The Japanese Cultural and Political Environment as Related to NGOs

The Japanese Cultural and Political Environment as Related to NGOs  


During her stay in Japan, the author observed that Japanese citizens do not participate in politics or policy formation as much as United States citizens through voluntary organizations or NGOs.  By exploring domestic politics and cultural norms, this paper will attempt to glance into the reason behind this passivity, if indeed citizens are passive at all. 

 Japanese NGOs are scant, underfunded and understaffed compared to other advanced nations. Research shows that the government has not traditionally supported NGOs, and cultural norms do not place charitable behavior as a priority.  Single-party dominance and its domestic policies have strengthened these institutions, but change may be in store now that another party with a progressive platform is in power.


During a yearlong stay in Japan, although the author was unable to participate in Japanese politics, it appeared that despite the existence of many political, economic, and social problems, Japanese citizens did not participate in the political system in order to remedy them.  One readily observable reason was social – the Japanese use the phrase, “Shou ga nai,” (It can’t be helped), in response to a myriad of problems as a pacifier and reason not to get involved.  The Japanese also have a culture of obeying a hierarchy of authority – what the top says, goes.  This paper will look deeper into the Japanese political culture to see if there are any underlying political reasons there for lack of participation or voice from citizens, specifically non-governmental organizations (NGOs). 

As Robert Mason in his assessment of activism in Japan says, “Funding and scope of activities are limited; access to policy-making processes, when present, is largely informal; access to information is highly restricted; and ability to sue is limited.”[1]  This paper hypothesizes that due to a social and political culture rooted in years of tradition, Japan does not support an environment hospitable to NGOs.

Status of Japanese NGOs

Compared to other developed nations, Japanese NGOs aren’t nearly as numerous or powerful.  America boasts a population of over 300 million and 1.3 million NGOs. According to Japan’s former Economic Planning Agency, there are about 85,000 NGOs (only about 21,000 of which are officially recognized by the government) in a population of 120,000,000.[2]  Russia has a comparable population, about 140,000,000, yet has about 400,000 NGOs.[3] Why the low number in Japan?  . 

Financial hindrances due to strict tax policies are one reason why NGOs are low in number.  In order to become tax-exempt, a process that takes two to three years, Japanese NGOs must get approval to incorporate from the prefectural governor where its office lies.  The governor then has powers of jurisdiction over the NGOs and receives lists of members, balance sheets, and activity reports, among other information.[4]  For this reason, most NGOs prefer to remain unincorporated and therefore must perform activities and handle taxes under individual names.[5]  The NPO Bill passed in 1997 by the historically dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is currently under review for its tax exemption policies to make exempting an easier process. Further, finding adequate funding is one of the most pressing challenges of Japanese NGOs.  Corporate charitable giving has been decreasing over the years, and government subsidies and grants are negligible[6].  According to Japanese tax laws, charitable contributions to non-government operated organizations (almost all NGOs), companies can deduct donations only up to 0.125 percent of their capital plus 1.25 percent of their annual profit, whereas there is no ceiling for donations to government-operated organizations.[7] 

The Changing Electoral System

Japan is a modern democracy and thus we can say that citizen’s voices lie in their elected representatives.  Japan is an interesting case, in that the electoral system has changed three times since World War II, shifting power from a large constituency, to medium sized constituencies in 1958, to small single member districts with proportionally elected 180 national lower House representatives and plurality elected 300 local lower House representatives in 1994.  The party with the majority of seats forms the governing party.  From the middle period, as the number of districts increased, the number of seats per districted decreased.  This redistricting in turn made the Diet less diverse and hindered representation from smaller parties and women.[8]  Masaru Kohno suggests that the low voter turnout in the 1996 election had to do with voters taking more time to consider candidates, now that they could only elected one, and the confusing redistricting that followed.  He also notes that a statistical analysis of low voter turn out in the 1947 and 1996 elections suggests that electoral reform generally has negative effects on voter participation.[9]

Less voter participation means less representation.  And seeing as the majority of lower House seats are determined by the first-past-the-post system, representation is skewed towards a single party and its agenda.  Two thirds of the population live in rural areas and thus make up the largest constituency.  As in most countries, those in rural areas tend to have more conservative views, and will thus vote for the most conservative party.  With Japan’s small number of seats per district, we would expect for representation to be disproportionately in favor of these conservative voters.  It should be noted that Japan’s major political parties are less issue-centric than the parties of United States, and were founded instead on how the country should be run; the third, and fourth, and fifth largest enduring opposition parties – the New Komeito, the Japanese Communist Party, and the Social Democratic Party  – support a theocracy, communism, and socialism, respectively; there is no green party.  It could be said that Japanese voters are then forced to be less concerned with single issues, and more concerned with the overall system of governance.  

