Breaking The Mould
issue 231 - May 1992
Breaking the mould
Can Japanese activists forge a new relationship of solidarity with Third World peoples?
Colum Muccio takes an insider's look at the pitfalls and possibilities.
She knew there was something wrong, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it. There was a kind of quiet uneasiness around the room. She was a representative of a well-known American non-governmental organisation (NGO) who had come to Tokyo to drum up support for a debt relief plan for the world's poorest countries. She sat at a plain, folding table surrounded by a group of seven representatives of Japanese international NGOs in a very crowded office brimming with books, newsletters and stacks of paper.
She was addressing the group, encouraging them to lobby the Government, set up a debt relief committee and start raising public awareness of the Third World debt crisis. She concluded with an open-ended, free-discussion prompt: 'What do you think we can do to get the Government to support debt relief?' Responses were slow in coming. Finally, the moderator of the meeting began: 'Well, as you may know, Japanese NGOs are quite small and...'
She had read statistics in Washington, but somehow the reality had not sunk in. To clarify the situation, she went around the table asking the members questions: 'How large is your staff?' Five out of the seven groups represented had a paid staff of under three; the remaining two had purely volunteer staff. 'How large is your annual budget?' All were under $300,000 and two were under $100,000. 'Do you have tax-free status?' No.
As startling as these facts are, they're only half the story. Most Japanese NGOs have no legal status at all. The expatriate director of the Japanese branch of a well- known NGO is unable even to get a work visa and has to leave the country every three months to renew his tourist visa. Many NGO workers, including directors of prominent NGOs, are forced to moonlight one or two days a week to make ends meet. Despite the fact that Japan is now one of the world's leading aid donors - at least in terms of quantity - the NGO sector is, by western and even southern standards, quite small. In 1988, the Japanese Centre for International Co-operation (JANIC) conducted a study showing that the average budget of the 111 internationally-active NGOs was just $522,000. Just 28 of them - those with legal status - accounted for three quarters of the total, budget: Foster Parents Plan of Japan and the Japan Committee for UNICEF for almost one half.
The average budget of the remaining 83 NGOs - those without legal status - was $140,000. The cost of living in Japan shrinks this figure even further. The average number of staff in all 111 NGOs was just three in Japan and two in the field.
There is much talk among the Japanese NGO community about their small size and the lack of public support. Some suggest that the Buddhist tradition is less activist-oriented than that of Christian religions and lacks a missionary tradition; others that the Japanese population is very homogeneous and inward-looking. There are few immigrants to lobby for assistance to their home country. There is perhaps more of a tendency to ask 'why don't we take care of our own people first?' than in western countries.
No culture of dissent
Japan's remarkable economic growth has not followed the standard western paradigm. The Japanese model is generally less adversarial, with government, corporations and citizens co-operating to achieve the same goal. Theirs is less of a culture of dissent. Most people have not fought for their rights as much as in the West. The population is more homogeneous, there is less ethnic tension and the benefits of development are more evenly spread than in most other parts of the world.
There is no culture of dissent in Japan; or, to put it another way, the costs of not conforming are very high. One NGO worker told me that he had graduated from one of the best universities in Japan and, because he went to work for an NGO rather than join a prestigious corporation as he was expected to, his family refuses to speak to him. Non-profit and NGO work is not seen as a 'regular' profession. It's a one-way ticket to work in the NGO sector, and there's no way back. Japanese NGO workers seem more idealistic and even headstrong. Such qualities are necessary to those who would stand against the current of conformity.
But this situation is changing fast. Japanese NGOs are facing intense pressure from many directions to grow and diversify. Flooded by funding requests from southern NGOs, they are being pushed by western and international NGOs to take action on a broad range of issues and initiatives of which they have little experience.
