of civil society refers to voluntary, self-organised not-for-profit social activities carried out by groups and associations in the public sphere outside the state, the market, and the family. Not all non-state groups qualify as part of civil society; Hirata (2002: 10) excludes groups which do not promote pluralism and diversity, such as extreme ring-wing groups. Nevertheless, the definition of civil society is broad and includes everything from the 300,000 or so local neighbourhood associations (chōnaikai) to organisations of various sizes with economic, cultural, educational, developmental, environmental, human rights, or other agendas. Autonomy from the power of the state—at least to some degree—is central, since such groups are supposed to function as a buffer between the state and the individual. The question of autonomy, however, is a key problem for the standard definition. This is because the degree of independence of organisations from the state is rarely absolute and the state has a significant influence on which groups flourish and which do not. Pekkanen (2006), for example, notes that Japan has many small, local groups with few or no employees but not many large, professionally managed national organisations, such as Greenpeace, a pattern he calls Japan’s ‘dual civil society’ and which he puts down to strict state oversight and regulations.

Two kinds of groups which are often mentioned in discussions of civil society are non-governmental organisations (NGOs or hi’seifu-soshiki) and non-profit organisations (NPOs or hi’eiri-soshiki). The labeling is misleading because both types of group are non-governmental, non-profit civic organisations. In Japan, the main difference is that NGOs refer to organisations engaged in international affairs and global issues (whether within or outside Japan)1 while NPOs refer to groups involved in domestic activities in Japan. The fact that many groups are involved in both makes the distinction less than clear and in practice the terms are often used interchangeably. One important distinction that is clear relates to legal status. Unincorporated associations (usually called civic groups or shimin dantai), which make up the majority of civic groups, lack legal protection and tax breaks but enjoy relative freedom from state supervision. On the other hand, incorporated associations (hōjin) comprise both public interest corporations (kōeki hōjin) and specified non-profit activity associations (tokutei hi’eiri katsudō hōjin). Hirata (2002: 13-14) describes the former as privileged and elite ‘private-public hybrid NGOs’ with strong ties (and obligations) to government and the latter—made possible by the confusingly named 1998 NPO law (Tokutei Hi’eiri Katsudō Sokushin Hō)—as relatively more independent of the state.

3. The Emergence of Civil Society in Japan

Although civil society is not the same thing as democracy, civil society is often viewed as the foundation of democracy and a democratic system is in turn needed for civil society to flourish. The roots of Japan’s civil society today can be traced to the enactment of the new constitution of Japan in May 1947 which marked the birth ofliberal democracy in Japan. Of particular note was the emphasis on the principle of popular sovereignty in the new constitution, as introduced in the preamble:

sovereign power resides with the people… Government is a sacred trust of the people, the authority for which is derived from the people, the powers of which are exercised by the representatives of the people, and the benefits of which are enjoyed by the people. This is a universal principle of mankind upon which this Constitution is founded

Thus, in contrast to the pre-war idea that sovereignty lay with the Emperor, the post-war constitution makes it clear that sovereignty lies with the people and defines The Emperor as merely ‘the symbol of the State and the unity of the people’ who derives his position ‘from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power’ (Article 1). The ‘rights and duties of the people,’ in particular ‘individual rights’ (jinkaku) are mentioned throughout.

Despite the new constitution, civil society was slow to emerge. Indeed, until recently the dominant discourse was of Japan having a weak civil society. In the 1990s, for example, Samuel Huntingdon (1993: 71) described the ‘poverty’ of civil society in Japan and non-Western countries in contrast to European pluralism. Van-Wolferen (1993: 62) noted the ‘absence’ of a strong civil society in Japan, describing it as ‘extremely weak and ineffectual.’ One often posited reason was that the exclusive focus on economic growth in post-war Japan known as the developmental state—underpinned by a strong bureaucracy—inhibited the growth of Japanese civil society. Cultural reasons were also frequently cited, including the Buddhist/Confucian tradition and the group-oriented nature of Japanese society which tended to stress mutual assistance within the group before extending help outside (Hirata 2002: 23-25). It has also been suggested that the Japanese development model is less adversarial than the West’s with government, corporations and citizens perceived as cooperating to achieve the same goal.

Although the dominant academic discourse now typically portrays Japanese civil society not as weak but strong, cultural arguments that paint Japanese as harmonious and Japanese civic activism as fundamentally different from the West continue to be appear. Nakamura (2002: 17), for example, argues that relations in Japan are symbiotic rather than hostile, with the role of civil society being to coordinate rather than to challenge. The media in particular continue to refer to national cultural stereotypes, portraying the Japanese as conflict-averse, passive, and docile. For example, writing post 3/11 The New York Times (2011) described Japanese civic activism as ‘exceptional’ in a people who ‘generally trust their leaders.’ Similarly, the Los Angeles Times (2011), describing growing criticism of authority, characterised the Japanese as a conformist group-oriented people who are ‘taught to respect authority from an early age.’ Even the Japan Times (2011a; 2012a) remarked that a ‘usually sedate’ Japan is not commonly known for having large-scale demonstrations or violent antigovernment protests. These characterisations are puzzling given the events of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

3.1 Early Post-war: Protest and Confrontation

In contrast to the stark difference between pre-war and post-war constitutions, many political and government personnel continued in their positions post-war, often after being briefly purged and even imprisoned for war-crimes. Yoshida Shigeru, for example, who was prime minister for most of the period from 1946 to 1954 was imprisoned for several months in 1945 while Kishi Nobusuke (prime minister from 1957-1960) was held as a Class A war crimes suspect until his release in 1948.

