Most foreign residents in Japan have probably been called upon to perform duties with a neighborhood association — known here as a chōnaikai or jichikai.
The nature and extent of these duties vary widely from council to council. American Matthew Apple picks up trash and pulls weeds with neighbors in the Nara countryside twice a year. Moreover, meetings lead to barbeques and other enjoyable gatherings.
Others don’t feel so lucky. When assembled for neighborhood chores, John Williams, a retired kindergarten principal from England living in Gifu, recalls: “Women would split into natter groups, and a few disgruntled-looking lone Japanese men looked sorry they couldn’t be out playing golf. Nobody really seemed to be doing much.”
One day, members raised the pressure when a gaggle of “hostile women” banged on his door, demanding he show his face at the meeting — at which they promptly voted him leader, or “block head.” Feeling like a blockhead for letting himself get dragged along in the first place, he tried to explain that he spends half the year abroad. That only brought more recriminations. In the end, he went through the motions of being block head while his American wife spent the year as fire chief.
Then there are monetary challenges. One foreigner who wishes to remain anonymous was asked to pay ¥50,000 just after moving into his dream house in rural Gifu. He had planned to join, pay annual dues and participate in events, but was taken aback by the entrance fee, at a time when cash was tight.
When he questioned the necessity for the large outlay, the jichikai-chō, or council chief, explained, “It used to be ¥100,000!” The newcomer offered a compromise: He would pay and join only if they dropped the fee for subsequent new members. One month after this offer, the chief has yet to respond.
This entrance fee, like annual dues and the monthly events, varies greatly from one chōnaikai to another. Annual dues can range from ¥2,000 a year (in Fuchu, Tokyo, for example) to ¥30,000 (in Takayama, Gifu). The pressure to join tends to be less intense in a city such as Tokyo, too. My family, which rents a suburban house in Gifu, pays ¥18,000.
Chōnaikai pool income from entrance fees, dues and payments from the local government (nominal amounts for doing public works such as maintaining parks) to cover operating expenses, which include equipment, facilities, festivals, contributions to various funds and food and drink expenditures (see the sample statement in the sidebar). While chōnaikai are required to provide a yearly statement of income and expenses, it can be difficult to ascertain exactly how much is spent for individual items — like booze, an item that cynics suspect is a significant expense and the reason why meetings are held in the first place.
There are, at times, extra expenses. With no debate, our chōnaikai decided to build and equip a storehouse with shovels, fire extinguishers and other emergency equipment. The cost will likely be ¥30,000 per household. At a time when salaries are decreasing or stagnant while prices and taxes are increasing, this precaution seems like overkill — about as effective as forcing kids to wear hard helmets while walking to and from school.
In addition to displeasure over the yearly expense, we too have felt like the clean-ups are excuses for granny-chats. Moreover, during meetings members sit and silently listen to the chief drone on about inconsequential matters — or matters that he has actually already decided.
Once at our gathering, two members tried to skip out early with their lunch boxes in hand. The chief yelled, “Hey! Where do you think you’re going?”
“A memorial service.”
Sensing a bogus excuse, the chief pressed on for details of the deceased: “Where? For whom?” Even the strictest of schoolteachers don’t cross that line.
Thus, given the discomforts and expenses, we did the unthinkable: We quit. After some searching on the Internet, my wife found that we are not alone.
Nagamasa Ueda works as an ombudsman in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture, on the east coast of Lake Biwa. Since an incident at his local chōnaikai, Ueda has made it his mission to work toward the abolition of all chōnaikai nationwide.
“A committee member who was handing out fliers critical of the chief got kicked out,” he recalls. “This was a kind of ‘power harassment,’ and it led me to quit.”
It’s not just their way of operating that has Ueda so fed up with chōnaikai. His disillusionment is philosophical as well.
“Chōnaikai actually started with Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1537-98), and they were originally called gonin-gumi (five-person associations). Their purpose was social control. If any member spoke a word against Hideyoshi, all five members were executed. This helps explain why, even today, Japanese are afraid to speak out (against authority).”
The Japanese Wikipedia page traces the origins of chōnaikai to 1937, whereas the English page pushes the start back a bit further to the Meiji Restoration of 1868. While omitting these apparently darker roots, these sources, along with what’s taught in many Japanese elementary schools, highlight the World War II variation, tonari-gumi, or “next-door groups.” Contrary to the pleasant-sounding name, tonari-gumi served as a highly effective spy network to root out war dissenters, who were likely to be subsequently tortured and imprisoned for their views. It was probably for those reasons that occupying U.S. forces outlawed chōnaikai until the Treaty of San Francisco was signed in 1951, returning sovereignty to the Japanese.
“The government still wants to keep chōnaikai for the same reason,” Ueda says. “If ever there’s a war, chōnaikai will prove invaluable.”
Since Ueda became an ombudsman in March 2013, he has, on a purely voluntary basis, advised disgruntled chōnaikai members in Mie, Chiba, Nagano, Shiga, Kanagawa and Gifu prefectures. For us, he traveled about an hour to advise us and then went to speak with officials at city hall with my wife. Most of those who contact him want out of chōnaikai for the same reasons: the expense and bother. There have been no small number of court cases concerning chōnaikai over the years, most often brought by a member suing the local chief. Of these, a handful have gone all the way to the Supreme Court.
