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NPO Support Centers Spread in Japan

Nobody knows how many there are. At least 31 nonprofit organization (NPO) support centers are listed on a Japan NPO Support Center Web page (as of January 2000, http://www.jca.apc.org/jnpoc/support/sc_list.html). With a national NPO law passed two years ago, an unusual effort for nonprofit infrastructure building is going on throughout Japan.

"Look at Hokkaido. It's a good example," says Takashi Sato, executive director of Hokkaido NPO Promotion Conference. (Hokkaido is the northern most island of the four major islands of Japan; population: 5.6 million). "The government developed this land like their colony (primarily after Meiji Restoration of 1867). The government has done everything here. The government has defined and monopolized 'public benefits' here in Hokkaido. More or less, however, that's Japan. The civic sector should take over some part of the public benefits."

Sato's group started Hokkaido NPO Support Center in 1998 to help small nonprofits. The only one in Hokkaido on the above mentioned list, the Hokkaido NPO Support Center has been quickly propagating similar centers around Hokkaido. Efforts for organizing started in Asahikawa, Hakodate, Obihiro, Wakkanai and other larger cities, Sato says. Even small communities joined the rank. Memanbetsu, a small community (population: 6,000) in the Sea of Okhotsk Coastal region, recently opened a support center: NPO Promotion Okhotsk Platform.

Help in Incorporating NPOs

"When the NPO law was about to be passed (in March 1998), we knew the government would require a lot of paper work," says Sato. "Without professional support, very few groups will even try to get incorporated. So we established a support center to help them." The new law, which is much simpler in its requirements than traditional "public benefit organization (Koeki Hojin) laws," still required NPO startups to submit many documents: the articles of incorporation (which includes a complete by-laws), an officer list, a membership list, a document to verify purposes of the organizations and non-affiliation with criminal (gangsters) organizations, a prospectus. a list of founders, minutes of a meeting that made decision for incorporation, a list of assets, a document stating the fiscal year, and operating plans and budget estimates for two years: the year of incorporation and the following year.

Sato's Hokkaido NPO Suport Center rents half the first floor of an old, 2-story Coal Miner Labor Union building in Sapporo for $1600 per month (floor area: 1200 square feet). They set up 8 desks for other smaller nonprofits to rent as their offices. The Center has formed a group of volunteer lawyers, accountants, and other professionals to consult nonprofits. The Center quickly became a hub of grassroots activities in Sapporo. Many community groups hold meetings here, expanding network among user nonprofits.

Advocacy and Services

"NPO Promotion Conference and NPO Support Center are both incorporated as separate entities," says Sato. The Promotion Conference is an advocacy organization. The Support Center is a service organization. Formed in 1994, the Hokkaido NPO Promotion Conference is one of the oldest NPO advocacy groups in the nation and was instrumental in a campaign to get the new NPO law passed.

The executive directors of both Promotion Conference and Support Center are volunteers. The Conference's leader Sato is a manager of an alternative tour travel agency. Yoshinobu Kobayashi, Support Center's executive director, is a liquor store owner. Yet they work almost full time at the Conference-Center. They partners with a worker-owned research company SY Planning, which handles daily operation of the NPO Center (reception, telephone answering, mail-out, etc.).

"NPOs have just started in Japan. People don't know what they are," Says Sato. "Our main function still is to explain about NPOs to the public." Sato and Kobayashi, and other professionals of the Center busily travel around Hokkaido for classes and lectures. They publish monthly newsletter and put it and other information on their Web site (http:www.infosnow.ne.jp/hashinet/). They organize a quarterly Network conference which attracts organizers from around Hokkaido. In 1998, they published a book on how to prepare NPO documents with all the complicated document forms attached. It has sold more than 3000, a good sale as a grassroots publishing.

"This is a typical NPO centers in this country," says Sato. Though some local governments started building NPO centers, a vast majority of NPO support centers are established and operated by NPO themselves in a smaller scale. Though basically typical, the Hokkaido center has one thing very perculiar. They have a grantmaking fund.

Grassroots Foundation

In 1999, a private citizen, by his will, donated $25 million to Hokkaido NPO Promotion Conferece. Every year the Conference grants $10,000 to $20,000 to about a dozen organizations. "Probably small in the U. S. standards, the fund funds solely grassroots NPOs, and as such this is the first and the largest in the nation," Sato says. "Not only the government but private foundations require a lot of paper work. We ask for a simple application documentaion, allowing nonprofits to use the documentation money for their real nonprofit activities."

Without one exeption (Osaka Community Foundation, http://www.osaka-community.or.jp/index.htm), there is very few community foundations in Japan. Without the mechanism, few people bequeath their assets to the community. The central government takes a large amount of money left behind by death of people without heirs. Not many people writes a will in Japan. The Hokkaido Conference-Center tries to show an alternative. Some lawyers start investigating possibilities of some sort of community fund creation. "Our idea with the fund is to place local persons' wealth in the local community," says Sato.

Third Engine

Thanks to the NPO Conference-Center, Hokkaido spawned 51 nonprofit corporations  in one year since the NPO law's implementation in December 1998. The number trails only after Tokyo, Osaka, and Kanagawa Prefectures. It is the top per-capita ratio of NPO formation among the 49 prefectures in the nation. Hokkaido NPO Support Center directly helped over 60% of these incorporation processes, Sato says.

"Citizens cannot just demand that the government does this and that for us. Many local governments are near bankruptcy," says Sato. Hardest hit by current Japan's depression, Hokkaido experienced the bankruptcy of its largest bank, Hokkaido Takushoku Bank, in 1998. "We need to shift some government's work to the nonprofit sector and to strengthen the basis of the civic sector. So far we had just two "engines": the government and corporate sectors. Now we work in NPO centers to create the third engine. The nonprofit sector will create a new force of social organization."

Hokkaido NPO Promotion Conference
Hokkaido NPO Support Center
4-chome, Kita 11-jo Nishi, Kita-ku, Sapporo, Japan
Phone: 011-716-3369
Fax: 011-716-2899