The nonprofit sector in Japan is more dynamic than it was two decades ago, and yet it remains relatively small and underdeveloped, especially when compared to countries such as the United States and the Philippines.

This should hardly come as a surprise given the fact that nonprofits effectively didn’t exist in Japan until the late-1990s, at least not from a legal standpoint.

Until relatively recently, public-interest organizations weren’t officially recognized and were unable to engage in international conferences.

Things started to change in 1998 when lawmakers ratified the Act on Promotion of Specified Nonprofit Activities. Since then, it’s become more commonly known as the NPO Law.

“This legislation was very significant, as it helped to liberalize the incorporation of public-benefit groups,” says NGO adviser Sarajean Rossitto. “It gave them legitimacy and a status they never previously had. Historically, Japanese people have always looked towards the government during times of trouble and, while that’s still predominantly the case, nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations have gradually become a little more influential here.”

The Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 accelerated the push for reform. The status quo struggled to cope with the sheer scale of the tragedy and, subsequently, large numbers of civic organizations stepped in to fill the void. It stirred an acquiescent and apathetic society into action. Rossitto, however, believes the wheels had already been set in motion during the 1980s.

Sarajean Rossitto

“During that decade, there were a growing number of civic movements calling for volunteer associations to be registered,” Rossitto says. “This was a result of a series of events that tested the public’s faith in the country’s leaders, such as the HIV-tainted blood scandal (where more than 1,000 patients with hemophilia contracted HIV), cases of Escherichia coli O157 and nuclear power accidents.

“The Kobe disaster ignited these factions to come together,” Rossitto says. “There was genuine dismay at the inadequate response from the government to the crisis. You then had what’s been described as a shimin shakai (civil society) boom, with various groups providing aid and finding solutions to problems that city officers couldn’t deal with by themselves. It was evident these organizations needed a proper system to operate within.”

That came three years later with the enactment of the 1998 law. In preparation, the Japan NPO Center had already been established two years earlier to act as a social, economic and political support base for nonprofits.

With the organization celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Executive Director Katsuji Imata reflects on some of the positive changes that have taken place over the past two decades.

“From 1998 onwards, the abbreviation NPO entered into the Japanese lexicon,” Imata says. “This helped to enhance the credibility of volunteer organizations, as they were recognized as companies rather than just charity groups. The number of nonprofit corporations has been steadily growing since and there’s currently more than 50,000. Around 1,000 of them have tax-deductible status, giving donors extra incentive to invest.

Katsuji Imata

“More than anything, what these organizations have done is help give local communities, whose only previous options were to fruitlessly complain or just put up with things, a proper voice. They can now participate in policy formation processes to help devise new approaches that differ from the government, and individuals can get out there and change society by themselves.”

Despite all of this and the recent surge in civic engagement following major earthquakes in Tohoku and Kumamoto, Imata is unsatisfied with the progress that’s been made since 1998.

Imata feels the nonprofit sector is fragmented and overly sanitized with too many bodies trying to avoid anything political. Japan’s detachment from the rest of the world is another issue that concerns him.

“Greater interaction with other countries could help NPOs develop,” Imata says. “Unfortunately, due to poor language capabilities, we generally struggle to get our message across, so apart from when there’s a major disaster, very little is known about Japanese activities internationally.”

It must be remembered that civil society in Japan is arguably still at an embryonic stage. From speaking to various individuals, it’s clear there’s genuine desire to bring about change. What appears to be lacking, however, is initiative.

Amnesty International Japan Executive Director Hideki Wakabayashi feels that Japanese citizens remain overly dependent on the government to make decisions for them.

“The most encouraging thing in recent times has been the fact that volunteers are more valued than they’d been previously and, consequently, you’re seeing large numbers giving up their time for various causes and not just in disaster areas,” Wakabayashi says.

“What we don’t have is real leadership. Individuals and groups can do more than just assist in times of trouble — they can actually help transform society,” Wakabayashi says. “I don’t think enough people in this country are aware of that. We need a decentralized system, with NGOs and NPOs taking on greater responsibilities.

Hideki Wakabayashi

“It’s also important to educate the masses on human rights, an issue I believe is neglected (in Japan). You’ve got a population that’s simply prepared to accept things as they are and not willing to voice opinions, making it difficult for organizations such as ours to mobilize people. A shift in attitude is required from the bottom up in order for civil society to truly prosper.”

According to Wakabayashi — and indeed all the people interviewed for this article — the biggest obstacle that nonprofits face in Japan is a lack of trust among the general public.

A survey taken between 2008 and 2011 by the global alliance committee CIVICUS showed that the trust level in Japan for NGOs stood at just 16.8 percent — the third lowest of the 25 participating countries.

Amnesty International Japan volunteers chat to a visitor at their stall.
Amnesty International Japan volunteers chat to a visitor at their stall. | COURTESY OF AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL JAPAN

A poll conducted this year by communications marketing firm Edelman showed that 34 percent of the Japanese public distrusted NGOs. This figure was, again, the third lowest total of the 28 nations that took part and more than 20 percent below the mean score.

“In most countries, there’s more cynicism and wariness towards the government than nonprofits, whereas it’s the other way around (in Japan),” Rossitto says. “One of the main reasons for this is that there’s a degree of vagueness and ignorance (in Japan) when it comes to civil society. Fundraising isn’t just about approaching strangers and asking them for money. You won’t get anywhere if people aren’t clear as to who you are and what services you provide. I know that sounds obvious, but it’s an area that Japanese companies are struggling in.

