With the latest Japan Foundation survey showing over 8,000 organizations here at least nominally involved in “international exchange,” the government is hoping to spare its own coffers by shifting the burden of assisting Japan’s foreign population onto NPO groups.

However, complex regulations that hamper day-to-day operations, meager government funding there is, and the organizations’ own threadbare resources have left many groups that seek to assist foreigners themselves facing an uncertain future.

The face of “international exchange” has changed considerably in recent years.

During the first years after World War Two, international exchange was mainly about “cultural exchange,” teaching Japanese people about other countries at a time when most people in Japan had never been abroad or met a foreigner.

But now, with over 350,000 foreign residents from 172 countries living in Tokyo alone, international exchange is as much to do with assisting foreigners in Japan as learning about life abroad.

The last decade has seen as steady growth in the number of not-for-profit (NPO) voluntary groups helping foreign nationals in Japan.

Says Rikimaru Takahashi, of the Japan Foundation: “Originally, the purpose of international exchange was to teach Japanese people about foreign customs so they could travel without trouble.”

However, until 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, a chronic shortage of foreign currency meant that Japanese citizens were not allowed to travel abroad for leisure. Instead, government sponsored organizations set up exchange programs to bring foreign culture to Japan.

The economy relied on making products to sell to the West but the government was worried about how little Japanese knew about their overseas customers.

One solution was to set up sister-city links and organize exchange visits. By 1971 there were 121 sister-city pairs, over 80 percent with cities in the U.S. Now there are almost 1500 arrangements (still more with America than with any other nation).

When the government finally lifted restrictions on international travel, Japanese traveled abroad in droves, but the exchange programs continued as if nothing had changed.

According to the Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE), a Tokyo based NPO, budgets for international exchange programs kept increasing well into the mid-1990s. Today about 900 of Japan’s 3,350 municipalities have international exchange organizations.

But, says Rikimaru, a general squeeze on local government spending has meant funding for international exchange in rural areas has been cut. And in urban areas with large foreign populations, the authorities are looking for ways to shift the burden onto private organizations.

“Since the local government reforms in the 1990s, local authorities have been transferring international exchange work to NPOs and private organizations.”

Hiroshi Komai, a sociologist at Tsukuba University says that encouraging a real grassroots NPO sector could be one of the best ways for the government to help foreign immigrant workers integrate into Japan.

While metropolitan organizations like the Musahino International Association are at the forefront of work to help immigrants, local-government groups that just organize trips to sister-cities are out of date.

“These [old-fashioned] organizations are not in a position to hear the actual needs of foreign migrants in contemporary Japan.”

However, although the government recently simplified the rules for setting up NPOs, complicated government regulations still hamper their day to day operations. The lack of a tradition of charitable donation in Japan also means many struggle to survive financially. Most NPOs are very small and staffed by a hand-full of volunteers; the average number of full-time staff for Japan’s around 90,000 NPOs is 1.3 people.

Musashino International Association was set up in 1989 by the local government to support foreigners living in Tokyo. It provides information services to foreigners on visa issues, education and work, as well as organizing Japanese classes.

The association also co-operates with NPOs in Tokyo; for example, providing space for the “Chinese Volunteer Network” to run a weekly advice center for Chinese speaking residents. Unfortunately, says the MIA’s Michiko Sugisawa, NPO activities in Japan tend to be small scale and hampered by fundraising problems.

“Our cooperation with NPOs could increase, but the NPO’s themselves have got financial problems. They don’t have the money to train staff and keep that co-operation going.”

“It would be impossible to [rely] just on donations,” says Tokyo Alien Eyes’s Fumio Takano.

The Bunkyo-ward based NPO helps foreign students find work and accommodation. By charging employers, landlords and students fees they can almost cover their costs, but Takano is the NPO’s only employee, and he says he still has to rely on savings and loans for much of his income.

At the moment, the NPO can’t receive tax-free donations and also has to pay tax itself.

“It is very difficult. The problem is that the government requires us to hire an accountant [to get tax free status]. That’s big money for us.”

Menju says that many groups are hesitating to go through the process of incorporation as a bona fide NPO.

“NPOs are still looking to see what will happen. At the moment there is no incentive for organizations to become legally recognized as NPOs because it won’t make any difference to their day to day operations.”

The JCIE’s Menju says that the government hopes that the infant NPO sector could one day take some of the burden of an aging society’s health care needs, participate in urban-planning as well as assist increasing numbers of immigrants.

But, the government is also loath to loose tax income. So far only 22 out 15,000 (legally designated) NPOs have jumped through enough hoops to successfully gain tax free status.

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