JPRI Working Paper No. 54: February 1999
Japan's Emerging Civic Culture: A Product Liability Law Study Group
by Leila Madge

I recently spent 24 months in Japan doing anthropological research on citizens' organizations and consumer society. One of the groups I studied called themselves the Product Liability Law Study Group. Although they met to study and discuss this new law, their story is less about the particulars of legal change and more about the form this gathering took as a study group. Many of the groups I belonged to--ranging from a women's housekeeping group, to a consumer cooperative, a citizens' group concerned with reformulating Nagoya's by-laws, and a consumer network begun after a visit by Ralph Nader in 1989--had a study format as the major component of their gatherings. Participants often made the point that it was their desire to learn that motivated them to attend these gatherings.

The history of education in Japan and the social understandings surrounding it encourage individuals to gather socially to study something. These implicit understandings about the moral desirability of study can, however, lead to confusion about the precise purpose of any given study project. The reason why I have chosen to focus on the Product Liability Law Study Group, rather than on one of the other groups, is that their particular problems highlight more general issues of Japanese citizens' relationship to corporate and civil society, and the state. I want to explore both the potential and the paradoxes for public and political life when calls for social change take the form of an educational movement.

The Group and the New Product Liability Law

The Product Liability Law Study Group (PL Hou Manabu Kai) in which I participated was formed in 1991 in Nagoya with an original roster of over fifty names, some of them important local figures in law and consumer issues. The group was formed as part of a broadly based mobilization effort by pro-Product Liability Law forces and represented the final stages of a long struggle, which I can only outline here. The debate about the creation of a Product Liability Law in Japan began in the early 1970s. At first it included only a limited group of individuals, as neither the political nor social climate were conducive to serious discussion. In particular, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, business, and the major economic ministries avoided entering into the debate as they did not consider a Product Liability Law as being in their best interests. The debate was reopened in the mid-1980s, when product liability laws became a topic of international discussion. In Japan, a uniform product liability law came to be viewed as an aid to removing some of the trade barriers in international trade. Passage of a product liability law entered Japanese political debates in the early 1990s, when it came to be understood as a commitment to consumers' welfare in an age of growing deregulation.

Under Prime Minister Kaifu, a special investigative commission (the 13th Social Policy Council) was formed to study the matter and decide whether a law was necessary or not. But with the economy entering a recession, business and economic ministries, which were heavily represented on the commission, slowed the deliberative process and the 13th Social Policy Council ended in a stalemate. That is when public lecture series and small study groups, such as the one in which I was a participant-observer, were formed as part of a broadly based mobilization effort by pro-Product Liability Law groups. As the public was mobilized and the pro-law groups gained credence, pressure was put on local governments to enact legislation and general petitions were sent to the Diet. In 1993, in a growing climate of concern over consumers' interests versus international and business issues, the Hosokawa government came to power on a platform of giving consumers precedence. As a result of both international example and domestic pressure, a Product Liability Law was finally passed in June, 1994, and was implemented on July 1, 1995. The road this law took to passage, and the importance of a broadly based mobilization effort is not untypical in present-day Japan. Many issues that are of primary interest to those who do not have access to the national policy-making apparatus, gain political attention through public mobilization efforts.1

The major changes brought about by the law are that manufacturers are now responsible for product defects regardless of whether they arise from negligence.2 In addition, the new law changed the determination of safety from one based on a manufacturer's standards to one based more on a customer's expectations. And finally, manufacturers are now responsible for design defects and any accidents that may result from inadequate safety warnings. In short, the new law has increased the standards and broadened the scope of things for which companies may be held responsible.

I joined the Product Liability Law Study Group in early 1996. By this time, the number of participants had dwindled from the original fifty to about ten regular members. The group was now comprised of four men and six women, most of them middle aged except for the president, who neared seventy, and a young consumer adviser in her twenties. Three of the four men came from the business world: one worked for a gas burner manufacturer, one for a department store, and one was recently retired from a major automobile manufacturer. The other man was a retired public servant who used to work in the city-run Consumer Center3 and now headed the local office of a grass-roots consumer network. Four of the women were long-time consumer activists and participated in a number of other activist and volunteer organizations. The elderly and largely ceremonial president had run her own consumer organization for some twenty years and had been an elected local city official. Another middle-aged woman worked for a grass-roots consumer network and a large food cooperative.

