The discovery of CRISPR/Cas9 has drawn attention to gene editing technologies that enable genetic material to be added, removed, or altered at particular locations in the genome. Applied to plant modification, gene editing technologies are expected to improve crop productivity and profitability, quality, food safety, and the environment, while also enabling breeders to develop entirely new varieties. Excitement about these technologies spread quickly from the global to national arenas and from the scientific community to industry and to policy makers. However, this enthusiasm stands in counterpoint to the public’s deep skepticism about genetically modified foods. Drawing ideas from the idea of performativity of expectations, this article examines the social dynamics through which the new field of plant gene editing technologies has emerged in Japan by looking into the ways in which this new field is framed, understood, and envisaged in science policy documents and how the promises made in these documents serve to attract the interest of necessary allies, drawing resources, and forming sociotechnical networks, while also impeding the emergence of a counternarrative. This article uses varying sources to answer its research questions, including science policy texts and other types of archival records, such as meeting agendas and minutes, slides, parliamentary records, and specialized magazine articles. In addition, a series of participant observations took place at a range of meetings such as science policy working groups and public forums. The study found that even though genetically modified organisms stand as a political antecedent to gene editing, and thus could have interfered with the formation of this new field, collective frameworks grounded in epistemic nationalism facilitated the research and development of gene editing technologies, with material effects such as attracting institutional support and funding.
The discovery of CRISPR/Cas9 has drawn attention to gene editing technologies—a group of technologies that include CRISPR/Cas9, zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs), and TAL effector nucleases (TALENs) and that enable genetic material to be added, removed, or altered at particular locations in the genome. Gene editing technologies promise to bring changes to all organisms including microorganisms and viruses, leading to revolutionary changes for society (Doudna and Sternberg, 2017; Zilberman et al., 2018); when these technologies are used for plant modification, they can be a powerful tool for improving crop productivity and profitability, quality, food safety, and the environment, while also enabling breeders to develop entirely new varieties (Jorasch, 2019). All these promises have drawn the interest of global industrial players as well as startup companies (Brinegar et al., 2017), while also drawing the attention of companies in Japan which have been trying to gain a foothold in the global genome editing market through business strategies such as entering into partnership arrangements with overseas companies or establishing joint ventures so as not to lag behind in the global market competition (Nihon Keizai Shinbun, 2019). Enthusiasm for these technologies spread quickly from the global to national arenas and from the scientific community to industry and to policy makers, with a great deal of attention paid to the potential economic benefits to Japan.
It is important to note that this enthusiasm stands in counterpoint to a deep skepticism on the part of the Japanese public concerning genetically modified foods. When genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were first introduced to Japan in 1996, they were hailed as a revolutionary breakthrough which would improve crop productivity and profitability, quality, food safety, and the environment (Rosegrant et al., 2014; Brookes and Barfood, 2016). However, such promises were soon met with strong social and cultural skepticism. Voicing concerns about the possible unforeseen risks arising from gene manipulation, consumer groups expressed forceful opposition to GMOs by such means as delivering petitions to the government and carrying out protests at the experiment stations for transgenic crops. The general public became aware of issues surrounding GMOs through newspapers and television news. Some of the issues raised in the mass media in Japan echoed objections made in the context of global conflicts over GMOs, such as concerns about the commodification of seeds and the transfer of control of seeds from farmers to a handful of large corporations in the global market (Kloppenburg, 1990; Schurman and Munro, 2010; Howard, 2016). Others included the particular concerns of Japanese consumers pertaining to food safety and related issues of the legitimacy of established safety standards and procedures for safety evaluation (Hino, 2002; Yamaguchi and Suda, 2009). As Japan is known for an arrangement in which government ministries work closely with the scientific community to shape technoscientific choices for the nation (Kajita, 1988; Saito, in press), it can be observed that the intense social conflicts over GMOs within the public sphere and the influence of activist citizen–consumers were not typical for Japan. The conflict left a strong impression on those in food and agriculture industries and on those in policy-making.
This history is an important part of the context within which actors in Japanese science, industry, and government are moving to establish the legitimacy of plant gene editing. As a result of the previous experience with GMOs, these actors are aware that public acceptance is crucial, as public opposition would impede the allocation of funding for research grants and make it difficult to develop markets for consumer products. Currently, consumer awareness of gene editing technologies is low (Tachikawa, 2018), and actors in industry are not openly disclosing whether and to what extent they are involved in research and development of gene-edited plants and foods (Yamaguchi, 2017). These are the typical social conditions surrounding newly emerging technologies. Nevertheless, I argue that the lack of visible social changes does not mean nothing is happening; rather, those who have stakes in this technology are actively engaged in preparation for the development of this technology by focusing scientific research efforts on a particular pathway for breeding plant varieties. In addition, as plant gene editing technologies have been researched and developed, public policy makers, the research community, and the biotechnology industry have charted a course intended to result in social acceptability for their innovations. Arguably, one can say that the 2019 guidance by the Japanese government (Ministry of Environment [MOE], 2019) declaring that certain gene editing technologies will not be subject to safety evaluation is the culmination of such groundwork, which enabled the installation of a regulatory framework at a relatively fast pace.
