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East Asia (2010) 27:267287

DOI 10.1007/s12140-010-9113-0

Social Movement Tradition and the Role of Civil Society


in Japan and South Korea
Lichao He

Received: 23 December 2009 / Accepted: 31 March 2010 / Published online: 2 May 2010
# Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Abstract In 1947, Japan became the first East Asian country to introduce
democracy, and it was not until four decades later that South Korea completed the
democratic transition. Today, surprisingly, South Korea stands out among the East
Asian countries as the one that has the most vibrant and politically powerful civil
society, whereas in Japan, the role of the nongovernmental organization (NGO)
sector in political advocacy is greatly limited. Using historical institutionalism, this
paper tries to explain why the NGOs in South Korea and Japan play vastly different
roles in political advocacy. It concludes that the different social movement traditions
have played important roles in the evolution of the civil societies in Japan and South
Korea, and led to the different levels of institutionalization within the NGO sector.
Keywords Civil society . Political advocacy . Social movement tradition .
Institutional change . Japan . South Korea

Introduction
Civil organizations in East Asian countries have witnessed profound growth since
the 1990s and have become part of the global organizational revolution [3, p.1].
Despite their state-centric tradition, since the 1990s, Japan and South Korea have
witnessed a rapid growth of citizens voluntary and nongovernmental organizations
(NGOs) [59], with the number of these organizations increasing rapidly in the late
1990s.1
Japan and South Korea are liberal democracies in East Asia with long
authoritarian histories. Both are deeply influenced by Confucianism, which
Data are from Chapter 3, number of establishments by type of legal organization, from Survey of the
Service Industry (2004), webpage of the National Statistics Bureau of Japan, http://www.stat.go.jp/english/
data/service/2004/gaiyou/z3.htm (accessed August 5, 2006).
1

L. He (*)
Political Science Department, Baylor University, One Bear Place 97276, Waco, TX 76798, USA
e-mail: Lichao_he@baylor.edu

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emphasizes respect for authority and social conformity. Japan introduced


institutional democracy in 1947, whereas South Korea completed its democratic
transition in 1987. However, the civil societies in Japan and South Korea play
different roles in the political process. South Koreas civil society is very active in
political advocacy and the policy-making process, whereas Japans civil society
plays a limited role in political advocacy and the decision-making process of the
state. The differences between the Japanese and South Korean civil societies
demonstrate that the establishment of democratic institutions does not necessarily
lead to a politically strong civil society. Even in a long-established democracy
such as Japan, citizens groups may still be unable to assume an assertive role in
state affairs.
This paper argues that the civil societies in Japan and South Korea are differently
institutionalized, and this difference is rooted in the different types of social
movement tradition. Employing path-dependency theory, this article argues that
while the institutional configurations of the political system profoundly influence the
state-society relations, the nature of the social movement tradition constitutes a
major factor that shapes the trajectory of the civil society development and the role
of the NGO sector in the state.
The article first presents the general background of the research, discussing the
subject of the study and the theoretical framework, then it compares the level of
institutionalization of the NGO sector in Japan and South Korea, followed by an
analysis of the impact of the social movement tradition on the pattern of citizens
participation in the two countries. After looking at the trajectories of the evolution of
civil society in Japan and South Korea, it concludes that while state-society relations
in East Asian countries have been long dominated by the state, institutional changes
are possible through persistent challenges to the state authority mounted by citizens
movements.
Civil Society in East Asia
Civil Society as a Western Concept
Larry Diamond remarks: Civil society is the realm of organized social life that
is voluntary, self-generating, (largely) self-supporting, and autonomous from the
state, and bound by a legal order or set of shared rules. It is distinct from
society in general in that it involves citizens acting collectively in a public
sphere to express their interests, passions, preferences, and ideas to exchange
information, to achieve collective goals, to make demands on the state, to
improve the structure and functioning of the state, and to hold state officials
accountable [21, p. 10].
Civil society is a concept that is deeply rooted in the Western political traditions
but the concept does have diverse intellectual origins [10, pp. 12, 5, pp. 1011].
The classical-liberal Tocquevillian concept of civil society is considered the ideal
type of civil society by most. To Tocqueville, civil society implies democratic
governance and contributes to political development. Tocqueville endorses free
political associations on the grounds that only such freedom can prevent either
despotism of parties or the arbitrary rule of a prince [13, p. 39].

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The concept of civil society has two important aspects: the forming of voluntary
associations by the citizens and the ability of those associations to check the power
of the state [55, p. 384, 18, p. 115, 21, p. 10]. In most Western democracies, civil
society not only designates a citizens activity sphere that is independent from the state
but also emphasizes the active involvement of the citizens in the governance of the state
by allowing for participation in the decisionmaking process and by cultivating a civic
culture. Schmitter and Karl [54, p. 44] also remarked that At its best, civil society
provides an intermediate layer of governance between the individual and the state that
is capable of resolving conflicts and controlling the behavior of members without
public coercion....A viable civil society can mitigate conflicts and improve the quality
of citizenshipwithout relying exclusively on the privatism of the marketplace.
Today, most scholars acknowledge that civil society is composed of voluntary, selforganized associations in a sphere that is independent from the state (political society), the
market, and family [18, 19, 35, 46]. For example, in South Korea, NGOs and civil
society organizations (CSOs) [28, p.7] are the most frequently used terms to describe
civil society. However, in different countries, NGOs exist in different forms and their
relations with the government are vastly different. Talking about their findings of the
cross-national study of the NGO sector, Salamon and Anheier [49, p. 364] insightfully
observed, Perhaps the most basic empirical and theoretical point that emerges from the
discussion [of the nonprofit sector] here relates to the striking ubiquity of the nonprofit
sector. Despite a common assumption that it is an essentially Western and modern
phenomenon, the record reviewed here makes clear that non-profit-type institutions
exist in widely divergent cultural and social settings in virtually every part of the world.
To be sure, these institutions often differ markedly from each other.
The Early Evolution of Civil Society in Japan and South Korea
The NGO sectors in Japan and South Korea share some distinctive features when
compared with their Western counterparts. Salamon and Sokolowski [50, pp. 4546]
found that the civil society sector in Asian countries is considerably smaller than in
the other advanced, industrial societies, engaging only 3.3 percent of the
economically active population on average compared to the all-country average of
4.4 percent, though the overall scale is much larger in Japan than in South Korea.
At the same time, the development of the NGO sector in Japan and South Korea used to
be greatly constrained by the state. Prior to the 1980s, the NGO sector in both countries
was dominated by social service providers and business associationsand neither was
able to act as an independent political force.
From the Meiji Restoration to World War II, authoritarianism and militarism
dominated Japanese society, as the state controlled and mobilized citizens to serve its
political agenda. After the war, although democracy was institutionalized, Japanese
society remained dominated by a powerful state. The state-led industrialization drive
facilitated the growth of business and trade organizations. Between the 1960s and
1990s, as Tsujinaka observed [59, p. 114], Japan in particular continues to display a
numerical superiority in business associations, which account for approximately 40
percent of all associational establishments (a plurality) and more than 40 percent of
all associational income. Unlike the American pattern, the growth of Japanese
associations has been strongly influenced by economic growth.

