In Japan think tanks are inseparable from the country’s post-war economic growth and governing philosophy. Despite the influence of its noted “iron triangle” composed of the bureaucracy, politicians, and private sector, the once marginal think tank sector has recently taken on an increasingly important role in policy debates, not only in defense and foreign affairs but also in domestic social policy. There is evidence of an increasingly competitive think-tank landscape as well, with think tanks delineated across the political spectrum of policy ideas and bringing focus on local economic and governance issues. Japanese regional think tanks fit both the conventional think tank pattern while simultaneously offering new areas of innovation.
Think tanks have become a common feature of policy development across the world even as their role and activities vary across countries. Think tank activity focuses largely on policy debate, influence, and outcome. However, the most important characteristics of think tanks usually center on form and objective and are often independent, non-profit, and non-special-interest organizations that provide neutral analysis for policy formulation, as well as advocacy and education on various social themes.
Japan has both government/ministry affiliated think tanks engaged in policy formulation (e.g. The National Institute for Defense Studies (Ministry of Defense), The National Institute of Population and Social Security (Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare) as well as private sector think tanks with a focus on corporate interests (e.g. Daiwa Institute of Research, Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living). Nippon Institute for Research Advancement (NIRA) comprises of 218 registered think tanks, 60 percent of which are based in Tokyo or Osaka. Beyond the for-profit versus non-profit sets, there are five non-profit sector categories (municipality-based, foundation or NPO-registered, academic-institutional, finance-institutional, and political party-based) and another four types for municipalities: comprehensive internal think tank, special theme think tank, affiliated foundation or association, and a third-sector tie-up with a company and/or a university. Municipal think tanks also have a geographical presence and play an important role undertaking survey research, as well as initiating and overseeing governance and policy activity.
Municipal think tanks also have a geographical presence and play an important role undertaking survey research, as well as initiating and overseeing governance and policy activity
What this points to is complexity and overlap in the organizational form and activities of think tanks. There are clear distinctions such as profit status and dimensions that prioritize and legitimize government policy and services versus the range of institutional objectives, organizational constraints, and assumptions of neutrality that characterize (or plague) foundations, academics, and finance or policy-based think tanks.
Yet smaller think tanks indeed exist and generate independent research despite lacking fundamentals such as financing, connections, access, staff, and prestige. The logical starting point for thinking about these institutions is the Regional Think Tank Council which consists of 53 member organizations and averages one think tank per prefecture. This regional thank tank distribution is balanced both geographically and in form, between joint-stock companies, public interest foundations, and general foundations.
Looking at five representative regional think tanks on the basis of six criteria—(1) sponsor/financial disclosure information; (2) undertaking of economic/industry survey research; (3) offering for-profit business consulting; (4) offering seminars, lectures and study meetings; (5) producing and disseminating documents and magazine publications; (6) maintaining a local area economic indicator database for public access—it is clear that there are three areas that reveal the clearest differences between the three think tank types. First is the difference between private shareholder capitalization versus support by a local bank, municipality or a membership body. The financial base is an obvious marker between think tank types and does not minimize its importance for the regional think tank sector. Second is case-applied business consulting as a major activity, which constitutes a profit source for privately-held think tanks, versus non-profit endeavors for public think tanks. Lastly, magazine and book publication together with provision of a publicly-accessible archive of area economic indicators by public think tanks represents a public interest function that is not apparent for corporate think tanks.
For instance, the Hachinohe City Urban Research Study Group is a regional think tank based on a collaboration with the mayor’s office and three local educational institutions. Its main activities focus on local revitalization, decarbonization of the local economy, disaster response preparation, town renovation, local tourism, and local health care service provision. Established in 2009, this municipal think tank did not appear in any of the think tank listings and is thus an example of the manner in which the term think tank is used for a range of municipal and corporate activities with neither oversight nor rigor. Virtually any municipality or local organization can, either officially and within the laws governing foundations and non-profits, establish themselves as a think tank of one form or another.
It is significant that Japan’s rural think tanks operate under the “think tank” banner as they present alternative organizational forms, operational patterns, and social implications to the traditional sense of Japanese think tanks. They are independent and non-profit and are free from special interests, but also engage in for-profit consultancy and special-interest advocacy. They do undertake analysis, advocacy, education, and policy formulation and move public policy ideas. They are engaged with academia, with the state, with local businesses, and with local media and they contribute to identifying and articulating policy options in a manner that both contributes to generating established policy options on the one hand while also pointing to alternative and innovative policy potential in a manner that legitimizes such policy to the public on the other. In essence, Japan’s rural think tanks are becoming an essential part of the policy landscape.