Issue 35 - Article 14

NGOs as political actors: a Japanese approach?

November 21, 2006
Emily Perkin

Japanese NGOs are relative newcomers to the international NGO scene. They are small compared to their counterparts from the rich countries of Europe and North America, and their contribution often goes largely unnoticed by the wider aid community. However, they ought to be given greater consideration. They act as a link between poor people in developing countries and the political and financial resources of the world’s second-largest economy. They also come from a historical and cultural tradition that is very different to that of the rich countries of the West, and thus they may offer a useful and alternative approach to the overall business of aid work.

This article presents a brief sketch of Japanese NGOs, with a particular emphasis on those working in Afghanistan. Afghanistan provides a relevant context because the difficult political climate and the complex multitude of aid actors there have placed the inner workings of international NGOs under a particularly powerful spotlight. Given this situation, we may then ask whether there is anything different or remarkable about the Japanese approach.


Overview: Japanese NGOs in Afghanistan

The vast majority of the Japanese NGOs in Afghanistan began operations either just before or just after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. There are currently around ten major Japanese NGOs working on the ground in Afghanistan, plus a similar number of very small organisations. Two organisations (Save the Children Japan and Care Japan) are members of international NGO federations, but the others are indigenously Japanese. None of the Japanese NGOs has the budget or scope of the global brand-name NGOs associated with Europe and North America, and even the Japanese branches of such international federations are small.

Typically, Japanese NGOs in Afghanistan have two or three Japanese staff and a total of 20 or 30 local staff, administering a small handful of projects generally in one particular region. Only half of the major organisations have offices in the capital, Kabul. Activities are overwhelmingly concentrated on direct service provision. Popular sectors are education, landmine clearance, livelihoods and health. Ideologically, Japanese NGOs are committed to solidarity with local beneficiaries – a position that supersedes interest in normative concepts such as human rights, and standardised approaches such as the use of humanitarian principles. Their operational focus is on project implementation, but there is also some secondary interest in policy advocacy on specific issues. As Asians, their image as political actors is somewhat different from that of Western NGOs, and this may offer them comparatively greater operational flexibility and access to local people.


Basic political identity

At a strategic level, the mission statements and values of Japanese NGOs often place a heavy emphasis on the notion of solidarity with beneficiaries at a micro level. For a number of organisations and individual NGO workers, this notion of solidarity is either explicitly or implicitly linked to the Buddhist teaching of compassion for all living beings. At the same time, they do not tend to dwell on other issues familiar to Western agencies, such as the application of categorical principles or the question of how their own work relates to the broader aid environment.

This approach is evidenced by the Japanese NGOs’ relative lack of interest in the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence. While few Western NGOs can claim to strictly uphold these principles in every circumstance, they are nevertheless maintained as at least a theoretical point of reference. However, for many Japanese NGOs the notion of humanitarian principles does not exist at all. For example, many of the Japanese NGO staff interviewed for this article stated that they were unsure of the meaning of the phrase, or reported that they simply did not think in such terms.

Japanese NGOs also tend not to engage in policy advocacy. Japanese NGO employees frequently observe that they are less actively engaged in political processes than their Western counterparts. Commonly cited reasons for this include a lack of funding for advocacy (Japanese donors, both private and governmental, usually require visible results at project level); the fact that project implementation (rather than advocacy) is their stated priority; and the relative difficulty of engaging with the Japanese government.

That is not to say that advocacy work does not exist. A number of the larger organisations conduct a regular dialogue with Japanese aid officials, both in Kabul and in Tokyo. It is true that this dialogue tends to concentrate on issues facing the NGOs themselves (such as problems with funding stipulations or security), rather than issues facing their beneficiaries. All the same, a channel of communication is being nurtured, and Japanese NGOs have spoken up on policy issues, especially when they are directly relevant to their own expertise.


Japanese government funding

Japanese NGOs tend to be highly dependent on the Japanese government for funding. This is partly a reflection of the difficulty of fund-raising from private sources in Japan, but it may also be because NGOs do not feel that close association with the Japanese government will either threaten their security or co-opt their agenda to suit the government’s political goals.

Regarding security, it can be argued that, in an environment like Afghanistan, association with the Japanese government is less likely to provoke a hostile reaction than, for example, association with the British government. The Japanese government projects itself as pacifist and has no troops stationed in Afghanistan. As a result, Japanese nationals are, in the eyes of the Afghan people, less likely to be linked with the military activities of foreign forces. At the same time, Japanese government funding for NGOs is in fact highly sensitive to security issues, and takes what could be considered extreme measures to safeguard the security of NGO contractors, such as stringent travel restrictions.