The contrast between the ideals of the constitution and the thinking of the old-guard was highlighted by Kishi’s handling of the revision of the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty (ANPO). Protests against renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty (known as the ANPO tōsō or struggle) began in 1959 and peaked in the summer of 1960 following Kishi’s forced approval of the treaty in a midnight session of parliament. Kishi’s attitude towards the millions of protestors who took to the streets was telling: he called the demonstrations ‘distasteful’ and ‘insignificant’ (Time 1960: 24). One of the groups involved in these protests—commonly seen as the start of civic activism in Japan—were called Voiceless Voices (Koe Naki Koe no Kai).The name was appropriated from a statement by Kishi who argued, much like Ishiba in 2013, that the loud voices of protest (koe aru koe) came from a violent, vocal minority who did not represent public opinion, the silent majority that he called the ‘voiceless voices’; consequently, this group tried to broaden the demonstrations by appealing to ordinary unaffiliated individuals (Avenell 2010: 93; Sasaki-Uemura 2001: chapter 6).

In the decades that followed, the ANPO era citizens’ movements exerted a major influence on the organisation and political philosophies of the anti-Vietnam War effort, Narita Airport protests, and environmental and consumer movements. Citizens attempted to transform Japanese society and reshape the body politic through opposition to Japan’s postwar establishment of politicians, bureaucrats, and businesspeople. However, Hirata (2002: 17) points out that these movements failed to lead to a vibrant civil society in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s because they were typically focused on single issues which when solved saw the movement disappear.

3.2 1980s: The Rise of NGOs and the Mainstreaming of Civic Activism

The preceding section has shown that citizen-based movements—including consumer, environmental, and minority social movements—have been active in Japan since the 1960s. However, it was only with the rise of NGOs in the 1980s that Japan’s civil society began to mature. Hirata (2002), in a study of the role of NGOs in Tokyo’s official development assistance (ODA) policy, notes a rapid growth from less than a dozen such organisations in the 1960s and 1970s to more than a hundred in the late 1980s to the early 1990s. Indeed, the 1990s saw the greatest number of newly established organisations, though numbers began to drop in the mid-1990s following the bursting of the bubble and the stagnation of membership fees and donations (JANIC 2013). Tsujinaka (2003:91-93), in a comparative analysis of a broader range of civic organisations in Japan, finds a similar pattern: between 1975 and 1991 the total number of such organisations almost doubled; on a per-capita basis, Japan’s figures were a half of America’s in the 1970s before approaching the US figure in the late 1980s.

Two interrelated factors account for this growth. The first was Japan’s emergence as an economic powerhouse in the 1980s. Growing foreign criticism of Japan as an economic animal and pressure to liberalise its economy saw the erosion of the catch-up developmental state ideology that had focused solely on economic growth. ‘[T]he diminishing capacities of the insulated developmental state,’ notes Pekkanen (2004: 365), ‘have opened up new political opportunities for Japan’s once weak advocacy sector to more strongly assert itself in national affairs since the 1980s.’ Affluence also saw a change in values. Mouer and Sugimoto (2003: 219) describe a shift in consciousness among the general populationaway from purely material goals.2

The second, connected, factor in the NGO boom from the 1980s was rapid globalisation. This brought an increasing awareness of and public interest in the needs of the developing world. Hirata (2002: 301-31) identifies the Indochinese refugee crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s as a key incident abroad which triggered the expansion of NGOs in Japan. Foreign pressure to take on greater leadership and responsibility in the international arena saw a dramatic increase in both financial contributions, in the form of Overseas Development Aid (ODA),3and physical contributions, such as peace-keeping operations in Cambodia and elsewhere following passage of the PKO law in 1992. Awareness of global issues heightened through the 1990s. One example of such an issue was that of land-mines. Public interest in the issue saw Japanese NGOs play a key role in pushing the government to ratify the international land-mine ban in 1998 (Hirata 2002: 121), illustrating the increasing transnational nature of civil society.

3.3 The Great Hanshin Earthquake: The Re-birth of Civil Society

The term shimin shakai (civil society) is still not widely used in Japan outside academia; a search for the term in the Asahi Shimbun Database gives just over a hundred hits each year between 1995 and 2001, before falling off. In contrast, the terms borantia (volunteer), shimin dantai (citizen group), and NGO were fairly common even before the 1995 Kobe earthquake, though this event saw them become everyday terms (Figure 1). Thus, it is important to note that interest in citizen participation was increasing even before 1995, encouraged by the end of LDP dominance—the so-called 1955 system—in 1993. In contrast, as Figure 1 shows, the word NPO remained very much a foreign term in Japan until 1995 when it shot to prominence in the build up to the NPO law of 1998.

Figure 1. Number of Articles in the Asahi Shimbun Containing shimin dantai, borantia, NGO, and NPO (1984-2013)

Burgess, Figure 1

Source/Notes: Compiled by the author from the Asahi Shimbun Database (Kikuzō). Articles counted contained the terms one or more times in either the heading or body of the article. Figures for NGO and NPO numbers include hi’seifu-soshiki and hi’eiri-soshiki respectively.

As Figure 1 shows, the catalyst for ‘volunteer’ and other terms becoming firmly established in the Japanese lexicon was the Great Hanshin Earthquake which hit Kobe in 1995. With the government response slow and disorganised, some 1.3 million volunteers came forward in the weeks following the quake to engage in on-site relief work. Though volunteers had appeared in previous disasters, the sheer scale of volunteers—many first-timers—saw 1995 labelled as the first year of volunteerism in Japan. In other words, 1995 saw volunteering—belatedly—gain social legitimacy. The momentum led to the passage of the NPO law in 1998, landmark legislation which made it easier for existing civil society organisations to apply for legal status (Figure 2), though the number of new NGOs continued to drop.

