If you spot a festival or sporting event taking place in your neighborhood, chances are it was organized by the local neighborhood association.

Most places in Japan have a neighborhood association — often known as “chonaikai” or “jichikai” — where residents join in and work together to make their community a better place while getting to know each other.

According to a 2007 Cabinet Office poll, 93 percent of the respondents said there was a neighborhood association in their community, and 94 percent of those who have an association said they were a member.

While being in an association gives you a chance to connect with your neighbors, problems can arise as well because residents will have different opinions on how things should be run, or they might simply feel membership is burdensome.

Here are some questions and answers about Japanese neighborhood associations:

How is a typical “chonaikai” defined?

Neighborhood associations are in fact private organizations not controlled by any law, so there is no official definition.

Sociologist Minoru Nakata, chancellor of Aichi Konan College, generalizes that each neighborhood association will identify itself with a specific section of a town or school district, and they do not overlap with each other.

Basically, it isn’t individuals who are its members, but households, and although joining is voluntary, residents of the community are often expected to become members, writes Nakata in his book, “Chihoubunken jidai no chonaikai, jichikai” (“Neighborhood Associations in the Era of Decentralization”).

Each association usually has its own set of operating rules. Members are obliged to pay a monthly fee, often a few hundred yen, which is the group’s basic income.

What are some of the activities organized by neighborhood associations?

Activities range widely and vary depending on each association and how active it is. But many people associate certain functions with the neighborhood group rather than their local government.

For example, according to the Cabinet Office survey, most respondents said they associate their neighborhood group with announcing community events as well as passing on information from the local government and hosting the Bon and other festivals.

Community cleaning efforts are common as well. Some associations also ask members to take turns helping to keep garbage areas clean and making sure residents sort out the recyclable items properly and leave them in the designated places.

Crime prevention, such as neighborhood patrols, are conducted by some associations.

Other typical functions include organizing trips, hosting the area’s senior citizens for a meal on Respect for the Elderly Day later this month, and holding an event for new adults on Coming of Age Day every January.

Who runs them?

Almost all associations have an executive committee. This will have a chairperson who serves by term, which is at least a year or longer. The chairperson is elected or recommended to the post. Observers say the top job is most commonly held by a retired person or a housewife.

The rest of the committee members serve the same term as the chairperson. While organizing and running community events, they come up with ideas and work together on solving problems and handling complaints brought to them by local stakeholders.

When there is a need to deal with the local government or with third parties, the executive committee negotiate on behalf of the community.

Many neighborhood associations are having an increasingly tough time finding people who want to serve on the committee or become the leader, as there is a lot of work involved and people with jobs in particular feel it is a burden.

How long have neighborhood associations existed?

Experts have various views on this, but as far as modern history is concerned, it was common around the end of the 19th century for people to gather voluntarily and discuss issues affecting their community, and these gatherings served as a pipeline with the local government, Nakata writes.

In 1943, during World War II, the government made it mandatory for each community to establish a neighborhood association with the aim to making it an organ that would assist the local government.

Neighborhood associations became official bodies supporting the war effort, making sure all member households followed the rules on food rationing, contributed necessary supplies and secured shelters.

Once the war was over, the Allied Occupation issued an order in 1947 to prohibit neighborhood associations. The ban expired in 1951 with the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty.

Neighborhood associations have not held official legal status since, but they have continued to be active and still retain the nature of assisting the local government.

In fact, some activities are commissioned by the local government, but that doesn’t mean the neighborhood association is being controlled by the local government, Nakata argues.

When do people see the true value of having neighborhood associations?

Many agree the associations are at their best in an emergency such as an earthquake or other natural disaster.

For example, after the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, fire did not spread in the neighborhood of Kita Awaji on Awaji Island in Hyogo Prefecture even though it was close to the epicenter. Some 100 residents from the local community reportedly lined up to relay buckets of water to extinguish the fire that broke out.

Similarly, members of the neighborhood association in the Mano district of Nagata Ward, Kobe, worked together to rescue people buried alive in a collapsed building.

Is it true there have been legal battles between residents and their neighborhood associations?

Yes. Conflicts of interest among residents can sometimes lead to serious court fights. For example, the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 in favor of five residents who sued the Kibogaoka Neighborhood Association in Koga, Shiga Prefecture, for forcing them to pay extra money as part of their membership fee, which were donated to various organizations including the Japan Red Cross.

The top court ruled it was a violation of their constitutional right to freedom of thought.

A resident of Tosu, Saga Prefecture, won a case in 2002 against his neighborhood association, which had kicked his family out of the group because they refused to pay the membership fee that included donations to the local shrine. A lower court said the association violated the resident’s freedom of religion.

Can foreigners become members?

Yes. In fact, some neighborhood associations have seen active participation by foreign residents. This is especially true in places such as Shizuoka and Aichi prefectures, where there are large groups of Brazilians who came to Japan to work in factories.

All wasn’t easy in the beginning, however, and some communities have experienced troubles between Japanese and foreign residents. This sometimes stemmed from differences in lifestyle or lack of understanding of each other’s culture and language.

In an effort to overcome misunderstandings, representatives from the Brazilian community in some neighborhoods have taken the responsibility of serving on executive committees.

Having them on the executive board has helped reduce problems, observers say, because they have served as a bridge between the Japanese and foreign residents.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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