Prof. Petrice Flowers earned her Ph.D. in 2002 from the University of Minnesota where she specialized in International Relations (IR) and Comparative Politics with an emphasis on Japan; She also completed the coursework for the Ph.D. minor at the Center for Advanced Feminist Studies. Her major research and teaching interests include international norms, state identity, Japan’s civil society, human rights, Japan’s foreign relations, refugees and human trafficking. Her book, Refugees, Women, and Weapons: International Norm Adoption and Compliance in Japan (Stanford, 2009) explores, how international norms affects domestic policy in Japan. In this book, Prof. Flowers examines the role of domestic advocates, state identity and domestic norms in Japan’s adoption of and compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the International Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Optional Protocols, and the Agreement to Prohibit the Production, Use, Transfer and Stockpiling of Anti-personnel Landmines. Prof. Flowers is currently completing a book manuscript, Race, Gender and Movement: Refugees and Trafficking in Japan and Korea. She regularly teaches courses on both International Relations and Japan including: Japan in International Relations, Japan’s Domestic Politics, International Relations Theory and Contemporary Human Rights Issues in Japan (source: http://www.politicalscience.hawaii.edu/4-faculty/flowers.html).
I have wanted to meet with Prof. Petrice Flowers since I arrived in Hawaiʻi in 2009, since she is one of the few scholars working on Japan and international relations in the department on Political Science at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Prof. Flowers just returned to Honolulu in August 2011, when I asked her to meet with me for an interview on September 8, 2011. She kindly agreed to do this interview, and invited me to her office on UH campus despite her busy schedule at the beginning of the semester. In her responses, Prof. Flowers talks about her reserach interests and among others the Western concepts, e.g. International Relations Theory, which are paradoxically applicable and non-applicable to Japan’s case. She answers the questions from a freshly ‘returned-from-Japan’, but also scholarly point of view. Her answers confirmed some of my thoughts about Japan that I have had for a few years now, but they also helped me to understand a lot about the significance about the third sector in Japan in the broader Asian context, which tends to be overlooked in some Western academic circles.
– Małgorzata Citko
Małgorzata Citko: Thank you very much for the meeting today. You seem interested in International Relations Theory and Japan at the same time. How do you apply IR Theory to Japan?
Prof. Flowers: Most people who do an area like Japan or China within political science primarily focus on comparative politics. For me that is not the case. What most of my work focuses on is trying to situate Japan in an international context. For me, one of the frustrations, but also one of the opportunities, is that international relations researchers feel like they have nothing to learn anywhere outside of the United States, Europe or Canada. I have to spend so much time trying to convince people that what I am doing is actually IR. Japanese colleagues in Japan who focus on international relations are reading the IR literature that I am reading. In that sense, it seems that there is no ‘Japanese IR’ or ‘Asian IR’ specifically.
In my book, I look at how international norms have affected domestic policy in Japan. I am looking specifically at constructivist explanations about norms, and then using Japan as a case study. Always with the hopes that I am situating Japan more in an international context, because otherwise one ends up having area studies without any context, and people are rightfully resisting that. I do think that people doing IR theory have a lot to learn from Japan or Asia writ large; if we can understand how they fit into the world, or in terms of what we can learn from them as case studies. I think that there is a fantastic opportunity there. However, convincing people might be different.
Your approach sounds very relevant. Some people tend to consider international relations to be more than simply theory, but also embodying the philosophy of a nation. An example could be China and the Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ as a budding international relations theory.
One could also take that approach. If one was trying to do some grand theory or meta-theory, then certainly one could try to use some of the big thinkers in international relations and perhaps draw off of Japanese or Chinese philosophy, and try to wed them to see what insights we can get at the level. That is not the work that I do. Certainly when we consider the emergence of Japan into international society we have to realize that Japan was part of a sinocentric international system. So, they were not in a vacuum as far as international relations, but I think that the Western system of international relations or international society eventually became dominant. There were certainly competing systems and independently existing systems before that point. In a way, one could incorporate all of those things, but I think that where that work is being done is more history of foreign policy research.
Prof. Flowers, you seem to be interested in state identity in Japan. Without trying to consider its origin in history, how does it relate to your IR theory and interests?
Because of my theoretical orientation in constructivism, state identity becomes very important. In order to understand state interests and state motivations, one needs to understand state identity as well. That is a difficult question because these things do not develop in a vacuum. Nor do I think that there is one coherent single identity that is a state identity. Sometimes in IR it gets kind of mushy when we start thinking about state identity because we make analogies to people and say that people have multiple identities. Anthropomorphizing the state becomes problematic. I try to look at Japan specifically in what we understand as the modern period (post Meiji Restoration in 1868) and to that extant, I read a bit of history, but nothing before Meiji. And this is just a convenient dividing line. We can obviously draw some important lessons from before that time.