One-Party Dominance

The party that had control for the longest consecutive periods has been the conservative Liberal Democratic Party.  The LDP lost power once in 1993, but regained it back in 1996 by forming a coalition with the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) became a threat after electoral reform.  Interestingly, the LDP formed as an opposition party to the JSP as a coalition between the Liberal Party and the Japan Democratic Party.  Under the winner-take-all system, the LDP has been able to remain in power by strategic coalition forming.  The LDP does not generally support minority views, and is concerned foremost with economic growth.  Social concerns have not been part of its agenda. [10]  Yasuo Takao says, “Some new LDP leaders…tended to see the activities and objectives of NGOs not as being complementary to those of the state.”[11]  However the LDP, being the favored party of the two thirds of Japan who live in rural areas, enjoy an “iron triangle of business interests, politicians, and bureaucrats [which] supports a vast public works empire that supports subsidies” to this region.[12]  Disproportional representation from rural regions as discussed in the previous section has put the LDP in the lead.  It can thus be postulated that the rural majority population then is not concerned with social movements or NGOs, and hang on to the traditional values of governance to be discussed later.

Japan has a long-standing tradition of amakudari (descent from heaven).  Amakudari is the practice of giving former politicians jobs in the private sector, which closely ties private business interests with government.  This tradition later branched out to public sector organizations with government oversight, and became known as yokosuberi.[13]  It’s difficult to say if these practices, collectively known as wataridori, are an LDP phenomenon or simply a Japanese phenomenon because the LDP has been the only significant party in power for so many years, leaving no independent variable.  It should be noted however that the trend has been on a significant decrease, most dramatically since 1995[14] – when the DPJ was in power for a short time.  Regardless of whether or not wataridori is a one-party trend, these quasi-governmental organizations where ex-politicians are dropped are tied closely to government and business more so than stand-alone NGOs – one more reason for independent NGOs not to expect government funding or decision-making opportunities.[15]

The most recent 2007 election placed the DPJ in back control of the house, but most Diet members, including Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, are still LDP.  According to the DPJ’s Web site, supporting NGOs (or what they call non-political organizations) is part of their platform: “In a society of kyosei [sic] by self-reliant individuals, NPOs will be a new, important infrastructure.  We shall support NPOs through measures such as tax incentives.”[16]  The LDP makes no mention of NGOs on their scant English Web site.  Perhaps from now after nearly 40 years of LDP rule, Japan shall see a change in how NGOs are supported.  

Preserving the Wa and Shou ga Nai

It’s important to consider social and cultural reasons why NGOs may be overlooked in Japanese society as an important means of change.  Robert Mason asks,

In what measure… is it attributable to the lack of volunteer ethic, to a Confucian system where central authority is paramount, to single-minded dedication to corporate and national interests, to a culture where individuals are reluctant to ‘stand out’ and to deliberate government restriction of political freedoms and opportunities for political participation?[17]

 the most salient aspect of Japanese society is that of the Wa. Wa means “harmony,” and the Japanese strive to preserve it by keeping a group mentality – you are either in the group, or out, and those out do not command attention.  “In business terms, ‘wa’ is reflected in the avoidance of self-assertion and individualism and the preservation of good relationships despite differences in opinion.”[18]  This desire to preserve harmony is exemplified in the concepts of honne and tatemae:  When your true feelings, your honne, are at odds with the harmony of the group, you are expected to rise unselfishly above these feelings and present tatemae, your public face to preserve the welfare of the majority.[19]  Therefore, rising against the status quo is not encouraged, a fact that could help explain why NGOs are low in number and membership. 

