We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Accidental Activists: Victim Movements and Government Accountability in Japan and South Korea, published by Cornell University Press. The book’s author is Celeste L. Arrington, Korea Foundation Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at The George Washington University.
Government wrongdoing or negligence harms people worldwide, but not all victims are equally effective at obtaining redress. In Accidental Activists, Professor Arrington examines the interactive dynamics of the politics of redress to understand why not. Relatively powerless groups like redress claimants depend on support from political elites, active groups in society, the media, experts, lawyers, and the interested public to capture democratic policymakers’ attention and sway their decisions. Focusing on when and how such third-party support matters, Arrington finds that elite allies may raise awareness about the victims’ cause or sponsor special legislation, but their activities also tend to deter the mobilization of fellow claimants and public sympathy. By contrast, claimants who gain elite allies only after the difficult and potentially risky process of mobilizing societal support tend to achieve more redress, which can include official inquiries, apologies, compensation, and structural reforms.
We thank Professor Arrington for taking the time to discuss her book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove her project.
How did you become interested in the subject of victim movements and political mobilization in Japan and South Korea?
I first became interested in victim movements after I witnessed first-hand how just over a dozen families of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea gained moral legitimacy and remarkable political influence while I was conducting thesis research in Japan in October 2002. That was when Pyongyang permitted the five surviving abductees to return to Japan to meet their families after decades of separation. While watching the 24/7 media coverage of them and Japanese politicians’ efforts to do something for them, I began to wonder whether the political dynamics at work were unique to this rather bizarre case. So I started investigating the activism of South Korean abductees and gradually other categories of people who held their own governments at least partly responsible for their past suffering.
Why did you choose to focus on the issues of leprosy control, Hepatitis-C-tainted blood products, and North Korean abductions? How many years of fieldwork did you conduct to study the groups affected by these issues?
I chose these three issue areas to be able to conduct paired case studies. The fact that people mobilized to seek redress for analogous forms of suffering in both Japan and Korea around the same time enabled me to minimize perceived differences in the types of issues, characteristics of claimants and their grievances, and communications technology when analyzing redress outcomes. For a comparativist seeking to investigate why redress outcomes vary, Japan and Korea also offer well-matched contexts because of the relatively high degree of similarity between their political and judicial institutions. At the same time, these six cases gave me a chance to explore parallels in the processes of holding governments accountable across a range of issues, from systemic discrimination to medical drug safety to national security and counterespionage.
I spent a year conducting fieldwork in Japan and Korea, thanks to a Fulbright grant in 2008-09 and made half a dozen shorter research trips in 2007, 2012, 2013, and 2015. More than two hundred Japanese and Korean victims, lawyers, activists, journalists, scholars, doctors, and officials generously let me interview them at length. I learned a lot from them and only hope that the book does justice to the challenges they have faced and their courage. From the United States, I also analyzed media coverage of these issues, court rulings and legal briefs, a variety of memoirs and movement documents, and scholarly accounts of these movements in Japanese and Korean.
In general, what similarities and what differences did you find when comparing redress movements in Japan and South Korea?
The most prominent victim movements in East Asia today are those surrounding survivors of Japanese atrocities committed in the first half of the twentieth century. But redress claims are not only about history or prior regimes. Indeed, Accidental Activists focuses on redress for more recent episodes of alleged government wrongdoing or negligence. My research reveals surprising confluences in how Japanese and Korean societies are coming to terms with such recent episodes, even amid the headline-grabbing tensions between these two democracies over Japan’s perceived lack of contrition for wartime atrocities. This book shows how victim movements in both countries have benefited from and contributed to reforms that have enhanced each government’s responsiveness to citizens and provided opportunities for citizens to participate in policymaking.
Overall, though, the Japanese movements in my book achieved greater redress than the Korean ones, though there was also variation in outcomes within each country. This may be surprising considering the prevailing perception that Korean activism is vibrant and politically influential. But I discovered that the organizational structures and norms of Japan’s private bar, news media, and activist sector are more conducive to activism that mobilizes support from societal groups and the broader public before gaining support from political elites. This bottom-up pattern of expanding the scope of a conflict tends to produce more extensive redress. Korea’s mediating institutions, by contrast, encourage relatively more politicized activism that is focused on political elites at the center. Such activism tends to be produce less redress. In the context of redress politics, therefore, there are surprisingly beneficial synergies between the court process and the apparent weaknesses of Japanese civil society organizations and homogeneity of Japan’s mainstream news media.