“Effective dissemination can raise the profile of a sector many people know too little about. In a questionnaire prepared by Japan Gakkai in 2013, 47.1 percent of the participants said they’d heard the abbreviation NPO before, but didn’t fully understand its meaning. (About) 55 percent gave the same response about NGOs. Of course, those numbers should be much higher, although, in my opinion, it’s not the government’s job to raise awareness and create public credibility for nonprofits. It’s something NGOs and NPOs should do themselves through better outreach and more cogent communication strategies.”

That means not only appealing to the general public, but also to companies, something Second Harvest has been doing since it was incorporated in 2002.

Led by Charles E. McJilton, Second Harvest is an organization that distributes unexpired food donations received from farmers, retailers, manufacturers and individuals to those in need. Rather than just going around asking enterprises for money, the goal from the outset was to build relations with businesses and explain in a succinct manner what his volunteer group could do for them.

Fourteen years ago, he convinced two firms to sign a memorandum of understanding; by the end of 2015, that number had surpassed 700. In the same year, more than 4 million meals were delivered nationwide.

It’s an impressive effort in a short space of time. However, McJilton is in no mood to celebrate.

Second Harvest founder Charles McJilton
Second Harvest founder Charles McJilton | MELINDA JOE

“We’re not doing this to be congratulated,” McJilton says. “Our company’s on a mission to provide food security for people all over Japan. According to government statistics, over 50 percent of single-parent households in this country live below the poverty line, yet the annual amount of food loss here is somewhere between 5 million and 8 million tons. In other words, there’s a hell of a long way to go. It’s as if we’ve finished 100 meters, when what we need to do is complete a marathon. It’s the same for everyone in this industry.

“When it comes to civil society, the fact is nations such as India and the Philippines are light years ahead of Japan. (In Japan), you have a government that works closely with domestic businesses and this makes for a very well-run country. NPOs, meanwhile, are left out of the loop. There’s still the perception of, ‘Well, they’re good for clearing up trash or re-painting playgrounds, but they don’t have the ability to deal with tougher social issues such as poverty, depression or human trafficking.’ It comes down to a lack of familiarity about what nonprofits do and the way we get our money, as well as a lack of expectation in our work.”

Rossitto agrees. She feels NPOs and their workers aren’t given the respect they deserve in Japan.

“It’s about more than just good intent,” Rossitto says. “You need proper skills and experience to deal with abused children or victims of domestic abuse, yet those working in the nonprofit sector are sometimes seen as people with free time who don’t have the education to work in a division like, say, finance. I’m not saying everyone takes this attitude, but I’ve been in meetings where clients from big companies talk down to NPO staff. Often more courtesy is shown to volunteer organizations that work closely with the government.”

Some organizations have no desire to collaborate with lawmakers, as it would mean having to give in to numerous demands. For others, state support — be it financial or verbal — can make a huge difference, helping to save thousands of lives.

Receiving subsidies from the government is no easy task, though, as there are a large number of corporations chasing a relatively small pot of gold. It’s even harder for a foreign establishment such as TELL. The 43-year-old institute, which offers over-the-phone and face-to-face counseling in English, knows it’s at the back of the queue when it comes to government assistance.

Roberto De Vido

“In cities like New York, Sydney and London, local governments support immigrant communities in various ways, including aiding lifelines in 10 or even 20 languages,” says TELL’s executive director, Roberto De Vido. “Those kinds of agencies don’t exist here. In a homogenous society like this, it’s easier to say, ‘Let foreigners fend for themselves.’ There’s 126 million people to take care of and we’re a tiny minority that isn’t part of the electorate. The government has done a lot in regards to mental health, which is evidenced by the declining suicide rates, but that doesn’t mean funds trickle down to us. Realistically speaking, we’re not on their radar.”

It’s different for Second Harvest, which recently worked with the government on a food-bank manual. It also received funding for its kitchen, although, as McJilton points out, any financial aid also comes with numerous stipulations.

“We can’t overlap,” he says. “So, if it’s agreed that the facilities are to be used to make meals for children, then you can’t prepare lunchboxes for adults — even if there’s surplus food.

“Forget common sense, it’s all about micromanaging everything to make sure the money’s being used for what’s specified. The government’s attitude is, ‘We can’t treat you differently to others.’ I can understand that but it’s often taken to the nth degree, where it then becomes counterproductive.

A Second Harvest food parcel
A Second Harvest food parcel | MELINDA JOE

“If you’re dealing with people in need, you should have the moral decency to help them anyway you can and tell them that organizations like ours exist.

“On March 19, 2011, a colleague and I drove up to Minamisoma (Fukushima Prefecture) where we heard citizens needed food. After arriving, we were told by government officials that everything was fine so we went home.

“Three weeks later I received an email with a YouTube clip and who’s on it? The Minamisoma mayor, choking up and pleading for donations. It was posted on the same day we went up there.

“That wasn’t an isolated incident. The other week the head of an anti-poverty unit in Adachi Ward (where, McJilton says, a third of the children are below the poverty line) tells me they have a breakfast program 10 times a year. ‘Great, we’ve got all this food here; let’s do it on a regular basis?’ His response: ‘We don’t like relying on people outside of Adachi.’

“It’s an inability to think outside your own sphere. Until that mind-set changes, the nonprofit sector will continue to struggle to make real progress in Japan.”

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