Another Japanese-centric concept is that of “Shou ga nai,” or, “It can’t be helped.”  This term is used as an answer-all to questions and concerns about small and large problems in Japan (‘Japan’s trains are too crowded.’ ‘Well, shou ga nai.’ ‘Japanese police are racist.’ ‘Shou ga nai.’).  It is considered by many foreigners to be a cop-out, but in the face of fighting the status quo or going along with it, most Japanese are happy to attribute any problems to the grand scheme of things, and life will go on as normal.

 Also apparent is the influence of Confucianism and Buddhism in Japanese culture.  Lackluster activism could be because Buddhism is a pacifist, not activist, ideology, whereas western Christian evangelism encourages activism.[20]  Japan has traditionally revered the Confucian concept of social hierarchies and age as a virtue.  The Japanese then (if authors like Makoto Iokibe and Choi Sung Il [see footnotes] are correct) rely on the government to solve problems rather than take things into their own hands.  Unlike Americans, who have traditionally been skeptical of government and government assistance, the Japanese have not, perhaps because the government is considered obligated to look out for group harmony.  Iokibe argues, “The tradition…in which the samurai class had monopolized government authority since the12th century, contributed to the creation of an overwhelmingly state-led body politic in modern Japan.”[21]  The LDP has traditionally supported the monarchy and this kind of centralized decision-making process.[22]† However, many Japanologists reject this notion and support the concept of nemawashi, or the practice of broad consultation before making a decision, readily seen in Japanese companies.  Perhaps more specifically to NGOs, ringi is the practice of bottom-up policy-making.[23]  The discrepancy between strict obedience to authority and aiming for consensus is then not made distinctly clear, although it is clear that the Japanese tend to trust their government’s decisions.  

The Changing Face of Japanese NGOs?

Could this trust be diminishing, though?  While NGOs aren’t as prominent as in most other developed nations, they no less exist and are on the increase.  Atsushi Yamakoshi of the Japan Economic Institute says,

When neither government nor industry responded to concerns voiced about 100 years ago regarding mining hazards in the Ashio copper mining area, farmers…formed what is considered one of the first environmental NGOs in Japan. Later…industrial pollution in such areas as Minamata and Yokkaichi caused social problems that many citizens sought to combat. They formed groups to support victims and pushed the government and industry to solve the problems. Many of the groups also spearheaded legal battles to win recognition of the need for government and industry to respond to concerns about pollution…. [Yet] government tends to look out for industry rather than consumers.[24]

A history of scandal (a history that goes beyond the scope of this paper) and disregard for certain citizen complaints could be attributed to the long-standing LDP’s corrupt officials and out-dated practices.  This past election put the DPJ into power for the second time, which could be an indication that Japanese citizens are weary of the LDP’s antics and desire change and voice, and the DPJ puts NGO support as a main platform issue.  . 

According to the Foreign Press Center of Japan, in recent years the Japanese government (LDP and DPJ alike) has been putting considerable effort into providing support for NGOs.  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.  Also, the Foreign Ministry operates the Grant Assistance for Grass-Roots Projects scheme, which provides financial assistance for projects carried out overseas by NGOs of any country.  Starting in 1996, in order to build better relations between the Foreign Ministry and NGOs, regular consultations between the two sides take place four times a year, 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 people can choose to have a postal savings account from which 20% of the interest is donated to NGO activities.  Other ministries and agencies, including the Ministry of Construction and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, also have small NGO assistance budgets.[25]

Methodology, Findings and Conclusion

The author, being located in the United States, had to browse available literature on Japanese politics on NGOs rather than observe directly the affects of social and political culture on NGO effectiveness.  Such literature is rather scant, and conjectures had to be made based on a bit of quantitative data (number of NGOs, wataridori trends) against qualitative analysis of Japanese culture.  Information on specific policies passed due to the activism of NGOs is also limited, so the researched instead focused on major party’s platforms and constituencies against cultural norms.

The author found that Japanese social and political traditions run heavy throughout society, especially in rural areas. As evidenced by centuries of striving to preserve wa and decades of predictable election trends, it is clear that cultural norms are not easy to change.  Quantitative research has shown that the government has not traditionally supported NGOs, and qualitative research shows that citizens are not apt to participate in government or charitable works.  However, a new party in power, elected directly by the people in Japan’s representative democracy system, might pave the way for a better future for NGOs.  While the propensity to be involved in charitable activities may not waver on an individual basis, allowing NGOs to prosper under a new political system could afford them the opportunities to grow.