Against this backdrop, drawing ideas from the sociology of expectations, this article examines some of the social dynamics through which the new field of plant gene editing technologies has emerged in Japan, despite the previous sociotechnical trajectory of GMOs. The focus is on the ways in which the new field of gene editing technologies is framed, understood, and envisaged in science policy documents and how promises stated in these documents serve to attract the interest of necessary allies, drawing resources, and forming sociotechnical networks. In other words, the performativity of expectations (Borup et al., 2006) can be observed through the promises made in science policy documents and the social dynamics they generate. In addition, this article will ask how the optimistic outlook for plant gene editing technology is implicated by the existence of two sides of Japanese technoculture, one that we may call “epistemic nationalism” (which might legitimate the use of plant gene editing technologies) and the other, the sociotechnical legacy of GMOs (which could put the brakes on such a process). The question is how these different social forces play out in forming a new scientific and technological field.
In the following section, this article will first lay out the conceptual framework used for the analysis: a body of knowledge built around the role of forward-looking statements in shaping an emerging new field, along with literature that is useful for trying to understand the two sides of technoculture in Japan. Subsequent sections analyze the emergence of the new field of gene editing technologies in Japan by looking into the transformation of discourses from vague promises to concrete support, mobilization of actors, and framing of prospective issues in science policy documents. This article uses various data sources to answer its research questions. First are public policy texts and scientific advisory reports on gene editing technologies. The period used for this analysis is from 2014 to 2019, starting from the year that various issues related to plant genome editing began to emerge in public fora such as news and popular magazines and extending to the time in which the Japanese government announced its regulatory guidance on gene editing technologies. Along with these documents, other publicly available records were used, such as meeting agendas and minutes, slides, parliamentary records, and specialized magazine articles for interpreting science policy documents. In addition, a series of participant observations took place during the same years at a range of meetings such as science policy working groups and public forums. To give these observations empirical weight, a case study method is used.
When technologies are still in an emergent phase, it is not only knowledge production that is in flux; the very institutions and patterns of interactions among actors are also undergoing their own development (Lempiälä et al., 2019). Under these circumstances, forward-looking statements about desirable sociotechnical futures will shape the knowledge produced, institutions to be established, and the interactions of actors. Within the scholarship of Science and Technology Studies (STS), these phenomena are described by such terms as “visions” (Hedgecoe and Martin, 2003; Eames et al., 2006), “expectations” (e.g., Brown and Michael, 2003), “promises” (Fortun, 2008; Pickersgill, 2011), and “futures” (Kitzinger and Williams, 2005; Gardner and Webster, 2017). To capture the idea of forward-looking statements, this article uses the notion “promises” and examines the unique and crucial role that these types of statements play in shaping emerging technoscientific fields and in guiding research directions. One of the crucial premises I use for this article is that in a context of social, economic, political, and technoscientific uncertainties, the future becomes the site of contestation in which actors advocating for particular technological pathways attempt to enroll allies so as to gain wider societal support for certain future trajectories (Callon, 1984). In other words, forward-looking statements about science and technology are “performative” statements through which support is sought for ideas, along with material things such as research funds and investment (Brown et al., 2000). Further, such statements also lay the foundations for shaping institutions and policies that will govern these emerging technologies (Konrad et al., 2012; Birch et al., 2012).
Science policy documents provide unique resources for exploring questions about the shaping of future sociotechnical space. Such documents, especially those published by high-profile entities, tend to be at the center of actors’ efforts to coordinate and control future sociotechnical space by framing and specifying research agendas, as well as what and who should be involved in these processes (Shankar et al., 2017). In other words, science policy documents serve as vehicles not only to frame ideas but also to coordinate the perspectives of a range of actors. Thus, such documents not only introduce factual matters related to newly emerging technologies but also function to remove sources of potential conflict between competing agendas (van Lente, 1993; Brown et al., 2000).