Figure 1. Number of Groups Attaining NPO Corporate Status under the 1998 NPO Law (1998-2013)

Burgess, Figure 1

Source: Cabinet Office (2014b)

As of January 1st 2014, 50,506 organisations had applied for legal status under the NPO law, with the vast majority—48,735—being approved (Cabinet Office 2014a). However, legal status does not automatically result in tax exempt status. Strict conditions, such as 20% of total revenues being from donations, mean only a handful of organisations—only 249 as of April 2012—enjoy tax privileges (Japan Times 2012b). As a result, the biggest problem for non-profit organisations—with or without legal status—has been to secure income (Yomiuri Shimbun 2012a). This problem was partially addressed in a 2012 revision to the NPO law (Japan Times 2012b).

3.4 The Great East Japan Earthquake: The Flowering of Civil Society?

Like the 1995 Kobe earthquake, thousands of organisations and over a million volunteers responded to the 2011 Tohoku quake. Although the exact numbers are unclear, according to the Japan National Council of Social Welfare (JNCSW 2013) more than 1.17 million volunteers have been active in the affected areas as of March 2013. In the first four months alone, there were almost half-a-million registered volunteers in Tohoku (Kingston 2012: 9). In terms of organisations, some 3,000 have registered with the Cabinet Office for disaster relief; 750 organisations were affiliated with the Japan Civil Network for Disaster Relief in East Japan (JCN) (Yomiuri Shimbun 2012c). Although volunteer numbers were lower than for Kobe—in part due to the more inaccessible nature of the region—the government and local infrastructure to facilitate volunteering contrasted starkly with Kobe where officials often didn’t know what to do with the all the offers of help (Kingston 2012: 9). Kingston (Japan Times 2011b) refers to these volunteer efforts as evidence for the ‘flowering’ of civic activism in Japan.

One dramatic development post 3/11 is the return4 of citizen voice. Since the mid-1970s, protest movements had declined to be replaced by civic movements characterised not by confrontation but by ‘constructive’ or ‘pragmatic’ activism and cooperation (Avenell 2010: 195). One consequence of this shift was that civil society groups became unable to function as effective checks or monitors—as watchdogs—on state action or to influence government policy (Kawato et al. 2012). Kawato et al (2012) point to the weak advocacy role of civil society organisations—specifically their failure to monitor the nuclear industry—as contributing to the magnitude of the nuclear disaster. But after the disaster citizens again began to speak out. The turn-out of tens of thousands of anti-nuclear protesters in Meiji Park in September 2011 harked back to the 1960s. By the summer of 2012, more than 100,000 were gathering at weekly protests in front of the Prime Minister’s official residence (Kantei mae), the largest demonstrations for half a century (Williamson 2012).5 Many writers have picked up on the notion of voice (koe) in describing these protests. Kindstrand (2013) for example, focused on the image of one protester’s placard which read kokumin no koe o kike (listen to the people’s voices!). Noma (2012: 133), in a book sub-titled, The Voice of the Protests will Change Politics, describes a wave of indignant voices making visible the will of the people (min’i). In sum, the disaster at Fukushima energised individuals to be more proactive and vocal not only about nuclear issues but also about other issues affecting their lives. This re-discovery of voice is especially apparent in the increase in the number of local referenda in recent years.

4. Referenda in Japan: Hearing and Silencing the Voices

4.1 Referenda in Japan

Those who cite the huge increase in NPOs as evidence for the civil society rising thesis forget how skilful the Japanese state has become in appropriating civic organisations through registration, paperwork, funding, regulation, and personnel (staffing with ex-bureaucrats). ‘The combination of discretionary screening function, close supervision of operations, and sanctioning power,’ writes Pekkanen (2006: 17), ‘has a chilling effect on the vitality of the civil society sector.’ What Ogawa (2009: 15) refers to as the ‘state-led institutionalisation of volunteer-based NPOs under the name of civil society’ has resulted in a stifling of advocacy roles and impotence in contributing to policy, as illustrated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Civil society is often described as a buffer between state and people but in Japan it can function more like a barrier as organisations soften or even silence the voices of ordinary citizens, inhibiting rather than facilitating speech, and filtering citizen wants and wishes.

The return of citizen voice can be said to reflect a floundering not a flourishing civil society. Frustration is undoubtedly behind the increase in individual action—from the mother attending a Friday anti-nuclear protest with her children to the independent student volunteer in Tohoku. Japanese civil society groups may be more symbiotic and cooperative than their Western counterparts, but as Nakamura (2002: 18) points out this only works if the state, organisations, and individuals share common goals—and communication. Although these spontaneous, informal activities and interpersonal activities typically lie outside the definition of civil society6 (Ehrenberg 1999: 235; Pharr 2003: xiv), they are in many ways the most likely to be truly independent of the state:

Those who are urged to transform the way they live now take action in their own way; some gauge radioactivity in communities, some migrate to less contaminated places with their children, some visit Fukushima to give support to its residents, some collect signatures to push local legislators to hold a referendum… and other join demonstrations in the street. It is not difficult to see their determination to become independent from authority. (Ando 2014: 2)

Frustration at authority and a desire to have their voice heard is reflected in another recent phenomenon: the increase in the number of referenda by local ordinance (RLO). Okamoto (2012: 116) argues that the emergence of RLO is a consequence of citizen voices and wishes being reflected less and less in the decision-making process against the background of the Heisei mergers.

In Japan, there are various kinds of referendum (jūmin tōhyō) all of them local. National referenda on constitutional issues—like the 1975 UK vote on European membership—have not taken place in Japan,7 although any constitutional amendment would require ratification by the people in a special referendum (Article 96).8 The first type of referendum are those required by article 95 of the constitution when a special law (tokubetsuhō), applicable only to one local public entity, is to be enacted. These were common in the post-war re-building years, such as the June 1950 Tokyo metropolis vote on the special construction law. Referenda must also take place when local assemblies or offices dissolve usually due to the merger of towns and villages. This was particularly common in first decade of the 2000s in the period known as ‘the great Heisei mergers’ (heisei no daigappei). Finally, referenda can be proposed by citizens or officials under the Local Autonomy Law (Chihō Jichi Hō) which allows for the enactment of a local act or ordinance (jōrei). This latter type will be the focus here.

