Why Did Civil Society Fail?: Japanese NPOs in New Public Governance

Project Summary

The year 2018 marked the 20th anniversary of the Law to Promote Specified Nonprofit Activities, known as the “NPO Law” for its formalization of non-profit organizations (NPOs) in Japan. This was a momentous Japanese civil society project that more than 50,000 NPOs are currently active (as of Nov. 2019). These NPOs have increasingly taken on responsibility for local communities’ social welfare delivery, including health and education, via co-production policy with local governments. Co-production can be seen as a substantive policy tool utilized by governments demonstrating a preference for the use of collaborative forms of governance to implement policy goals. However, the question has recently arisen whether this Japanese third-sector instrument is “successful.” One observable indication of “failure” is the currently increasing number of NPO dissolutions; the most recent number shows that more than 16,000 NPOs have been dissolved. I estimate one third of these defunct NPOs engaged in co-production. I explore the question: Why did this co-production experiment with civil society fail? By failure, my focus is on government-civil society partnership via co-production practices. My analysis considers “disbanded” NPOs that fall under this relational lens. Excluded are those dissolutions primarily due to ageing of participants, missions completed, etc.

A decade ago, in my book The Failure of Civil Society? The Third Sector and the State in Contemporary Japan (SUNY Press 2009), I pointed out the possible failure of Japanese civil society due to NPO activity. This is based on my ethnographic research at SLG (pseudonym) – one of the largest community-oriented lifelong learning NPOs in Japan. My two-decade long investigation suggests that the institutionalization of NPOs has been a calculated re-organization of the Japanese public sphere designed to establish a small government in the post-welfare state through shared responsibility for social services originally delivered by the state with volunteer-driven NPOs. Such an organizational form might effectively facilitate the practice of a neoliberal state; however, it is not conducive to encouraging independent, citizen-oriented activities. My case SLG appeared successful. SLG changed the Japanese traditional style of state-led learning. It was even part of local efforts to delegate power to citizens in a participatory governance structure for a pluralistic democracy. However, SLG dissolved itself in March 2018 mainly because of the municipal government’s decision to cut its funding for the community-oriented lifelong learning project. I have started collecting interview data mainly from former SLG participants and local officials about their thoughts and experiences on why the co-production project failed. Discussions around SLG reflect the reality of the Japanese civil society landscape over the past two decades, in which NPOs are central.

Project Location: Japan

For more information, please contact:
Akihio Ogawa