Overview of Civic Activities and “NPOs” in Japan

In 1998, the word “NPO” entered the Japanese vocabulary with the establishment of the Law to Promote Specified Nonprofit Activities (hereafter, the NPO Law). At around that time, many books and commentaries were issued discussing the question of “what is an NPO,” leaving an impression that NPOs were a new and good thing for society, even if people weren’t sure what they were. The Japan NPO center (JNPOC) was created in 1996, and it became a Specified Nonprofit Corporation (conventionally known as “NPO Corporation”) in 1998. In a way, JNPOC was born at the same time as the very word “NPO.”

The first Executive Director of the Japan NPO Center, Mr. Yoshinori Yamaoka, explained “what an NPO is” through the following 6 points in his 1997 publication.

  • It is a structure that channels individual wishes into social power.
  • It is a mechanism by which people offer social services that the market cannot offer.
  • It is the most inexpensive device for monitoring society.
  • It is an environment that enables a creative, individual way of life.
  • It is a foreign object from the future.
  • It is the creator of a new civil society.

There is no simple answer as to whether NPOs had existed in Japan before that point. There was no NPO Law, so of course there were no NPO Corporations. Something similar to the NPO, however, has existed throughout Japanese history, such as the spirit of interdependence and cooperation among neighbors; and some degree of organization also existed in forms such as neighborhood and self-government associations. During the modern era, the 1896 Civil Code established a system for Public Interest Corporations, and the form of the private and nonprofit corporation was born. After World War II, Social Welfare Corporations and other types of private nonprofit corporations were created. In addition, from the 1960s onward, the student movement and citizen movement flourished, and it became common in some circles for people to express their views on society in various forms, such as demonstrations and speeches.

During the 1980s and 90s, following the period of post-war growth, many Japanese people began to think about different kinds of “richness” beyond economic richness, and they sought a process by which to actively participate in the building of society. As an evolution of the citizen movement, which had previously focused on the expression of opinions, more practical civic activities became widespread, as people carried out their own projects and made their own proposals on topics such as welfare, the environment, and international relations.

The existing Public Interest Corporations, however, had a system of government supervision, and it was not possible for private nonprofit activities to have much freedom under this top-down administration. The Public Interest Corporations always operated under a licensing system, and their nonprofit activities required a guarantee from the government. There was an aim toward a corporate form that would make it possible for civic activities to have a higher degree of freedom, and “NPOs” were discovered through the examination of foreign examples. This was what prompted civic activity groups working in separate fields to realize that they were part of the broader category of “NPOs.”

In 1995, the Great Hanshin Earthquake occurred, and volunteer opportunities for citizens increased. This resulted in support for the NPO Law, and the temporary fluidity caused by the1993 change of government also had a political impact, leading to the enactment of the NPO Law in 1998.

*Yoshinori Yamaoka (writer and editor), “Lessons of the Foundation of NPOs” (1997, Gyosei)