Two sides of technoculture
It has previously been observed that national culture has no small influence on the shaping of scientific and technological fields. For the present article, two sides of technoculture play an important role in shaping a formation of new scientific field: one is technonationalism and the other, covered in the next section, is the public’s skepticism regarding GMOs. For example, Jasanoff and Kim (2009) suggested that sociotechnical imaginaries shaped by national culture have guided the technological trajectory of nuclear power in the United States and Korea, wherein such imaginaries enabled the channeling of public expenditures and justified a public policy that dictates the inclusion or exclusion of citizens with respect to the presumed benefits of technological progress. In the context of Japan, what Nakayama (2012) called “technonationalism” has guided Japan’s development as a nation, in that the government has emphasized the use of science and technology for the nation’s development. Even now, in a time of increasing globalization, the idea of a scientific and technological nation, or Kagaku gijutsu rikkoku in Japanese, continues to exert a strong influence on Japanese policy-making because nationally developed technology is seen as key to the success of the nation (Ibata-Arens, 2019).
As clearly stipulated in Basic Act on Science and Technology, enacted in 1995, the promotion of science, technology, and innovation is a core value of the nation and the key driver for national development. Edgerton (2011) suggests that in the globalized world, there is no evidence that a technonationalistic approach to innovation can actually lead to a higher rate of growth; however, in the context of Japan, “epistemic nationalism” seems to guide the formation of new scientific and technological fields and is clearly present in shaping the field of gene editing technology.
GMOs as political antecedent to gene editing
While one may expect that the scientific knowledge base and technical infrastructure developed for GMOs since the mid-1990s would lend momentum and a sense of inevitability to the development of gene-edited crops and food, the situation in Japan is complicated by the history of Japan’s experience with GMOs. In this section, I will briefly describe how the issue of GMOs in Japan became highly politicized and socially problematic in the late 1990s and onward; the social disputes over GMOs in the public sphere are important political antecedents to the present development of plant gene editing technologies.
Unlike the United States, where social disputes over GMOs took place in the late 1980s, Japan did not experience social controversy over GMOs until the mid-1990s. The controversy initially centered on the fear that GM crops would enter Japan’s food and feed supply chains from the United States. This fear, expressed by people representing consumer groups and consumer cooperatives, was not unfounded because Japan depends heavily on the United States for its grain supplies. For instance, as of 2019, 100% of its corn supply and 94% of its soybean supply is imported, mostly from the United States and mostly reported to be from genetically engineered crops, though there are no official statistics available (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2020). The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (2017) also suggests that Japan is the world’s largest per-capita importer of food and feed produced using modern biotechnology. Japan is thus in a somewhat contradictory position: Even though transgenic crops are socially stigmatized in Japan to a degree that has deterred seed makers from investing in them (Tano, 2015) and has also severely damaged the social reputation and credibility of scientists (Yoshida, 2015), in practical terms, Japan has no choice but to rely on imports of genetically modified crops for the reasons that these two reports elaborated.
Although in other locations the issues raised concerning GMOs have been wide-ranging (Gaskell et al., 2001), in Japan, the disputes were more narrowly focused: mostly related to food safety issues and concerns about food labeling policies. One explanation for this may be that grassroots politics are not very influential in national policy-making in Japan (LeBlanc and Sassen,1999; Maclachlan, 2001), thus in trying to carry out an effective campaign, the campaigners deliberately chose specific issues such as food safety and food labeling issues in the hope that these would draw the interest of consumers who would otherwise be indifferent. A federation of consumer organizations and consumer cooperatives organized themselves to protest against GMOs by expressing their food safety concerns and submitting a petition to the concerned ministries, requesting mandatory labeling of GM foods (Asahi Shinbun, 2000). In addition, consumer cooperatives appealed to industry to voluntarily introduce GM food labeling, if government does not introduce food labeling policies, on the grounds that consumers have a right to know what they are eating (Nihon Keizai Shinbun, 1999). Proponents of GMOs in the scientific community contended that GM food labeling legislation was not necessary, given that the GM foods marketed in Japan had already been evaluated for safety. In the end, the activities of the consumer organizations were quite successful in that they were able to push the government to introduce GMO labeling policies (Shineha and Kato, 2009). In January 2001, food labeling policies were introduced in Japan that permit three types of biotech claims on food labels: “non-GMO,” “GMO,” and “non-segregated” (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare [MHLW], 2001).
These disputes had cascading effects on Japanese society, in particular the business strategies of corporate players. For instance, industry began to react to the consumer group campaigns by deciding not to use GMOs in their food items out of fear that the stigma of GMOs would tarnish the image of their merchandise and their corporate identity. Companies decided to halt research and development of transgenic crops. For instance, Kagome, a leading food processing company, which had played a leading role in research and development of GMOs, withdrew completely from such projects. Takii, a leading seed and seedling company, cut back on GMO-related projects during this period. Gradually, the industries in food and agricultural sectors began to reach a consensus that GM foods offered them no economic benefits (Mainichi Shinbun, 1997). Further, parallel to the establishment of food labeling requirements by the government, major food processors set up voluntary food labeling policies that impose much stricter standards (1% of total weight instead of 5%; Nikkei Ryutsu Shinbun, 1999).