Participants in the meetings explained their attendance in terms of a desire to learn, rather than a demand for legal reform as such. They spoke of the need for education in light of internationalization and deregulation. The pressure to deregulate was understood as a threat to the stability of the Japanese market and sure to lead to a flood of unsafe products. The threat was so palpable in their view that market deregulation through such measures as GATT and WTO agreements was on occasion compared to Commodore Perry's forced opening of Japan in 1853. There were also other references to social change, such as a growing awareness that the past myth of government protection of consuming citizens was just that, a myth. The growing public knowledge of governmental scandals and greed, and doubts about the government's ability, fiscal or otherwise, to protect its citizens made education seem all the more necessary. The purpose of this education was often spoken of in terms of realizing "shutaisei," a concept that suggests Western notions of individual responsibility, autonomy, independence, and personal identity. In short, the way the law study group presented itself suggested that the group's educational activities, as much as the law, were aimed at protecting oneself.

Historical Precedents for Educational Responses

The goal of protecting oneself and maintaining or attaining autonomy and achieving that via education is not new to the 1990s era of internationalization, deregulation, or growing doubts about the government. Education has been something long celebrated by both the Japanese state and citizenry. Fukuzawa Yukichi, commonly called the "Educator of Japan," said in 1872 that through learning ". . . a man may attain his independence, a house its independence, and the nation too will attain its independence."4 Historically, education has often been evoked as a means of self-help and national progress, and been considered a moral activity of use not only to the individual but also the greater society.5 Education, often understood as learning the ways of the West, has been seen for many years as a way for Japan to protect itself from colonization and also assume its place among the nations of the modern world. Education directed at consumer issues--(shohi seikatsu), or consumer/life issues as the term is better translated--has a pre-war history initiated and supported by both the state and civil society.6

However, at the same time that education was being promoted as the key to nation-building, politics was being disparaged because it encouraged social divisiveness. As political expression became associated with illicit behavior, political activities were often hidden under the more acceptable pursuit of education. Political mobilization in the guise of "education," as in the case of the Product Liability Law, was a common tactic for those without organizational support or political access.7

Even today, social study groups tend to get much less censure than other forms of civic activity. For example, political activity and even community service are often criticized by family members, relatives, or even neighbors because they are activities that do not benefit the family in a direct way.8 At best, they are often viewed as a luxury. In a strange twist, these other activities--political and community service--are often interpreted as selfish and self-centered because their benefit to and possible return from a recognized social group cannot be easily located. In contrast, study--whether it be the traditional arts such as flower-arranging or nagauta-singing, or less traditional disciplines--escapes censure because it is believed to require discipline. Learning entails the mastering of and submission to a form or a content. This mastery and submission in turn require and signal that the student has attained maturity, which is understood as the key to achievement.9 Learning also entitles one to speak (one might say that there is only freedom of knowledgeable speech) and legitimizes action.

In short, the response to a perceived threat to one's nation, community, or household, was in the past and still is today an educational one. Women in Japan have for a long time been educating themselves in groups on how to modernize society and improve their own life-styles through the 'rationalization' of household chores and spending. And whether one is educating oneself to help protect and modernize the nation, or to protect one's own family against big business because the state cannot or will not, the project of educating oneself about appropriate consumption and living is considered a moral undertaking.

Given this historical legacy of education and the social understandings of acceptable activities, it should come as no surprise that study groups in Japan abound. On the one hand, these educational projects are often about the "defensive" education of oneself; but on the other hand, educational projects can also involve mobilization for political purposes. The two purposes can collide, but the power attributed to and widespread acceptance of study often allows the purpose of the study group to remain rather vague even for the members themselves.

