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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 14:03 08/27/2007
August 27, 2007

Challenges and Prospects for NPO/NGO Activities in Japan

Kanzo KOBAYASHI (Visiting Research Fellow, GLOCOM, IUJ, and Secretariat Division, ITC Coordinators Association)

This is a summary of Mr. Kobayashi's presentation at the conference, "NGOs and Evolving International Relations," in Beijing on August 29-31, 2007.

In Japan there have been an increasing number of NPO/NGO (non-profit, non-governmental organization) activities throughout the postwar period. However, they were more or less limited to local activities among relatively few people in the high growth period, when most people were rather interested in private business affairs. It was not until the 1990s that NPO/NGO activities started to attract nation-wide attention in Japan, because of prolonged economic stagnation and high unemployment in the "lost decade," and especially due to increased public awareness for voluntary cooperation, triggered by the massive earthquake that happened in the Hanshin region in 1995. Commercial use of the Internet since the mid-1990s has also contributed to increasing nation-wide interest in NPO/NGO activities, especially among young people, who tend exchange information about such activities through the Internet.

More recently, it has become widely recognized that NPO/NGO activities can play crucially important roles in the future course of Japan domestically as well as internationally. First, such social changes as declining population with fewer children and more retired people, especially, among the baby-boomer generation, are making people aware of voluntary works, e.g., elderly care, needed to sustain their community and social system. This trend is being encouraged by popular support for achieving a smaller government by fiscal reform. Furthermore, general expectations for Japanese contributions to international affairs are being heightened overseas, and an increasing number of Japanese NGOs are becoming quite active, along with reorganization and reorientation of Japan's ODA (official development assistance), in responding to such expectations.

We should now look at the SWOT (Strength-Weakness-Opportunity-Threat) analysis of Japanese NPO/NGO activities. First, what are the strengths of Japanese NPO/NGOs? Clearly, they are supported by a large number of experienced and dedicated individuals who have various experiences on social activities and, as a result, possess conventional know-how to operate volunteer organizations effectively. On the other hand, their weaknesses include insufficient funding with not enough donations or public expenditure for them, and also relatively weak horizontal connections across different fields of activities, leading to the lack of publicity and social acknowledgment.

Now, Japanese NPO/NGO activities are facing opportunities and threats. They have opportunities to be more effective by acting more quickly through a network of people who can connect with each other, sharing common global goals. There are also good prospects for participation of the retiring baby-boomer generation with managerial and technical skills, which will be quite useful for NPO/NGO activities. However, there exist some serious threats to social activities in general and volunteer activities in particular, mainly due to easy-going, self-centered life-style, only thinking of the present, but not of the future, especially among young generations in Japan. Needless to say, political apathy is a big threat to any NPO/NGO in Japan or elsewhere.

In order to seize the opportunities and overcome the threats, pointed out above, those who are involved in NPO/NGO activities should try to acquire the following skills: (A) "actions research" to gather and analyze data and problems for their activities, (B) "business skills" for planning, management, negotiations, marketing, bookkeeping, IT literacy, etc., (C) "community organization" for community (group) integration, facilitation, mobilization, etc., (D) "documentation and dissemination of information" for clarification of values, communication skills, advocacy, networking, etc., (E) "education and training methods" including use of various media, OJT, self-learning, etc. and (F) "field technology training" in such fields as food, energy, education, and small-business sectors.

Along with these skills, Japanese NPO/NGOs must improve their ability and know-how to obtain public funding and private donations, while working with both private and public organizations at home and abroad more closely to fully achieve their objectives, whether they are domestically or internationally oriented. In a sense, much of the nation's future depends on those NPO/NGO activities, which should replace, at least partly, the role of the government in a maturing society like Japan. Therefore, those retiring baby-boomers who already possess various skills and know-how are encouraged to join NPO/NGO activities and contribute much, just as they have been doing to private companies in their business life, but this time to NPO/NGOs as a voluntarily participating member in their "second" life for themselves as well as for future generations.

1) JANIC (Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation):
2) Japan NPO Center:

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