Of course, especially since Meiji Restoration did not change everything. It reformed and added a lot, but it did not delete what was ‘Japanese’. It just changed the direction of it, westernized it, but there was not a complete cut off, right?
If we can talk about the westernization that happened during the Meiji period (1868-1912), even though some of these terms are problematic, it was used as a framework for the Japanese state to reframe and reinterpret what it meant to be ‘Japanese’ because they were trying to consolidate the state at that time. In that way, it is a very convenient framework to use, but the content is something that is Japanese and draws off of Japanese history and is the product of thousands of years of cultural interaction.
And perhaps even domestic culture interacting with the modern interpretations of it…
Absolutely. I deal with how those ways of understanding modern states were very important for Japan in figuring out how the Japanese state fitted together as something unified where Okinawa and Hokkaido, at that time, fitted in also. I found it helpful reading Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s (Prof. of Japanese history at Australia National University) work and Carol Gluck’s (Prof. of history at Columbia University) work that deal with more of the history and how the emerging Japanese state used international norms and Western norms to accomplish what they needed to at that time.
You mentioned that you are interested in the third sector in Japan. Aid, NGO’s and civil society in Japan, how does this all relate to civil society in the Western world in terms of its role and the state’s perception of it?
It is interesting. We all know that in the late 1990’s there was a change in the law. The NPO law was created in 1998 [Law to Promote Specified Nonprofit Activities, established March 19, 1998]. Once that happened there was a growth in the literature of Japan’s civil society in which it ended up getting compared to the West because we needed a measure that is familiar to us to help us understand it. We also did that with Eastern Europe, thinking about civil society and its role. Traditional understandings of Japan see it as a strong state, weak society. Certainly, I think the Japanese government retains a view that the idea of civil society is somewhat an average theory. Yet, at the same time, there has been a growth in Japanese civil society. It is a very dynamic sector, and it depends on the organization; and the strength of civil society depends on the area where a particular organization’s work is situated.
Do you have any examples of areas that are ‘at the top’ in certain respects?
Well, let me try to explain a change that took place. When I was in Japan from 2003 to 2004, I did a year’s worth of participatory research at an organization that was doing refugee assistance and advocacy work. Up until that point there were many organizations that were providing material assistance, but there were not any that were doing advocacy. To some extent, that challenged the government’s view of what was appropriate for civil society. Because at this time there was a move on the part the government called kan kara min e, ‘from the public to the private’. Basically it was a privatization plan whereby the government saw that it was in its interest to work closely with civil society organizations because it was seen that those organizations could do things cheaper than the government could. Putting resources into civil society meant one could get things done for a fraction of the cost. Bureaucracies were more than happy to do that, but they were not willing to give up any of their agenda setting powers. This then served as a limitation on the impact that civil society can have on policy. Organizations, like that one, have been negotiating how to deal with the government and how to move forward in what they want to do in their own agenda. This particular organization was developing different kinds of relationships both with individual politicians and with relevant bureaucracies. That was really interesting because back in Chalmers Johnson’s (former Professor Emeritus at Univ. of California San Diego, co-founder of the Japan Policy Research Institute) day the thought was that Japanese bureaucracy was strong and politicians do not matter. The bureaucrats make policies and the politicians just pass the laws. What I observed in 2003 was something different – a renegotiation of the allocation of power. Not that civil society was becoming strong and formidable, but that they were carving out more of a space and that politicians were playing more of a role in supporting their activities. Some of this is context dependent as well and I talk more about that in some articles that I have written.
Staying away from the word ‘powerful’, do you think that civil society is going to become more influential or relevant, perhaps more outspoken?
I think so, partly because there are other things at play. If we are going to say that it is strong or weak I think that it is important to recognize the distinction between those NGO’s that work inside of Japan and Japanese NGO’s that work abroad. Certainly the ones that work abroad enjoy a different kind of support from the government. It is very important to understand that the recognized ones enjoy a good deal of financial support from the government. It is not the same for those organizations that work domestically.
Do you have an idea why?