Why do you think redress movements that gain elite allies early on can fail to garner much popular sympathy and public support?
Sympathetic lawmakers or agency officials are useful as elite allies for outsider groups like redress claimants because they may have insider information about policy deliberations, be able to raise public awareness about an issue, or propose special redress legislation. But early access to elite allies also reduces a movement’s incentives to mobilize fellow victims and sympathetic citizens. Compared to the difficult and often fraught process of seeking public sympathy, it may seem easier for a victim group’s leaders to just negotiate directly with their elite allies for redress policies. Involving too many fellow victims in such discussions can complicate negotiations. Early access to elite allies can also make it seem to the attentive public that an issue is already being addressed. But I found that low levels of victim mobilization and public concern leave elite allies with less leverage to persuade other lawmakers to vote for redress legislation and claimants with less leverage to ensure that their elite allies don’t compromise away key aspects of redress. Thus, what this book suggests is that the degree to which elite allies are helpful for outsider groups depends at least in part on when, relative to other third-party supporters, elite allies take up a group’s cause.
Did any of your findings surprise you or challenge some of your initial assumptions about redress movements?
One counter-intuitive dynamic this book tries to illustrate is that perceived weakness can be a real strength for redress claimants. Other scholars have shown how government accountability and redress are not just about power politics. Emotions and ideas about justice can be potent levers for persuading third-parties to take up a cause and persuade decision makers to redress past suffering. To tap these levers, the most effective redress claimants play up their weakness and their status as “accidental activists” who lack prior activism experience or political ambitions, even if their activism is far from accidental once they mobilize. Hence the book’s title. Tactics that normally work for social movements—such as aligning with a political party or using financial leverage—can backfire for redress movements and undermine their efforts to cultivate narratives of victims’ innocent suffering and the state’s villainy. Though I also analyze the very real perils of mobilizing on the basis of victimhood, I try to elucidate the conditions under which claims to victimhood work to hold governments accountable.
What results do you think may result from the recent agreement between Japan and South Korea on reparations for comfort women?
The Dec. 28th agreement between Japan and South Korea on the “comfort women” issue is an important and laudable step toward healing the rift between these East Asian democracies and key U.S. allies at the governmental level. But the two governments’ stated intention of achieving a “final and irreversible” resolution to this controversy through the agreement seems unlikely to come true. Opposition from former sex slaves and their supporters will make implementing the agreement difficult. Since New Year’s, they have denounced the agreement and criticized comments from some Japanese political elites as abrogating the deal. The agreement is undoubtedly in Korea’s national interest and Korean citizens may be willing to stomach a compromise, but the comfort women movement evidently has considerable leverage over how this deal is perceived and implemented in Korea. Though my book focuses on the activism of victims of more recent episodes of government wrongdoing and negligence, I believe it helps explain how an initially marginalized and powerless group like the Korean former sex slaves and their supporters can gain such moral legitimacy and political influence.
What is your next research project going to be about?
While researching Accidental Activists, I observed how important plaintiffs’ lawyers and the lawsuits that they helped victims file against the state were to the broader redress movement. But few scholars have examined how litigants and their lawyers organize, fund, and execute such lawsuits. My next project, therefore, analyzes the changing role of the law and courts in Japanese and South Korean politics by focusing on litigation and the “support structures”—the lawyers, advocacy groups, and funding—that enable reform litigation. I am examining the structure of lawyers’ networks in Japan and Korea; how litigation fits with more conventional ways of trying to influence policymaking through lobbying or protest; and the conditions under which legal action affects political processes. This project will advance our understanding of the Japanese and Korean legal professions, cross-national variations in how political processes are becoming “judicialized,” and changes in the channels available to citizens trying to influence policy in East Asia’s most vibrant democracies.