The Power of Education Versus the Law

Both the power attributed to education and the confusion over the precise purpose of education were evident in the activities of the Product Liability Law Study Group. When I joined the group in early 1996, the members were busy preparing for a public presentation of its research for the first anniversary of the law's implementation. Their research focused on responses to the new law by corporations, bureaucrats, and citizens. Although the group had originally been formed as part of the pro-law movement, the current projects reflected the participants general skepticism regarding law, both this one specifically and laws in general. This skepticism also reflects the belief that education, rather than law, is the true protector of the citizen.

Part of their scepticism about the new law arose from what they already knew about the responses by business and the state to it. Lawyers and consumer activists, although obviously in favor of the enactment of product liability law, were not pleased with the particular form the law had taken. Consumers still have to prove there was a defect in a product and that this defect directly resulted in injury. Proving these can be a difficult challenge. There is no Freedom of Information Act in Japan that citizens can use to get needed governmental information, and the Civil Code continues to protect businesses. Without a Freedom of Information Act, the Product Liability Law is "without bones" (honenuki), or ineffective, most lawyers and activists believe.

Corporate and bureaucratic responses to the law also suggest that legal changes are not going to provide much protection. Many responses on the part of business are seen by lawyers and consumer activists as merely defensive. The establishing of safety commissions and inspection systems, and the development of product liability insurance and industry-based product-liability centers to address claims, all of which occurred in the wake of the new law, were not necessarily for the consumers' benefit. In particular, industry-based product-liability law centers seem hardly capable of being neutral. A dramatic increase in warning labels--a result of the law's new emphasis on liability for insufficient warning labels--has ironically led to a misunderstanding of the law. Some citizens believe that consumers, not manufacturers, now have increased responsibility. And finally, the new safety symbol system, which was instituted along with the new law, to conform to international standards, was taken as a sign of the continuing hegemony of the Unites States and Europe.

Even the bureaucracy's reaction has been disturbing. Because of constraints surrounding the time and cost of legal disputes, it was generally recognized by the bureaucracy that some kind of extra-judicial means to handle disputes was necessary. Consumer centers had already been established throughout Japan in the 1970s to help address a myriad of consumer-related problems. Although consumer awareness of the new law resulted in an increase in inquiries to these centers, they lacked the money, staff or experience to deal with the new problems. Consumers were pretty much restricted to the kinds of settlement consumer centers could get them, which do not seem to have much of a punitive character. Cases in the past have most often ended up in compromise settlements (wakai), in which businesses attached conditions prohibiting public disclosure.10

Although the Product Liability Law Study Group was formed to mobilize support for the enactment of a law, the participants were actually quite sceptical about the legal system in general. Law or no law, they felt that the common methods used for redressing problems would probably be as indifferent to consumer concerns as ever. The law still protects business in some fundamental ways. And finally, the passage of the law was seen as a result more of international trade pressure than of genuine concern for the consumer. If anything, the passage of the law suggested to the group's participants that they had to be more vigilant than ever in their efforts to protect their own life-styles.

Law, for these participants and for Japanese in general, is not regarded as a guarantee of compliance.11 What it can do is provide a framework for the creation of consensus which can then lead to compliance, or it can legitimize an already existing norm. But for law to be effective it has to be accompanied by consensus, and consensus-building is not going to appear magically but involves education. As one informant explained to me, law is only a "container" (youki) that had to be filled through education. Thus, as I came to understand it, the study group was as much about what the law might be able to do in terms of consensus building as it was about learning how law might solve consumer problems. Further problems arose, however, as participants became confused over who they were educating and how.

Confusion Over Means and Ends

The vagueness of the actual purpose of the educational project became evident during its comparative research on user manuals. The project was formulated because availability of information was seen as a prerequisite for a citizen to assume full responsibility in consumer choices. Availability of information was something that even the government was realizing was necessary as it acknowledged its inability to protect the consuming citizen in an era of international free trade. The plan was to compare consumer reports and automobile manuals from United States, France, and Japan to see just how much information Japanese consumers were getting--or not getting, as they feared. France was chosen because, like Japan, it had just promulgated a new product liability law. The United States was chosen because it was regarded as the paragon of consumer protection and the place where information was most readily available.