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South Korea saw a similar pattern in the composition of the NGO sector under the
military regime (ibid.). Between the 1960s and 1980s, the military government
outlawed all citizens voluntary organizations. Only government-controlled
opposition parties in institutional politics and government-patronized organizations
like the Korean Federation of Trade Unions and the Saemaul (New Community)
Movement Headquarters in civil society enjoyed free existence under military
authoritarianism [8]. In one phrase, state-corporatism best describes the statesociety relation in Japan during the 1940s [1, p. 47] and in South Korea before the
1987 democratic transition. Due to the long history of authoritarian rule, Japan and
South Korea did not have a tradition that emphasized the ability of associational life
in general and the habits of association in particular to foster patterns of civility in
the actions of citizens in a democratic polity [13, p. 38].
Comparison of Civil Society in Japan and South Korea
Today, however, the NGO sectors in Japan and South Korea differ from each other
with regard to participation in public affairs: NGOs in South Korea are stronger in
checking the power of the state, and therefore more capable of promoting liberal
democracy. In contrast, Japanese civil society is much less influential in political
advocacy due to the paucity of large, independent and professionalized groups [44,
p. 7), and is described by Robert Pekkanen as members without advocates (ibid.).
That Japan and South Korea saw the evolution of two distinctive types of civil
society is illustrated by the indicators of the Johns Hopkins Global Civil Society
Index (GCSI) [50, p. 74], which empirically measures the key aspects of the NGO
sector in 36 countries including Japan and South Korea (ibid., p. 72). The different
levels of NGO participation in state affairs in Japan and South Korea can be seen in
the difference in the impact of the NGO sector on public affairs, the number of the
advocacy groups, and the proportion of volunteers in the adult population.
A. Impact
The GCSI score of impact measures the impact of the civil society organizations
by integrating four major contributions of the NGO sector: economic contribution,
human service contribution, contribution to advocacy and expression, and popular
commitment and performance of key roles (ibid., p. 74). Table 12 suggests that the
civil society in South Korea is more influential than that in Japan, and its NGO
sector is more sustainable than the latter. The only aspect in which South Korean
civil society is less developed than Japan is its capacity.3

Source: Lester M. Salamon and S. Wojciech Sokolowski, Chapter 2: Measuring civil society: the Johns
Hopkins Global Civil Society Index in Lester M. Salamon, S. Wojciech Sokolowski, and associates
(Eds.), Global Civil Society (Volume 2): Dimensions of the Nonprofit Sector, (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian
Press, [50]), p. 78. For the measurement of the indicators please refer to the content under the subject title
Operationalization: from concept to indicators in the same chapter, pp. 6675.
3
For detailed information on the measurement of capacity, please see Lester M. Salamon and S.
Wojciech Sokolowski, Chapter 2: Measuring civil society: the Johns Hopkins Global Civil Society
Index in Lester M. Salamon, S. Wojciech Sokolowski, and associates (Eds.), Global Civil Society
(Volume 2): Dimensions of the Nonprofit Sector (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, [50]), pp. 6770.
2

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Table 1 Comparison of capacity, sustainability, and impact of civil society in Japan and South Korea
Global Civil Society Index Country Scores
Capacity

Sustainability

Impact

Total

Japan

38

34

35

36

South Korea

32

38

36

35

United States

76

54

54

61

34 Countries

45

39

36

40

Anglo-Saxon

64

54

51

56

Asian industrialized

35

36

36

35

Source: Lester M. Salamon and S. Wojciech Sokolowski, Chapter 2: Measuring civil society: the Johns
Hopkins Global Civil Society Index in Lester M. Salamon, S. Wojciech Sokolowski, and associates
(Eds.) Global Civil Society (Volume 2): Dimensions of the Nonprofit Sector (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian
Press, [50]), p. 78.
Note: For the measurement of the indicators please refer to Operationalization: from concept to
indicators in the same chapter, pp. 6675.

