Q&A with Kiyoteru Tsutsui

Co-Winner of the 2019 Political Sociology Book Award Rights Makes Might: Global Human Rights and Minority Social Movements in Japan (Oxford University Press, 2018)
Rights Make Might
How did you start working on the book and how did the project evolve over time? The book project started as a follow-up to a series of articles that I’d worked on since my dissertation, which examined how ideas and institutions around universal human rights emerged and evolved since around the 1940s. These articles featured cross-national quantitative analyses that identified some interesting global-local dynamics in human rights politics: many states make discursive commitments to human rights without actually changing their practices, and only when civil society actors leverage those commitments do actual practices improve. Other researchers also confirmed this pattern, and I had some anecdotal evidence to underscore the argument, but I wanted to have a deeper understanding about how these processes unfold. So I set out to do a comparative case study, and the three cases in Japan offered an excellent setting for this process-tracing study. One of the core arguments in my research up to that point was that once global human rights enter national politics, ideas and institutions around human rights galvanize local populations and lead them to greater activism and eventually greater success. To demonstrate this process, it was advantageous to have multiple groups with different political and historical backgrounds in the same country, so that country-level characteristics are controlled for and the impact of global human rights can be examined more precisely. The three groups in Japan were perfect for this purpose. Ainu, an inactive indigenous people, Koreans, an active but unsuccessful non-citizen group, and Burakumin, a former ‘outcaste’ group that had been politically active and already seen some successes, were at different stages of political mobilization but they all expanded their activism since the 1970s, when global human rights entered Japanese politics in earnest. So I set out to do a number of interviews, collect archival data, and put together a narrative that weaves these data into a book on how these three groups have been influenced by human rights ideas, utilized international human rights instruments, and also contributed to reinforcement and expansion of global human rights norms. As I examined empirical materials in greater detail, I came to a realization that one of the most consequential impacts of global human rights is its capacity to empower subjugated populations. I capture this in a concept, transformation of movement actorhood. For any underprivileged groups to start mobilization for more rights, it is critical that they understand that they deserve those rights. This realization can propel them to collective political action, and at that point, international human rights institutions can provide instrumental support, offering forums to criticize the government and to form alliances with other groups that are similarly disadvantaged. Done effectively, the growing activism can lead to improvement in their rights situations and can also result in a redirection of their movement in a more global and altruistic direction.