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Three dilemmas in researching Japanese environmental lobbyists

Mike Danaher
This article focuses on the question of identifying whose interests are served from undertaking research into Japanese environmental lobbyists. In doing so, it highlights three significant ethical dilemmas facing an educational researcher. The purpose of the research[1] was to evaluate the ability of these environmental lobbyists to articulate and communicate ecological, moral and aesthetic values and to translate those values into effective political action. The research identified strategies that were more likely to influence government policy. Social movement theory underpinned the research, and also informs this critical self-reflection on the roles and responsibilities of the researcher into Japanese environmental lobbyists. The article concludes that educational researchers should be more cognisant of these kinds of ethical dilemmas, and that it is then possible to engage with them by more carefully considering research design and the market for the research product in the planning stage.

This article intends to identify whose interests are served from undertaking research into Japanese environmental lobbyists. I am particularly interested in how the conceptual framework employed in that research helps or hinders me in determining who benefits from this educational research. In doing so, it highlights three significant ethical dilemmas facing an educational researcher. Social movement theory underpinned the research, and also informs this critical self-reflection on the roles and responsibilities of the researcher into Japanese environmental lobbyists. The three significant ethical dilemmas facing an educational researcher are:

This article firstly describes the research design and conceptual framework. It then explores each of the three dilemmas in turn. These dilemmas are important as self-reflecting tools for researchers to engage in, so that their educational research might be more useful to the wider public.


The research examines the changing relationships between the government and environmental lobbyists in Japan with the central focus of analysis being to identify whether Japan's political processes are producing real benefits in terms of environmental reform. The methodology used a case study approach. Data were analysed in relation to the role of the following Japanese environmental non-government organisations (NGOs), members of whose staffs I interviewed: the Japanese branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature; the Japanese branch of Friends of the Earth; the Wild Bird Society of Japan; environmental groups belonging to the Japan Wetlands Action Network; Greenpeace Japan; and the Nature Conservation Society of Japan. A comprehensive report published by the Global Environment Information Centre (1997) provided substantial material in relation to climate change/pollution NGOs. According to the aims and elements of my research design, whose interests was I setting out to serve? The answer is the interests of many. One could argue that I was primarily setting out to serve my own interests. Having the research outcomes published as a book chapter was a major driving force. I was also serving the interests of the editors, other contributors and the book's publishers. The question of whether I was serving a wider audience will be addressed later. The article now turns to the conceptual framework as the guiding light for the research.


A conceptual framework incorporating social movement theory guided the research. The sociology of social movements can offer an analytical framework and a set of concepts for investigating features of the environmental movement (Yearley, 1994). The main way in which social movement theory can contribute to our understanding of the capacity for Japanese environmental NGOs to be able to influence government policy-making is by helping us to make a distinction between effective environmental lobbyists and the broader environmental movement from where the lobbyists seek to draw much of their support. Social movement theorists often differ in what they regard as essential features of a social movement, but do agree that a broad range of factors influences the composition and conduct of social movements. One definition of social movement is a sustained series of interactions between the state and challenging groups which demand social and political change, and they constitute a rival to political representation because they remain outside established political institutions and seek to disrupt them by unorthodox means (Tilly, 1984). Touraine (1981, 1985) informs us that social movements are specific types of collective action taken by relatively powerless people and groups against élites, opponents and authorities. I will return to this notion of powerlessness later. They are responses to various social conflicts that change over time and which have little shared commonality. The conflicts are among social actors, and they may manifest themselves in the form of protests.

Touraine (1985) explains that the environmental movement is one of the new social movements because, since the 1960s, the environment has provided a field for new social conflicts. Touraine also notes that, just as the environmentalists are a social movement, so too are the opponents of the central conflict, often in this case the government and big and medium businesses. Social movements are always defined by a social conflict, and by clearly defined opponents. If there is no social conflict (perceived or real), a social movement has no momentum and collapses, and there is no political protest. Ethical values often feature strongly within social conflicts about the environment: for example, the ethics of exploiting or preserving a public natural amenity.

A social movement represents conflict among actors, not conflict against a system, and the actors can move between sides during different stages of the conflict. Social movement characteristics essentially include various organisational, political and social forms. The objective of the research was to determine which social movement characteristics apply and which do not. This determination would help to build up a more complete understanding of Japan's environmental movement, specifically the distinction between effective environmental lobbyists and the broader environmental movement from where the lobbyists seek to draw much of their support.