B. Advocacy groups
Table 2 4 shows that by 2003, the proportion of expressive groups5 in the NGO
workforce in South Korea was higher than in Japan (18% as compared to 12%). The
fact is, Although the expressive component of the South Korea civil society sector
is far smaller overall than that of other countries, in the field of civic action and
advocacy, the South Korean civil society sector exceeds the all-country and
developing and transitional country averages by a factor of more than 1 (10 percent
versus 4 percent) [42, p. 209]. In the late 1990s, NGOs in South Korea played a
very active role in expressing the views of the public, and there was a significant
presence of civic and advocacy activism in the South Korean civil society (ibid., p.
207). As Kim and Hwang observed [28, p. 18], What deserves greater attention is
the tremendous influence that civil society organizations can exert in the policymaking process. They also observed that civic groups and labor unions are now
important powerful players in the governance of South Korean society (ibid.). It is
important to note that the overall GCSI scores for Japan and South Korea are 36 and
35, respectively (in contrast, the score of the U.S. is 61), which means that the civil
societies in Japan and South Korea are at a similar level of development. When it
4

Source: excerpt from Table 1.10. Asian industrialized pattern; Lester M. Salamon, S. Wojciech
Sokolowski, and Regina List, Chapter 1: Global civil society: an overview in Lester M. Salamon, S.
Wojciech Sokolowski, and associates (Eds.), Global Civil Society (Volume 2): Dimensions of the Nonprofit
Sector (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, [51]), p. 46.
5
One important component of the indicator of the impact of the NGO sector is contribution to advocacy
and expression. The definition of expressive activities is as follows: the scale of the human resources
paid and volunteerthat civil society organizations mobilize for expressive activitiesi.e. advocacy,
professional associations, labor unions, environmental protection, and culture and recreation. Lester M.
Salamon and S. Wojciech Sokolowski, Chapter 2: Measuring civil society: the Johns Hopkins Global
Civil Society Index in Lester M. Salamon, S. Wojciech Sokolowski, and associates (Eds.) Global Civil
Society (Volume 2): Dimensions of the Nonprofit Sector (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, [50]), p. 74.

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Table 2 Comparison of the composition of the NGO work force in Japan and South Korea
Japan

South Korea

Service

75%

82%

Expressive

12%

18%

Other

13%

0%

Source: excerpt from Table 1.10. Asian industrialized pattern, Lester M. Salamon, S. Wojciech
Sokolowski, and Regina List, Chapter 1: Global civil society: an overview in Lester M. Salamon, S.
Wojciech Sokolowski, and associates (Eds.) Global Civil Society: Dimensions of the Nonprofit Sector
(Volume Two) (Bloomfield, Connecticut: Kumarian Press, [51]), p. 46.

comes to the key indicators of the participatory performance of the NGO sector, the
Japanese NGO sector is politically less active than the South Korean NGO sector.
Although the percentage of civil society organization workforce as a share of the
economically active population is higher in Japan (4.2%) than in South Korea
(2.4%) [56, p. 160], civil society in South Korea enjoys a much more favorable legal
environment and is more sustainable than its Japanese counterpart. In terms of the
strength of the NGO sector in public affairs, South Korea ranks higher than Japan,
not only because it has a higher percentage of volunteers in the NGO workforce, but
also because the South Korean civil society has a larger advocacy sector and has
more impact on state affairs. As Kim and Hwang remarked [28, pp. 67], The
South Korean nonprofit sector has been understood as an institutionalized and selfgenerating reality capable of pressing bureaucrats, politicians, and big business....
and major civil society organizations develop various means and expertise that
enable them to better participate in the policy-making process (ibid.). Today the
biggest distinction between the civil societies of the two countries is in the area of
political advocacy and the NGOs ability to influence government policy. The
CIVICUS Global Survey of the State of Civil Society is a project that measures
and assesses the civil society development around the world. It created the Civil
Society Index (CSI) to measure the four key dimensions of civil society
structure, values, environment, and impact. The impact dimension assesses civil
societys role in governance and society at large [26, p. 373]. The projects 2003
2006 phase found that South Korea has developed a healthy civil society, and the
civil societys impact on public policy is particularly strong and evenly distributed
among the five fields examined by the CSI, with the exception of social welfare
where civil societys role is somewhat weaker (ibid.). These findings further
confirm the fact that South Korean civil society has fully evolved into an
independent and powerful political force and is acting as a counterbalance to the
power of the state. Although civil society organizations in Japan rapidly acquired
legitimacy as actors in the policy-making process in the late 1990s [59, p. 98], as
Pekkanen [43, p. 369] has pointed out, many civil society groups have faced
constrained independence from the state, and the potential for those groups to
grow stronger and participate more extensively in the state affairs has been limited.
Obviously, civil societies in Japan and South Korea play very different roles in state
affairs.

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Explaining the Differences


Social Movements and Institutional Change
Neither Japan nor South Korea has a tradition of separation between the state and
society. One author remarked, Traditionally, South Korea has had a strong
centralized state authority. The modern concept of a civil society whose role would
be to counter the power of the state was quite foreign, and was introduced only after
1945 [7, p. 202]. This is also true of Japan before World War II. After the war, the
developmental state model as coined by Chalmers [25] strengthened the dominant
role of the state. The model features a planned modernization drive led by a highly
centralized, hierarchical bureaucracy working closely with the business sector. This
development strategy allowed little room for citizens initiatives in the political
process. State-interventionism in economic development and state-centered political
and social institutions not only highly depend on each other but also mutually
enhance each other.
Thelen and Steinmo [58, p. 2] remarked, In general, historical institutionalists
work with a definition of institutions that includes both formal organizations and
informal rules and procedures that structure conduct. One of the major tasks of
historical institutionalism is to explain institutional changes. According to North
[41], incremental institutional change is path-dependent, which means that the
evolution in institutions is the result of the narrowed choices by economic or
political entrepreneurs. Path-dependency theory posits a lock-in effect once
institutions are established. In most cases, old institutions are kept because the cost
of change is considered too high for entrepreneurs to consider other alternatives.
The state-centric institutions in Japan and South Korea are well-established.
Nevertheless, those institutions have also evolved over time and seen major
changes. Such changes are path-dependent, and the transformation is impacted
by the confrontation between the rigid institutions and various challenging
forces. The power shift between the state and society in Japan and South Korea
is especially shaped by the different social movement traditions in the two
countries.
In How Social Movements Matter, Charles Tilly defines a social movement as a
sustained challenge to power holders by means of repeated public displays of that
populations worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment [12, p.440]. Social
movement is closely associated with civil society because it originates with the
citizens. Lim Hy-Sop [23, p. 5] held that all modern social movements can be
called civil social movements in that they began in the backdrop of an emerging civil
society and strove for its growth. Armstrong [2, p. 2] also remarked that when the
concept of civil society remained dormant during much of the 20th century, The
term was initially evoked in the popular protests against communist party-states in
Eastern Europe, especially the Solidarity union movement in Poland in the 1980s,
but came to be part of the discourse of democratic protest and democratic theory
throughout the world. In many countries, social movements preceded the growth of
a network of civic groups and organizations. For example, Leticia Santn del Ro
[52, p. 62] pointed out that Mexicos civil society started with the watershed social
movementthe student movement of 1968.