As the participants were considering how to present their findings, two problems arose. First was the problem of their relationship to the information or the nature of information that they were obtaining in their studies. Were they to be only presenters of comparative information? That is, in United States "X" is said about seat-belt safety but in Japan "Y" is said. Or were they also going to provide some kind of judgment or recommendation growing out of the information? For example, "because statistics in France show such-and-such regarding air bags, we recommend the following."

All the members saw danger in providing recommendations because they viewed this as inimical to the very task of having the individual consumer take responsibility for his own decisions. Although the availability of good information was seen as absolutely essential to realizing shutaisei, there was also the danger that information becomes a form of authority to which the individual must submit. For all the calls for good consumer information there were an equal number of fears expressed about depending on information as a manual for correct behavior. In Japan, criticism is often leveled at the general educational system for encouraging the "manualization of society"--meaning dependence on detailed instructions, which leads to a loss of the ability to decide and act on one's own. Participants in the study group feared that their own project could be confused with the kind of educational project found in the formal school system. Rather than making recommendations, which they identified with the latter type of education, they thought that giving only comparative information might be one way out of their dilemma.

Their second problem involved who their information was directed at--their audience. Was this information only for themselves? Or for other uninformed consumers--that is the general public? Or for the unresponsive state and business? If it was the state and business then, as one woman pointed out, just presenting comparative information was a half-done job (chuutohanpa), and recommendations should also be made.

Neither the state nor business, however, was necessarily asking for their opinion. There were no formal channels through which this group and most consumer/citizens groups could get a hearing, especially at the national level (to which the product liability law pertains). This problem with access is, of course, the precise reason why such study groups are formed. There was a vague notion that if the group presented their comparative information regarding the manuals, they would be helping to create a general public opinion (seiron) which could then be used to put pressure on business or the state to mend their ways. However, business as an audience, as I shall discuss shortly, was also problematic for the men in the group.

Although previous to the passage of the law the originators of the study group, mainly lawyers and national-level consumer activists, may have been certain of their audience and purpose, the remaining participants after the passage of the law were less certain. As they were not sure who they wanted their audience to be, the purpose of their educational project was unclear and the presentation format became a problem.

A Member in Trouble

The problems of audience and format were exacerbated by an unintended consequence of one of the group's public presentations. For the first anniversary celebrations, the group had presented their research findings on the difference between pre- and post-law user manuals. One member, Mr. Sato, had been in charge of the presentation on his own company's gas burner manual. His report, it should be mentioned, was overwhelmingly positive.

It seems that Mrs. Kato, the president of the study group, was a neighbor of the president of the gas burner company. She was from a very well-known and once powerful family and personally respected as a school teacher, long-time leader of a consumer group and former local representative (giin). She had also taught the current president of the gas burner company when he was a child. After the July presentation, Mrs. Kato on meeting her neighbor, the president of the gas-burner company, congratulated him on having such a fine and eager (nesshin) employee and praised Mr. Sato's presentation. Needless to say, Mrs. Kato's praise reflected her understanding of the educational project and was not intended as political troublemaking. Nonetheless, Mr. Sato, was in deep trouble and was never again to show his face at the meeting.

There were various and contradictory rumors about how and why Mr. Sato was in trouble, but the fact that there were some negative ramifications to his participation seemed undeniable. According to one story, the president of the company had not known of his employee's extra-curricular activities until he was informed by Mrs. Kato, and Mr. Sato should have notified his superiors in the company. Another interpretation suggested that because Mr. Sato had identified himself as an employee of the company whose product he was analyzing, it appeared as though he was airing his opinions on the "outside" rather than keeping criticism within the company. Thus he was seen as trying to use power from the outside to get his opinion heard and his suggestions followed. In still another story, Mr. Sato was a target of bullying (ijime) by his coworkers because the president, upon hearing of his activities, was very pleased. All the versions seemed equally plausible to members of the study group, suggesting that they and/or their educational goal represented some kind of threat to the authority of the company understood either as a hiring entity or a social group of employees.

