When the earthquake and tsunami hit the coast of Japan on March 11, it was clear the scale of this disaster, compounded by the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, was unprecedented — even for natural disaster-prone Japan, where some 20 percent of the world’s earthquakes occur.

Beyond the level of destruction, the Japanese response to this crisis reveals unique characteristics of Japanese social dynamics, and the role of the third sector in Japan — spanning from local level community-based groups and parent-teacher associations, to national-level non-profits and even international nongovernment organizations (NGOs) like Save the Children. The absence of a strong independent third sector in this country is possibly one of the major factors that results in the lack of cohesion and creative policy debates and the absence of dynamic political leadership.

In comparison to many countries coping with the consequences of natural disasters in the world, Japan has well developed social infrastructures predominantly managed by government but has a relatively weak institutionalized civil society, with the exception of cooperative movements. And yet the concept of civil society, or shimin shakai, has in fact been a strong component of Japanese values for almost 400 years dating back to the Edo Period — built on ideas stemming from community solidarity and helping each other out for the collective wellbeing — so long as it did not challenge the absolute feudal authority of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Nonetheless, the concept of a formalized civil society only began to significantly evolve in 1995 with the Kobe earthquake, where the engagement of non-profits and volunteers in the response accelerated the growth of the third sector, building on the centuries-old values of community solidarity.

Then again, by early 2011, local civil society organizations in Japan had not yet taken a significant service provision role, and still relied heavily on government subsidies, thus marginalizing their ability to influence public policy debate. International NGOs like Save the Children relied proportionately less on state funding than its smaller local counterparts but had essentially only been able to work on development assistance and emergency relief overseas.

This began to change in the months following the crisis on March 11. The earthquake and tsunami have highlighted a dramatic shift in the role of the third sector in Japan, revealed by the huge surge in funding that came in from the public, as compared to what civil society organizations received following the 1995 Kobe earthquake. The extent of this funding increase to civil society organizations, illustrates a change in Japanese public perceptions and expectations of the role of the third sector in disaster response.

This is a turning point for Japanese civil society. The emergency and its aftermath have resulted in a shift in thinking about the role of civil society organizations and a realization that these actually formalize the idea of community solidarity that has been such an essential piece of the Japanese social fabric. In the six months since the disaster, we are seeing the emergence of civil society in the public consciousness not as an abstract idea, but as a formalized need, in a country where in the past the people had always expected — and mostly received — such services from government.

Observing this change in expectations, national and local governments, in addition to the corporate sector, have now begun recognizing NGOs as potential partners in relief and rehabilitation programs. Six months following the crisis, international NGOs like Save the Children are growing into a unique role, by starting to facilitate interaction and developing partnerships across the three sectors — government, corporations and civil society.

In the past six months, we have witnessed and experienced this growth first hand: building partnerships leading corporations and parent-teachers’ associations, ensuring that funds received allow us and our partners to be independent and implement our programs according to the needs on the ground, as identified by the communities themselves.

We’ve also been providing the link between children’s clubs and local — even national — government, ensuring that children’s voices are taken into account in government planning during the recovery process. Today, we are supporting local organizations and government officials to re-knit the social fabric of the affected communities and create an environment of active citizenship where everyone can participate in the recovery process.

Change is illusive in Japan, albeit most every opinion leader calls for it. Perhaps this disaster might help the Japanese people to demand a new and alternative framework to bring about social change to meet the challenges of the national crisis brought on by this natural disaster, as they learn and prepare for yet another disaster.

Hironobu Shibuya, formerly special advisor to the executive director of UNICEF, is CEO of Save the Children Japan.

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