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Social movements demanding political freedom often met with severe repression
from the state, which wanted to stifle the protest and deprive the citizens of the right
to form associations. For example, the 1925 Peace Preservation Act issued after the
Taish democracy prohibited the Japanese people from conducting political
discussions and forming societies [39, p. 29, 47, pp. 5961]. The evolution of civil
society has been constrained by the deeply embedded, state-centric institutions.
Those institutions have also been challenged, sometimes repeatedly, by the social
movements. The current configurations of civil society in Japan and South Korea
are, to a greater extent, decided by the nature and intensity of the social movements.
Comparing Social Movement Traditions in Japan and South Korea
South Korea While most of the state-centric institutions are sticky and have been
resistant to change, persistent and intense social movements can shake the
foundation of the institutions, as is demonstrated by the regime change and the
transformation of the NGO sector in South Korea.
South Korea has a time-honored tradition of political protest that can be dated
back to the period of the Japanese occupation. After the Korean War, social
movements in South Korea were targeted at the authoritarian, military regimes.
These movements represented the sentiments of the majority of the population and
mounted direct confrontations against the state authority. Most importantly, they had
clearly defined political goals of achieving fundamental political changes.
In South Korea, civil society started to grow after the end of the Japanese
occupation, and many social welfare organizations emerged during the period
immediately following the Korean War [42, p. 206]. However, apart from the
nonpolitical social welfare organizations, only...government-patronized organizations enjoyed free existence [8, p. 279]. It was not until 1987 that NGOs devoted
particularly to public goods and involved in political advocacy and policy making
came into being [28, p. 7]. The 1997 Directory of Korean NGOs shows that 56
percent of the NGOs were established in 1987 and thereafter, indicating that the
democratization movements of the 1980s and 1990s played a decisive role in the
proliferation of the nations NGOs (ibid.).
Lim Hy-Sop [23, p. 7] observed that Koreas civil society movements from the
1960s to the 1980s can be regarded as the general social movement that brought
about democratization. During the period, pro-democracy, dissident social groups
were repressed by the authoritarian regime, but they acted as the leading force of the
democratic movement. Waves of civil movements not only led to regime change but
also facilitated the growth of a politically active civil society. As some scholars have
observed, While service functions dominate the South Korea civil society sector,
civic and advocacy organizations account for an impressive 10 percent share of the
civil society organization workforce. This reflects the importance of the national
independence, pro-democracy, and labor movements in the formation of the modern
civil society sector in South Korea [42, p. 207].
The social movements in South Korea also had solid bases of popular support.
The two major forces of the South Korean civil movements were university students
and workers organized by the labor unions. The university students had played a
major role in promoting political changes since students were widely recognized by

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the South Korea public as a force of conscience (yangsim seryk) and morally
superior because of their audacity [32, p. 132]. As Wood has remarked [60, p. 56],
University students have been a significant catalyst for change in Korea over the
years. Indeed, it was largely because of demonstrations by students that democracy
was finally achieved in Korea in the late 1980s. The Kwangju Uprising in 1980
began with a mass rally by the university students and eventually led to a widespread
civil movement that drew support from citizens from other sectors of society,
especially the middle-class population that had been relatively silent during the
1960s and 1970s.
The student-led civil movement had a deep impact on the evolution of the South
Korean civil society. The tradition of the university student-led prodemocracy
movement was enshrined in Korean politics and contributed to the cause of
democracy and pioneering in civil-society action [27, p. 277]. After the Kwangju
Uprising, many influential civil society organizations came into being as part of this
pro-democracy movement. For example, the Youth Association for Democratization
Movement (Minchungruyun) was established in 1983 and the Association for
Progress of Democratization (Minchuhyup) was established in 1984 [28, p. 6]. The
author has done a content analysis on the domestic news section of the Korean
Herald (English version) and found that during the first 4 months of 1988 (January
1May 1), civil movement incidents accounted for a large part of the domestic
news reporting. A total of 37 incidents of workers strikes or disputes involving the
labor union were reported. During the same period, out of the 44 reported incidents
of rallies, demonstrations, protests, or related activities, 30 incidents involved
university students. These figures indicate that students and labor constituted the
mainstay of the social movements.
Apart from the students and workers, Christian communities in South Korea have
played an important role in civic movements and are regarded as models of civil
society [9, pp.187188]. Since 1945, there has been intense confrontation between
Christians and the state, and many Christian leaders, including the Rev Kim Chejun
and Pastor Pak Hynggyu, have long been involved in social activism that
demanded limits to the state powers and upheld civil rights under the authoritarian
regime (ibid.).
In addition to political goals, support bases, and frequency of occurrence, the
intensity of social movements is another major factor that distinguishes the civil
movements in South Korea from those of other countries. Bond et al. studied the
nature of social protests and political change between 1984 and 1994 using the
KEDS/PANDA-generated event data. They found that South Korea experienced near
continuous antigovernment protest from 1984 through June 1987, and among the
four countries under study (China, Poland, South Korea, and Yugoslavia), the
citizens movement in South Korea was the most contentious with a mean of 0.49 [4,
p. 572]. As to the other key indicator that measures the strength of the civil
movement, coerciveness (not necessarily violent), South Koreas civil movement
was more coercive than Chinas civil protest, with a mean of 0.49, as compared with
0.41 for China (ibid.). The authors also found that democratization did not reduce
the coerciveness or contentiousness of South Korea, which continued to be marked
by significant civil conflict into the early 1990s. After the regime change, those
movements maintained momentum and have greatly facilitated citizens participation