Again, I am going to speak with regards to refugee issues specifically. For a long time those Japanese organizations that were working on Japanese refugee issues abroad enjoyed a lot of credibility in the areas in which they were working. Perceptions of Japan and Japanese people were very favorable. People saw Japanese folks working in these areas as being very dedicated and very sincerely wanting to help. So, they enjoyed a lot of legitimacy working abroad. From the Japanese government’s perspective, I think that they fulfilled a very important role of having a Japanese presence on the ground. The limitations of the self-defense forces, until the Afghan War, meant that there was also a limitation on Japanese presence on the ground because of fear of putting people in harm’s way, and what one is doing then is no longer self-defense, etc. So there was a lot of support for that. That was only strengthened when the Japanese organizations that were working outside of Japan came together and formed an umbrella organization called Japan Platform (http://www.japanplatform.org/E/). This became a way that the Japanese government could provide funding to those very organizations. It became much more organized and institutionalized. However, organizations that were working inside of Japan were a little concerned that the government might compromise the autonomy of those groups. The government might use those groups as tools of Japan’s foreign policy and retain a lot of control over them and their activities. This is just one example of distinguishing between those organizations that were working inside Japan and those that worked outside Japan. Also, it is important to recognize that, working on refugee issues inside of Japan, especially when one is doing advocacy work, those organizations really have a vision about changing Japanese society. They want to have a society where people’s human rights are recognized regardless of nationality. That could be viewed as a radical idea.
Speaking of refugee issues, how do those overlap with minority issues? Considering that there are large numbers of Koreans and Latin Americans living in Japan.
Refugee assistance organizations had really grown up during the time that Japan was accepting Indo-Chinese refugees. They were very focused on giving material assistance to that very particular group of people. There were also organizations that worked on migrant issues in general, such that if there was an organization working on migrant’s rights issues, especially employment issues, they would certainly fold refugees into that general category. But of course, refugees have very particular needs of their own. These issues (refugee and minority) are connected. However, there is not a lot of overlapping of the different groups. Which is ok, because there is a real connection between the Korean community and the things that the Korean community fought for during what Erin Chung (Professor of East Asian Studies, John Hopkins University) calls the Zainichi (the name for Koreans living in Japan) civil rights movement. The rights that were gained for themselves and for other foreign people in Japan, as foreigners, really helped the other groups, including refugees.
You mean, as a precedent in the history of the people as foreigners in Japan?
Absolutely. Some of the changes that also took place in policies related to social welfare took place during the time when Japan was adopting the refugee convention. They had to change the requirements of nationality to get pensions, etc. That actually helped the Zainichi cause as well. So, there is a lot of overlap and synergy in that way.
What is the state of nationality for the Zainichi? Are they considered Japanese now?
Some of them are and some are not. It seems that the Zainichi population is shrinking, partly because of naturalization, and also because there is a lot of inter-marrying between Zainichi Koreans and ethnic Japanese. That, as well as the change in the nationality law in 1985 where Japanese women began to pass nationality to their children, means that more of the children born to those unions can have Japanese nationality without having to naturalize. The numbers of the community are shrinking, but at the same time, and again referring to Erin Chung’s work, she does some really interesting analysis regarding Zainichi resistance to easier naturalization for Zainichi, indicating that there is resistance to it.
And why is that?
Well, their struggle was based on being an invisible minority and allowing them to naturalize easier means that the Japanese state can continue to ignore them. Now they are really invisible.
I see. They cannot fight for minority rights because they are no longer a minority….
You also mentioned that you are interested in how international law affects domestic policy in Japan. What aspects of international law are you specifically looking at?
The project that I am working on is looking at trafficked persons in Japan and Korea. It is a comparative case trying to broaden my study of Asia while also thinking about the connections at the international, national and sub-national levels. And this gets back to the question you asked before about civil society becoming stronger, or how they are influencing policy. What I have found is that there are more transnational connections between Japanese civil society organizations and organizations in Asia, which allows for a different kind of organizing in the region.
You mean that there are more connections on this level than on the official level?
Yes. Especially with Japan and Korean, they do not seem to coordinate well on the national level with regards to difficult historical issues. Yet, when you look at things like refugee law, Korea’s refugee law is basically Japan’s refugee law. Korea adopted the refugee convention about ten years after Japan, implemented a law very close to Japan’s law and then quickly innovated, much faster than Japan did. However, we do not see any official connections or negotiations about that.
Would you say that on some unofficial level the relationship is perhaps stronger because they are dealing directly with people?
Absolutely. As a background question I asked: what are the opportunities for regional coordination in order to deal with these two issues (trafficking and refugees)? Basically, they are both issues of forced migration. Perhaps we will see something interesting come out of this research informing us on coordination between Japan and Korea in this regard.