Mr. Sato's motives for participating in the study group were not in question, according to his fellow group members. He was, after all, spending his own money to attend the meetings, a sign that he must be a good man. He had chosen his own company's product because he wanted to improve the manufacturer's pamphlet not only for the consumers' sake but also the company's. Although they had assumed the morality of their study project, the incident with Mr. Sato awakened them to the fact that they were indeed engaging in an activity that could be perceived as politically motivated. Although the stories were somewhat contradictory, the result was the same: Mr. Sato would no longer be able to participate in the study group.

After the Sato incident, there was great concern about not having it repeated and much discussion regarding how to lessen the responsibility or accountability of any individual by changing the presentation format. Salaried company employees, in this case men, feared reprisals and grew increasingly more hesitant about their participation. The fear even extended to a retired employee who did not want to jeopardize his chances for post-retirement work through keiretsu ("subsidiary company") connections; he eventually decided to withdraw from the study group. The general mood was that even if one had good intentions, there could be all sorts of unimaginable consequences which one had neither enough confidence (jishin ga nai) nor power (hakuryoku) to face. Modesty thinly veiled the fear of responsibility and a general lack of desire to participate.

The incident suggests that the educational project for the group might have had other wider social or political aspects to it than just self-edification. It also highlights a gender problem regarding this kind of educational project. Although women have long been involved in educating themselves in these kinds of consumer/life issues as part of their roles as de facto heads of household, the same cannot be said for men. Everyone acknowledges how hard it is for salarymen, retired or not, to get involved in a group like this. Fear of losing one's job or a threat to future job possibilities renders the salaryman powerless, or at least timid. These issues are not lost on the state either. The Citizens' Lives Council, a deliberative council (shingikai) formed under the Prime Minister's Office, has discussed the salaryman's powerlessness as part and parcel of the corporate-centered society that Japan created in order to catch up with the West. The shingikai has argued that this powerlessness is debilitating not only for the individual but also society in general.12 Corporate men have come to depend on companies not only for their salaries but for all facets of their lives and in turn have lost the ability to be concerned with larger social and international issues.

The Debacle

The group, although it had understood and presented itself as a study group, was confused about the exact nature of the study's purpose. This confusion, combined with fear, set the stage for a debacle. One member, in particular, was not satisfied with the group's purpose as self-edification or as just providing comparative data. In what was to become the final meeting, he referred to the whole endeavor by the rather trendy and shocking term "masturbation"--that is, an exercise in self-gratification with no social value for anyone else. He pushed for including experts in any upcoming presentations. Experts could, he thought, give recommendations (to citizens, business or the state) and, he hoped, avoid any possible negative ramifications such as appearing to flout (or tout) the authority of the company since they would be involved as designated consumer-business representatives for their company.

The women, however, were less than keen on giving ground to expert technical knowledge. This approach has long been used by business and the government to silence the ordinary consumer-citizen by branding him or her as not knowledgeable and placing the blame for consumer problems on the consumer. The suggestion also reinforced the notion that knowledge is something to be submitted to rather than a tool for independent decision-making. It would put the group's other members in the role of merely being instructed and in a position of having to submit to a body of knowledge rather than participating in creating this knowledge.

There was thus a fairly standard division between men and women. The men tended to prefer thinking and speaking from their expert knowledge as employees in manufacturing, whereas the women thought and spoke in their roles as mothers or general consumers and citizens who had a responsibility to protect themselves and their families. (One lawyer, who happened to be at this meeting, concurred with the women's way of thinking, saying that anyone should have the right to have and voice an opinion.) But men's and women's spheres of empowerment (which also serve to disempower them in other ways) are opposed. The confusion of study purpose, combined with the different rhetorical stances of the men and women and their paradoxical relationship to information, resulted in the dissolution of the group.

In short, by choosing, or perhaps more accurately conforming to, an educational format, the group was observing a strong Japanese ethic of social responsibility. Having made its choice, however, the group grew confused and dissolved when it appeared as though it were slipping into the other categories of pressure group or social movement--both of which have negative political and social connotations.