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in public affairs. In fact, 65% of the registered NGOs in South Korea were created
after the 1990s [57, p. 288].
For example, after the democratic transition, labor unions continued to struggle
for a bigger role in the policy-making process. Nationwide, highly organized labor
strikes broke out in 1996 and 1997 in protest against the passage of the new labor
laws, and the national movement successfully compelled the government to
acknowledge the labor unions as a new social power [31, pp. 1203] and form
the Labor-Management-Government Tripartite Council in 1998. This consultation
mechanism, with the participation of the labor unions, has led some to believe that
South Korea is now moving toward a neo-corporatism model [30, p. 19]. Civic
groups and labor unions are now important, powerful players in the governance of
South Korean society [28].
The social movements have fostered the institutionalization of the civil society in
South Korea. As a former dissident movement leader, Kim Dae Jung maintained
extensive ties with civil society organizations and made great efforts to facilitate
their development. One scholar pointed out, The Kim Dae Jung government is fully
aware of the importance of civil society organizations. Civil society organizations in
South Korea have been acting independently of government, collaborating with it at
certain times and opposing it at others....The government not only responds to civil
society demands but also tries to assist civil society by offering opportunities,
resources, and incentives for civic groups [28, p. 13]. He also noted that under the
Kim Young Sam government of 199397, there was a substantial change in statecivil society relations when the government was willing to accommodate and adopt
opinions of civil society organizations (ibid., p. 12).
In the 21st century, South Korea civil society has become a well-established
institution independent of the state and business. After the democratic transition, the
NGO sector in South Korea became less confrontational and radical, and nowadays,
civic advocacy groups are becoming increasingly effective and sophisticated, and
dedicated to the promotion of open democratic process by building a more
transparent government, preventing fraud in elections, promoting freedom of
information, and eradicating corruption [26, p. 372, 42, p. 207]. The candlelight
protest in Seoul against the resumption of U.S. beef imports, beginning on May 2,
2008, was the most impressive wave of protests since the democratic transition in
1987 [33]. This event strongly testified to the strength of the civic movement in
South Korea and suggested that civil society has become increasingly powerful
in influencing the major policies of South Korea government.
Japan Unlike in South Korea, Japanese democracy was established as the result of
the American occupation, which did not bring about fundamental changes to the
state-centrist political norms and social structure. As Herzog pointed out [22, p. 18],
the country remains a paternalistic society dominated by an elite, the politicians, the
bureaucracy and the business leadership, working inside and through their groups,
the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the ministries and the Keidanren (Federation of
Economic Organizations). The people are conformist, disciplined and compliant,
with only rare outbursts of opposition to the leadership.
Japans democracy is built upon a state-centric power structure dominated by the
predominant Liberal Democratic Party [1, p. 28, 45, p. 1]. The LDP stayed in power

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from 1955 to 1993, a fact that, according to many, explained why the state and
society were so closely intertwined [39, p. 219]. In this party system, the opposition
parties stand little or no chance of gaining power...and it is extremely difficult to
develop a second competing party so long as a single ruling party controls national
political life and with it the national economy [6, p. 171]. The LDPs authority has
seldom been challenged by smaller parties or interest groups. Although the
predominant party system does not hamper the civil liberties of the people, it can
limit the participation of other interest groups in state affairs. Pempel pointed out, ...
long-term rule [by the LDP] involves more than simply electoral victories; it provides
one political party with a continuous opportunity to pursue its historical agenda. ...In
addition, the longer a party remains in power the more compelling the pressures for
social groups, even those initially hostile to the party, to accommodate to its seemingly
unshakable control [45, pp. 67]. Pekkanen [44, p. 197] also remarked that the LDP
favored heavy bureaucratic supervisory powers, opposed tax benefits, and wanted
most new groups to be volunteer-based. Some scholars have also argued that the
one-party dominance with a weak organizational base and strong bureaucracy tends
to structure interest group relations in a nonpluralistic way [38, pp. 28788].
In contrast to Japans institutional settings that exclude the smaller parties and
citizens groups in the policy-making process, the democratic transition in South
Korea successfully created an opening for the emergence of political parties, interest
groups, and civil society organizations. Although South Koreas competitive party
system is weak and unstable, as one author has pointed out, Given the limited role
of parties in political life, civil society groups have increased their role in Korean
politics [20, p.6].
The social movements in Japan started to gain momentum in the 1960s. The most
significant movements in the 1960s include the opposition against renewing the USJapan Mutual Security Treaty, the public struggle against the reassertion of capitalist
control over the economy [37, pp. 21112], environmental movements opposing the
construction of large development projects, and community movements that led to
the flourishing of the neighborhood associations [21, p. 41].
Most of those social movements were aimed at ameliorating the existing system,
rather than achieving fundamental changes in political institutions. The intrinsic
problems of the developmental state and the iron-triangle of the LDP, business,
and bureaucracy have prompted civic activism. A number of major environmental
disasters occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, but the government and the industries did
not take action immediately. Even the labor unions did not pay enough attention to
the issue [17, p. 134]. The governments reaction instigated nationwide environmental and consumer movements in the late 1960s.
Since the 1980s, information has become more accessible to the general public.
Many public interests groups have begun to address a large variety of issues,
including environmental conservation, consumer protection, and the elimination of
discrimination on the basis of gender and physical disability [1, p. 50]. One of the
major concerns of the public is prevalent corruption, which is rooted in the cronyism
embedded in Japanese political institutions. The notorious Recruit Scandal in 1988,
the incompetence of the government in the disaster relief after the Kobe Earthquake
in 1995, and the 1996 tainted blood scandal [15, p. 8] are some of the major events
that led to the major wave of civil movements in the 1990s.