At present, the commercialization of transgenic crops and food products requires approvals specific to food, feed, and environmental regulations. Four ministries are involved in the regulatory framework: the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF); the MHLW; the MOE; and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The Food Safety Commission, an independent risk assessment body, performs food and feed safety risk assessment for MHLW and MAFF. In addition, after ratifying the Biosafety Protocol in 2003, in 2004, Japan adopted the “Act Concerning the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biological Diversity through Regulations on the Use of Living Modified Organisms” also called the “Cartagena Act” (Ministry of Justice, 2003). Meanwhile, some local governments established local ordinances at the prefectural level that restrict commercial plantings of genetically modified crops. These multiple layers of statutory requirements suggest that Japan takes a “precautionary” stance to the commercial planting of gene-modified plants (The Law Library of Congress, 2014). Despite the multiple layers of statutes and the strong skepticism of consumers about the safety of GMOs (Komoto et al., 2016), the extensive presence of GMO soybeans and corn in the food value chain suggests that the precautionary approach is not necessarily the default position for future research and development of food technologies in Japan. In other words, the existing laws pertaining to GMOs that are used as a reference framework for governing gene-edited crops are not as “solid” as some people hoped for; rather they are fluid and subject to multiple approaches to interpretation and enforcement.
The emergence of a new field
From vague promises to concrete support
While technonationalist ideas about the use of science and technology and concerns about the past experience with GMOs were in tension, the new field of plant gene editing technologies emerged. This new field is concerned with the production of scientific knowledge that includes knowledge about the workings of genes in plants as well as new breeding methods for developing new varieties of fruits, vegetables, and grains. Using this knowledge and these breeding methods, researchers in Japan are developing various types of crops such as nutritionally enhanced tomatoes and a potato with reduced levels of toxins (Nikkei Bio Nenkan, 2019, pp. 1097–1107). The dominant discourse within science policy documents is that these crops will raise the productivity and efficiency of Japanese agriculture and will also contribute to the health and well-being of consumers. These promises are bound up with other technological and scientific innovations and developments, such as the invention of the next generation sequencer, a device that will facilitate the speed of gene sequencing and thus reduce both the time and cost of sequencing (Science Council of Japan [SCJ], 2017). The promises of gene editing technologies echo the promises made within other fields of science such as the chemical, material, and biological sciences, as well as the development of technologies such as the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and information technologies (Biotechnology Strategy Working Group, 2018). These are constitutive of much broader science policy frameworks ranging from national to global initiatives, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s initiative on “The Bioeconomy to 2030” and the United Nations’ “Sustainable Development Goals,” as well as Japan’s national innovation initiative “Society 5.0.” In short, the promises of commercialization of things made using gene editing technologies have been legitimated by supportive discourses that exist on multiple levels.
The promises that were built around this emerging new field not only provide collective frameworks, agendas, priorities, and meanings about the benefits and safety of using plant gene editing technologies but also help to shape and strengthen the identities of the actors who are involved in the research and development of this new field. The promises also have material effects such as attracting and mobilizing support and funding, coordinating the activities of actors, and guiding institutional and policy frameworks. This section will look into these three aspects in turn and examine how vague promises have been transformed into concrete support of gene-edited crops.
A key moment in meaning construction for the new field was the SCJ’s 2014 publication of New Plant Breeding Techniques (NPBTs): Current and Future Challenges, one of the earliest science advising reports published on the topic of NPBTs. The report introduces various types of technologies ranging from ZFNs, TALENs, and CRISPR/Cas9 to seed production technology and reverse breeding. Established in 1949 under the jurisdiction of the prime minister, the SCJ is an independent entity that provides scientific policy advice on public problems. From the outset, this report suggests that this new field of plant gene editing is “expected to play an extremely important role in future food production in Japan, especially given the foreseeable climate changes.” The report advises the Japanese government to take up the research and development of NPBTs. In the eyes of the public, the reports published by the SCJ are generally seen as neutral, laying out facts such as the latest developments of various types of technologies and regulations, and so on, and examining both prospects and challenges. However, this report, compiled by prominent scientists and published through the SCJ, had significant influence on the later trajectory of plant gene editing technologies in Japan because it legitimated policies supportive of research and development of gene editing technologies, such as allocation of funding.