When considering social movements and social change in Japan, it is necessary to do so from historical, philosophical and cultural contexts because people first must have some expectation of their rights before they will protest against attempts to inhibit what they have always taken for granted. These various contexts are important when I refer to the third dilemma of the researcher as an intercultural worker. The concept of democracy was imported into Japan from Europe and the USA in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries during the Meiji ('enlightened rule') period, and many of these western style democratic dynamics were Japanised. Before that, Japanese society was closely tied to Confucist ethics which taught principles of meek compliance, submission and groupism as preferable to western notions of individualism and self-autonomy. Confucianism did not encourage freedom of expression, nor did it encourage faith in science and technology. The all-pervading expectation was of obedience to autocratic rule. Those in authority were not obliged to consider the best interests of their subjects. The 1947 amended Constitution recognised popular sovereignty and a range of inviolable individual democratic rights, including the right to 'maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living' (Article 25) (Teranishi, 1992, p. 325). It was not until 1947 that Japan's Constitution could recognise that pollution causing death or injury to personal health was a major infringement of citizens' rights and should not be tolerated. Before then, Japan's cultural influences meant an expectation of group harmony and seeking consensus, and these acted as restraints on the kinds of environmental protection policies that could be made and implemented. Thus, the idea of social minority groups protesting against national policy and social order, although increasingly accepted and tolerated within Japanese society today, has not always been seen as a successful tactic or one that has a very long history.

Any analysis of Japanese environmental NGOs is from the understanding that these organisations represent both social movement politics and agencies which mobilise public support and challenge authority. This form of politics in Japan has traditionally been at odds with the dominant and inherently East Asian principles of compliance, consensus building and perseverance. As McKean (1981, p. 257) claimed, 'conservation organisations in Japan could not take for granted the notions of citizen participation, local autonomy or access to the government'. To test these ideas, I explored whether Japanese environmental NGOs and the mobilisation process are still at odds with Japan's political and cultural system.


The first ethical dilemma reported in this article involves the researcher inadvertently contributing to a particular cause which is the subject of the research. In my case, am I contributing to environmentalism by way of reporting the research and presenting the environmental lobbyist's argument and, if so, is this a bad thing? This dilemma focuses on issues of research design in relation to research ethics. It alludes to the claimed need for objective analysis. I have tried to consider this requirement by adopting a narrative style with quotations from actors on all sides of the issues as well as statistical and other data. Building on clues from grounded theory (Glasser & Strauss, 1967), I constructed a pragmatic, narrative description of events based on how the participants construed them. The detail of data and a clear distinction between the actor's voice and the researcher's voice will encourage readers to form their own conclusions and to argue with the author if they wish.

Five direct quotations from some environmentalists whom I interviewed in the course of the research follow. These comments show the interviewees giving generally positive responses as participants in the research. They also assume that I will be directly or indirectly advocating their cause (see also Jarzabkowski, 2001, in this issue). However, these kinds of comments were in the minority across all the interviews.

Since I am uncomfortable with power (I would more easily be able to protest an issue than implement a policy), I could be accused of perceiving environmentalists as an ally and my natural audience. Likewise, environmentalists might be likely to see academics as a useful vehicle for their own causes. As Touraine (1981, 1985) notes, social movements are specific types of collective action taken by relatively powerless people and groups against élites, opponents and authorities. Are these powerless people consciously latching onto academics as a tool to tackle their powerful opponents? This might be the case if they are given some hint of that by the researcher. After all, these environmentalists could be the subjects of research for any number of reasons, all where the researcher has no interest in the outcome of the environmental conflict. For example, they could be the subjects of research in order to widen our applications of social movement theory.

Many of the environmentalists whom I interviewed were happy to have their activities become the centre of someone else's research. They enjoyed the popularity and the self-exposure that the research attention offered. Some considered that, even though the research should be 'objective', the researcher cannot help but take the side of the environmentalist because their argument is morally superior. The question of what is moral is important and a complex one, and is a core element in social conflicts. But at the same time, most did not ask to see the research outcomes.