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Japan has seen a rapid growth of the NGOs in the 1990s, a time, according to
Kingston, when Japanese society was in tumult, and [knew it had] gone terribly
wrong and [was] groping for new solutions and paradigms [29, p. 71]. The crisis
opened up new space for civic movements, and this time, policy reforms were not
merely imposed from above, since the sense of impending national doom has
provided unprecedented opportunities for broader public input on setting the agenda
of change and policy reforms (ibid.). For example, the Information Clearing House
Japan (ICJ), the Citizen Ombudsmen Organization, and Information Disclosure
Citizens Center (Joho Kokai Shimin Center) were established in the late 1990s to
promote citizens rights to supervise the government. The ICJ is a Tokyo-based
NGO devoted to promoting broad information disclosure and citizen participation in
public policy-making. As some authors have remarked, since the 1990s, one
noticeable change in citizen participation has been the increased involvement of
Japanese volunteers in non-profit organizations (NPOs) [37, p. 213]. It was also at
the time when the political advocacy groups started to expand and a shift from
producer to social service sector occurred [59, p. 107].
Although the civil movements in Japan also exerted a major influence on the
institutionalization of the civil society, the Japanese social movement tradition has
been much different from that of South Korea. Firstly, political ideology has never
been a major factor in the social movements. Although between 1954 and the 1960s,
some major movements (i.e., the protest against the U.S.-Japanese Security Treaty)
were guided by the socialist ideal and aimed to fundamentally transform society,
socialist and labor movements have never been able to exert much influence on
Japanese society due to the predominance of business in the institutional structure,
and because conservative forces control the Diet, where socialist movements have
not prevailed [16, p. 111]. Although Japan has seen the rise of the citizens
movements, especially community movements, since the late 1960s, these movements did not intend to facilitate regime change; instead, they demanded social
transformations in response to the dysfunction of the existing system. At best, they
exerted pressure on the government to push ahead changes. In a society where the
political institutions had constrained the participation of the citizens organizations in
the policy-making process, fragmentation of issue areas weakened the strength of the
civil society and made it difficult to keep the momentum of the social movements.
Many of those movements, like the Minamata disease incident in the 1960s and
the Narita Airport riots in the 1970s, lost momentum after achieving specific goals.
Hayes pointed out that the Japanese environmental protection efforts are very
narrowly focused, and in the 1980s, the momentum was gradually lost [17, p. 134].
Secondly, unlike in South Korea, where the labor unions and the students constituted
the major forces promoting political change, in Japan, labor unions did not act as a major
political force that challenged the states authority. As early as the Meiji era, laws were
promulgated to prevent the workers from forming organizations [11, p. 557], and since
then, labor unions have long been suppressed by the state. In the post-war era, labor
unions were incorporated in the developmental state and became company-unions
that were willing to cooperate with the management. The loyalty of the Japanese
workers to their companies prevented them from resorting to union activities to resolve
the disputes (ibid., p. 586). In Japan, the incidence of labor disruption is among the
lowest of all industrialized countries. According to Hayes, The amount of time lost to

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279

strikes measured in thousands of workdays in 1987 was 256 in Japan, 501 in France,
4,606 in Italy, 3,546 in England, and 4,469 in the United States [17, p. 173].
Similarly, although university students had actively participated in the protests
against the renewal of the Mutual Security Treaty in the 1960s and later in
demonstrations and protests in the 1970s, these activities quickly diminished in
frequency in the 1980s (ibid, p. 134). On the one hand, the promulgation of the 1969
University Control Act directly led to the decline in student activism (ibid., p. 142).
On the other hand, economic prosperity had diverted the young peoples attention
from the social movements. As Hasegawa insightfully pointed out, the most
important difference between Japans social movements and those of South Korea is
that people in South Korea were oppressed and had long been deprived of their civil
liberties; the young people and students in South Korea maintained a strong interest
in politics even in the late 1980s, whereas the Japanese young people quickly grew
apolitical because of the affluence that arrived in the 1970s [16, p. 111].
The transformation of the state-society relations in Japan is the result of gradual
and incremental social and economic changes. For example, Japans volunteer
movements have grown significantly since the turn of the century, although the
participation rate is lower than in the U.K. and U.S. [29, p. 77]. Scholars have
attributed the increase in volunteer participation in the NGOs to a number of factors
including greater affluence, a greater willingness to pursue individual and
community interest, and a degree of multiculturalization of Japanese society [37,
p. 213]. The white paper issued by the Economic Planning Agency (EPA) shows that
volunteerism has become popular because it helps to enhance social service and life
style, and also helps employees to contribute to their companies through their
engagement in those activities [29, p. 77]. This shows that Japanese civil society is
founded on the cohesion between society and established institutions, rather than the
confrontation between the two. In the 21st century, many of Japans movements are
now oriented toward proposing alternative policies and collaborating with
government and business, instead of merely confronting them [16, p. 120].
In contrast to the particularly confrontational civil movements in South Korea,
whose primary goal is to democratize the political system, citizens movements in
Japan are much less ferocious and militant. Most of the violent political protests
have been primarily leftist in nature [17, p. 131] and some even took the extreme
forms of terrorism, like the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum
Shinrikyo. The threat posed by those activities to the public made the militant
protests extremely unpopular among the Japanese people.
The majority of Japanese social movements, especially the consumer movements
and the environmental movements, have been short-lived, and interest groups
articulation has been localized and therefore unable to form a national agenda [11, p.
588]. The culture of submission to authority, long-term political suppression, and the
indoctrination of militarist, conservative ideologies before the end of World War II
all contributed to a politically quiescent majority in the post-war era. The
democratization imposed by a foreign power was not able to fundamentally change
the state-centrist tradition and institutions, and the catch-up economic strategy and
political system mutually enhanced each other.
During the first decade of the 21st century, Japan has seen vigorous movement
that aims at fundamentally reforming the Japanese political structure by putting an

