Seven Impacts of the NPO Law on Japanese Society: On Its 25th Anniversary of Establishment InsightsEssays: Civil Society in Japan

Posted on November 24, 2023

Japan NPO Center (JNPOC) has a news & commentary site called NPO CROSS that discusses the role of NPOs/NGOs and civil society as well as social issues in Japan and abroad. We post articles contributed by various stakeholders, including NPOs, foundations, corporations, and volunteer writers.
For this JNPOC’s English site, we select some translated articles from NPO CROSS to introduce to our English-speaking readers.


Seven Impacts of the NPO Law on Society: On Its 25th Anniversary of Establishment


This year marks the 25th anniversary of the enactment of the NPO Law (Act on Promotion of Specified Non-profit Activities) on December 1, 1998.

The NPO Law, which was established to contribute to the enhancement of public interest by promoting the sound development of free social contribution activities carried out by citizens, has played an important role not only in granting legal personality and preferential tax treatment to grassroots citizen groups in Japan, but also in expanding the concept of public interest in the hands of citizens. 

I would like to discuss, at my own discretion, other significant changes that the NPO Law has brought about in society.


1. Legal Personality for Grassroots Citizen Groups

Until 1998, non-profits engaging in public interest activities had to jump through hoops to obtain legal personality, such as becoming a public interest corporation, a type of legally defined entity back then. Many grassroots citizen groups are now able to become a juridical person. Legal personality allows them to seal a contract and to employ staff. The governance requirements to be a juridical person set by the law have contributed to enhancing their social credibility.

I believe the NPO Law was one of the impetuses for the introduction of the Act on General Incorporated Associations and General Incorporated Foundations enacted in 2008, expanding the options for grassroots citizen groups further.


2. Partnership with Government and Businesses

With legal personality and the ability to enter into a contract, it became easier for NPOs to engage in activities in cooperation with the government and businesses.

Back in 1998, when the NPO Law was enacted, the national government was delegating powers to the local authorities as a part of its administrative reforms, and businesses were becoming increasingly aware of the importance of social contribution activities, thus grew their expectations toward NPOs, whose newly gained capability to become a contracting party played an important role when they sought collaboration with the sector. The growth of NPOs led to scores of collaborative projects amongst the government, businesses, and NPOs.


3. Various Social Issues Coming into Light

Social issues such as child poverty, young caregivers, and lack of understanding for the LGBT community are often covered by the news media these days. These are, however, examples of the many issues that were not known to the general public until not so long ago. The growth of NPOs’ activities has contributed in no small measure to increasing the general public’s awareness. A wide variety of NPOs, which were quick to recognize various problems and possibilities, began tackling them, and often used their expertise to conduct surveys and disseminate information, helping society become aware of the issues that had been easily overlooked.


4. Empowered Citizens

Today, there are more than 50,000 NPOs nationwide. This is approximately as many as the numbers of convenience stores, according to some, but I suspect there are even more organizations than these stores if you count those without juridical personality, making them a very common presence. It could be argued that the establishment of many NPOs and the familiarity with their existence may have helped people take action more casually in their own neighborhoods and on topics of interest to them. The fact that there are many examples that can be used as references has empowered citizens and stimulated a variety of activities.


5. Cross-Field Collaboration

The NPO Law is not tied to a specific field of activities, enabling it to serve as a common ground for nonprofit organizations from different fields and to help them connect with each other. From such encounters, some notable new initiatives emerged as collaborations between groups from different fields. Examples include combining the utilization of satoyama with the conservation of biodiversity to create community interaction, collaboration amongst employment support groups and farmers, and international cooperation groups sharing their know-how with domestic groups in disaster relief efforts.


6. Progenitor of Citizen Participation in Legislation

The NPO Law was submitted to the Diet as a members’ bill after numerous deliberations amongst people involved in civic activities nationwide and Diet members, and the bill was eventually passed unanimously by the legislature. This is why the establishment of the NPO Law is sometimes described as citizens’ legislation, emphasizing the uniqueness of the process. The law showed the possibility of legislation based on the initiatives of citizens; it also spurred the establishment of many pioneering NPOs with field-specific expertise to tackle various social issues. I think that these factors have rendered the subsequent legislation of NPO-led laws successful, such as: the Basic Act on Suicide Prevention (enacted in 2006), the Act for Securing Educational Opportunities Equivalent to Regular Education at the Compulsory Education Level (enacted in 2016), and the Act for the Promotion of Food Loss Reduction (enacted in 2019). As NPOs played a significant role in the legislative processes of these laws, I believe that the NPO Law can be considered the progenitor of such legislation by citizens.


7. Spreading the Culture of Donations

Although NPOs generally have diverse sources of income, I believe those that embody well-wishers’ willingness to support their activities the most are membership fees and donations. Over the past 25 years, NPOs have started various activities based on donations. The accumulation of such activities of theirs represents numerous giving experiences amongst their supporters. The channels for giving have expanded recently with the introduction of a variety of crowdfunding tools and citizen foundations; it is now more common for people to donate when they find an activity they feel like supporting or a social issue they want to solve.


During the past 25 years since the establishment of the NPO Law, I believe that the law has made considerable impacts on society; some can be considered as its achievements and others might need to be addressed further. The readers might have different views. I hope that the 25th anniversary transpires to be an opportunity to look back on the past and envision the future of the NPO Law.


Japan NPO Center, in cooperation with Seien, a specified non-profit organization, will hold the “Forum to Commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the NPO Law: Let’s Envision Future Civil Society Together” on December 1. The following day, on December 2, “Civic Sector National Conference 2023: 25 Years after the NPO Law, What the Citizen Sector Needs Now” will be held. We at JNPOC hope to exchange opinions on the impacts of the NPO Law on society and the possibilities NPO activities for the future.


Original text by Kenji Yoshida (Managing Director, JNPOC) originally posted on October 27, 2023; translated by JNPOC.