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The devastation of Japan’s coastal cities and towns from the recent earthquake and tsunami reminded us that the world is not virtual.  It is gravely physical.  The needs of the survivors of this highly developed nation were strikingly basic during the first few days of the aftermath— a few biscuits to last through the day, shelter from the snow, and cremation of the dead.  Many of the survivors’ needs have been met since then, but not necessarily by prominent international charities sending personnel and supplies.  Hunger, cold, and honoring the deceased have been quietly attended to by fellow Japanese.

Japan is not well-known for its philanthropy or charity. “It has been described as ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘weak’ when compared with other advanced capitalist democracies,” writes Wesleyan professor Mary Alice Haddad in “Transformation of Japan’s Civil Society Landscape.”  Even the Japanese call themselves a “no-donation culture,” Japan Times' Masako Tsubuku admits.  Charitable contributions as a percentage of overall giving rank near the lowest among nations.   The combined assets of the twenty largest foundations in the United States have about thirty-one times the combined assets of Japan's twenty largest foundations.  And the budgets of Japanese nonprofits are threadbare—the average nonprofit income is about $200,000, and the median annual income is only about $60,000.

The third sector in Japan also has regulatory challenges.  As of February 2011, there were 41,600 registered nonprofits in Japan.  Only two hundred of them were given tax-deductible status by the government.  And strict privacy laws limit or prohibit many fundraising techniques such as direct mail, prospect research, and planned giving.  Why would the world’s third largest economy show so little evidence of charity?

Perhaps Japanese culture resists a Western philanthropic mold.  According to Rita Hillis,  the act of giving in Japan is more confined to specific social relationships such as neighbors or employees, and it is typically used to balance actions of obligation or gratitude.  Since the nuclear power plant explosion, for example, private companies (rather than Japanese aid groups) have chartered buses to help their employees and families flee the Fukushima Prefecture.  Voluntary gifts from strangers—which would only make a recipient feel obliged to repay—are not part of the traditional exchange etiquette.  Hillis also argues that Confucianism influences Japanese charity.  While Christianity encourages public repentance of sin (through charity), Confucianism discourages openly sharing the problems or needs of oneself or others.  “Consequently, charitable work in Japan is preferably done in secrecy and without recognition.”  Neither individuals nor corporations (which make up about 75 percent of Japan’s philanthropic giving compared with the United State’s 4.8 percent) would “toot their own horn”.

Professor Haddard argues that Japan’s civil society is in fact highly developed but less discernible because it is “embedded” in local communities and local governments.  In contrast to the United States’ steady decline in civic organization participation, Japan’s traditional membership organizations are sustaining or even increasing their participation.  Haddard notes, for example, that about 21 million Japanese volunteer in the Red Cross, while only about 1 million Americans volunteer (Japan has about half the population of the United States).  There are almost three times as many volunteer firefighters in Japan as in the U.S.  And nearly 90 percent of Japanese households are members of their neighborhood associations.  While new political advocacy groups are on the rise in Japan, traditional organizations that carry out vital roles in their communities continue to be supported at very high rates among younger people in both rural and urban areas.

It is startling to compare the virtual presence of Japan’s third sector with that of Western countries.  The web sites of Japan’s charitable and philanthropic organizations I viewed had neither pictures nor names of people—donors, recipients, or professionals.  They were not professionally produced.  Very few were even updated since the earthquake.  In the real world, however, this doesn’t mean charity is not taking place in Japan.  Neighborhood associations are facilitating aid and information exchanges, volunteer fire departments are making their way through miles of rubble, and employers are looking after their employees without flourish.

Japan’s low-profile civil society provides a sharp contrast to America’s tradition of conspicuous philanthropy.  Perhaps each country has something to gain from the other during this time of tragedy.