[Japan NPO Center] Statement of Concern over Undue Restriction of Civil Society Activities

Statement of Concern over Undue Restriction of Civil Society Activities: The Implications of Saitama City Council’s Vote on the Citizens’ Activities Support Center

October 28, 2015

Noboru Hayase
Chairperson, Japan NPO Center (JNPOC)

* Endorsed by 46 NPO Support Centers across Japan and 5 individuals who represent such Centers, as of October 28, 2015

For the Japanese statement, (which has the list of 46 organizations and 5 individuals who endorsed this statement) please see here.

On October 16, the Saitama City Council passed an ordinance that will end the management of the Saitama City Citizens’ Activities Support Center by a Designated Managing Organization and bring it temporarily under direct municipal control for the reason that “some groups are using it for political purposes.” We at JNPOC believe that this decision was rushed unto with an erroneous understanding of civil society activities, and express our strong concern over the matter.

The Saitama City Citizens’ Activities Support Center is run based on the City Ordinance to Promote Citizens’ Activities and Cooperation and the Ordinance for Citizens’ Activities Support Center, under which “citizens’ activities” is defined as follows (From Art. 2 of City Bylaw to Promote Citizens’ Activities and Cooperation):

Citizens’ Activities:
This refers to activities that are not-for-profit and in the public interest that are carried out by citizens on a voluntary and independent basis in order to identify and resolve problems in the community or society. This, however, excludes the following:

a) activities for the purpose of propagating religious teachings, performing ceremonies, or educating or fostering believers;
b) activities for the purpose of promoting, supporting, or opposing a political principle;
c) activities for the purpose of recommending, supporting, or opposing a candidate (including a prospective candidate) for a public office (meaning a public office as specified in Article 3 of the Public Offices Election Law [Law No. 100 of 1950]; the same shall apply hereafter), a person holding a public office, or a political party.

These correspond with the scope of allowable activities for Specified Nonprofit Corporations (SNCs) under the 1998 Law to Promote Specified Nonprofit Activities (NPO Law). The NPO Law, however, states that SNCs can engage in activities as long as they are “not for the main purpose of…” for a) and b). Thus, the ordinance in Saitama City is more strict in defining the allowable scope of citizens’ activities than the NPO Law. Although we feel this difference is significant, it is important to note that this demarcation – whether or not activities are conducted for the (main) purpose of promoting, supporting, or opposing a political principle – has been established as one key indicator to distinguish citizens’ activities from political activities.

During the process of the City Council reaching its decision, some of the groups registered with the Citizens’ Activities Support Center – 14 out of about 1,700 – were identified as groups carrying out “political activities.” Given, however, that these activities are carried out “in order to identify and resolve problems in the community or society,” it is only natural that some of the groups might deal with issues that are topics of political debate. As long as they are not conducted for the main purpose of promoting, supporting, or opposing a political principle, then such activities have been formally acknowledged since the enactment of the NPO Law as part of the activities of civil society that are in the public interest. This must not be ignored. Even under the Saitama City Ordinance, the same guideline applies with the exception of taking out the word “main” in the “for the purpose of” clause.

The reality is that there are attempts here and there these days to restrict civil society activities that deal with political themes, with a tendency for groups working on issues such as peace, democracy, the nuclear issue, and energy, becoming victim to such constraint. These activities have been misinterpreted or distorted as “political activities” excluded under the definition of citizens’ activities above, and thereby restricted.

NPO Law Commentary (published by Nippon Hyoron Sha) provides an article-by-article explanation of the law, and regarding controls on the political activities of specified nonprofit corporations and the fact that there are restrictions on “activities for the purpose of promoting a political principle,” calls for care to ensure that “political measures” (i.e. policy recommendation activities) are not included. It interprets the law as being based on “political measures” referring to “concrete policies that are trying to be realized through politics” and the idea that “it is natural for and important that groups carrying out specified nonprofit activities are engaged in making various policy recommendations.”

The Saitama City Citizens’ Activities Support Center is utilized by groups that include public interest corporations and voluntary organizations, and so we cannot just discuss this issue by interpreting the NPO Law. We think it is crucial in encouraging civil society activities to be free, independent and autonomous that we think about why, in the process of enacting the NPO Law, it was decided that activities related to “political measures” should not be excluded from the activities of nonprofit organizations.

Beginning with the Saitama City Citizens’ Activities Support Center decision, we at JNPOC, in addition to demanding that the activities of civil society groups, including specified nonprofit corporations, not be unfairly restricted, call strongly upon those charged with the promotion of civil society activities in local governments and local assemblies to ensure that this does not negatively impact other communities. We also hope that people involved in civil society efforts do not self-impose unnecessary restraints on the policy recommendation work of their groups.