‘We got kicked out of Sumida park three times for delivering food. I went to talk to the people in Taito-ku ward office and basically (it) came down to, ‘well, you just can’t deliver food here anymore,’ ” says Charles McJilton, executive director of Second Harvest Japan.

“I said, we both have an issue here. You have hungry people there, and we want to feed them. We don’t want to create problems for your people in the park. How can we work together? And he didn’t want to work together.

“What came out of this really illustrates the issue here in Japan between government and nonprofit organizations.”

Second Harvest Japan (formerly Food Bank Japan) is one of the nation’s 16,000-odd incorporated nonprofit organizations (NPOs). Every week volunteers visit Ueno park and Sakurabashi to hand over 500 hot meals to their residents. Twice a month nonperishable goods like tinned food, rice and miso are distributed. From December, Food Bank began a pantry to service Japan’s hungry.

“If you go from Hokkaido to Okinawa all the way down through Japan, there’s not a single place for you to get emergency groceries, not a single one, nothing. The churches don’t offer them, community services don’t offer them, the government doesn’t offer them.”

He continues: “The homeless are only 25 percent of the people we donate to. There’s 240,000 people here in Japan who don’t have enough to eat every day. The homeless are only 50,000 of those people.”

It goes almost without saying that industry insiders project the figure to be much, much higher. “There’s a greater need out there amongst single mothers, elderly, migrant workers — the homeless just happen to be the people we see out there everyday.”

While Japan digs deep for international aid, finding a sizable 816.9 billion yen for its ODA budget during 2004, it seems where Japan’s needy are concerned, the municipal government has turned a blind eye to hungry people and an NPO that wants to feed them.

Where’s the problem?

“One of the things (Taito-ku) was, ‘Well if we do this for you, then we’ve gotta do it for everybody,’ (but) not everybody is feeding people out there who’re hungry,” McJilton says. “Now we’ve changed our method of operation (but) I don’t answer the phone anymore when people from the government call. They’re saying, ‘we want you to go away.’ If they want to talk to me they can come down and speak to me.”

Without government support, getting help to the needy is hamstrung, and yet in Japan, running an NPO is a Herculean task, with almost no funds available and no tax breaks.

Of over 16,000 incorporated NPOs, only 23 have tax exemption status. “When they put the 1998 law into place, they took out the provision to allow nonprofits to have tax-deductible status. And guess what? We get a tax bill every year, and you know why? For the pleasure of feeding the hungry here.”

The 1998 NPO law change in 1998, recognizing “specified nonprofit organizations” or “NPO corporations” (NPO “hojin”) sent waves of hope through the NPO sector, signaling a thaw in the government’s frigid regulation.

The law required NPOs to register with the government as a legal entity, and in return they would receive recognition from the government and the status of incorporated NPO. As many as 16,000 have done so, in the hope that they may receive both the benefits of an exemption from paying tax, and eligibility to receive tax-deductible donations.

Yet many incorporated NPOs complain that unnecessary paperwork have resulted in a bureaucratic tapdance which affords no reward and tests scant resources.

Laying bare finances for government scrutiny has led to concerns about impeded autonomy, which is why there are still thousands more NPOs choosing to remain nonincorporated.

As for Second Harvest Japan, McJilton maintains, “Here in Japan, if I were to disincorporate this organization right now, nothing would change.”

The Asian Cultural Council’s Georg Kochi admits one of the reasons the philanthropic society is not incorporated is that there is no benefit in it for them.

He says many NPOs are “doing great things for society (yet) the government makes it difficult to stay afloat. Some foundations are stuck spending their principal, (effectively) spending themselves out of existence.”

But does it really make any difference — are people motivated to donate by tax incentives?

Kochi says that because the practice of writing off donations against tax is not prevalent in Japan, “it doesn’t allow the culture of giving to grow.” McJilton thinks people’s motivations are more altruistic, but either way, an exemption on paying tax would no doubt go a long way toward filling a large hole.

Yet as for the holy grail of tax exemption, the key is still locked within government legislation.

One common criticism of the process is that Japanese regulations for tax exemption eligibility are vaguely worded, with excessively stringent requirements.

Aside from having the support of someone of “public esteem, you have to show that you have wide public support. Well, what does that mean, wide public support?” McJilton asks.

Sociology Professor Hiroshi Komai, from Chukyo Women’s University in Nagoya concedes that the reason the central government is reluctant to acknowledge NPOs comes down to yen. “If they approve tax concessions, the income deficit will become larger.”

Yet Komai sees light on the horizon. “NPOs are beginning to have an effect on Japanese society (which is) a very monumental happening.” His example stems from Japan’s Tokai region, an area with a high Brazilian population and an active NPO base.

“Collaborations of local governments with NPOs are very successfully pushing central government.” He cites a conference held last year, where 14 local governments issued policy recommendations. “Especially in Brazilian areas (it has resulted) in wonderful medical care and education for children.”

The definitive moment for NPOs, says Komai, was 1995’s Great Hanshin Earthquake.

“After that the NPO has taken root and gained social recognition, so many volunteers are now appearing with their own initiative wanting to help the others. It’s a new phenomenon in Japan.”

But McJilton still sees room for improvement.

Despite an increase of volunteers, “only 20 percent of those 16,000 NPOs have paid staff.”

Of that 20 percent, the average number of paid staff per organization is 1.3. “So where’s the professional experience?” He continues: “The volunteer mentality is such that, if I have extra time, then I’ll donate it to the organization, and that’s okay, but you couldn’t run a business like that. You couldn’t run a public service like that.”

“People have to stop thinking of nonprofits as charities, as things we do to make us feel good,” McJilton says earnestly.

As for the future? “One side of it is we believe the (law) eventually will change. McJilton predicts change will come when “major figures (endorse) nonprofits.

“When you start getting a professional cadre built up here, then people take you differently, you’re more legitimate.”

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