Kobori (2009: 17-18) portrays RLO as an ‘incredible success’ because of their ability to generate extremely high turnouts, intense community involvement, and lively discussion. He (2009: 18) lists three key features of RLOs: first, they are non-binding; second, they are not limited to local issues; and third, only signatures from 2% of the electorate9 are needed to force the local assembly to debate holding a referendum. In fact, despite (or perhaps because of) the low signature threshold most referendum proposals end up being rejected by the local assembly. For example, following the nuclear disaster, assemblies in Tokyo, Osaka, Shizuoka,10 and Niigata voted down proposals calling for referenda on whether to resume operations at—or scrap—nuclear power plants, despite more than the required number of signatures being collected (Japan Times 2013b). Referenda in Japan function rather differently to those in other countries, acting more like a questionnaire or advisory tool: in Japan, the local assembly—not the citizen—has the final say (Numata 2006; Okamoto 2012: 117). Okamoto (2012: 122) calculates that only 16% of referendum proposals are actually approved though notes that the approval rate is much higher for referenda initiated by councillors (38%) and mayors (90%). However, in recent years a number of municipalities, starting with Takahama City in 2000, have passed permanent referendum ordinances (jōsetsu-gata jūmin tōhyō jōrei) not tied to one single issue (hikobetsu-gata) that allow referenda to be held if enough signatures are gathered without the need for local assembly or mayoral approval (Okamoto 2012: 122).

Although petitions and demands for referenda have been increasing since the late 1970s, the RLO held in 1996 in Maki, Niigata over the building of a nuclear power plant is widely recognised as Japan’s first popular referendum. Since then, over 400 have been held, though the vast majority have been related to village and town mergers (Okamoto 2012: 115, 117) and these are not included in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Local Referenda by Local Ordinance (Jōrei) in Japan, 1996~2013

Date Place (population) Issue Initiator Turn-out Approval
Aug. 1996 Maki, Niigata (30,525) Invite nuclear power plant Councillor 88.29% 39%
Sep. 1996 Okinawa Prefecture (1.3m) Downsize US base etc Citizens 59.53% 89%
Jun. 1997 Mitake, Gifu (20,058) Est. industrial waste plant Citizens 87.51% 19%
Nov. 1997 Kobayashi, Miyazaki (41,654) Est. industrial waste plant Citizens 75.86% 40%**
Dec. 1997 Nago, Okinawa (52,193) Accept US heliport base Citizens 82.45% 46%**
Feb. 1998 Yoshinaga, Okayama (5,439) Est. industrial waste plant Citizens 91.65% 2%
Jun. 1998 Shiraishi, Miyagi (41,505) Est. industrial waste plant Mayor 70.99% 4%
Jul. 1998 Unakami, Chiba (11.176) Est. industrial waste plant Mayor 87.31% 2%
Jul. 1998 Konagai, Nagasaki (6,989) Expand quarry Mayor 67.75% 53%
Jan. 2000 Tokushima City (263,358) Build dam Councillor 54.99% 8%
May 2001 Kariwa, Niigata (4,761) Introduce nuclear pwr plnt Citizens 88.14% 43%
Nov. 2001 Miyama, Mie (9,764) Invite nuclear power plant Mayor 88.64% 32%
Oct. 2003 Hidaka, Kochi (5,940) Est. industrial waste plant Citizens 79.8% 60%
Oct. 2005 Sodegaura, Chiba (59,549) Develop station Citizens 57.95% 35%
Mar. 2006 Iwakuni , Ymgch (145,537) Accept US base Mayor 58.68% 11%*
Dec. 2007 Yotsukaido, Chiba (88,167) Build exchange Center Citizens 47.55% 24%
Apr. 2008 Izenason, Okinawa (1,523) Build Cattle Ranch Mayor 71.36% 50%**
Nov. 2010 Saku, Nagano (99,961) Build Cultural Centre Mayor 54.87% 29%
May 2012 Tottori City (194,362) Build new City Office Citizens 50.81% 39%
Apr. 2013 Sanyo’onada, Ymg (63,348) Cut councillor numbers Citizens 45.53% ??? *
May 2013 Kodaira, Tokyo (180,049) Build road Citizens 35.17% ???
Feb 2015 Tokorozawa City (342,939) Air conditioners in schools Citizens 31.54% 65%
Feb 2015 Yonaguni, Okinawa (1,684) GSDF Deployment Councillor 85.74% 58%

Sources: Kobori (2009: 20); Okamoto (2012: 120); Sankei Shimbun (2013a); Nihon Keizai Shimbun (2012).

Notes: Permanent Foreign Residents were able to vote in 2003, 2006, 2008, April 2013, and Yonaguni (middle-school students were also eligible in the latter). Highlighted referendums required a turnout of 50% or more to be recognised (except for Tokushima, failure to satisfy this condition – seiritsu yōken – meant ballots would not be opened – as happened in the Sanyo’onada and Kodaira cases). In the Tokorozawa case, a turnout of one in three voters was set as the minimum for serious consideration, a condition which narrowly failed to be met.

* Denotes permanent type (jōsetsu-gata) referenda. This type of referendum usually contains the 50% turnout condition. All other cases here are single-issue type (kobetsu-gata) referenda.

**Not all local assemblies respected voter wishes. In the Kobayashi and Nago cases for example, projects went ahead despite receiving less than 50% approval. In Nago, a suit brought by citizens was dismissed on the grounds that the result of a referendum is not binding (Numata 2006: 22). On the other hand, despite yes votes making up just over 50% of votes, the Izenason cattle ranch project was scrapped shortly after the referendum.