Equally, there tend to be few concerns regarding the ulterior political motives of Japanese aid. The Japanese government makes no effort to deny that NGOs are seen as a tool for enhancing ‘national profit’. To that extent, Japanese NGOs are indeed co-opted to the political agenda of their government. But in reality, ‘national profit’ means a fairly benign desire to be seen to be making an important international contribution. Hence, the nature of that political agenda is not in fact very far from the original aims of the NGOs themselves.


Day-to-day interactions with political actors: the example of civil–military relations

The US-led coalition forces and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have been developing a new model of civil–military relations in Afghanistan called ‘Provincial Reconstruction Teams’ (PRTs). PRTs consist of around 100 international military personnel, with a small number of civilian aid advisers. Their roles range from the direct implementation of aid projects to the provision of ‘ambient security’ to enable civilian aid agencies to operate.

PRTs have been blamed for jeopardising NGO security by blurring the lines between ‘humanitarian’ and ‘military’. They have also attracted criticism from NGOs for the poor quality of their projects, or for directly undermining the efforts of NGOs. However, at the same time, PRTs present NGOs with a potential source of information and funding, an enticement that forces NGOs to weigh up the costs and benefits of cooperating with them.

Japanese NGOs, like their Western counterparts, have adopted a range of approaches to the PRT phenomenon. One Japanese NGO receives funds from a PRT, whilst another has come out as an outspoken critic of PRTs, which it says are undermining NGO projects. However, although the range of approaches for Japanese and Western NGOs may be similar, the cost–benefit balance is arguably different. This is because the problem of blurred civil–military identities is perhaps less acute in the case of Japanese NGOs. First, as mentioned above, the Japanese government and Japanese citizens are less likely to be associated with the US or NATO military forces. Second, a crude but important point is that, unlike most of the staff of Western NGOs, Japanese NGO staff tend to look ‘Asian’ not ‘American’ – to the extent that they are sometimes mistaken for Afghans. As a consequence, Japanese NGOs may find themselves facing an easier set of decisions than their Western counterparts.



At present, Japanese NGOs possess a number of characteristics that potentially offer an alternative approach to programming through Western NGOs. However, their operations are currently very small, and it is not known whether these characteristics would survive if operations were scaled up to address larger and more complex needs.

In particular, would it be possible to expand operations and yet maintain the micro-level focus and the concept of solidarity? In the political environment of Afghanistan, an NGO may be able to express solidarity with one small group of beneficiaries, but what happens when it tries to express solidarity simultaneously with numerous groups of beneficiaries who may well be in conflict with each other? It may be that, at such a level of operations, it becomes necessary to abandon solidarity in favour of a universal normative framework.

In the future, Japanese NGOs can be expected to expand as increasing public awareness of global issues leads to greater private sector funding and an improved pool of human resources. It will be interesting to see whether, as they grow, they are able to capitalise on the advantages of their Japanese/Asian political identity and their alternative philosophical background in order to develop their current approaches into strategies that can be applied on a larger scale.


Emily Perkin has worked as a policy adviser at the Japanese NGO Japan International Volunteer Center (JVC), and as coordinator of the Japan Afghan NGO Network since March 2005. She previously worked as a researcher in the Civil Society Organisations Partnerships Programme at ODI. Her email address is:


References and further reading

M. Dziedxic and M. Seidl, Provincial Reconstruction Teams: Military Relations with International and Nongovernmental Organizations in Afghanistan, United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Special Report no. 147, 2005.

‘Directory of Japanese NGOs’, Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation (JANIC), 2002,

‘Background of the Growth of Japanese NGOs’, Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation (JANIC), 2002,

K. Kuroda, Current Issues Facing the Japanese NGO Sector, Informed NGO Funding and Policy Bulletin no. 8, International NGO Training and Research Centre (INTRAC), 2003.

P. O’Brien, ‘Old Woods, New Paths, and Diverging Choices for NGOs’, in A. Donini, N. Niland and K. Wermaster (eds) Nation-building Unraveled? Aid, Peace and Justice in Afghanistan (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2004).

E. Perkin, ‘Navigating Politics: A Comparison of INGO Approaches in Afghanistan’, Japan International Volunteer Center, 2006.

Save the Children, ‘Provincial Reconstruction Teams and Humanitarian–Military Relations in Afghanistan’, 2004.


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