Japan: a very civil society!

Oliver Henman was Head of Partnerships & International at NCVO, and blogged about civil society around the world. Oliver left NCVO in July 2014 but his posts have been kept here for reference.

NCVO is the partner of the Japanese Center for International Youth Exchange for the Young Core Leaders of Civil Society programme, a project supported by the Cabinet Office of Japan. This project enables emerging leaders of civil society to learn from each other’s practical experience and develop their professional skills.

In February 2013, NCVO selected 13 delegates to travel to Japan as part of the two week programme. Three participants who took part, delegation leader Ruth Richardson, Ashley Morgan from Age UK and Jonathan Slater from Voluntary Action Lewisham, explain more about the programme and share their thoughts on the experience:


The programme was separated into three themes and delegates from each of the three countries focused on activities for elderly people, youth and persons with disabilities respectively.

On arrival the group joined delegations from Germany and Denmark and spent a week in Tokyo attending seminars and institutional visits with their Japanese counterparts. The focus of discussions was collaboration and the representatives of four countries shared best practice, advice and case studies on the themes of collaboration between non-profit organisations, the public sector and private companies. It was an insightful week and alongside an increased understanding of collaboration and project management, the European delegates learned much about the Japanese non-profit sector and societal structures. The group were very indebted to the wonderful Japanese translators whose skill enabled all delegates to participate fully in the discussion, regardless of their mother tongue.

During the second week the delegations formed three groups based on their professional expertise and left Tokyo for the local programmes. The Youth group travelled to Shimane prefecture, the Elderly People to Tottori and the Persons with Disabilities group to Oita. The institutional visits were particularly inspiring to the European delegates and we were privileged to witness our newly-gained knowledge of the Japanese NPO sector in practice. As a member of the Elderly People group I was most interested to discuss with Japanese officials, care workers, NPO professionals and older people themselves the challenges facing Japan’s rapidly aging society, and what measures were being taken (both at a local and national level) to ensure that Japan can continue to encourage healthy, happy old age and support the care needs of those who require it.


Japan and the UK face many similar challenges and can learn from each other in many instances. Whilst Japan’s ageing population is further advanced than in the UK, both nations are seeking to develop sustainable models to support and meet the needs of an ageing population against a backdrop of financial crisis.

Whilst the UK is perhaps more established in terms of national voluntary organisations that can bridge gaps where governments fail to provide services, (and can also lobby and represent the interests of older people at national level), Japan arguably has a much deeper tradition of care in the community and care at home. Many younger Japanese families are moving to cities for work, and many older people remain alone particularly in rural areas. Whilst there is still very much a culture of care in the community, this is delivered in a much more informal way than perhaps in the UK where there is a strong tradition of formal voluntary organisations with clear aims, objectives, and strategic focus. This enables UK voluntary organisations to demonstrate their effectiveness at delivering positive outcomes (for older people), as well as demonstrate ‘value for money’. This is particularly helpful when they are fundraising – because they can demonstrate the value they bring, which is often higher than in the private sector. On the other hand, we saw that Japanese citizens continue to possess a strong sense of community spirit, which has existed for centuries. Together during the two weeks we spent together, we shared our experiences and learned valuable lessons from each culture.

It was extremely useful to discuss the Japanese social care insurance system, as in the UK we do not yet have one. I learned that quality of care does not necessarily improve with competition – an intention of a privatised care system. The absence of government or national regulation of quality and a privatised system may undermine the provision of service. Competition can also result in corners being cut, with no clear monitoring of standards etc and we all felt that government support for a national consistent quality standard would dramatically improve social care and help providers to be consistent in their delivery, which could improve cost. These are challenges that all nations share and we can learn from each other’s models!


As part of the Persons with Disabilities professional expertise group, I was sent to Oita. We were briefed on the Japanese Government’s policy towards supporting people with disabilities and the role of NPOs in supporting this. Recently, the Revision to the Basic Act for the Disabled Persons (2011) was introduced which included the concept of “reasonable accommodation” as well as the positioning “realisation of cohesive society” as the goal of the law. This is very similar to the Social Value Act which came into law last year in the UK which requires national and local government to have social value as a key condition for making decisions on commissioning services.

When we arrived in Oita we had an action packed itinerary of visits laid on for us which included visiting the Oita local authority or ‘prefecture’, the Social Welfare Corporation Symphony, a local seminar, a local hot water spring and home stay with a local family! Of all the visits though I found ‘Ton Ton’ to be the most educational and enjoyable. It provides an early year’s provision for children aged 0-6 which combines a general nursing day-care centre with a facility for children with disabilities. As with other NPOs and charities it was established to provide a service that wasn’t available at the time for parents for children with disabilities, without any financial assistance from the local authority but has over time established partners in both the public and private sector that has allowed it to provide various social resources.

Since returning to the UK I have tried to keep in touch with all my contacts that I made on the programme. In terms of sharing some of the good practice that I encountered on the programme I have highlighted the work of ‘Muku’ both to a work colleague of mine who is our ‘Community Accountant’ and delivers training to Voluntary Organisation’s in Lewisham on how to be more financially sustainable by building closer relationships with the private sector, as well to commissioners at Lewisham Council who are responsible for services for people with disabilities, and finally to the Lewisham Disability Coalition who are the main Non-Profit Organisation in Lewisham that support people with disabilities.

The British delegation would like to thank NCVO for coordinating the UK delegation, and the Japanese Cabinet Office for its vision and generosity in funding this exchange.

Oli Henman’s blog

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