Japanese governments have recently encouraged the people to 'internationalize'. Some say the result is little more than English classes and holidays in Bali rather than Okinawa. But NGO leaders have been encouraged by an increased interest of young people in international issues. The government and business sectors have also expressed interest. But many NGO leaders are wary of these overtures as attempts to co-opt NGOs into the system.
The normal aspiration in Japan is still for 'lifetime employment'. Part-time and volunteer work is, if not prohibited then strongly frowned on as an indication of lack of commitment. Recent media reports suggest, however, that this tradition may be slipping and that more people are now changing jobs and professions.
Many obstacles remain to developing vital and respected NGOs. One of the most frequently mentioned is funding. Japanese NGO fundraising skills are still in a stage of infancy. NGOs are experimenting with various gimmicks and marketing schemes, but they still have a long way to go.
They also have difficulty recruiting and retaining staff. They can offer only a fraction of the salary and security that government or private firms can, and must rely heavily on volunteers, housewives, retirees and college students who have not yet entered the ranks of 'salarymen'. Kouichi Yanagida, Secretary General of the Defence of the Green Earth Foundation and a man who worked closely with the victims of the Minamata mercury poisoning says: 'There is a lot of moonlighting. Salary levels are much lower in NGOs than in the rest of the economy. Many well-qualified people have expressed interest in working with the Foundation but have gone to work for the corporations instead.'
There is a legal obstacle too. According to Japanese law, non-profit status can only be granted if an organization has an endowment of at least $2.3 million or, if it is a membership organization, ,its dues exceed $400,000 annually. Both of these requirements are impossible for most Japanese NGOs to fulfil. So they remain in legal limbo: neither private nor non-profit.
Branches of foreign NGOs working in Japan face their own peculiar set of obsta- cles. Even for those fluent in Japanese, get- ting things done can be very difficult and frustrating. Many NGOs have had to adjust their strategies to match Japanese tastes. According to Michi Mathias, director of Greenpeace Japan: 'Direct action campaigns such as blocking ships - which are good for getting an issue raised and debated in many countries - often cause more harm than good in Japan. They're seen as too serious, too confrontational. We rely more on information campaigns on envi- ronmental and nuclear issues.
The media work differently in Japan as well. 'Because of the press club system here,' says Michi, 'it is more difficult to get the views of non-official organizations into the papers. It's not in the reporter's interest to go out and find contrasting or opposing viewpoints. That will hurt the paper. We once had an article about one of our studies scheduled to be reported by a certain newspaper, but it was scrapped at the last minute when the Government released their own version the same day. The paper just couldn't print ours too.'
Finally, Japanese NGOs face the same dilemmas that are faced, to varying degrees, by NGOs throughout the world. Should they stay small and retain a 'grassroots' feel? Or should they grow, expand their influence, and become more political? Should they accept government and large-donor funding and risk losing their autonomy? Is 'small' beautiful or weak?
As Michio Ito, Secretary General of JANIC said; "It's still not clear whether the Japanese NGO sector - or any other grass-roots Japanese movement - will take root and grow, or be swept away by strong group forces that exist in Japanese society."
Our American NGO visitor's surprise is understandable. How can a country so wealthy and economically influential as Japan have such a small and struggling NGO sector? Yet some understanding and sympathy must also go out to those Japanese working in NGOs. They work in a less favourable environment and have more to lose by their choice of professions than their Western counterparts. They must struggle to bring about not only political and economic reforms but fundamental changes in social attitudes and culture. They must develop a culture of dissent where the dominant group appreciates the need for opposing views as a means of reg- ulating the larger system. What is needed is true 'internationalization', where the interests and harmony of the immediate group are waived in favour of the interests of the largest group of all: the global society.
Colum Muccio has worked extensively in the Third World and now works for JANIC in Tokyo.
Building a better banana
Too often trade with the Third World is a process of unequal exchange. Realizing this, a group of Japanese citizens started importing chemical-free bananas from the Philippines to Japan. Alter-Trade Japan, which started in 1989, now imports between 50 and 80 tons of the fruit, which they distribute through co-operatives, consumer organizations and their parent organization, the Japan Committee for a Negros Campaign. These bananas reach the dining tables of about 50,000 households throughout Japan.
