Akira Matsubara: The force behind Japan’s NPO Reforms

by Kirk R. Patterson 

Akira Matsubara (45), a native of Osaka, graduated from Kobe University in sociology and philosophy. As the founder and executive director of the Coalition for Legislation to Support Citizens’ Organiza­tions (known as ‘C’s’), he has played a leading role in estab­lishing a legal framework to support the establishment and operation of non-profit organizations (NPOs).

What led you to establish C’s?

As a student, I was interested in human rights, includ­ing getting involved in the situation in East Timor. That gave me insight into how NPOs can contribute to the resolution of social issues and into how in or­der to be effective, NPOs must be properly organized and properly staffed. After graduating from university, I worked as an advertising copywriter and as a man­agement consultant for eight years, but I continued to remain interested in NPOs.

What is C’s?

C’s, established in 1994, is a non-partisan, independ­ent organization comprised of about 70 members (citi­zens’ groups) and supported by about 600 NPOs, indi­viduals and for-profit organizations. It was established with three objectives in mind.

  1. To establish a system allowing for the legal incorpo­ration of NPOs.
  2. To promote the creation of a tax system that facili­tates NPO activities, including allowing for the tax deductibility of donations and providing for lower tax rates for NPOs.
  3. In connection with (1) and (2), to improve informa­tion disclosure by NPOs.

What progress has been made in those three areas?

Although it seemed impossible when C’s was estab­lished, those three objectives have largely been achieved. In March 1998, the ‘NPO Law’, allowing for the legal incorporation of NPOs was approved, and in March 2001 a law providing for the tax deductibility of donations for incorporated NPOs that meet certain cri­teria was passed. NPO information disclosure was also mandated under these new laws.

What has been the effect of these laws?

The NPO Law has been very successful. About 23,000 NPOs have been established, with about 400 new NPOs being created every month. However, only 34 NPOs have received the special tax status because the Minis­try of Finance has set very strict and complex criteria for granting this status to NPOs. We are now working hard to get a major relaxation of these criteria and we are optimistic that this can be realized soon.

Why do you think NPOs are so important?

NPOs should be a key part of the social infrastructure of a nation. In Japan until recently, it was the role of the government to take the initiative in identifying and resolving public issues, with NPOs playing a very limited and reactive role. Now, however, NPOs are in a position to proactively seek solutions to various issues and to submit proposals to the government. For exam­ple, in recent years, NPOs have been in the vanguard of dealing with issues such as the recognition of charter schools, providing assistance to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, dealing with domestic violence, and pro­viding better nursing care for the elderly.

With C’s having realized its initial objectives, what will you focus on now?

There are still many NPO-related issues to deal with and much work remains to be done to ensure that NPOs can make the fullest possible contribution to Japanese society. For example, the NPO Law needs to be revised to ensure that criminal elements of society do not abuse the NPO system and NPOs need to im­prove their own management and fund-raising capa­bilities so as to be truly independent.

Although not directly related to NPOs, another im­portant public policy issue is what to do with the qua­si-governmental ‘public benefit corporations,’ estab­lished in the Meiji Era (1868-1912). The appropriate form and function of these entities is now the subject of considerable discussion.

What is the lesson to be learned from C’s success?

The establishment of Japan’s NPO system in such a rel­atively short time shows that Japan is, in fact, chang­ing at an accelerating pace. Looking from the outside, it may be difficult to see the changes that are taking place, but from the inside it is clear that Japan is changing in many ways, both good and bad.