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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Accidental Activists: How Victim Groups Hold the Government Accountable in Japan and South Korea

  • Author(s): Arrington, Celeste Louise
  • Advisor(s): Vogel, Steven K.
  • et al.

Scholars suggest that we are experiencing an "age of apology," as governments atone for past wrongs and citizens hold their leaders more accountable. Yet why would a government ever apologize and grant redress for harmful policies? Since policy-makers are usually loath to admit mistakes or wrongdoing, the people harmed sometimes must engage in collective action to obtain redress. Government responses to such victim groups range from comprehensive redress to negotiated settlements, in which the state disavows any responsibility for the victimization. Redress may come rapidly to some but take decades for others. What explains such differences in the extent and timing of state responsiveness to victim groups' demands for redress?

Victim redress organizations lack the standard resources needed to influence policy-makers: money, access, and votes. Understanding why victims can be powerful requires determining when they are more or less powerful. This study finds that the mode of conflict expansion--the way in which marginalized victim groups gain support from the public and political elites--explains the level of redress that victims receive. Surprisingly, it is not when groups have access that they are most successful, but rather when they expand the arena of conflict by using their victimhood to shame the government and gain the public's empathy. As "accidental activists," therefore, victims' very weakness is their strength.

This project uses paired in-depth case studies to examine how state responsiveness to victim movements differs cross-nationally and across issue areas. Japan and Korea represent interesting contexts in which to examine victim redress politics because these historically "strong states," with insulated policy-making processes, seem unlikely to admit blame, especially to outsiders like victims. This study compares paired victim movements in three issue areas where similar victimization occurred in both Japan and Korea, related to a) the treatment of persons affected by Hansen's disease (leprosy), b) hepatitis C infections from tainted blood products, and c) the abductions of Japanese and South Korean nationals by North Korea. The cross-national comparison reveals that victim groups in Japan generally receive more comprehensive redress than Korean victim groups. Filter groups, such as non-victim activists and the media, facilitate conflict expansion to a greater extent in Japan than in Korea. Across issue areas, conflict expansion dynamics also account for within-country variations in state responsiveness.

The study of victim redress politics suggests more broadly that politics is becoming more open in Japan and Korea, but in markedly different ways. These cases further indicate that the judicial route is more open to grievance groups in both countries, but that the resources to effectively utilize the judicial channel are more widely available in Japan than in Korea. The varying success of redress movements sheds light on accountability mechanisms and the balance of power in state-society relations in East Asia's main democracies.

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