Are things like refugee issues dealt with as a domestic issue or does Japan consider that to be part of its foreign policy?
At the time of my research, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was very involved in refugee issues. That is puzzling because they were dealing with refugees in Japan. Now why is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs involved if their job is to deal with foreign governments? To me, this signaled that Japan considered their approach to refugees in Japan as very important for their foreign policy. However, I should note that refugee policy is the domain of the Ministry of Justice.
Do you mean as part of their outward image?
Not exactly. There have been some arguments that Japanese policy dealing with refugee issues is very much connected to their bilateral relationships. For example, at one time, Turkish Kurds were the largest group seeking refuge in Japan and none of them have been recognized as refugees.
When was that?
This was 2003. The Japanese government has a very close and strong relationship with Turkey. What is likely being considered is the effect accepting these refugees would have on their relationship with Turkey. This is because when a state accepts someone as a refugee it is acknowledging that that other country’s government is not protecting its people. Either persecuting them or standing on the sidelines while others are. So, one can see how that becomes a very big issue.
It sounds very difficult diplomatically…
Yes. And the same thing with China, as well.
You were in Japan during the tsunami in March 2011 and you also observed the more recent shift of the prime minister in Japan (from Naoto Kan to Yoshihiko Noda on Sept. 2, 2011). Why is there a new prime minister in Japan every year? Is this a sign of political instability? What do you think about the chances of real reform occurring on these issues?
First, I do not think that it is a sign of instability. The speed at which the Japanese government moves constrains its ability to make progress on those types of issues, but I do not see it as a sign of instability. In regard to the constant change of Prime Minister, now that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is in power it is a different kind of turnover from what we always experienced in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) before and after Koizumi Jun’ichirō [Prime Minister of Japan April 26, 2001 – Sept. 26, 2006]. People were hopeful for a two-party system when the DPJ came to power because it meant the possibility of policies being debated in order to win public support. It was hoped that the potential for losing power meant that there would be more impetus to get things done. However, with the consistent changeover in the DPJ, the argument could be made that only the LDP can run Japan. That is an unfortunate aspect of continuing shifts in the Prime Minister with regards to reform of previous policies. I was optimistic for reform when Hatoyama Yukio [Prime Minister of Japan Sept. 16, 2009 – June 8, 2010] and the DPJ came to power, but now I am not so sure.
What is the biggest hurdle to progress?
When the coalition government was in power for a short time in the 1990’s, there were problems due to the fact that the LDP and the bureaucracies had dominated policy making for so long. The coalition government had no mechanism in place. No opposition party had any idea how to deal with the bureaucrats and create policy, effectively. So one of the reasons I was optimistic in 2010 was because the DPJ had been around for a while by that time and thus, hopefully, had more of the connections and know-how needed to run the government. The DPJ wanted to reform and tried to reform early by dealing with some of the power of the bureaucracies, but that actually contributed to problems because of the power the bureaucracies had to put roadblocks in the way of those reforms. Then, with the combined economic situation and other domestic policy issues that needed to be attended to, reformers could not gain much ground.
Is it in a state of deadlock?
Well, to say ‘deadlocked’ implies some sort of movement, but it might be better to say that they never got out of the gate. They started immediately with this idea to reform bureaucracy but never seemed to gain the necessary momentum. There was too much resistance to it.
Resistance from inside the DPJ?
No, resistance from the bureaucrats, which is a huge force to fight off.
Can they do it? Can real reform be made in this area?
Well, I am not as optimistic as I was in 2010. But, I hope so.
Do you think that the recent domestic issues – the earthquake, tsunami, and resulting nuclear situation, have had any effect on international perception of Japan?
Talking with colleagues and friends in Japan, we discussed why they would want Naoto Kan (Prime Minister of Japan June 8, 2010 – Sept. 2, 2011) out of there. From what one could see, he was responding quite well, given the way that the Japanese government responded to the Kobe earthquake [also known as the Great Hanshin Earthquake, 6.8 magnitude, January 17, 1995]. There were problems about the role of TEPCO [Tokyo Electric Power Company], about who is in control and also about when and how the government should step in. However, when the government did get involved, the response seemed to be positive. Yet, Kan’s personal stance is more anti-nuclear. With each new inspection, it seemed that more and more plants were being shut down in Japan. Given that they are reliant on nuclear power for 25% of their energy, it seems that Kan’s stance on nuclear energy would not be the most productive or might actually be damaging. So, there was likely some politics behind the call for the election of a new Prime Minster.
