From Meiji to Heisei: The state and civil society in Japan

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

26 Scopus citations


“Civil society” may well be the Holy Grail of our time. Scholars and statesmen seek it with a fervor that borders on the spiritual. And recognizing it among the more mundane chalices has stymied many in their quest. For a historian of state-society relations like myself, the Charge of investigating civil society in Japan raises a thorny set of problems. Civil society has occupied an important place in modern Japan, I argue. Yet if we are to appreciate its complexities, we must first consider the limitations of a historically applying “civil society” to Japan. The idea of civil society is rooted in a time and a place. Both are distant from modern Japan. Its origins are distinctly European, dating back to the classical Greek term koinonia politike and the Roman societas civilis. For much of European history, civil society referred to self-governing towns or cities. The emphasis was on the word “civil,” which connoted a “citizen,” or a member of the polity endowed with certain rights to participate in governance. The concept of civil society assumed its present-day meaning, most scholars agree, during the latter half of the eighteenth Century and the early nineteenth Century in Western Europe. Particularly in the Anglo-American world and France, “civil society” began to describe a society or Space that not only lay outside the control of the State but whose vibrant exchange of ideas monitored and limited State authority. Against the backdrop of the American and French revolutions, this new type of civil society grew out of a “fear of State despotism” (Keane 1988b: 35-39, 65). In this sense, civil society was composed of voluntary, self-organized associations, such as learned and reading societies, moral reform groups, and Masonic lodges (Trentmann 2000: 1).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe State of Civil Society in Japan
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9780511550195
ISBN (Print)9780521827300
StatePublished - Jan 1 2013
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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