Table 1 shows something of a referendum boom in the years 1996-1998, mirroring the interest in volunteerism following the Kobe earthquake. Numata (2006: 19) gives two reasons for the increase: (1) the perception by citizens of referenda as the most useful means to express their views and (2) the perception by local assemblies of referenda as a useful tool for challenging government. Up to 2003 most referenda related to the building of industrial waste or nuclear power plants, though recent years have seen a diversification of the issues, particularly wasteful public-works projects. Two recent trends can also be seen: a tendency to extend the vote to foreign residents and one to attach a 50% turnout condition to the vote.

Although the referenda in Table 1 represent only the successful few, there are merits even in cases where final approval is not given. In the first place, simply organising to hold a referendum can heighten interest in local and national elections: Kobori (2009: 24) notes that referenda in Japan have successfully raised voter turnouts. Okamoto (2012: 117, 125) identifies three merits: (1) expanding participation in and transparency of the decision-making process, (2) raising consciousness of the political process, and (3) fostering political literacy. In concrete terms, the process of collecting signatures and lobbying the local government—characterised by information sharing, newspaper articles, newsletters,12 meetings, symposiums, study groups, (web) campaigns, and social media blitzes—engages citizens in grassroots democracy, educates them about the issues, and encourages participation of people in local issues regardless of ultimate success. This will become clearer in the case study of Kodaira below.

4.2 The 2013 Kodaira Referendum

Public officials say: ‘We’re going to cut down this copse and build a road. This has been decided, so citizens please be quiet.’ (Kokubun 2013, front cover)

Jennifer Robertson’s (1991) study of Kodaira describes the remaking of the town (since 1962 city) as newcomers flooded in during the 1950s and early 1960s and mixed with native citizens. Located in Western Tokyo, the population has grown by more than 30,000 since Robertson wrote and stood at 186,679 as of September 2014 ( Unlike central Tokyo, Kodaira is full of green spaces and fields producing local produce for sale direct to citizens. The key feature of Kodaira City is the Green Road, a popular 21km tree-lined walking path which rings the city and which for 8km runs along the historical Tamagawa Aqueduct (Tamagawa Jōsui) that since 1654 has carried water from the Tama River to the capital ( In his greeting on the city homepage, Mayor Kobayashi begins by highlighting the Green Road as the key feature of Kodaira, one brought to life by Tamagawa Jōsui which has made Kodaira a ‘rich natural environment.’ This emphasis on nature is also reflected in the citizens’ charter (shimin kenshō), the first article of which states, ‘Let’s build a green verdant town to which small birds will flock.’

The story of the Tokyo’s first citizen-initiated referendum starts some fifty years ago, against the background of a booming population and economy. In 1963, the Tokyo Metropolitan government put forward a plan for a four-lane 1.4km road, part of a 13.6km stretch linking Fuchu and Higashimurayama. This road was to run through Kodaira Central Park dissecting the historical Tamagawa Aqueduct and the Green Road. Soon after, the plan dropped off the political radar but in 1995 it was revived. Aside from the economic benefits arising from transport improvements, emphasis was also put on its role in times of disaster. The revived plan was to cost 250 billion yen—most of which would be used to compensate the 220 households who were to be evicted. Almost half of 1.3 hectares of woodland was scheduled to be cleared and 481 trees chopped down.

The revival of the old plan triggered concern amongst a number of local groups. Finally, in October 2012, 13 local citizen groups and one NPO13 joined together to form a coalition named Kodaira-toshi-keikaku-dōro ni Jūminno Ishi o Han’ei Saseru Kai, literally Group to Reflect the Residents’ Wishes towards the Kodaira Metropolitan Road Plan.14 This is usually shortened to Han’ei Saseru Kai which I will use hereon. The rationale for establishing the new group was as follows:

Many citizens have asked that citizens’ wishes regarding this plan be reflected, but Kodaira City have said that because this is a Tokyo Metropolitan Government public works project they are unable to comply with our demands. We want to tell all citizens about this plan. We want citizens’ wishes to be reflected in town building (machizukuri). This group was started in order to implement a referendum to ask whether it was necessary to review the plan (

What comes through most strongly here—as the group’s name suggests—is frustration that local people’s voices had not been adequately reflected in the decision-making process to date. This is in contrast to Kodaira City who felt that enough consultation with locals had been undertaken:

In 2006, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and 28 cities and towns drew up a (revised) road plan and public opinion was broadly canvassed (hiroku iken kōbo). Also, recent social changes were taken into consideration and the necessity and effect of the project were inspected and it was decided to go ahead. On top of this, some changes were made to the original plans for the reason of environmental conservation (personal correspondence)

Members of Han’ei Saseru Kai were incredulous after seeing this response, and took particular umbrage at the claim that public opinion was widely canvassed.15 Group spokesperson Kazue Mizuguchi said that most people had no idea opinions were being invited and wanted to know what opinions had emerged and how they had been made use of. She noted that the opinions of Kodaira Kankyō no Kai (Environment Group), a member of Han’ei Saseru Kai, had not been reflected at all in the final plans. What comes across here is the large gap in perception over what degree of consultation is appropriate and whether public opinion needs to be reflected in a public works project.

In December 2012, Han’ei Saseru Kai set about gathering signatures (shomei), knowing that if they were able to collect 3,000—some 2% of the voting population—they would be legally entitled to ask the local government to hold a referendum. For non-Japanese, collecting signatures might seem a simple task, but in Japan it is no easy matter. This is because it is not a handwritten signature that is required at all but a personal seal (hanko). The fact that most Japanese don’t carry their hanko while out and about in town made collecting signatures a difficult task (although a finger print was also an option for those who didn’t mind the ink). If this were not enough, signees also had to write their date-of-birth, a rather sensitive piece of information in an increasingly privacy conscious Japan. Finally, Kodaira collectors had to be officially approved; non-Japanese residents were not allowed to canvass or sign.