The point made in the SCJ’s report was taken up by another scientific policy advising document published in 2015, entitled Towards Development and Commercialization of Varieties That Use New Plant Breeding Techniques Such As Gene Editing Technologies (New Plant Breeding Techniques Study Group [NPBTSG], 2015). Commissioned by the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Research Council, a bureau housed in the MAFF that is in charge of research and development of plant gene editing and that functions to liaise relevant government offices and national research institutes, this report was published by a group designated as an “expert study group” with expertise in biosafety considerations for NPBTs. Several of the scientists who were invited to this expert study group later became members of the advisory panel of the MOE, which was mandated to work on the biosafety evaluation framework of gene editing technologies in light of the Cartagena Act. These scientists played a key role in carrying over these ideas to the Environmental Safety Advisory Panel of MOE.
The most important point raised in this report was the clear message that the government would commit to support research and development of NPBTs, which in turn became the justification for funding for carrying out this line of research. Promises expressed in the document and activities to make these promises into reality coincided with similar types of promises and activities initiated by other ministries and agencies. Indeed, around the time that the 2015 report was published, numerous publicly funded research programs were established to further the research and development of gene editing technologies for applications in various field such as agriculture, food, environment, and industrial use. In the agricultural field, for instance, Japan’s Cabinet Office established a research fund providing a public fund of 3.5 billion yen (approximately 35 million U.S. dollars) over a period of 5 years for furthering research and development of gene editing technologies for agriculture and fisheries.1 The commitment to fund research and development of gene editing technologies can be seen as a result of a series of negotiations whereby vague promises have been transformed into concrete support. In response to further concretized promises of plant gene editing technologies, in 2016, the MAFF budgeted a fund named “Field for Knowledge Integration and Innovation (FKII),”2 with the aim of building mechanisms for facilitating open innovation, whereby public and private entities can meet, exchange information, and collaborate and whereby companies are asked to provide matching funds for scientific research in universities and public research institutes—research that can be used by companies to develop products for commercialization. This fund is not limited to programs related to plant gene editing technologies, but there is clear evidence that the MAFF wishes this fund to be used for the development of such technologies. For example, a published article written by a MAFF official specifically encourages Japanese companies to use the FKII fund when carrying out research and development of gene-edited crops (Suzuki, 2016). Such opportunities for funding have drawn people in business to become interested in the waves of activity taking place in Japan.
While these are taking place, a framework for regulating gene-edited plants has also been taking shape. Again, one can see the roots of this emerging framework in the 2014 report. Among several sociotechnical agendas suggested in the report agendas, below is one of the public policy agendas that is mentioned. On process-based or product-based definitions of regulatory oversight:
At present, Japanese regulatory oversight uses product-based definitions whereby the presence of extracellularly processed nucleic acids in the end products is a reference point to determine whether products are regulated or not, while also attempting to pay close attention to the processes whereby new varieties are made. The important issue is to decide whether Japan will introduce a new framework for regulatory oversight or not. (SCJ, 2014, p. 16)
On the same note, the 2015 report indicated a tentative and yet important conclusion, “If the end products do not leave foreign nucleic acid that was processed extracellularly, such products would be equivalent to those bred by conventional breeding techniques, and would thus be exempted from the Cartagena Act” (NPBTSG, 2015, pp. 48–19). The Japanese legislation called the Cartagena Act defines “genetically modified organisms” as “organisms that include the presence of exogenous nucleic acid” (MOJ, 2003). Indeed, this expert advice became a central frame in subsequent regulatory discussions. In other words, the range of NPBTs currently subject to research and development is regulated under the purview of the Cartagena Act, which has become the framework to use when addressing the biosafety issues of gene-edited plants.
Paying attention to the abovementioned framing of regulations of NPBTs, social actors interested in or involved in research and development of plant gene editing technologies began to work with the “prospective structure” (Brown et al., 2000), in order to figure out how gene editing technologies should be or would be treated in light of existing laws and regulations on GMOs and how presumed cultural skepticism is to be overcome. Varying opinions have already been offered about how to regulate this technology and which issues are to be discussed (Kuzma, 2016; Ishii and Araki, 2017); thus, issues related to the prospective structure have already become quite complex. A further judgment by the European Court of Justice, announced in 2018, requires that all crops obtained by mutagenesis, including those derived from genome editing, be subject to the obligations laid down by the GMO Directive (Court of Justice of the European Union, 2018), making this issue more complex for regulators. It is against this complex backdrop that the 2019 guidance was issued, which suggests that some types of gene editing technologies that do not leave foreign nucleic acid in the end products, such as SDN-1 and SDN-2, will not be subject to regulation because the genomic changes made by means of SDN-1 and SDN-2 are indistinguishable from changes that take place through conventional breeding methods (Tsuda et al., 2019). When considering the scientists’ comments, such as the view that the Japanese government in the past has been rather slow in deciding whether and how to regulate biotechnology (Watanabe et al., 2004), fast-tracked decisions on the regulatory framework of genome editing were an atypical experience, welcomed by some and objected to by others.