Other environmentalists who were interviewed were more indifferent to the researcher. They agreed to be interviewed more as an obligatory gesture, regarding the research as making no difference to their own aims. This attitude was also the norm when I interviewed bureaucrats for the same research. Moreover, the bureaucrats tended to be more guarded in what they said, assuming that I (as the researcher on these controversial issues) was going to misinterpret them for some self-serving reason. There was a fear that I might contribute to social chaos by taking the side of the environmentalists. Some environmentalists also thought the interview was useful for them because it caused them to reflect on what it was they were trying to achieve and to articulate such aspirations. So, I as researcher was actively, but inadvertently, stepping into the social conflict as evidenced by the interviewees' perceptions of my role.

The research, by its very topic, does contribute to environmentalism, but also contributes to the policy-making literature. This is not problematic if it presents arguments on both sides of the environmental debate. When I am writing about the successes and failures of past environmental lobbying efforts, it is encouraging to think that my work might empower environmental groups, helping them avoid past mistakes by focusing on efforts that seem most likely to produce positive environmental change. Equally, I perceive the research outcomes as a lesson to the opponents of the environmentalists in the social conflict, as suggested in social movement theory (Tilly, 1984; Touraine, 1981).

The research might also be harmful to the environmentalists. If the environmental lobby is routinely marginalised from 'mainstream' society on account of its members' perceived anti-economic growth agenda, it follows that a research project about environmental politics has the potential to perpetuate that marginalisation. This is because the focus of the research is on what makes the environmental lobby 'different' from, and therefore, by implication, 'inferior' to, others. It is also tied to the unavoidable fact that university research is generally more closely aligned with 'mainstream' than with 'marginal' studies. That such an outcome is unlikely to be the researcher's explicit intention does nothing to nullify the fact that at several points in the research the environmental lobby's difference will be highlighted and emphasised.

The putative 'rescuer' from this potentially undesirable situation is agency. Agency can be defined as resistance in the face of marginalisation. Firstly, the researcher needs to exercise agency to strive consciously for ways of conducting and reporting the research that do not marginalise the environmental lobby. Secondly, the research participants also exercise agency to decide whether they will participate in the research project, the 'ground rules' for doing so and the procedures by which they will monitor how the research data are collected, analysed and reported. This means that they are active and knowing 'research subjects', not passive 'research objects'. This fact does not minimise the ethical responsibilities of the researcher; it does alter significantly the ways in which the researcher needs to discharge those responsibilities. The potential mediator between marginalisation and agency in the context of the 'researcher'-'researched' relationships is ambivalence. I am certainly and continually ambivalent about this study: about its purposes, conduct and outcomes; about the ethical and political dilemmas in researching the environmental lobby; and about how others will interpret and use the findings of this research.


The question of where your research might end up, if indeed it ends up anywhere apart from on your desk or in your computer, poses the second dilemma. Is the research kept within an élite circle? Do researchers ask themselves what they want their research findings to achieve? Do researchers clearly identify the benefit of their research in reporting on those findings? Asking themselves these questions in the planning stage might help them to focus on choosing an appropriate target audience. By challenging us to focus our research on very concrete modern problems, these questions tempt us to believe that the insights we contribute may actually influence the course of events in the real world (Cronon, 1993). Without much consideration, often research by academics tends to be presented at specifically targeted academic conferences, usually in the same discipline area as the research topic, and to a fairly confined academic audience. Thus the research might be missing 'real world' links. This choice of audience is owing to the fact that these conferences are easily identifiable by educational researchers, and in fact these researchers are often encouraged by their peers and superiors to attend these conferences. This is particularly the case in Area Studies research. In my case, this tends to be the biennial conferences of the Japanese Studies Association of Australia or the Asian Studies Association of Australia. Then, depending on the feedback from your conference audience, the article is revised and a particular journal is targeted. This is a normal approach to the dissemination of research findings. In this case, the research does tend to be kept within an élite circle. The risk is, by speaking to power we may capture a little of that power ourselves and reinforce the power differential. This is juxtaposed with the idea that if I am contributing to environmentalism, I am also amplifying the voices of the powerless.

Environmentalists and government officials (sometimes the opponents in environmental conflicts) do not often attend these academic conferences. There is an argument that for certain issues, for example, environmental issues that are holistic by nature, a wider target audience is desired, such as environmentalists, government officials, policy-makers and teachers. Depending on the disseminated outcome for the research, it is possible that a less academic audience will be sought. Environmentalists generally would benefit from the research case studied in this article, as might Japanese government officials and policy-makers. Therefore, should I be targeting environmental newsletters, green forums and government departments for the dissemination of the research? In some cases if the research is only directed at academics, it is still possible for the findings to be diffused to others by networks. All environmentalists, for example, would know the works of Silent Spring (Carson, 1962), The Population Bomb (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 1968) and The Limits to Growth (Meadows, Meadows, Randers & Behrens, 1972), those seminal publications that heightened the environmental movements around the world.

