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  • Civic Engagement in Postwar Japan: The Revival of a Defeated Society
  • Simon Avenell (bio)
Civic Engagement in Postwar Japan: The Revival of a Defeated Society. By Rieko Kage. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011. xv, 195 pages. $85.00, cloth; $37.50, E-book.

Civil society and volunteering have been topics of intense interest for scholars of Japan for well over a decade now, especially following the massive outpouring of volunteers after the Kobe Earthquake in 1995. The triple disaster in Tohoku in March 2011 has brought civic activism and volunteering into the spotlight again but, unlike 1995, civic groups are now better funded, enjoy wider social legitimacy, and display sophisticated organizational capabilities and more interconnectedness. Indeed, much of the activism we see in Tohoku today can be traced to the experiential and institutional legacies of Kobe. In her superb study on civic engagement in postwar Japan, Rieko Kage offers a theoretically sophisticated and empirically rich analysis of [End Page 488] the ways past developments—especially institutional and organizational legacies—shape civil societies.

Rather than natural disaster, however, Kage focuses on the aftermath of Japan’s greatest contemporary human-made disaster: defeat in World War II. She argues that “wartime mobilization lays the groundwork for postwar civic engagement by instilling civic skills in the citizens which they can transfer to new contexts if the postwar political regime permits it” (p. 1). Furthermore, she suggests that “prewar structures of participation” influence the opportunities for civic engagement after wars “by shaping the costs of association-building and information-gathering” (p. 1). Put simply, in regions or countries where wartime mobilization and prewar associational activities have been high, we would expect the growth of postwar civic engagement to be fastest. The book uses Japan’s early postwar years (before the first phase of high-speed economic growth from the mid-1950s) to test this thesis and, based on my reading, does so in a highly convincing and original way.

After the lucidly crafted introduction, in chapter 2 Kage presents a wealth of fresh data evidencing the rise in civic engagement in Japan from 1945 to 1955. Mining often-scant data from groups such as the YMCA, YWCA, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the Japan Alpine Club, and the Kodokan Judo Institute, Kage convincingly shows that civic engagement not only quickly returned to prewar levels but began to outpace them, regardless of whether the groups were “Western” or “indigenous” in origin (p. 37). Based on these data, Kage suggests that the hypothesis that war defeat is necessarily deleterious for postwar civic engagement “requires reconsideration” (p. 43).

Chapter 3 steps back from Japan to examine war and civic engagement on a more broadly theoretical level. Here Kage briefly presents some possible alternative explanations for the postwar surge in civic engagement followed by her thesis that, through wartime mobilization,

citizens come into contact with individuals, officials, and groups that they would not have encountered in a peacetime setting and interact with them to achieve various task objectives. In so doing, they may acquire important communication skills, political and social awareness, organizational savvy, the art of deliberation, and so on—in short, what scholars have termed “civic skills.”

(p. 53)

As I note below, this is a provocative and original perspective, especially for historians of modern Japan who are prone to understand wartime mobilization primarily as a bane for civil society.

Kage uses chapters 4 and 5 to quantitatively test her theory of wartime mobilization and prewar organizational legacies on civic engagement. Those of a less numerical disposition might be tempted to leap over these chapters, [End Page 489] but I would advise otherwise. I was absolutely fascinated by Kage’s operationalization of variables to test her theory, not to mention her articulate description of the methodologies utilized. After examining the Japanese case in chapter 4, Kage expands her analysis cross-nationally in chapter 5 to test the effects of wartime mobilization (or lack thereof) on some 13 nations. In support of her thesis, she finds that, from a generational perspective, “individuals in the war-affected cohorts appear to participate at higher rates than those in their immediately preceding cohorts, regardless of whether the country...


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pp. 488-493
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