JAPAN’S “CULTURE OF GIVING” AND NONPROFIT ORGANIZATIONS, by Akira Matsubara and Hiroko Todoroki, translated by Richard Forrest. Tokyo: Coalition for Legislation to Support Citizen’s Organizations, 2003, 45 pp., free (paper).

Japan’s transformation is proceeding quietly, slipping beneath media radar screens because the policy, institutional and legal innovations being introduced on a piecemeal basis will not solve today’s problems tomorrow. There is no “big bang,” but that does not mean that there are not many thoughtful and innovative responses to Japan’s malaise that are propelling various reforms.

As the familiar landscape fades away, what were once considered ineradicable verities have been jettisoned. The reinvention of Japan may be proceeding too slowly for some and involve far too much compromise and dithering, but such is the nature of social change — fitful, cumulative and gradual.

Nonprofit Organizations, or NPOs, are at the vanguard of change in Japan, benefiting from the crisis in the government’s credibility. The endless deluge of scandals involving the nation’s mandarins and the government’s bungled relief efforts in the wake of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, which killed 6,433 people, have undermined public faith in the “best and the brightest.”

To be caught utterly unprepared for the one natural disaster that all Japanese are taught to prepare for significantly worsened the toll of the Kobe calamity, sending tremors throughout society. Young citizens from all over Japan responded to the plight of the Kobe victims by working as volunteers in relief efforts managed by NPOs. In doing so, they demonstrated the value of citizens’ contributions and put to rest the accepted wisdom that youth are apathetic.

From out of the rubble of Kobe emerged hope and support for a more robust role for NPOs. The media, corporations, government officials, politicians and citizens suddenly realized that mobilizing people to cope with society’s various problems had to happen. Broad support across the political spectrum led to passage of NPO legislation in 1998 that makes it much easier for NPOs to gain greater autonomy and legal recognition. Subsequent legislative reforms aimed at improving the operating environment for NPOs were next.

However, the government’s desire to keep NPOs on a short leash, motivated by a fundamental distrust of the people and fear of being held accountable, have limited the potential contributions.

Over-reliance on government funding limits the autonomy of many NPOs and weakens their support base in society. “Japan’s ‘Culture of Giving’ and Nonprofit Organizations” explains some of the problems Japanese NPOs face in diversifying their sources of funds. It also provides an excellent synopsis of the history of fundraising in Japan and how it is influenced by institutional legacies and a culture of government dependence.

Certainly there are many disincentives that limit fundraising, but Japanese NPOs are shown to be largely out of touch with the people and far too uninterested in soliciting contributions from individuals. Still, authors Akira Matsubara and Hiroko Todoroki effectively destroy the myth of the Japanese people lacking a charitable disposition, drawing on opinion surveys that demonstrate that there is a large untapped desire among Japanese to do more. The problem is getting NPOs to ask for their support in effective ways.

About the same percentage (nearly 90 percent) of Japanese and Americans contribute to charities in one way or another, but the problem is the low level of giving in Japan. Matsubara and Todoroki estimate that the average annual household contribution in Japan was 3,199 yen in 2002 compared to 175,000 yen in the United States. They attribute this difference partially to cultural constraints, but place more of the onus on poor fundraising activities by NPOs; too many are content to rely on government subsidies. Thus there appears to be a more striking need for change in the “culture of soliciting” that is attuned to the specific desires of Japanese donors.

The report also chastises NPOs for not being accountable to donors and not demonstrating how the funds they raise are helpful to others. For its part, the government is urged to relax its guidelines on granting NPOs certification as an organization eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions and make it easier for individuals to deduct charitable contributions from their taxes. Furthermore, discount postal rates for NPOs would facilitate direct-mail solicitations.

This is an excellent source on the problems of fundraising in Japan and as such a start toward resolving them. The balanced apportioning of blame between NPOs and the government, and the comparative analysis with the U.S., represents a welcome contribution to our understanding of what needs to be done.

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