Although the cause of the collapse was peculiar to this group, dissolution is not in and of itself unusual. Another group to which I belonged had been formed to work with the local consumer administration in rewriting the consumer by-laws. After studying and debating the old by-laws, considering other cities' by-laws, even researching the theoretical power of local by-laws versus central state laws, and expressing their opinions to the city administration, the group faltered. Their educational project degenerated into the collection of ever more trivial facts in a kind of game of one-up-manship, leaving participants asking themselves, "what are we, a study group or a movement?" Educating themselves had been the first step to being able to speak out, but ultimately their study efforts seemed to lessen the possibility of social action.


My analysis of such situations undoubtedly strikes the reader as pessimistic. A citizen's-eye view of law, the state, and a corporate-centered society does not provide a very pretty picture of Japanese society. Neither the law nor the state is perceived as a protector of the consuming citizen, and business is seen as defensive towards its consumers and antagonistic towards its employees. In addition, the gendered character of participation proves divisive in terms of a group's purpose and rhetoric and suggests a deeper division between the sexes in Japanese society. Lastly, education which is supposed to provide answers to problems of social change ends up stymieing rather than legitimizing social action. So much has been associated with education in Japan's nation-building that individuals with different motives end up becoming uneasy bedfellows in an educational project.

However, the dissolution of the group itself is perhaps not such a bad thing. The alternative to dissolution--a group with a long history--is characterized, I was often told, by the ossification of membership and ideas. Often the long-standing group becomes the "possession" of a leader or a handful of leaders for whom the sole purpose becomes just keeping the organization alive, and members come to feel that their participation is obligatory rather than voluntary. If the two choices are an organization which is understood to be voluntary and thus dissolution is a possibility, or an organization that is ossified and becomes an obligation, then the former does represent a valuable alternative. At least in the former, members feel free to participate under terms they can agree on, or they can leave and join some other group, or perhaps they can even reband later, as they often do. Members can also engage in free discussions: they are not just "yes" men, as they were proud to say even as the group was dissolving. This perception of voluntarism is important, especially in a society where so many social relationships are tinged with a heavy sense of obligation.


1. For a detailed discussion of the history of the Product Liability Law, see Patricia Maclachlan, The Politics of Consumer Protection in Japan: The Impact of Consumer Organizations on Policy-Making; Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Political Science, Columbia University, 1996.

2. Before the Product Liability Law was enacted, Article 709 of the Civil Code stated that manufacturers must be found negligent in the manufacturing of a product and that damage must be a direct result of this negligence--conditions often difficult to satisfy because of the lack of adequate information-gathering mechanisms.

3. Consumer centers were established throughout Japan in the late 1960s and early 1970s to help respond to an increasing variety and number of ill-conceived and badly produced goods entering the market as Japan turned into a more fully fledged consumer society. The centers' primary functions are product testing, consumer education, and acting as mediators between consumers and business when problems occur.

4. Fukuzawa Yukichi, Encouragement of Learning, in The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa, Eiichi Kiyooka, trans. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), p. 393.

5. Carol Gluck, Japan's Modern Myths (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985).

6. Sheldon Garon, Molding Japanese Minds (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997).

7. Thomas Havens, Fire Across the Sea (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987).

8. Anne Imamura, Urban Japanese Housewives (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987).

9. Dorinne Kondo, Crafting Selves (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

10. The government response to the Product Liability Law is similar to that outlined by Frank Upham in Law and Social Change in Postwar Japan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), in his descriptions of the bureaucracy's response to new environmental and employment laws.

11. John Owen Haley, Authority Without Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

12. In 1991 and 1992, these findings were published in two booklets, called "Aiming for a Society That Gives Precedence to Individual Life" (Kojin seikatsu yuusen shakai o mezashite) and "Toward a Society That Stresses Individuals' Lives" (Kojin no seikatsu o jyuushi suru shakai e), by the Economic Planning Agency, Citizen's Life Office (Keizai Kikakucho Kokumin Seikatsukyoku).

LEILA MADGE is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, San Diego. During 1999 she is teaching the anthropology of Japan at San Diego State University as an adjunct professor.

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