Balangon bananas are a local variety grown on Negros and are more expensive than those produced by the plantations owned by multinational corporations. Nevertheless they have become popular in Japan. One thing they have going for them is that they are organically grown. A citizens' group from Nagoya in Central Japan revealed in the early 1980s that many of the chemicals used in producing bananas in the Philippines were actually banned in Japan. Another reason for the Balangon's popularity is the awareness campaign run by Alter-Trade Japan about the economics and politics of banana production.
Most 'cheap' bananas come from Mindanao in the southern part of the Philippines. Prices are kept low by Japanese and American corporations who undercut local producers, take over their land and turn local farmers into notoriously low-paid agricultural labour. The farmers become virtual prisoners of the plantation economy - they no longer own their own tools; they must rent their homes from the company and buy their groceries at the company store. Middlemen monopolize the means of transportation and thus can dictate the price of products.
It finally dawned on a group of activists that there could be alternatives to this system. One of the major forces behind Alter-Trade network was the solidarity campaign with the people of Negros, an island well-known for sugar plantations where major layoffs occurred in the 1980s. UNICEF reports from 1985 showed that 150,000 people were living at starvation levels while 260,000 square kilometres of sugarcane fields lay idle.
Originally the idea was to import brown sugar. Surpluses from this grassroots trade, bypassing existing commercial routes, were used to bolster producers' economic independence. The profits made from Japanese sales were ploughed back in to improve production facilities and transport. Currently 120 tons of this sugar are exported to Japan annually and European groups have followed suit, importing more than 240 tons.
But bananas proved more difficult than sugar. Initial difficulties included the need for rapid transportation - the fruit had to reach Manila within 36 hours of picking. The taste of the first shipment was also disappointing. But by working with the 1,000 producer families, the Alter-Trade network gradually built up a system that could produce a satisfactory crop. bring it to Japan and pay an adequate price directly to the producers.
A report by the Pacific-Asia Resource Centre in Tokyo.
Janakashaber 'a world not like this'
In the summer of 1989 more than 120,000 people from all over Japan gathered in the Japanese archipelago with 280 activists from 33 other countries. Their modest goal was the forming of A People's Plan for the 21st Century (PP21). They held a series of conferences - addressed to farmers, indigenous people, women, consumers, industrial workers - on international affairs and the astounding growth of Japanese foreign aid. Their final gathering was in Minamata, renowned since the 1950s as the site of Japan's first case of Industrial poisoning.
A series of projects has emerged from initiatives proposed at the conferences. One proposal criticized the tendency for researchers from industrialized nations to carry out research on the Third World. It resulted in a programme to bring researchers from the South to explore the North. In 1982 a 'Freedom School' dedicated to exposing Japanese people to their relationship with the world was established in Tokyo. After PP21 several more started - in Hokkaido, Toyama, Azumino and Kyushu - spanning the whole length of the Japanese mainland. The Kanagawa Conference, which focused on Japanese Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), called for 'People to People Aid' and proposed that local governments all over Japan give 0.1 per cent of their budgets to recipient-initiated development projects.
The Minamata Declaration issued at the end of the conference called for 'transborder participatory democracy', because ihe 21st century must not be built by the forces of degraded development, but by the forces resisting it'. Participants proposed a new word, Janakashaba, to express the dream that 'we can create a society where everyone can live with dignity'. In the local Minamata dialect the word means 'a world not like this'.
The conference constructed a plan to work towards the future. It affirmed the need to continue the process that began in 1989. The next conference, scheduled for Bangkok, Thailand, in November this year, repeats the call for popular development, for participatory democracy at the local, national and international levels - making people visible.'
A report by the Pacific-Asia Resource Centre in Tokyo.