Mobilization of actors
Parallel to the developments that resulted in research funds and a favorable regulatory environment was the formation of a network of scientists, policy makers, and people in seed businesses. Actors gathered in “arenas of expectations” such as conferences, special issues of journals, and academic meetings (Bakker and Budde, 2012) to both share their expectations about gene editing technologies and share information as to how to lay the groundwork for social acceptance. The coalescence of this network took place through various mechanisms. For instance, beginning in 2013, numerous symposiums and conferences featuring new biotechnology-based plant breeding began to be organized by academic societies such as the Japanese Society for Plant Cell and Molecular Biology and the Japan Society for Breeding. These venues helped facilitate interactions among people working on and interested in research and development of gene editing technologies. These conferences enabled scientists and researchers to exchange their experiences and ideas about the possible nature and extent of the regulation of plant gene editing technologies. The Japanese Society for Genome Editing was established in 2015; it extended the network of scientists from the fields of plants and animals to fields beyond agriculture and food, such as medicine, and reinforced the network of scientists who are interested in gene editing technologies. All of these activities facilitated and strengthened the development of a network of scientists and helped to identify the group of scientists working on various aspects of research and development of plant, animal, or fish genome editing.
Around the same time, reporting in newspaper, print media, and TV programs began to cover stories about gene editing technologies, further helping to create an identity for this scientific research community and reinforcing optimistic visions built around the introduction of plant gene editing technologies. For instance, the headline of the earliest identifiable newspaper article that features plant and animal breeding says “Genome Editing, the Center of Scientists’ Attention” and introduces various research projects taking place in Japan involving both plant and fishery applications of gene editing technologies (Asahi Shinbun, 2015). Taking a similar tone, the newspaper article entitled “Promoting Research and Development of Gene Editing Technologies: Cutting-edge Research Findings Shared at the First Annual Meeting of the Japanese Society for Genome Editing” narrates the promises of future applied research on gene editing of plants and animals and describes how research and development on that front will enable Japan to hold its own in the competition taking place within the international scientific community (Asahi Shinbun, 2016).
All Japan efforts
While our focus thus far has been on the sequence of events as promises have turned into concrete commitments and regulatory decisions, it is worthwhile focusing on some of the specific themes that recur in policy documents and other discursive contexts relevant to these developments because these specific framings influence the trajectory of gene editing technologies. One frequently used and noteworthy phrase is “All Japan,” which began to appear in widely circulated printed materials and to be heard in various public fora, including speeches and lectures in seminars and conferences covering the topic of plant gene editing technologies.3 This catchphrase, which we frequently hear at sporting events, has often been used to communicate the idea that collaborative efforts need to be made among actors within Japan, who would together try to win the imagined goal. This phrase added momentum to enroll actors from a variety of organizations. The concept of “All Japan” is frequently used in an arena of expectation and seeks to appeal to people’s emotions and to facilitate the formation of alliances, especially in the form of industry–academia–government collaboration (Sangakukan Renkei). For Japan, which aspires to be a scientific and technological nation, an industry–academia–government collaboration is seen as an important strategy for realizing these promises. For example, an article published in the Journal of Industry-Academia-Government Collaboration features stories about the frontier of research and development of gene editing technologies. Drawing on the concept of “All Japan,” this article emphasizes the importance of collaboration between industry, academia, and government and explains that this is why a consortium to carry out research and development of gene editing technologies was created (Japan Science and Technology Agency [JST], 2019, p. 21). Further, the “All Japan” concept appears in science policy documents that lay out the nation’s strategy for modern biotechnology; the documents urge that various ministries that are infamous for bureaucratic sectionalism work together to support and promote research and development of biotechnology. For example, the Interim Report of Biotechnology Strategy Working Group, one of the key science policy documents that lay out the nation’s strategy for biotechnology development and one which has significant influence upon the sociotechnical trajectory of plant gene editing technologies, says:
In order to accelerate research and development of the frontier areas of science and technology, the scientific and technological foundations of biotechnology should be strengthened through allocating government funds, securing human capital, and improving innovative capacity by reorganizing existing institutions. All of these need to be supported by All Japan efforts for the purpose of solving public problems such as food, environment and energy issues by using the frontier of biotechnology. (Summary Translation of the Interim Report of Biotechnology Strategy Working Group, Published on June 13, 2018, pp. 13–15)
As reflected in these examples, the “All Japan” theme has often been used to appeal to those who belong to varying organizations to work collaboratively. As such, the emergence of the “All Japan” narrative helped unite the aspirations of diverse types of actors who come into the arena of expectations for various reasons and become involved in the quest for research, development and, ultimately, commercialization of gene editing technologies. The narrative is so effective because the concept is deeply seated in the technonationalistic mentality that has been and still is pervasive in Japanese society. In research on technonationalism, Ibata-Arens (2019, p. 67) points out that Japanese society is filled with paradigms, beliefs, attitudes, and techniques that value the idea of prioritizing export promotion and protecting domestic firms from foreign import competition. Interestingly, this idea also applies to the emphasis on encouragement for domestic companies and scientists to carry out research and development of gene editing technologies that are or will be “unique to Japan.” Accordingly, such technologies as PPR (Pentatricopeptide repeat) and Target AID (Activation-induced cytidine deaminase), which are being developed by Japanese scientists, have been featured as promising technologies in the Bioyear Book, which is an important reference book for people engaged in research and development of biotechnology (Nikkei Bio Nenkan, 2017, pp. 360–361).
