Jahrestagung 2014

Trust and Mistrust in Contemporary Japan

Japanese-German Center Berlin (JDZB), 21-23 November 2014

Organizers: Dr. Kerstin Lukner (University of Duisburg-Essen) and Dr. Alexandra Sakaki (SWP Berlin)

Trust has become a keyword in many public debates and academic discourses. Most social scientists agree that trust plays a key role in long-term social relations, fostering cooperation and thereby contributing to the development of a prosperous society. While definitions on trust vary, it is often described as the willingness of one party, the trustor, to believe that another party, the trustee, will do a certain thing in the future which is beyond the trustor’s control. As the basis of social relations, trust is fragile and must thus continuously be built and rebuilt.

In the case of Japan, the fragility of trust became particularly evident following the March 11, 2011, triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown), when the public’s trust in government institutions dropped dramatically due to what was perceived as poor crisis management. But even before the disaster, numerous studies found that the level of trust Japanese show towards other people and society is rather low when compared to other countries. The goal of the VSJF Annual Conference 2014 was thus to assess the role trust plays in Japanese society today, taking a cross-disciplinary approach. In four sequential panels international experts on Japan from various disciplines, including sociology, political science, and economics, discussed recent developments in relation to the notion of trust.

Renowned trust scholar and keynote speaker Toshio YAMAGISHI (Hitotsubashi University) opened the conference with general reflections on the role of trust in Japanese society. He explained how the preference for strong relational ties in Japanese collectivist society affects the ability to develop general trust. Whereas a preference for weak relational ties forces society to develop general trust as bridging basis for social interaction, in societies with strong relational ties this bridging function gets replaced by a bonding one, building on assurance instead of trust. In the latter case, people feel assured and see risks controlled when interacting within the known and long-lasting networks. However, this naturally entails a low level of general trust or even mistrust towards the external unknown and explains the high sensitivity of Japanese society to change, meaning instability, uncertainty and therefore high risk.

Building on this conceptual basis, conference speakers presented illuminating empirical findings, providing insights into the role trust plays in Japanese society.

Panel I: Social Developments and the Concept of Trust

For a long time Japanese society was associated with high social cohesion and homogeneity as well as the concept of life-time employment. However, over the last two decades, demographic change and labor market reorganization have challenged this image. On the one hand rapid population ageing has resulted in an increasing demand for social welfare, on the other hand labor market reforms have led to increases in precarious employment, highlighting shortcomings in the Japanese social security system. These developments not only affect individuals’ de facto quality of life, but are also accompanied by a loss of hope in one’s individual future as well as diminishing trust in politics.
The Panel started with a presentation by Steffen HEINRICH (DIJ Tokyo) on the interrelation of the size and scope of the welfare state and people’s trust in it („Trust, Welfare and the State in Japan“). He argued that one reason why strong preferences in favor of redistribution have not led to more redistributive policies in Japan is that those who would most benefit from higher spending (i.e. low wage earners) have comparatively lower levels of public trust. For policymakers and researchers concentrating on the Japanese welfare state, it will be important to further address and scrutinize this trust-welfare-nexus. The presentation by Yuji GENDA (University of Tokyo), entitled „Precarious Employment, Family Politics, and Demography: Trust with a Perspective of Hope“, focused on a more ‘private’ aspect of trust. He showed that the experience of being trusted is a key independent factor affecting positively the individual level of hope in the future. As a result, the increasing number of people in Japan who fall into the category of ‘Solitary Non-Employed Person’ (SNEP) and are often lonely can be seen as a severe societal challenge. Another challenge to social trust is migration. In her presentation on „Trust, Citizenship and Multiculturalism in Japan“, Gabriele VOGT (Hamburg University) emphasized the importance of integrating migrants into public and political life to ensure successful trust building in a multicultural society. However, the Japanese government has largely failed to translate multicultural policies into concrete measures at the local level. While top-down approaches have been insufficient, the city of Kawasaki serves as a model city for successful bottom-up implementation of measures to integrate migrant children into the local education system and therefore taking an important step in social trust building. Jeffrey BROADBENT (University of Minnesota) finally turned the focus back to the national level of politics („Reciprocity Networks in the Japanese Labor Policy-Making System: Trust, Confidence or Enclosure (takotsubo)?“). Presenting a network analysis of the Japanese labor policy landscape, he exposed a pattern of state-mediated corporatism placing the Japanese ministries between the sub-networks of business and unions. The structure of closed groupism with vertical social control and a low level of generalized trust as core elements discourages policy innovation and favors current conditions. These findings confirm Yamagishi’s arguments about Japanese society.