Despite all the difficulties, by the deadline of January 2013 a total of 7,593 signatures had been collected, more than twice the required amount. The election board ruled 7,183 of these to be valid and these were presented to the local assembly in February to debate whether a referendum should be held or not. This was by no means a foregone conclusion; indeed, such petitions are more often than not rejected. The local assembly in Tokushima City, for example, had rejected a petition in February 1999 containing the signatures of 101,535 (49%) local residents, perhaps influenced by the mayor’s comment that a referendum ‘was not entirely necessary’ (Murakami 2000: 71). In Kodaira too, Mayor Kobayashi Masanori had already made his personal displeasure clear, saying it was likely to cause problems for the road networking plan of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (Sankei Shimbun 2013b).

Against this background, the Kodaira Assembly’s March 27th decision to allow a referendum to go ahead (by 13 to 8 with 6 absentees) came as a big surprise to many. Like the previous ten referenda initiated by citizens, it was decided that no conditions (such as a minimum turnout) would be attached. The fact that citizens were not asking to stop the road, just to take another look at the 50-year-old plan, undoubtedly worked in their favour. Another factor might have been that the group had ultimately decided, fearing this might derail the whole process, not to ask that Permanent Foreign Residents be allowed to vote (opposition to foreign participation was reportedly deep among many assembly members). Unfortunately, to Han’ei Saseru Kai’s surprise, it was decided not to hold the vote in conjunction with the upcoming mayoral election, something which would have guaranteed a higher turnout.

Things, however, began to take a turn for the worse shortly after Mayor Kobayashi was re-elected in April. On April 24th, in a special session of the local assembly, a revision (kaiseian) was made to the terms of the local referendum: in the case of a turnout of less than 50%, ballots would not be opened. Professor Kokubun Koichiro, a supporter of the referendum writing in the Mainichi Shimbun (2013a) referred to this as a ‘surprise attack’ (fuiuchi)16 and denounced the attempt by local government to deny citizen participation. Certainly, given that the turnout in the mayoral election had been around 37%, the 50% figure seemed like an impossible hurdle—one, moreover, that was not mentioned by Kobayashi in his re-election bid.

Despite the efforts of volunteers to publicise the referendum, voter turnout on May 26th was 35.17%, less than the 50% required ( The Tokyo Shimbun (2013) headline on May 27th lamented, ‘The Voices of 1 in 3 citizens not to be opened (listened to).’ Mayor Kobayashi, seemingly questioning the validity of his own re-election, declared that such a turnout ‘cannot be said to reflect the collective opinion (sōi) of Kodaira citizens’ (Tokyo Shimbun 2013). On May 28, just two days after the ballot, the Tokyo Metropolitan government submitted the paperwork for the road plan to the national government for approval.

Initial reaction to these developments was indignation rather than resignation. For example, part 4 of a series of local symposiums held on June 30th 2013 on the theme of decentralisation attracted a record turnout (including this author) and panellists noted how Kodaira had become a spark (hakkaten) for the broader issues of local democracy that had gained attention throughout the country.17 In the foyer, T-shirts and badges were on sale containing the name Kodaira with the last ‘a’ elongated signifying ‘Kodaira-lover.’ Media interest in the referendum was also intense: on the day of the vote over 50 news organisations has gathered outside Kodaira City Hall and many national newspaper carried editorials and comment (Mainichi Shimbun 2013a).

A number of moves have been made since to get the referendum results released and delay construction of the road. On May 27th, Han’ei Saseru Kai asked Kodaira City to release the ballots and, on June 3rd, representatives visited the Tokyo Mayor’s Office to request construction be stopped until this had happened (Yomiuri Shimbun 2013b). Both Kodaira and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government rejected these requests, the latter emphasising that completion of the trunk road was essential. On August 8th, a suit was filed in the Tokyo District Court to release results, arguing, under the information disclosure law, that non-release was a violation of the citizens right to know and ultimately unconstitutional (Nihon Keizai Shimbun 2013).18 Against these moves, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism officially approved construction on August 12th (Asahi Shimbun 2013a). In the meantime, citizens have continued to hold a silent (mugen) protest outside city hall every Monday.

The notable thing about the story of Tokyo’s first local referendum is how the protest movement morphed from a loose coalition questioning the need to destroy a green space to build a road to a broader movement of citizens indignant at the indifference and even contempt being shown by those in power towards local people’s opinions. Despite all the legal obstacles already in place—including the fact that even if a referendum is successful it remains non-binding—local politicians seemed to be trying their hardest to thwart local activists every step of the way. In particular, the way the 50% condition (seiritsu yōken) was introduced riled many observers. Unfortunately, this condition is becoming more common: Okamoto (2012: 124) notes that of the 33 municipalities that have set conditions, 28 have the 50% condition, a figure she argues, citing the German case, that needs to be seriously reconsidered. In Japan, however, the idea that the voice of 50% (or more) of the electorate must be respected (sonchō suru)—but that less than 50% need not and the ballots discarded—seems to be becoming political common sense.19

5. Japanese Referenda in Comparative International Perspective

In order fully to understand the significance of the 2013 Kodaira referendum, it is helpful to situate this Japanese case study in international comparative perspective. Engaging the broader literature on referenda also helps connect the above case study of a particular referendum with the theoretical literature on civil society. The link between civil society—which is at base about citizen participation in civic affairs—and referenda—in which citizens decide policy initiatives—is captured by the term direct (as opposed to representative) democracy.