Further, not only policy makers and officials from ministries but also scientists adopt the All Japan rhetoric to encourage private firms to work collaboratively with them. For instance, in an interview with a corporate news magazine, a scientist who is a leading figure in research and development of gene editing technologies in Japan reiterated the importance of All Japan efforts to catch up with the United States and China in the race for patent output.4 Prevalent is a discourse that All Japan efforts are needed because Japan is lagging behind other countries. For example, analysis by the Japan Science and Technology Agency, Center for Research and Development Strategy (JST-CRDS, 2015, p. 16)5 indicates that in terms of basic and applied research and in terms of the competitiveness of relevant industry, the United States is leading research and development of gene editing technologies, while Japan is lagging behind in each of these three categories. Further, a report published by the Japan Patent Office (2017) also confirms that in terms of the number of patents filed for gene editing technologies and gene therapy-related technologies, Japan came seventh after the United States, France, China, Germany, Korea, and the United Kingdom for the period between 1993 and 2014. Warnings about being left behind added further momentum to the uniting of actors. In short, the rhetoric of “All Japan” was successful in facilitating the formation of alliances for industry–academia–government collaboration and in providing legitimation for the use of public money for research and development of plant gene editing technologies.
Public acceptance issues
While epistemic nationalism added momentum to facilitate formation of a new field of plant gene editing, the science policy documents demonstrate a strong awareness of the possibility that the Japanese public (which rejected GM ingredients in food) might not accept gene-edited foods. In other words, while the aspiration to use gene editing technologies for commercial breeding remains strong, past experience with GMOs continues to haunt the activities of actors. Adding complexity to this sociotechnical condition is the fact that Japanese seed companies, which play an important role in developing plant varieties for commercial use and distributing them to the market, consider the assurance of public acceptance to be the decisive factor in whether they will enter into the use of plant gene editing technologies. This observation was borne out in statements by actors in seed businesses. “Frankly, we are interested in using them but if consumers do not like them, my company will go bankrupt,” one executive said in an interview. Echoing such sentiments, another executive from a seed company pointed out “From a purely technical point of view, an improved breeding efficiency and shorter breeding time are attractive, but Japanese consumers are 100% ‘no’ to GM vegetables. So our biggest concern is how consumers will perceive products that do not contain foreign genes in the end, and how we could explain and make them understood those technical issues.”
Given the multiple layers of concerns expressed by various types of actors, unlike those involved with gene editing technologies for other fields, such as medical applications or the development of drugs, the people involved in activities related to plant gene editing technologies share a sense that genetic engineering for food and crops faces a much greater public acceptance hurdle. As such, gaining wider support, support from not only the general public but also actors who are involved in activities at various points along the prospective food supply chains for plant gene editing technologies, has become an important public policy goal.