Panel 2: Political Developments and the Concept of Trust

From a political science perspective, trust is a relevant topic with regards to both domestic and international politics. At the domestic level, the question of trust in government gained particular relevance as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called a snap election a few days before the conference was held. At the international level, the apparent lack of trust between Japan and its closest neighbors, China and South Korea, has become a pressing topic in recent years.
Robert PEKKANEN (University of Washington), Ellis KRAUSS (University of California, San Diego), and Kuniaki NEMOTO (Waseda University) observed that political trust in Japan was recently declining („Party Politics, Elections and (Mis-)Trust in Japan“). Using Japanese Election Study (JES) data, they identified government performance and voters’ perceived scope for political influence as two important factors positively affecting the level of political trust. In Japan, disaffected voters have increasingly turned away from the two major parties to third parties, thereby causing opposition fragmentation. Jitsuo TSUCHIYAMA (Aoyama Gakuin University) concentrated on the consequences of mistrust in Japan’s relations with China, South Korea and the US („Trust and Mistrust in Japan’s International Relations with the United States, Korea, and China“). Pointing to the ongoing territorial disputes, struggles over regional hegemony as well as public opinion data, he demonstrated the prevalence of mistrust in these relations. Nevertheless, all four states share a strategic interest in regional stability and prevention of conflict escalation, which encourages further cooperation regardless of the lack of trust. The panel ended with a presentation by Thomas BERGER (Boston University) on „Japan’s Regional Relations: Trust, Mistrust and the Politics of Memory“. He argued that controversial historical narratives in Japan, China and South Korea and the associated national identities have become institutionalized and embedded in national politics, posing severe challenges for better relations. To escape the cycle of mistrust, Berger suggested two options: either take the historical issues off the agendas or actively change the respective narratives.

Panel 3: Economic Developments and the Concept of Trust

When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, Japan had already experienced nearly two decades of low economic growth after the burst of the economic bubble in the early 1990s. Various measures such as organizational reforms within corporations, stimulus packages or the recent economic policy known as ‘Abenomics’ have thus far failed to put Japan back on a growth path. Thus, a major interest of economic research on Japan lies with the reasons as well as the consequences of this failure, leading to question of trust and the role it plays in Japanese economics.
In his presentation, Franz WALDENBERGER (DIJ Tokyo) focused on „The Meaning and Role of Trust in the Evolution of Japan’s Stakeholder System of Corporate Governance“. He showed that the formerly dominant stakeholder system relied on long-term relations, which resulted in interdependencies and strong in-group trust. However, in recent years there has been a shift to market governance, except for top management recruitment, which is still done mostly in-house. Despite this trend, there is still a strong preference among Japanese businesses for building trust on personal relations, interfering with the reliance on market institutions and giving rise to the possibility of inefficiencies. The interrelation of trust and efficiency at the level of economic policy was addressed by Saori KATADA (University of Southern California) in her presentation entitled „The Global Financial Crisis, Vulnerability and the Japanese Economy“. Despite a massive (but slow) government response, Japan was unable to recover from the economic downturn following the crisis. According to Katada, this can be explained by three layers of distrust among actors: (1) within the Liberal Democratic Party, (2) among government institutions, and (3) between government on the one hand and business and society on the other hand. Richard KATZ (The Oriental Economist) also reflected on the economic costs of mistrust, providing three examples relevant to Japan’s current economic outlook and the so-called ‘Abenomics’ („(Dis)Trust and Abenomics“). Firstly, following the triple disaster, the public no longer trusts Japan’s nuclear power industry, making it difficult to restart reactors and thus raising energy costs. Secondly, increasing the consumption tax to battle budget deficits is difficult due to public mistrust in the government’s spending practices. Finally, in the private sector, relatively narrow ‘circles of trust’ lead to anti-competitive practices that must be overcome to raise productivity.

Panel 4: Trust in Japan after the Triple Catastrophe of March 11, 2011

The government’s response to the triple disaster of March 11, 2011 was widely perceived as inadequate due to a lack of coordination and communication among actors. The final panel thus took up the role of trust in the context of the catastrophe.
Cornelia REIHER (Free University Berlin) examined the nuclear catastrophe’s effect on consumer trust in food safety regulations in Japan („Food Safety and Consumer Trust in Japan“). Due to a series of food safety scandals even before the Fukushima nuclear disaster, many Japanese harbored doubts about the credibility of regulators and official reports on food safety. Given fears about radioactive contamination, existing institutions had difficulties in rebuilding consumer trust after the catastrophe. In this context, civil society actors emerged with independent monitoring stations. In his presentation entitled „Japanese Communities, Social Capital, and the Rebuilding of Tohoku“, Daniel ALDRICH (Purdue University) examined the reasons for differing mortality rates in regions hit by the tsunami. His analysis demonstrated that regions with high levels of social capital and hence strong social networks characterized by relationships of trust were able to evacuate people more quickly, resulting in lower mortality rates. Based on data from a postal survey, Carola HOMMERICH (DIJ Tokyo) explored the effect of trust on people’s subjective well-being and their ability to cope with the disaster („Coping with Disaster – Trust and Subjective Well-being after 3/11“). Her results indicate that trust resources helped to outbalance negative disaster induced effects to some degree, especially among the youth affected. However, among the elderly, a lack of institutional trust was further exacerbated, thus indicating a need for improving the government’s disaster management. Kerstin LUKNER (University of Duisburg-Essen) and Alexandra SAKAKI (SWP Berlin) showed that the government’s new regulatory structure as well as cleanup efforts at Fukushima nuclear plant have so far failed to engender renewed public trust in nuclear energy („Government Oversight of the Nuclear Energy Sector: Rebuilding Public Trust?“). Nevertheless, anti-nuclear politicians have been unable to capitalize on the widespread mistrust in elections. The presentation examined both the national and prefectural election results since the disaster, scrutinizing campaign strategies of politicians.

Simone Kopietz (Hamburg University)
Tarina Greyling (University of Duisburg-Essen)
Alexandra Sakaki (SWP Berlin)
Kerstin Lukner (University of Duisburg-Essen)