In the 1994 classic Referenda around the World: The Growing Use of Direct Democracy, Butler and Ranney (1994) describe how (national) referenda have increased in almost every part of the world, slowly until the 1970s and sharply in the 1980s. They (1994: 3) note that while referenda have tended to be instigated by the party in office to suit their own political convenience and that verdicts of most referenda have tended to be conservative, voters do sometimes fail to give governments the answer they want. One country that does not feature in the book is Japan, since, as mentioned earlier, it has never held a nationwide referendum. In the successor to that book, newly sub-titled The Continued Use of Direct Democracy, Qvortrup (2014) details the increasing recourse to referenda throughout the world. Japan, of the major democracies, though remains an exception, alongside India, Israel, and the US (which has had thousands at the state-level). Similarly, Tierney (2014: 1, 285) notes how the use of (national) referenda has ‘proliferated remarkably’ in the last thirty years and concludes that the referendum can be a successful instrument ‘provided adequate legal regulation serves to promote and protect a deliberative environment within which citizen participation can be fostered.’ Dalton and Weldon (2013) concur, finding that direct democracy stimulates political interest, even if the majority of referenda do fail.

Local referenda too have been increasing in recent years. Schiller (2011: 69), for example, notes how modern direct democracy has recently become an important element of political life in many countries and sees local referenda as ‘opening new channels for public deliberations on issues.’ Hobolt (2006) however, in the context of European integration referenda, argues that political parties have considerable influence over voters’ perceptions of the issue on the ballot. In Kodaira, for example, the road issue was framed by the major parties as a Tokyo-wide traffic and disaster relief issue (Yomiuri Shimbun 2012b). Kodaira Mayor Kobayashi even appeared to discourage residents from voting in the referendum: in a May 21st news conference, he said that he could ‘tolerate’ a boycott (TBS Radio 2013). Similarly, Laisney (2012: 656), in a study of local-authority initiated referenda held in the UK, found that the decision-making process remained ‘almost entirely under the control of the local political class.’ This is even more pronounced in Japan, where popular initiatives are frequently quashed early on regardless of the number of signatures gathered.

In sum, the comparative literature on direct democracy does suggest that elite manipulation is the rule rather than the exception; moreover, the specific design of referenda exerts a significant role on the outcome. This is even more true in the Japanese case where the number of obstacles placed in the path of citizen-initiated referenda—from being non-binding and requiring local assembly approval to the 50% condition—is, in an international context, very unusual. On the other hand, referenda can create a deliberative environment resulting in increased citizen participation, engagement with specific issues, and increased motivation and access to information, something which was also noticeable in Kodaira. However, as we shall see below, in contrast to many other democracies there is little legal protection for—and a great deal of overt elite hostility towards—the creation of such a deliberative environment in Japan.

6. Conclusion: Voiceless Voices

On September 5th 2014, the Tokyo District Court handed down its ruling regarding the demand by citizens’ groups to release the Kodaira ballots. The court rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments centring on the right to know (shiru kenri) in favour of protecting voter secrecy (tōhyō no himitsu): they ruled that by making the ballots public there was no absolute guarantee that individuals could not be identified (Yomiuri Shimbun 2014).20 In a gathering after the ruling, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers noted that the 50% condition had effectively ‘de-boned’ (hone-nuki), that is, emasculated local referenda. In sum, despite lip-service being paid to the concept of jūmin jichi (citizen self-government) in recent years,21 the attitude of disdain towards ‘noisy’ citizens marks a return to the 1960s when Kishi branded protestors ‘distasteful’. Kodaira Mayor Kobayashi, for example, was quite forthright his view that the referendum was a nuisance. What authority figures such as Kishi, Kobayashi, and Ishiba, all seem to share is a very narrow—and intolerant—definition of what classifies as valid civil action.

If a defining feature of civil society is its ‘empowering of individuals to resist’ (Schwartz 2003: 34), then the disempowerment of Japanese citizens by obstructing their ability to engage in direct democracy would suggest that Japanese civil society is far from blooming. And if civil society connotes a society committed to making ‘meaningful participation possible’ (Mouer and Sugimoto 2003: 209, 215)—a definition that includes a sense of responsibility for the outcomes representatives achieve—the evidence presented here challenges the civil society rising discourse. At the national level, the collapse of the 1955 system and the left-leaning DPJ government from 2009-2012 did briefly suggest that civil society might begin to challenge conservative dominance. However, the LDP landslides of 2012 and 2013 showed such hopes to be misguided. Today, the LDP proposal to rewrite the postwar Japanese constitution22 is seen as a challenge to popular sovereignty, the balance between government power and individual rights, and even the future of democracy in Japan (Morris-Suzuki 2013; Repeta 2013).

One consequence has been growing voter disillusionment and apathy. For example, the elections of December 2012 (lower house) and July 2013 (upper house) hid very low turnout rates. The former posted a postwar record low turnout of 59.32% for single-seat constituencies (Japan News 2013) while the turnout for the latter, despite internet election campaigning being allowed for the first time, was 52.61%, the third lowest in the postwar years (Japan Times 2013a). The reasons behind voter apathy have been widely discussed and debated in the media. Many point to the loss of voice, such as the following article written on the eve of the July poll:

What’s most noticeable…is the silence of the citizenry. Try finding the slightest hint that voters are fired up…Perhaps voters sense that the outcome is a fait accompli (Japan Times 2013c)

Echoing the theme of voter apathy, the Japan News (2013) ran an article titled ‘Many Candidates Baffled by Voters’ Inactive Response.’ One reason for the general puzzlement was the fact that on one of the hot issues of the time—whether to re-start nuclear power plants in the short-term and continue with nuclear energy in the long-term—the LDP was directly at odds with public opinion (Asahi Shimbun 2013b). This disconnect is reflected in a growing disillusionment among voters with the lack of representation of their voices and values in the Diet (Ando 2014: 23). Certainly, this democratic malaise—’a widespread feeling that governments have become disengaged and remote’ (LeDuc 2003: 20)—is a global not merely a Japanese problem; however, whereas other countries are increasingly using referenda to ‘fill the gap’ (Tierney 2014: 302) and restore trust among citizens, the hurdles citizen-initiated RLO in Japan have to overcome are growing.

