Mentality Hinders Growth of NGOs in Japan, Resistance to Public Awareness Caused by ‘Civil Society’

As globalization progresses, the role of non-governmental organizations is receiving renewed attention. At international conferences on global issues such as the environment and poverty alleviation, NGOs sometimes speak out as stakeholders (parties with interests) alongside the state and set the tone for the discussion. They have also taken the initiative in advocating for the reduction of plastic waste and protesting the suppression of human rights by major powers.

When we look at the world’s constant disasters and conflicts, we can see them cooperating with the United Nations’ agencies and always being there for people in need.

However, compared to Europe and the U.S., Japanese NGOs do not have a strong presence in the world. Why is this? What kind of activities should they be aiming for in the future?

I have been active in NGOs for 30 years. We visited the laboratory of professor Yukie Cho, 58, of Rikkyo University, who has been active in NGOs for 30 years and is the president of the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan (Research Division, Saki Ouchi).

It’s There, but You Can’t see It. … It Raises a Potential Question.

What is the role of non-governmental organizations?

The government prioritizes the budget and the public executes it. This process also determines what will be cut down in terms of spending. This decision has to be made by someone, and I’m not saying it’s a bad one. However, there will be people who are left out and problems that do not get to see the light of day. I believe that it is the role of NGOs to shed light on these issues.

Having the awareness and imagination that “even if the overall priority is low, it is a matter of life and death for someone else” is a way of respecting diversity.

In regard to NGOs, I think there is the criticism, “You are not chosen by anyone.” Some people criticize NGOs, saying, “You are not elected by anyone, you are doing things on your own.” However, apart from the government that represents the majority of people who voted for us in the election, we also represent the positions of a few people. I believe that the significance of NGOs is to continue to raise issues that are often put off, or that are not yet issues but are structural or latent.

The activities of NGOs can be broadly divided into two categories: providing support to people and communities in need, and raising awareness about something.

In the case of the activities of the Association for Aid and Relief, the former includes support for victims of natural disasters, such as the Great East Japan Earthquake, and for civilians caught up in the civil wars in Syria and South Sudan. The latter is the campaign to broaden the Japanese people’s support for the Anti-Personnel Landmines Convention, and the lobbying of the government to change its policy and join the treaty, which was achieved.

Still Persistent: ‘People Don’t Do Anything Unnecessary’

In 2000, Japan Platform, a non-profit organization, was established with the aim of providing efficient emergency assistance through an equal partnership among NGOs, the business community, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This organization was created in response to the fact that Japan was very late in providing support for the conflict in Kosovo, the former Yugoslavia, while Western NGOs were all involved.

Our initial assumption was that Japan would be able to act flexibly to provide emergency assistance in a succession of international conflicts. However, it is difficult to raise funds for activities in conflict zones.

One of the characteristics of Japan is that donations are collected for victims of natural disasters, but when it comes to supporting victims in conflict areas, it is difficult. What I have learned from talking to people in the corporate world is that victims of natural disasters are victims without a shred of doubt, and no one would argue with their support, but conflict is a different story. If you give money to a conflict zone, you could be suspected of having a political agenda. It would not be possible to persuade their own executives or customers.

Western NGOs are far ahead of us, whether it is in support activities or in raising issues. For example, in a study comparing the top 45 Japanese NGOs with 20 development and humanitarian organizations in the U.S., the average annual budget per organization was about 49.2 billion yen ($447 million) in the U.S., compared to 630 million yen in Japan. The average number of staff is 23 in Japan, compared to 665 in the U.S. The difference is orders of magnitude.

A Canadian government official once told me, “Through our activities over the years, we have learned that the partnership between the government and NGOs cannot function without equality.” In Japan, it is difficult to build this relationship of equality.

The Association for Aid and Relief was started in 1979 by its first president, Yukika Sohma, with the aim of supporting Indochinese refugees. Sohma was the third daughter of Yukio Ozaki, a politician known as the “father of parliamentary politics,” and she had many acquaintances in politics and government. However, when I approached her to work together, she said, “That’s the work of the government. The people don’t need to do anything else.”

I sometimes feel that this mentality of “the people don’t have to do anything unnecessary” still persists in some parts of the Japanese government.

From disarmament, such as the banning of anti-personnel mines and cluster bombs, to the punishment of war criminals, to the U.N.’s sustainable development issues, such as the environment and measures to combat poverty, the number of cases where international public opinion has been boosted by NGO advocacy and rules have been increasing since around 2000. Making proposals to the government and raising issues with the general public are essentially the important work of NGOs.

However, in the case of Japan, I feel that there is a strong sense of resistance to awareness raising by “civil society” in both the public and private sectors.

Poverty in Africa, Child Abuse in Japan … Can They Be Held to the Same Standard?

Japanese people generally have a high level of personal morality. However, many of them may be more focused on harmonizing with their surroundings than on trying to change the world for the better. To speak out against something, in other words, is to disturb the harmony.

NGOs in Japan have grown over the past 20 years or so. For example, in the image that the younger generation has. When I first came into this world, it was still seen as the activities of an eccentric person. I feel that it has, to some extent, joined the ranks of socially recognized work.

Nevertheless, it is the major NGOs of foreign origin that are growing rapidly. One of my goals is to strengthen NGOs that developed in Japan. I have heard people say that we should not be concerned about where an organization started or its “nationality” when it comes to international cooperation. However, even non-governmental and private organizations are not independent of the society and history of the country.

We are the only country that experienced nuclear bombings, the Great East Japan Earthquake and the accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. NGOs in such a country should have many things to tell the world. In addition, I believe that the growth of NGOs from Japan will directly lead to an increase in interest in international cooperation and the sustainable development goals in Japanese society as a whole. We exist only with the support and understanding of society.

I am keenly aware that what is important for Japan, both in the public and private sectors, is to have an unwavering policy of support on domestic and international issues. My other goal is to create a clear code of conduct for Japan that will be recognized by society as a whole.

Historically, Japan has not had the same social norms regarding human rights as the West. Looking at the response to China’s oppression of the Uighur minority, the West loudly criticizes human rights violations and strengthens sanctions. So, what is the basis for Japan’s efforts?

Rather than sympathizing with the West because it is making a fuss, we need a pillar for Japan to adhere to. I believe that the concept of “human security,” which was formulated by the United Nations through the efforts of former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata, can be used as a yardstick.

Human security is a “people first” concept that focuses on each individual human being, protecting them, developing their abilities and creating a world where they can live a life of dignity. It does not matter who the perpetrator or victim is, whether it is happening in a distant foreign country or a problem right in front of our eyes; we measure it by the unified yardstick of “human security.”

The future of Japan will surely change if we start to see and act on the same criteria for both poverty issues in Africa and child abuse in Japan. That is what I believe.

Yukie Osa, President, Association for Aid and Relief, Japan 58 Born in Ibaraki Prefecture. Doctorate in genocide research from the University of Tokyo. After completing graduate school at Waseda University, she joined the NGO Association for Aid and Relief, Japan in 1991. She is a former co-chair of Japan Platform and has been a professor at Rikkyo University since 2009. Author of “Srebrenica” (Toshindo) and “Introduction to Human Security” (Chuokoron Shinsha).

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