It was German scholar Jurgen Habermas who first introduced the concept of "public sphere (Offentlichkeit)".

One of these was "bourgeois public sphere (burgerliche Offentlichkeit)" advocated by Habermas in the 1960s. That is, radio and print media such as newspapers reported the opinions exchanged and issues discussed among the bourgeois at salons and coffeehouses, helping to gradually form a consensus on public matters among people, which eventually turned into political pressure.

Later, TV came to play a major role as a medium for summarizing public opinions. And now in the Internet age, the significance of this concept of public sphere is being reviewed again.

In Japan as well, the formation of a public sphere was implied on three occasions recently.

The first was when the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake occurred in January 1995. Information was exchanged using the new media initially in two trends; one included networking groups such as InterVolunteer, IVN and Joho (information) VG, which were based on the personal computer communications networks, and the other included networking groups such as WNN, VA and Quake-VG, which were on the Internet. Eventually, the networking group InterVnet/VCOM was created and connected both types of networks.

The term "information volunteer" was coined around this time.

However, the Internet was still at the infant stage and in general, it is hard to say that it was fully functioning. In many cases, it took substantial time to start up the network.

At this time, the formation of a public sphere was perceived rather in the fact that varied styles of social volunteer activities took place. This became a powerful trigger that led to the eventual approval of the so-called NPO bill.

The Internet age prompted review of the concept

The second occasion was the oil spill accident by the Russian tanker Nakhodka on the Japan Sea in January 1997.

When this accident occurred, the power of the Internet was exercised more realistically for seeking volunteers and so forth.

By accessing the information posted on the Internet, including those regarding required skills, clothes and equipment, a list of meeting points and transportation, volunteer-oriented people were able to rush to the spill site without waiting for government information to be announced.

The third one was the Isahaya bay issue in Kyushu in the summer of the same year.

Of course, at this time as well, people made use of the Internet and volunteers played active roles, however, it was the emergence of advocative Non Government Organizations (NGOs) and Not-for-Profit Organizations (NPOs) which contributed to the expansion of the public sphere.

Centering around Mr. Hirofumi Yamashita, who leads an NGO, a group was formed of scholars who are specialized in various fields, such as disaster prevention, water control and water quality. Meanwhile, a group of legislators requested the disclosure of information by taking measures including sending letters of questions and intents. The information thus obtained was analyzed by the scholarly group and this is how alternative plans were drafted.

The shift from the conventional "NGOs and NPOs just for protest" to the "NGOs and NPOs for providing alternative plans" had significant influence and provided clues for solutions to subsequent activities of NGOs and NPOs tackling the Fujimae tideland issue in Nagoya and the Sanbanse issue in Tokyo.

These recent examples of the formation of public spheres provide us some suggestions.

A certain level of influence can be demonstrated even without exercising suffrage

First, they suggest a new era in which a certain level of influence can be put on government and administrative offices without exercising suffrage due to such expansion of various types of public spheres.

As to the Isahaya issue, a certain political party took measures expecting political gain, though their attempts failed at the end of the day. Administrative offices in recent years seem to be moving closer to public spheres formed by NGOs and NPOs, passing political parties and politics. Thus, political parties and politics are becoming more obsolete and powerless.

Secondly, these examples mentioned earlier induce the expectation and concern that, due to the expansion of public spheres, this age is turning into one in which social trends are formed not in the part of society viewable by anyone, such as newspapers, but in the sea of the Internet, which is not viewable by anyone.

Conventional mass media, such as newspapers and television, engaged in the formation of social trends so far. However, the growth of the Internet allows people to voluntarily gather information on a keyword in which they are interested and to participate in volunteer activities and NPOs, and that can lead to the forming of public spheres.

The era is changing into one in which various trends are being formed from the sea of available information, even without being noticed.

The problem is that it is still the conventional mass media that can provide various keywords for people to pick and choose. The fact is that people can only select keywords by reading and listening carelessly to the unilaterally selected information provided by mass media regardless of the receivers' demand.

People can be spontaneous after obtaining the keyword, but not in the process of getting the keyword.

The conventional mass media still can maintain the control power of trend formation by manipulating and providing keywords likely to intrigue people.

That is because one cannot read through the minimum required amount of information, which conventional mass media compactly summarizes, and cover a wide range of society on the Internet. That is the shortcoming of the Internet.

Advantages and disadvantages of counteractive power of "public sphere"
Thirdly, the advantages and disadvantages of the counteractive power or confronting capacities of public sphere against government, administrative offices or conventional mass media are being suggested.

The advantages of the immeasurable political pressure is that public spheres are so dispersed that the government, administrative offices and conventional mass media cannot take countermeasures by concentrating on one point. Public spheres can thus remain intact like amoebas even when political pressures are imposed on them.

However, the advantage can quickly turn into a disadvantage; because their political pressure is so immeasurable and dispersed it is hard to sustain the power.

Why is it that despite the fact that the Isahaya issue intrigued people intensively in such a short time, even those politicians who gained popularity at that time over this matter do not even look at the issue anymore after only half a year? That exactly shows that public spheres lack sustainability.

In order to maintain public spheres formed from one keyword, it is necessary to raise the stage of the keyword and replace it with another keyword.

As to the Isahaya issue, it was necessary for them to raise the level of the quality of public spheres by replacing the keyword with another keyword, which could be placed at the upper stage of the environmental thesaurus, not merely as a regional issue in Nagasaki prefecture or as a tideland issue, but as a "need for structuring a permanent ecological network".

The forth element being suggested by the era of formation of public spheres is the issue of participation by the so-called informationally challenged.

It is important for NGOs and NPOs to play a role in conveying information and gathering and summarizing opinions in a conventional face-to-face manner.

The fifth suggestion of formation of public spheres is a need to improve the quality of databases on the Internet as common knowledge pools of public spheres.

In terms of the Japanese situation, the level of this common knowledge is not very high partly due to the immaturity of the disclosure system.

Many prominent figures appear on conventional media. However, their homepages often contain only information list. This makes it seem as if they are intentionally lowering the quality of their homepages comparing with the other media. Also, these homepages do not appeal to an international audience especially the English-speaking sphere of the world.

Possibility to become the fourth power
As I mentioned above, the expansion of various public spheres has the potential to become the fourth decentralized power for fundamentally changing the ways of the conventional mass media, government, political parties and administrative offices.

The curtain is about to close on the 20th century with the failure of government, the failure of market and with the political party becoming obsolete and powerless. As to the private sector, companies are ending up as discouragers in the market.

Only the people acting as a sector that avoided failure, will be able to expand various public spheres and be entitled to support Japan in the 21st century.

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