In his The Failure of Civil Society? Ogawa (2009: 182) describes a growing realisation during his fieldwork that the huge upsurge in NPO incorporation in Japan occurred simultaneously with nationalistic policy moves. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that rising numbers of volunteers, NPOs, and citizen-initiated referenda are less a sign of a healthy civil society where citizens’ voices are being heard and more a symptom of an ailing one where they are increasingly being silenced.


This article is dedicated to all the local people in Kodaira who have worked tirelessly to ensure the voices of ordinary citizens are heard. Special thanks to Kazue Mizuguchi, Naoko Ogawa, Tadashi Kamio, and Kazuyo Kamikubo for their help with an earlier draft of this article. For up-to-date information see the Han’ei Saseru Kai homepage at <> (in Japanese).


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[1] The Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation identifies a medical mission to help refugees in China in 1938 as the first NGO (JANIC 2013).

[2] See also Hirata (2002: 91-95) on Japan’s authority-challenging “post-materialists.”

[3] According to MOFA (2013), Japan was ranked as the world’s top ODA provider from 1991 to 2000 on a net disbursement basis; from 1985 to 1989, Japan’s contributions more than doubled, seeing it become a major donor.

[4] This is true only of mainland Japan. Protests in Okinawa, such as those against government textbook changes in September 2007 or Futenma Air Base in April 2010, attracted crowds in the tens of thousands even before 3/11.

[5] At the time of writing these two hour (6-8pm) protests are still ongoing, although numbers have significantly fallen since the June-July 2012 peak. See

[6] Ogawa (2009: 11) notes that the way of discussing civil society in the existing literature “is a very privileged one” that “largely ignores the experience of ordinary grassroots people.” Ando (2014: 25) offers a much broader definition: “civil society is a place where people who are not mandated by states and companies but act on their own free will talk, make plans, and work together.”

[7] A recent campaign is pushing to hold a national referendum on nuclear power under the slogan min’na de kimeru (everybody decide)

[8] A National Referendum Law, passed in 2007 by the first Abe cabinet and coming into effect in 2010, clarified the process for revising the constitution (Japan Times 2010).

[9] In contrast, signatures from one-third of the electorate are needed to instigate a referendum on recalling a mayor.

[10] Although the proposal for a referendum in Shizuoka was rejected, it did succeed in raising consciousness of the issue. In June 2013, governor Kawakatsu—who favours holding a referendum—was easily re-elected in an election whose turnout was 49.9%. “Regarding what we should do in the end,” remarked Kawakatsu, “we should listen to residents in whom sovereignty resides [shukensha dearu jūmin ni kiku beki]” (Mainichi Shimbun 2013b).

[11] For a detailed account of the Tokushima City referendum, see Murakami (2013) and Takeda (2013). Murakami also featured in the 5th Kodaira “Acorns and Democracy” symposium held in November 2013, illustrating the increasing inter-connectivity of local actors.

[12] For example, the first issue of Kodairā Tsūshin (News)—a newsletter produced by the Han’ei Saseru Kai group—came out in February 2014.

[13] A full list of these groups is available on the group’s HP at

[14] Although there is no official English translation for the group, the following was suggested to me by one member: “Citizens for Reflecting Peoples’ Opinions on City Road Plans in Kodaira.” Here jūmin (resident) is translated as “people” and ishi (intention/wish) as opinion.

[15] Interview with Kazue Mizuguchi and two other Han’ei Saseru Kai members, July 16th 2013, Kodaira Citizen’s Gymnasium, Kodaira Central Park.

[16] It was also commonly referred to as atodashi or cheating in rock-paper-scissors by waiting to see your opponent’s move first and then playing, illustrating the trust that was lost by such an act . For more on this—and for a full account of the Kodaira referendum in general—see Kokubun (2013: 57).

[17] The full video of the symposium is available on You Tube at

[18] A series of oral hearings were held with the fifth and final taking place on June 2nd 2014. The final ruling was given on September 5th 2014 (see conclusion).

[19] See for example, these words from the mayor of Saku City, following the 2010 referendum: “The set condition has been exceeded, so I will respect the result; I want to cancel the construction of the cultural centre” (Saku City 2010).

[20] The logic of this ruling is rather difficult to grasp given that voters simply put a circle or cross on their ballot papers.

[21] In a flyer distributed to Kodaira households on May 30, 2013 announcing the birth of a new municipal government, Kobayashi wrote the following: “I think we should aim for a society in which people think about and solve their problems by themselves, citizen self-government (jūmin jichi) with real responsibility. In order to realise that, it is important for citizens as the subject of the locality to participate in local government.” His official greeting on the Kodaira City HP ( also talks of building a “partnership” between citizens and government.

[22] The full text of the Liberal Democratic Party’s 2012 proposal for constitutional reform is available (in Japanese) on the Party’s website at

About the Author

Chris Burgess completed his Ph.D. at Monash University, Melbourne, in March 2004. His thesis, entitled “(Re)Constructing Identities: International Marriage Migrants as Potential Agents of Social Change in a Globalising Japan”, looked at how seventeen women of foreign origin grappled with and made sense of their identities after migrating to Yamagata, northeast Japan. He is currently Professor at Tsuda College, Tokyo, where he teaches Japanese and Australian studies. His research focuses on migration, globalisation, and multiculturalism in contemporary Japan. His most recent publications include chapters on Japanese language education and migrants (Language and Citizenship in Japan, 2012) and “Cool Japan” (Languages and Identities in a Transitional Japan, 2015), as well as a paper on Japan’s push to secure and foster global human resources in Globalisation, Societies, and Education (2015,13:1).

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