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end to the monopoly of the LDP and weakening the bureaucracy. However, few
meaningful changes were made due to the Japanese peoples strong attachment to
the status quo and Prime Minister Koizumis gradualist approach [36, p. 52]. In
recent years, substantial transformation has taken place in Japanese civil society. On
the NGO side, many younger people with expertise in advocacy have become the
source of power within those organizations. At the same time, advocacy NGOs have
also been trying to work closely with bureaucrats to get those people on the
frontlines involved, so that the NGOs would be better able to participate in the
policy-making process (Japan Center for International Exchange [24, p. 2]).
However, most support for the Japanese NGOs advocacy has come from private
foundations overseas, and some experts believe that Japanese society is not yet
ready to support civil advocacy activities (ibid., p. 3).
With the watershed event of the defeat of the LDP in the 2009 parliamentary
election, Japanese political institutions are undergoing major changes. The
Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) wants to bring fundamental changes to Japanese
politics and society, and most possibly this institutional change will bring about a
more vibrant civil society.
Comparing Changes in Institutions
The impact of the social movement tradition on the evolution of the NGO sectors in
Japan and South Korea is demonstrated by the changes in the composition of the
NGO sector. Table 36 shows that the percentage of political NGOs in Korea has
always been higher than that of Japan; during the 3 years of the study, Japans
political NGOs constituted 2.3% (1986), 2.3% (1991), and 2.2% (1996) of the total
NGOs; whereas in South Korea during the same period the figures were 6.3%
(1986), 15.7% (1991), and 6.3 % (1996). This also shows that in South Korea,
NGOs play a bigger role in political advocacy than NGOs in Japan. More
importantly, although the majority of South Korean NGOs are business groups, the
proportion of political advocacy groups has increased steadily since the late 1980s
and the proportion of business NGOs has declined sharply from 59% in 1986 to
9.4% in 1996. According to Tsujinaka [59, p. 100], in the 1990s, the composition of
the NGO sector shifted from being mainly dominated by business associations to
being dominated by substantially citizen-led organizations.
The effects of the social movement tradition on political institutions can also be
illustrated through NGO law-making in the two countries. Laws and regulations are
important political institutions, and changes in laws and regulations reflect how the
government responds to pressures from society. Japan and South Korea both
promulgated major NGO laws in the late 1990s to redefine the role of the NGO
sector. In Japan, the social movements of the 1990s eventually prompted the
government to recognize the civil society as a major player in public affairs. The

Source: Based on Table 4.3 The absolute number, composition, and density per 100,000 persons of
associations, 1960-1996. Tsujinaka Yutaka, From developmentalism to maturity: Japans civil society
organizations in comparative perspective, in Frank J. Schwartz and Susan J. Pharr (Eds.) The State of
Civil Society in Japan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [59]), pp. 9293.
6

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281

Table 3 Business and political groups as a percentage of the total number of NGOs in Japan and South
Korea (19601996)

1960
1975
1981
1986
1991
1996

Japan

South Korea

Business

45.4

N/A

Political

1.6

N/A

Business

48.6

N/A

Political

2.6

N/A

Business

N/A

72.1

Political

N/A

4.2

Business

38.2

59

Political

2.3

6.3

Business

38.2

47.4

Political

2.3

15.7

Business

38.8

9.4

Political

2.2

6.3

Source: Table 4.3 The absolute number, composition, and density per 100,000 persons of associations,
1960-1996, Tsujinaka Yutaka, From developmentalism to maturity: Japans civil society organizations in
comparative perspective, in Frank J. Schwartz and Susan J. Pharr (Eds.) The State of Civil Society in
Japan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003 [59]), pp. 9293.

path-breaking event was the passing of the Law to Promote Specified Nonprofit
Activities (Tokutei hieiri Katsud sokushin h), or NPO Law, in 1998.
This event was a watershed in the history of citizens associations in Japan since
the establishment of the Uniform Civil Code more than a hundred years earlier in
1896. The Uniform Civil Code considered the establishment of a citizens
organization not as a right but as a privilege granted by the government. Permission
for the establishment of public-interest corporations should come from the
competent authorities, which refers to the national-level government including
the Prime Ministers Office or the ministry with jurisdiction over the public-interest
activity of the respective corporation. If a corporation serves purposes that come
under the jurisdiction of two or more agencies, permission must be obtained from
each competent ministry [48, p. 201]. Since the authority for approving NGO
registration rests with the national government and the criteria for registration is very
stringent, it is very difficult for the NGOs to get incorporated. In Japan, the NGOs
are divided into two large groups in accordance with their legal status: incorporated
associations (hjin) and unincorporated associations (nini dantai, commonly called
civic groups, shimin dantai). The majority of Japanese NGOs are unincorporated
associations that have no legal status and are not registered with the government [21,
pp. 1516].
The new NPO law passed with the unanimous consent of the Diet on March 25,
1998, and went into effect in December 1998. The highlight of this law is that it
lowers the threshold of incorporation for nonprofit organizations that are working
for the public good in twelve fields: Under the new law, incorporation is not much
more than a formality for nonprofit groups that conduct most of their activities in
one of twelve specified fields [53, pp. 1516].