The energy situation is not in a state of crisis yet. But there was a lot of bad publicity after the tsunami and Fukushima when we learned that the plant was supposed to have been shut down a year prior. What do you think about this situation?
It seems that the Japanese people are demanding a reevaluation of the support for nuclear energy. I was very surprised to hear that people were quite skeptical of the official information that was being released. People were taking the information that was being given out through news conferences by TEPCO and government representatives and checking it with information from the World Health Organization regarding safe radiation levels. In the past there was this idea that the Japanese government would not mislead its people. Of course, in the 1990’s the government and the bureaucracies lost a lot of the credibility, so it is not surprising that people are more skeptical. However, what we saw was not just skepticism, but people being more willing to voice that aloud.
That is also a sign of changing society, isn’t it?
Absolutely. In those sorts of environmental issues there is a lot of history, for example: Minamata Disease [first discovered in 1965 due to high-level mercury poisoning in Minamata Bay] and other pollution-related cases [i.e. the Big Four Pollution Diseases of Japan], and it is these sorts of cases that have really started strong civil society movements in contemporary Japan.
Speaking with my friends in Tokyo and Niigata shortly after the tsunami, they expressed concern that Japan should not cause a nuclear disaster, given the history of the nuclear bombings of Japan in World War II. This implied some amount of animosity and disappointment that this sort of thing was not being properly handled. Perhaps, this is also a source of distrust that average citizens have of the government. What do you think about this type of response?
The situation in Fukushima is something that can affect everyone’s everyday lives, especially when one starts talking about the pollution of food and water, when we know that children might be seriously affected for the rest of their lives, etc. That sort of impact is the type of thing that gets people moving. Talking about strong civic movements in Japan, the consumer movement was very strong in implementing food safety levels, etc. To some extent, this [Fukushima] event taps into that movement and also taps into the anti-pollution movements and into the survivors of the bomb, the hibakusha (literally ‘explosion-affected people’), etc., as well. In that sense, there is the potential for coalition and for all of these viewpoints to become part of the integrated civic movement and its concerns.
What do you think about Japan in an Asian-Pacific regional context? That is, people typically speak about China as the giant with regards to financial issues, political issues, etc. in the region. As a scholar of Japan, where does Japan stand in this regard?
That is a difficult question. When I was first interested in Japan it was during the time when Japan was considered an economic powerhouse and so everyone wanted to learn Japanese because then they could get into business there. The same thing is happening now with China. People think that their kids should be learning Chinese in school, etc. I just have to question if this sort of change is meaningful and lasting. Partly, the economic rise in China sets the stage for potentially different kinds of relationships with Japan and Korea, for example. Japan has the real potential to become a regional leader on issues more related to human rights, specifically refugee issues. However, despite the potential, I do not think that Japan is yet in the place where it feels comfortable taking a lead on political issues.
Could a regionalization of Asia be possible on the model of Europe?
I think that any regionalization with any potential in Asia will not look like it does in Europe. With regards to international organizations and NGO’s there is a lot happening. However, the various governments are not moving that fast, or even in that direction. In my opinion, if there is going to be any sort of regional coordination then it might look quite different from what it does in Europe, and perhaps less formalized. The connections, the shared interests, and the energy are there, but given the issues involved, it is going to look different. I do not think that Asia will come anywhere close to the regionalized coordination that we see in Europe today, at least not in the near future.
What do you consider to be the shared interests of countries in the Asia-Pacific region?
Certainly economics. The countries in broader Asia are being more closely economically tied together. To some extent that is related to close migration ties as well. Migration connects these places. It is affecting the sense of geography and the connectedness of these various countries. Japan’s demographic issues have made it necessary to discuss how to deal with these issues, including, for example, allowing more nurses to come from Indonesia or the Philippines, etc. All of these things open up new political issues. Particularly with the Philippines, whose main export is labor. The government has put into place mechanisms to ensure that people are not being taken advantage of from the beginning. Having to negotiate through these types of policies is going to affect the political process. The migration and the demographic issues certainly play into the political connections between these places.
That is all very interesting. Thank you so much for the interview.
Edited by Matthew Izor, Department of Philosophy at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.
In „Voices about Asia“ Małgorzata Citko freshly graduate of the International Relations Program at Collegium Civitas, Poland, and a second-year Ph.D. candidate in Japanese literature at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa is going to interview some renowned scholars, policy makers, public figures about the contemporary Asia, its global influence, and other social, political, economic issues.