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Volunteering in Japan: A legacy of Kobe earthquake
01 February 2005
by Takehiko Kambayashi

Kobe, Japan: This major port city bears few signs of having survived a devastating 7.3-magnitude earthquake a decade ago: Towering buildings that crashed down have been rebuilt, and repaired roadways once again whisk travelers to Osaka.

But the temblor, which killed more than 6,400 people, left an unmistakable legacy: grass-roots activism that has established itself in a society accustomed to government initiatives in solving humanitarian problems.

Spurred by delays in official relief operations following the Jan. 17, 1995, earthquake, Japanese citizens flocked to help out. Over the next year, about 1.38 million people gave their time to getting the city get back on its feet - an unprecedented outpouring for a country where, unlike the US, there is no tradition of volunteerism.

Volunteer and citizens' groups also began to spring up throughout Japan. Now, experts say, volunteerism has woven itself into more people's lives.

"The changes that volunteerism has brought to our society is enormous," says Takeshi Jitsuyoshi, who helped in Kobe after the disaster. The wave of volunteerism, he adds, "has slowly given rise to a quiet revolution in the country."

Mr. Jitsuyoshi now serves as head of the Kobe Empowerment Center, a nonprofit organization (NPO) that supports citizens' groups bynetworking with corporations and local governments.

What Jitsuyoshi has learned through his 10 years of activity here is "democracy," he says. "I've learned the importance of expressing ourselves to an establishment or organization, however big it is. We are the ones who should decide matters affecting our lives."

According to the Japanese Council of Social Welfare, the official number of volunteer groups almost doubled to 118,820 in 2003, from 60,738 in 1994. Some experts and activists believe the actual number is much larger.

And while the words "citizens" or "civil society" still translate as "antigovernment" to some Japanese, more civic groups have targeted welfare, education, environment, human rights, and town planning - areas traditionally managed by the government.

"An increasing number of groups think about issues by themselves to find out what is really needed, and make policy proposals to government," says Kaname Tsutsumi, a sociology professor at Kyushu International University, in Kita Kyushu, a southern Japanese city.

Ms. Tsutsumi, who is also an executive board member of two NPOs in the region, adds, "At the same time, we have seen more public officials try to listen to us."

In 1998, a new NPO law allowed civic groups to apply for legal status - a key step in a country where official legitimation is important. Once they are recognized, such groups can make a contract with the government or a corporation. The number of certified NPOs - most of them small grass-roots organizations - stood at 19,523 in November, up from 6,598 at the end of March 2002.

But despite their surging numbers, civic groups are still struggling for acceptance - and funding.

Robert Pekkanen, an assistant professor of international studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, says the Japanese government has been supportive of small local groups that have no real impact on policymaking.

But Jitsuyoshi and other NPO leaders say the government tries to exploit small groups as a "mere cheap subcontractor." And in a society where a company's name determines status, NPOs and citizens' groups have faced funding problems. The Japan Committee for UNICEF, for example, donated a record $100 million in 2003. But most NPOs receive little aid from the public and corporations, and are usually run by those who are willing to work for little or nothing. Of NPOs surveyed by the government in 1999, just over half had an annual budget of less than $2,900.

Despite such obstacles, some NPOs are trying to exert more political influence. "Civil society groups are beginning to flex their muscles, particularly forging new ties with political parties, especially the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and in policy areas such as welfare," says Professor Pekkanen. "The DPJ has been active in supporting some of the organizations, seeing them as natural allies."

Members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) special committee on NPOs also met with some groups' leaders in November. Akihiko Kumashiro, a House of Representative member and deputy chair of the committee, says the meeting was a result of growing recognition that NPOs play an "important role in society, working for the good of the public."

Still, it is hard to change the culture and mind-set in Japan. "This is a country that has had a centralized government since 1868, the beginning of Meiji era. That centralization was even strengthened after the war," says Akira Matsubara, executive director of the Association for the Creation of a Support System for Civil Activities in Tokyo.

"Many people still ... think the state can take care of their needs," he adds. "We need to depart from that welfare state."

The inclination to let the government take the lead was apparent in Japan's response to the earthquake and tsunamis in Southeast Asia. According to the daily Asahi Shimbun, Japan was perhaps the only major donor where the government contribution - $540 million - overwhelmed the $23.5 million in private donations. Some say that as the media extensively reported that the government contribution was the world's third largest, many people stopped opening their wallets.

And last April, a backlash against civic groups was triggered when five Japanese taken hostage in Iraq - two freelance journalists and three activists - returned home to a storm of criticism because they entered the country despite government warnings. Politicians and the media said they created a "public nuisance," since taxpayer money was spent on their rescue. Takeaki Kashimura, an LDP lawmaker, labeled them as "antigovernment, anti-Japan elements."

"When you are doing what the majority don't like, you face bashing," says Mr. Jitsuyoshi, who quit a major bank after two years and traveled in Asia and Africa. "Those who deviate from the norm are ... likely to be singled out for criticism."

But that doesn't bother Jitsuyoshi. "It's always difficult to make a new path, but I would like to contribute to strengthening a civil society," he says resolutely. "That is necessary for Japan. Without it, Japan's prospects are extremely gloomy."