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Since the 1990s, a number of laws were promulgated in Japan that in various
ways impact the legal environment of the NGOs. These laws include the
Administrative Procedures Law (1993), the Products Liability Law (1994), the
revised Code of Civil Procedure (1996), and The Information Disclosure Law (2001)
(ibid, p. 18). In 1999, a Cabinet Order established a procedure for public comment in
the formulation of regulations of general applicability. It requires government
agencies to publish proposed regulations or proposed amendments to existing
regulations, and to take into consideration public comments before issuing final
statements of regulations [14]. These laws and regulations are the result of the civil
movements in the 1990s and have improved the legal environment for civil society.
However, compared to the efforts made by the South Korean government to
institutionalize civil society, the Japanese governments response to citizens
demands for a bigger participatory role has been more passive. Meanwhile, the
government continues to impose restraints on the NGO sector.
For example, the new NPO Law did not at first give tax-exemption status to the
NGOs. In 2001, after 3 years of review, the government finally began to permit the
deductibility of contributions to approved specified nonprofit corporations (nintei
NPO hjin) in 2001 [53, p. 16]. However, the tax-exemption status still needs to be
approved by the National Tax Administration. Since it is very hard to get the
approval, most NPOs will not benefit from these exemptions. As of April 2002, only
5 out of a possible 6,700 organizations, 0.075%, had been certified (ibid., p. 17).
Meanwhile, financial requirements remain an obstacle for registration. The
ministerial cabinet resolution Standards for the Permission of the Establishment
and Guidance of the Management of Public Interest Corporations adopted in
September 1996 requires public-interest corporations to have a solid financial basis
to be able to sustain activities to achieve their missions [48, p. 197].
In South Korea, the legal environment for NGOs was tremendously improved in
December 1999 when the Law to Promote Nonprofit Civil Organizations was
enacted. The purpose of this law is to promote the sound development of nonprofit
civil organizations, to enlarge the foundation for citizens participation in the form of
volunteer and other activities to benefit society and thereby to contribute to the
development of South Korean civil society through expanding public activities for
nonprofit civil organizations [28, p. 8].
This law has demonstrated the governments determination to create a facilitating
legal environment for the civil society by improving registration standards,
providing tax-exemption status, and increasing government support to the NGOs.
It stipulates that the government may invite the NGOs to participate in public
projects and provide public facilities, funding, and subsidies to the NGOs. It made
great improvements in provisions of tax-exempt regulations for the NGOs and
greatly lessened the registration requirement for the NGOs. According to the law,
government authorities must give permission to the nonprofit organizations that are
qualified for registration (ibid., p. 89).
Another major breakthrough is that the South Korean NGO law has institutionalized governmental support to the NGOs and made it one of the major
responsibilities of the state to facilitate the development of the civil society. The
Law to Promote Nonprofit Civil Organizations stipulates that the government should
provide various kinds of government resources to the civil society organizations.

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283

Apart from government funds and subsidies, other forms of support include
partnership in government projects and use of government facilities (ibid). In Japan,
there is no such stipulation in the new NGO Law. In fact, among the 36 nations
covered by the GCSI Civil Society Project, including the United States, the legal
environment for the NGOs in South Korea is rated as very close to the best [42, p.
207]. South Korea has done a much better job than Japan of facilitating the
development of the NGOs through institutional changes.

Conclusion
There are good reasons to presume that a democratic political system is more likely
to have a politically powerful civil society. In fact, a healthy civil society is an
integral part of a liberal, pluralistic democracy. However, in East Asian countries
where the state has long dominated the political, economic, and social structure, the
establishment of democratic institutions does not necessarily foster the development
of a vibrant civil society that is able to check the power of the state.
Both Japan and South Korea have witnessed a booming of NGOs since the
late 1990s. Nevertheless, Japan and South Korea have different types of civil
societies. In the incipient stage of the civil society in both nations, the
composition and role of the NGO sectors shared similar features. Since the
1980s, the civil societies have begun to evolve along different trajectories. Today,
South Korea boasts of a significant presence of civic and advocacy activism in
its NGO sector, and civil society organizations are exerting great influence on the
policy-making process [42]. In Japan, although it has been widely acknowledged
that by the end of the 20th century, the boundary between the state and society in
Japan is becoming more clearly defined than before [40, pp. 2732], the civil
society lacks sizable professional groups that influence the public sphere and
policy making.
The comparison between the post-war evolution of the civil societies in Japan and
South Korea suggests that the state-centric institutions can be changed and the
transformation is path-dependent. Comparison of the social movement tradition in
Japan and South Korea also suggests that the goals, nature, and intensity of the
social movements have a deep impact on the scale and depth of the changes in the
state-society relations.
Being a newly established democracy, South Korea has a time-honored tradition
of citizens political mobilization that can be dated back to the colonial period. In
South Korea, continuous civil movements have tremendously eroded the rigidity of
state-centric institutions by bringing about a democratic transition and fundamentally
changing the nations power structure. The social movements from the 1960s to the
1980s developed a clear and powerful political goal, which was to change the
political system to usher in democracy, rather than seek participation in policy
making [34, p. 7]. Waves of intense and even militant protest brought the citizens
into direct confrontation with the government and created an antagonist society that
challenged the legitimacy of the government. After the regime change, the
momentum of the social movements has greatly facilitated the growth of a fully
fledged, politically active civil society. In summary, the high level of civil society

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institutionalization in South Korea is built upon the countrys long tradition of social
protest and citizens movement.
In contrast, post-war citizens movements in Japan were mostly focused on
specific issue areas and failed to develop a powerful, overarching ideology; most of
the social protests were less confrontational and very few were aimed at facilitating
regime change. Moreover, since the democratic transition in Japan did not originate
from within, the introduction of democracy dampened citizens political
participation in two ways: On the one hand, it ruled out the possibility of mass
political movement. As a result, many of the old political institutions were no longer
subjected to major challenges. On the other hand, since these democratic institutions
were imposed upon the existing political and cultural tradition, they retained many
of the state-centrist traits and became insulated from external pressure because the
economic and political systems were in general quite successful. The political
institutions tended to exclude major interests groups other than big businesses from
public policy-making. Consequently, citizens organizations in Japan were confined
to the narrow fields of service and business. In contrast, South Koreas
democratization replaced the old political system with a new one. Its major political
institutions, including the competitive party system, helped to facilitate the political
participation of the citizens groups.
In South Korea, although the state bureaucracy and large business conglomerates
(chaebols) still play important roles in the system, civil society has become an
important political force. Without the militant and persistent social movement
tradition, the NGO sector in South Korea would not have been able to assert itself as
an equal and independent player in the nations politics. In contrast, civil movements
in Japan have brought about incremental changes in the major institutions but failed
to establish an influential political advocacy component in the NGO sector. At
present, the Japanese state continues to use regulatory barriers to stymie the growth
of large-sized, professional NGOs [44, pp.166169].
Using historical institutionalism and path-dependency theory, this paper argues
that the social movement tradition has played a key role in bringing about
institutional changes in the state-society relations. Comparison of the social
movement traditions in Japan and South Korea also suggests that the goals, nature,
and intensity of the social movements have a strong bearing on the scale and depth
of institutional changes.

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