When we consider who might benefit from our research, then, we are still confronted by potential risks. By taking as our starting point only the questions that policy-makers or environmentalists may ask, for example, we may mis-specify the terms of our own analysis, treating as givens the very categories we should be subjecting to criticism. We do not want to reinforce the problems that these groups are causing, for example, policy-makers who ignore ecological integrity, or environmentalists who disseminate false information in order to cause fear amongst the general public. Rigorous, critical analysis of and debate about environmentalism can only strengthen it. Worse, the prospect of wielding power may tempt us to see reality through the eyes of power. To avoid these pitfalls, the question of target audience might best be left ambiguous and ambivalent. Cronon (1993) warns that, if we fail to consider just whom we are addressing, our work might not be useful. On the other hand, the competing needs of our different audiences can either tempt us to become so narrowly academic that we forget what it means to be useful, or encourage us to become so pragmatic that we forget what it means to do good research.


The third dilemma focuses on the researcher as an intercultural worker and the notion of a power differential being played out between two cultures. I am an Anglo-Celt researching Japanese environmentalists in Japan. I must be careful of cultural imperialism and eurocentrism. I must understand that, even though environmentalism is a western construct, the Japanese have developed their own approach to this social movement which is shaped by their own particular history, culture, politics and geography. It must be recognised, for example, that a foreign environmentalist's view that whales are sacrosanct and should only ever be watched does not hold in a country that wants to consume whales sustainably. There is no absolute universal view of nature and how humans should engage with it. Human-nature interactions also pose complex moral arguments. The ability to speak Japanese during the research overcomes those dilemmas to some extent because knowledge of language implies knowledge of culture. Also, using a balance of Japanese language sources and English language sources helps to provide a fairer balance of voices.

The paradox of environmental policy offers an insight into dealing with this dilemma. Environmental policy in many countries, including Japan, may be viewed within the context of a paradox. The paradox of environmental policy is that we often understand what the best short- and long-term solutions to environmental problems are, yet the task of implementing these solutions is either left undone or is completed too late (Smith, 1995). The explanation of the paradox lies in the nature of the policy-making process. On one level there are arguments to suggest that this paradox exists in relation to Japanese environmental policy. For example, as the findings from other research show (Suzuki, 1996), there seems to be significant concern for environmental problems, especially pollution problems, amongst the Japanese people. There also seems to be a recognition that the government is not doing enough despite the people's awareness of the gravity of these problems.

On another level, is it actually true that this paradox really exists in Japanese environmental policy? Does this paradox of environmental policy (knowing what to do but not doing it) exist only from a western perspective; that is, is it only a western problem, or is it a global problem? The concept of paradox rests on dualism - that is, a paradox is two elements together that do not make sense. The notion of dualism that comes out of Enlightenment philosophy underpins the entire western, modernist way of thinking (Goodin, 1994). The concept of paradox can be represented as a particularly western construct. An answer to some of these questions may result from considering a different kind of dualism and a recent reaction to it. This dualism, which separated humanity from and privileged it over the cosmos (Doyle & Kellow, 1995), underpinned the 'old political paradigm' (Goodin, 1994) that was dominant in Western European politics between 1945 and the early 1970s. That is, environmental policy was non-existent or negligible because there was a superior attitude that the earth was here for humanity to exploit, and economic growth, military security and social welfare were the core items on the political agenda. This 'old' paradigm has since, to some extent, given ground in the west to a 'new' paradigm, inclusive of 'alternative movements' concerned with the preservation of peace, the environment and human rights, for example.

We are therefore confronted with two specific dualisms in this western analysis of environmental policy-making. The first places economic development and environmental protection in opposition to each other; the second places the government and the electorate in opposition to each other. This analysis is eurocentric as well as dualistic; it assumes that eastern countries like Japan 'inevitably' lag behind the more 'enlightened' nations of Western Europe and North America, and that 'eventually' they will 'catch up' with their western counterparts. The research rejected this dualistic and eurocentric analysis in favour of one that is at once more global and more localised. Rather than perpetrating another eurocentric dualism between 'the west' and 'the east', it argued that the international 'green' movement is composed of elements from most if not all nations, and that it is certainly not a case of Japanese environmentalists passively copying another fashion from the west. At the same time, the analysis presented in the research needs to take account of distinctive approaches by Japanese people to conceptualising the relationship between the economy and the environment on the one hand, and between the government and the electorate on the other.