[1]           Mason, Robert. “Wither Japan’s Environmental Movement? An Assessment of Problems and Prospects at the National Level.” Pacific Affairs, Vol 72, No. 2. (Summer, 1999), p 196
[2]           Yamakoshi, Atsushi. “The Changing Face of NGOs in Japan.” NGO Café. Accessed Dec 2, 2007.
[3]           “On Russian NGO Law.” VOA News, Jan. 26, 2007. Accessed Nov. 4, 2007
[4]           Japan Center For International Exchange. “NPO Bill Passes the Lower House.” Civil Society Monitor, No. 3. (Oct. 1997)
[5]           Mason, Robert. “Wither Japan’s Environmental Movement? An Assessment of Problems and Prospects at the National Level.” Pacific Affairs, Vol 72, No. 2. (Summer, 1999), p 197
[6]           Japan Center For International Exchange. “Slump in Corporate Giving Continues.” Civil Society Monitor, No. 12. (Aug. 2007), p 2 
[7]           Yamakoshi, Atsushi. “The Changing Face of NGOs in Japan.” NGO Café. Accessed Dec. 2, 2007.
[8]           Ogai, Tokuko. “Japanese Women and Political Institutions: Why are Women Underrepresented?” PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 34, No. 2. (Jun., 2001), p. 207
[9]           Kohno, Masaru. “Voter Turnout and Strategic Ticket Splitting under Japan’s New Electoral Rules.” Asian Survey, Vol. 37, No. 5. (May, 1997), p. 433
[10]          Ogai, Tokuko. “Japanese Women and Political Institutions: Why are Women Underrepresented?” PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 34, No. 2. (Jun., 2001), p. 207-208
[11]          Takao, Yasuo. “The Rise of ‘The Third Sector’ In Japan.” Asian Survey, Vol. 41, No. 2. (Mar. – Apr., 2001), p. 303
[12]          Mason, Robert. “Wither Japan’s Environmental Movement? An Assessment of Problems and Prospects at the National Level.” Pacific Affairs, Vol 72, No. 2. (Summer, 1999), p. 190
[13]          Colignon, Richard; Usui, Chikako. Amakudari: The Hidden Fabric of Japanese Economy. IRL Press. June, 2003: p31 
[14]          Ibid at p59
[15]          Yamakoshi, Atsushi. “The Changing Face of NGOs in Japan.” NGO Café. Accessed Dec. 10, 2007.
[16]          The Democratic Party of Japan Official Web Site. “Basic Policies.” Accessed Nov. 3, 2007.
[17]          Mason, Robert. “Wither Japan’s Environmental Movement? An Assessment of Problems and Prospects at the National Level.” Pacific Affairs, Vol 72, No. 2. (Summer, 1999), p 188
[18]          Gorrill, Jodie. “Japanese Business and Social Culture.” Communicaid, 2007. Accessed Nov. 3 2007
[19]          Levine, Robert. “Faking It, Japanese Style.” (Feb. 17, 2007) Accessed Nov. 4, 2007
[20]          “Background of the Growth of NGOs: Cultural Background.” Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation, 2001-2006. Accessed Nov. 4, 2007.
[21]          Iokibe, Makoto. “Japan’s Civil Society: An Historical Overview.” Deciding the Public Good: Governance and Civil Society in Japan (1999)
[22]          Choi, Sung Il. “Systems Outputs, Social Environment, and Political Cleavages in Japan: The Case of the 1969 General Election.” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 17, No. 1. (Feb., 1973), p. 112
†     The LDP supports the monarchy as more of an appeal to traditionalists than as an actual method of governance.  The emperor was stripped of his power after World War II and now exists as a symbol.
[23]          Feldman, Ofer. “Political Psychology in Japan.” Political Psychology, Vol. 11, No. 4. (Dec., 1990), p. 791
[24]          Yamakoshi, Atsushi. “The Changing Face of NGOs in Japan.” NGO Café.
[25]          “Japan’s NGO activities and Public Support System.” NGO Café. 1997. Accessed Dec. 9, 2007.



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