Japan's NGO Activities and
the Public Support System

Mitsuhiro Saotome
Non-Governmental Organizations Assistance Division,
Economic Cooperation Bureau, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

In connection with the conference on the prevention of global warming (COP3), which will be held in Kyoto in December, the FPC is compiling, and transmitting as a series, related news from various angles so as to introduce the responses of the Environment Agency, Japanese companies, and others. This article, the second in the series, takes up the activities of nongovernmental organizations in, among other things, supplying funds and technology to developing countries and assisting environmental preservation projects. Japanese NGO have become remarkably active recently.

Japanese nongovernmental organizations, which recently have been attracting much attention because of their spectacular activities in the fields of development assistance and refugee relief in developing countries in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, have also been strikingly active on the domestic front in Japan on the occasion of such major incidents as the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995.

Volunteers belonging to various NGOs engaged in disaster relief activities overseas, which was their original objective, sprang to action when these catastrophes struck Japan, using their experiences and achievements in other countries to respond. The know-how concerning medical treatment, construction, water supply, food supply, and soon that they have accumulated over the years, their daily training, and their readiness to respond swiftly to an unexpected incident proved to be valuable contributions.

On the occasion of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in particular, an aggregate total of about 1.35 million volunteers, including members of these NGOs for overseas assistance, students, and ordinary citizens, rushed to the scene to help and attracted much attention for their efforts. Compared with Europe and North America, volunteer activities in Japan have only a short history. It is said that awareness is low in Japan and fostering volunteers here is difficult. Stimulated by the experience of the earthquake, however, interest has increased, and indeed many people have described 1995 as the first year of volunteer activities in Japan.

NGO Activities

Broadly speaking, Japanese NGOs can be classified into three groups: (1) groups, as described above, engaged in overseas assistance activities; (2) groups that are active domestically, for example in the support of disabled persons, nursing for bedridden elderly people, activities for the diffusion of Braille and sign language, and support for foreign students; and (3) groups that mainly advocate proposals to the government or international organizations concerning, for example, environmental issues or human rights problems. According to a recent survey by the Economic Planning Agency, the total number of these NGOs reaches about 85,000. Among them, about 350 NGOs are engaged in overseas assistance activities.

The activities of these overseas assistance NGOs cover a wide area, which is expanding year by year. They include (1) medical care projects, such as the dispatch of doctors and nurses and the construction of rehabilitation centers for the physically disabled; (2) human resource development projects, such as the construction of elementary schools and libraries; (3) improvement of local industry projects, such as the building of vocational training schools; (4) health and hygiene projects, such as the diffusion of knowledge about mother-child health care and the supply of simple lavatories; and (5) environmental conservation projects, such as afforestation, soil improvement, and air and water quality improvement. Most of these activities take place in other countries of Asia, which accounts for more than 50% of the total; Africa is next.

Compared with Europe and North America, Japanese NGOs are small in terms of both scale and finance, but they score high marks because of the carefully planned and thorough content of their activities. For example, one Japanese NGO has been working actively for many years for the sake of the children in a slum in a certain poor country in Asia, teaching literacy and sewing and improving hygiene. When the Great Hanshin Earthquake hit the Kobe area of Japan, the people of this slum heard the news. A short while later, the headquarters of this NGO in Japan received a sizable donation from them, together with a letter, which stated:"For many years we have been receiving kind assistance from Japanese volunteers. When we heard the news about the earthquake, we felt that we had to do something. From a feeling of gratitude, we collected donations from the residents. Each individual made just asmall donation of 10 (10 cents), but many people participated, so finally we put together more than 1 million ($10,000). Maybe this is only a small sum for you Japanese, but it is a reflection of our feelings, so please give it to the victims as a donation."

Public Support System for NGOs

In recent years the Japanese government has been putting considerable effort into providing support for NGOs, mainly through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. Since 1989 the Foreign Ministry has been operating a Subsidy System for NGO Projects, which provides a 50 percent subsidy of between 500,000 and 1.5 million per project; the total budget has increased from 100 million in 1989 to 1.2 billion in 1997. Also, the Foreign Ministry operates a Grant Assistance for Grass-Roots Projects scheme, which provides financial assistance, mainly on the hardware side, for projects carried out overseas by NGOs of any country, whatever their nationality. (Applications for this assistance are accepted by Japanese embassies and consulates overseas; the assistance averages 5 million per project, with a maximum of 20 million; the budget for this scheme has increased from 300 million initially to 5 billionin 1997.) Furthermore, in order to build better relations between the Foreign Ministry and NGOs, regular consultations between the two sides take place four times a year, starting in 1996, and when revising the public support system, the Foreign Ministry makes positive efforts to incorporate the wishes of NGOs.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications in 1991 introduced the Voluntary Postal Savings for International Aid scheme, by which ordinary people can choose to have a postal savings account from which 20% of the interest is donated to NGO activities. This scheme provided assistance of 2.8 billion in 1995. Because of the recent decline of interest rates, this figure has fallen recently to 1.5 billion in 1996 and 1.0 billion in 1997, so it is to be hoped that interest rates will be raised. Other ministries and agencies, including the Ministry of Construction and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, also have NGO assistance budgets, although the figures are small.

© 1997 Foreign Press Center / Japan

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