From this perspective, the approach by successive Japanese governments to environmental issues both parallels and deviates from the approach adopted in the west. The Japanese government, as well as other OECD countries, largely ignored environmental issues during the 1950s and 1960s, despite environmental problems becoming more acute, to concentrate on economic growth and construction. By the late 1960s, citizen groups, local governments, courts and the media (environmental leadership from the bottom-up) were forcing environmental problems, notably pollution problems, onto the national agenda (Broadbent, 1998). These changes would suggest that we must be very careful about applying western theories of environmentalism (political expression of environmental concern) universally to non-western countries such as Japan, but should rather integrate Japan's own particular political, cultural and social developments into these broader theoretical applications. No one single person owns the research. It is made up of the voices of many actors, and in this case, crosscultural actors as well.


In this article I have focused on identifying whose interests are served from undertaking research into Japanese environmental lobbyists. In the process I raised three dilemmas as important for the educational researcher to consider. In terms of the first dilemma, about whether I am contributing to environmentalism, the key for an educational researcher is to remain as open and inclusive as possible in their relationship with the 'researched'. Openness assists the researcher to steer a more encompassing and less dualistic path. In the second dilemma, about the research being kept in an élite circle, it might be better to leave the question of target audience as ambiguous and ambivalent, and as widespread, as possible. Tentativeness concerning the target audience assists the researcher to maintain a critical and rigorous analysis of all actors and the events in which they participate. In the third dilemma, no one single person owns the research. It is made up of the voices of many actors, and in this case crosscultural actors as well. We should remain aware of cultures as sites that are similar and dissimilar to our own educational backgrounds, and should not assume too much about them. Instead, we should approach cultural sites sensitively and openly, and explore the local and global interactions. The article concludes that educational researchers should be more cognisant of these three ethical dilemmas, and that it is then possible to engage with them by more carefully considering research design and the market for the research product in the planning stage.


Broadbent, J. (1998). Environmental politics in Japan: Networks of power and protest. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Carson, R. (1962). Silent spring. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin.

Cronon, W. (1993). The uses of environmental history. Environmental History Review, 17(3), 1-22.

Danaher, M.J.M. (in press). Crusaders of the lost archipelago: The changing relationship between environmental NGOs and government in Japan. In J. Maswood, J. Graham & H. Miyajima (Eds), Japan: Change and continuity. London: Curzon Press.

Doyle, T. & Kellow, A. (1995). Environmental politics and policy making in Australia. Melbourne: Macmillan.

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Jarzabkowski, L. (2001). Emotional labour in educational research. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 17(2), 123-137. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer17/jarzabkowski.html

Goodin, R.E. (1994). The politics of the environment. Aldershot, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.

McKean, M. (1981). Environmental protest and citizen politics in Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Meadows, D.H., Meadows D.L., Randers, J. & Behrens, W.W. (1972). The limits to growth: A report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universal Books.

Smith, Z. (1995). The environmental policy paradox. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Suzuki, M. (1996). JAWAN International Liaison Officer, email correspondence.

Teranishi, S. (1992). The lesson from Japan's battle with pollution. Japan Quarterly, 39(3), 321-327.

Tilly, C. (1984). Social movements and national politics. In C. Bright & S. Harding (Eds), Statemaking and social movements (pp. 297-317). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Touraine, A. (1981). The voice and the eye: An analysis of social movements. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Touraine, A. (1985). An introduction to the study of social movements. Social Research, 52(4), 749-788.

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  1. The research reported on in this article is published in Danaher (in press).
Author details: Mike Danaher is Sub-Dean of Students and Lecturer in Geography, Japanese and History in the Faculty of Arts, Health and Sciences at the Mackay Campus of Central Queensland University.

Address for correspondence: Mr Mike Danaher, Faculty of Arts, Health and Sciences, Central Queensland University, Mackay QLD 4740. email: m.danaher@cqu.edu.au

Please cite as: Danaher, M. (2001). Three dilemmas in researching Japanese environmental lobbyists. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 17(2), 178-192. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer17/danaher.html

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Created 12 Dec 2004. Last revision: 18 Dec 2004.
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