The term “social justice” is highly contested, as the myriad books and articles devoted to defining and probing the philosophical, ideological, and pragmatic parameters of social justice suggest. The Oxford English Dictionary situates the term as “chiefly Politics and Philosophy” dating from nineteenth and twentieth-century sources and defines it as “justice at the level of a society or state as regards the possession of wealth, commodities, opportunities, and privileges.” The OED suggests that “much of the debate surrounding social justice has been concerned with the precise nature of fair distribution, and to what extent this may conflict with individual rights of acquisition and ownership,” and references distributive justice, a much older concept: “one of the two divisions of Justice, according to Aristotle … that which consists in the distribution of something in shares proportionate to the deserts of each among the several parties.” The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought largely follows the OED definition and traces its origins to nineteenth-century writings of British Christian socialists and Roman Catholic conservatives “who argued that social justice arose from fair dealings between individuals, and not from some distributive scheme,” and also the confusion between European and American interpretations.
Michael Reisch, in The Routledge International Handbook of Social Justice, broadens the scope beyond the West, where it is, he reports, widely assumed that particular visions of social justice have universal applications. This ignores the fact that conflicting ideas about what social justice is and how it functions in society have long competed with each other; the radically different ideas from ethnically and religiously diverse cultures throughout the world further complicate the issue. Reisch’s handbook is worthy of note in conjunction with this essay, because it covers historical development and cultural views; theories and conceptual frameworks; social justice issues in policy and practice (including criminal justice, education, housing, environment, health, poverty, and violence); and—important for this essay—Izumi Sakamoto’s cultural reflections in his essay “The Use of the Arts in Promoting Social Justice”—reflections that include theatre.