“In one case, members objected to the amount of chōnaikai money a chief used to make donations to NGOs like the Red Cross,” Ueda says. “Several members said donations are a personal choice, but the chief insisted they would be obligatory in their neighborhood. That case went all the way to Supreme Court.”
In 2004, residents of Sekikawa village in Niigata Prefecture decided they didn’t want to be bothered with the preparation and clean-up for the chōnaikai-sponsored iwana tsukamidori taikai, an event for which iwana (char) fish are put in a netted-off area of a river for kids to catch. The chief responded with the standard threat to deny the non-participating families access to the “gomi station” (trash collection area), and upped the ante by claiming that the families no longer had the right to gather wild plants in the area. The families sued, and the chief counter-sued, claiming libel. After losing in both the lower and supreme courts, the chief emphasized his lack of contrition, stating, “I will never bow my head or apologize to these families!” He did, however, pay a total amount of ¥2.2 million to the families, as the court had decreed — using cash from the chōnaikai account.
According to Ueda, all the cases that have been taken to the Supreme Court have ended the same way — with the chōnaikai dissenters or quitters winning.
Chōnaikai are required to publish an annual balance sheet, but many costs are hidden, and the process does not involve an accountant. Some chōnaikai end up with millions of yen sitting around in bank accounts — money with no official oversight. With no accountants involved, it is up to regular citizens to analyze the balance sheets and find improprieties.
Ueda explains that scamming by an unscrupulous chief or treasurer is quite simple, and there have been several examples of chiefs getting caught for theft.
“These cases go one of two ways: Either the chief gets arrested, or members try to settle without police involvement, having the thief repay the money,” Ueda explains. “Either way, it’s very unlikely that members ever recover the full amount stolen.”
The sidebar story shows the translation for a balance sheet in a Gifu suburb. What’s striking is both the inessential nature of the vast majority of items and the ease with which those handling the money could scam.
One crucial issue for quitters is trash disposal. Some chiefs will insist that nonmembers are not allowed to use the local gomi station. This, of course, can create a real dilemma, as nobody wants to regularly drive several kilometers to dump garbage. But, as with other chōnaikai matters, the law is actually on the side of the quitters. After all, all residents pay taxes that cover trash disposal. That being said, getting permission to use the gomi station can still be a challenge, as city hall officials might side with the chōnaikai chief.
“It’s strange, but in Japan, customs rank here,” Ueda explains, indicating eye level, “while in many cases the law only ranks here.” He drops his hand to his belly.
The government supports chōnaikai in subtle ways. For example, they have members perform duties, like maintaining parks, that should be covered by tax money. The amount the government pays the chōnaikai is low: Ueda reports city hall paying only ¥120 per person per year for maintaining a park. The irony, he says, is that members in turn are expected to buy insurance for ¥165 in case they get injured while doing public works. “The government uses Japanese as a cheap labor force — almost slavery.”
Still, chōnaikai is a well-established facet of life in Japan, and most members, Japanese as well as foreigners, seem to find conditions at least tolerable.
American Steve McCarty, now a member of a low-demand chōnaikai in Osaka, recalls, “A major telecom was about to build a mobile-phone transmission tower in our neighborhood full of children in rural Kagawa Prefecture.” When the company approached his chōnaikai as a courtesy, members became concerned about electromagnetic radiation. Several members appealed to the mayor and successfully stopped the project. Besides this local triumph spearheaded by the chōnaikai, McCarty says he also found the community spirit “charming.”
At the heart of many conflicts is the compulsory aspect of chōnaikai. For one reason or another, many residents just don’t want to participate. Perhaps fearing that the entire council could fall apart, some chiefs or members resort to drastic measures to keep members active and in line. The culture clash is not foreigner vs. Japanese, but traditional vs. modern.
“We want democracy in Japan,” Ueda says, “and the power structure of chōnaikai is the antithesis of democracy.”
The brutal history of the gonin-gumi and tonari-gumi, along with the dictatorial tendencies of the present chōnaikai system, has left an indelible mark on the Japanese character, Ueda believes, leaving citizens unable or unwilling to express their opinions. The only solution he can envision is the abolition of the current system, after which neighbors could choose to form noncompulsory cooperatives — or not.
One Gifu suburb’s accounts for 2013
Funds left from 2012: ¥631,484
Membership dues: ¥770,000
Local government assistance: ¥56,090
Interest and individual donation: ¥5,120
Gatherings (drinking and lunch boxes): ¥163,244
Welfare (kids’ association, wives’ association, old folks’ association, etc.): ¥169,500
Others (firefighters, ¥115,000; old folks, ¥38,500; Red Cross, ¥34,500; cooperative, ¥30,800, etc.): ¥291,950
Donations (shrines, environmental, coming of age, graves, cooperative, carnations): ¥53,900
Member death: ¥20,000
Carried over to next year (¥1,462,694-¥799,270): ¥663,424
(Plus, current savings: ¥1,347,482)