The literature suggests that there is a continuum of ways to attain such a goal. At one end of the continuum is public communication, meaning “maximizing the relevant information flow from the sponsor…to the maximum number of relevant populations.” At the other end of the continuum is the idea of “maximizing the relevant information flow from the maximum number of relevant populations and…transferring it to the sponsor” (Rowe and Frewer, 2005, pp. 254–255). In the development of plant gene editing technologies in Japan, there is an emphasis on controlling the discourse by placing emphasis on one end of the continuum: dissemination of decided-upon information from circles of experts to the lay person. The idea of information flow downstream to upstream—from concerned lay people to the scientific experts—is not discussed extensively. Indeed, statements such as the quote below exemplify how public acceptance issues are interpreted:
In carrying out research and development of gene editing technologies and commercialization of products, the major public policy question is how to foster understanding in consumers, especially when we consider the fact that consumers are concerned about genetically modified crops and food. (Translation of Towards Development and Commercialization of Varieties that Use New Plan Breeding Techniques such as Gene Editing Technologies Published in NPBTSG, 2015, pp. 54–55)
This suggests that the general public must be informed of “accurate” information and that scientists help to improve the scientific literacy of the public by carrying out outreach programs. These outreach programs frequently utilize narratives based on what I would call “favorable comparison,” which is to say comparing gene editing technologies with other breeding methods so as to suggest that gene editing technologies are better than other breeding methods because the application of such technologies will make plant breeding more efficient, leading to greater productivity through reduced labor and farming costs. For instance, a scoping paper published by the JST begins by stating “gene editing technologies will be a powerful tool to alter the target genes of plants that otherwise could not be modified by existing methods” (JST-CRDS, 2015, p. 12). The report published by JST is seen as important reference material for the making of public policy, particularly because the report is typically published in the early phases of scientific and technological development, and it details the opportunities and challenges of new technologies from the perspectives of high-profile experts. Thus, how the issues are framed in this type of report will set the tone for later public policy discussion.
Promises about the use of gene editing technologies—such as the claim that gene editing technologies will speed up the process of introducing important traits to crops, aiming to increase yields for producers and improving nutrition for consumers—encourage actors who have interest or potential stakes in these technologies to participate in endeavors to move research and development forward. These future-centered claims, which are as yet mostly speculative, have generated a social dynamic that has laid the groundwork for the formation of a new field. The discourse overall has been characterized by optimism which has attracted the participation of diverse actors, which in turn has added another layer of optimism. The sequence of developments demonstrates that an absence of visible social phenomena, such as controversy or protests over gene editing in plants, like the controversy over GMOs, does not mean that social changes are not taking place; rather social changes are taking place gradually. A seemingly static social condition might mean that overwhelming optimism generated by the promises about plant gene editing technologies is constraining the opportunity for discourses of concerns to play a role. The ideas that support the new field of gene editing technologies are scattered across various documents; however, these ideas are orchestrated by invisible and yet powerful social forces that connect actors and resources and in turn facilitate the creation of a science policy and regulatory environment that favor the development of gene editing technologies. As demonstrated in this article, public policy documents have played an important role in coordinating the perspectives of scientists, policy makers, and people in business, and at the same time, these documents have framed the issues in such a way that there is no room for the general public to question. All of this has been accomplished with little or no public debate or input, as science policy documents appeal to notions such as “All Japan” and increasingly promote an “outreach” approach which frames the role of the public as passive recipients of information whose task is to become educated and to gain confidence in the emerging technoscientific agenda set by experts. Arguably, however, when moving forward with emerging technologies, especially those which may bring significant changes to society, it is important to make efforts to incorporate a wide array of perspectives. As we see in this case, promises made will be acted on at present by those who are in support of the idea, but these same promises will have future consequences for a much larger number of people.
The authors would like to thank Karen Van Hook for helpful comments and insights for the analysis of documents and for editors and anonymous reviewers for providing helpful comments on the earlier draft of this article.
This research was funded by Grants in Aid for Scientific Research (C), Japan’s Ministry of Education, “Engendering Public Trust in Emerging Technoscience: A Comparison of Activities 698 in Agrifood and Biomedicine”(19K00275).
The author has no competing interests to declare.
The project proposal for this research program is available from the link below. Available at https://www8.cao.go.jp/cstp/gaiyo/sip/keikaku/9_nougyou.pdf. Accessed 25 February 2020.
Available at https://www.knowledge.maff.go.jp/en/fkii.html. Accessed 27 February 2020.
See a government flier for this example. Available at https://www8.cao.go.jp/cstp/panhu/sip2016/44-47.pdf. Accessed 15 February 2020.
“Genomuhenshu to digital gijyutu ga hiraku mirai” (Futures that are created by genome editing technologies and digital technologies). Available at https://www.toppan.co.jp/biz/social/assets/pdf/social- innovation-news_vol08.pdf. Accessed 1 October 2020.
Though the title of the report is Clinical Research Field, the report covers issues that relate to the life sciences in the food and agriculture sector as well. The report is available at https://www.jst.go.jp/crds/report/report02/CRDS-FY2015-FR-03.html. Accessed 1 February 2020.
How to cite this article: Yamaguchi, T. 2020. Performativity of expectations: The emergence of plant gene editing technologies in Japan. Elem Sci Anth. 8: 1. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.036
Domain Editor-in-Chief: Alastair Iles, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA
Associate Editor: Jack Heinemann, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand
Knowledge Domain: Sustainability Transitions
Part of an Elementa Special Feature: Gene Editing the Food System