Covid-19 has rapidly spread around the world impacting economies, healthcare systems and daily life. The challenges that it poses are real and consequential. To help policymakers and donors better understand the impact on Asia’s social sector, CAPS (virtually) sat down with our partners across the region to understand the challenges they are grappling with, the strategies they are employing to contain the fallout and their take on the future of the social sector.
To discuss this impact and catalog how Japan’s social sector is responding, we spoke with Kazuho Tsuchiya, Senior Program Coordinator of the Japan NPO Center (JNPOC) on 6 April 2020 and followed up with an update on 6 August 2020. Founded in 1996 as a social sector intermediary, JNPOC supports civic activities and promotes cross-sector collaboration for the growing nonprofit sector in Japan and has served as a valued partner for the Doing Good Index 2020.
CAPS: Kazuho, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Can you tell us more about the Covid-19 situation in Japan, and how has it changed over the past few months?
JNPOC: In late March, as Covid-19 worsened in Tokyo and around the world, Tokyo’s governor requested Tokyoites to refrain from going outside on weekends. The Tokyo Olympics were also officially postponed. In early April a state of emergency was declared for a few prefectures with big cities, and later expanded nationwide. The declaration of the state of emergency was accompanied by a voluntary curfew and a request to close various facilities or shorten business hours.
The number of new infections appeared to have settled down during May and June, and the state of emergency was lifted. However, cases suddenly rose in July and August, partly due to the increased number of people getting tested. As of July 28, the death toll in Japan had exceeded 1,000. As of August 3, the number of cases had exceeded 40,000.
CAPS: How are you responding as an intermediary that supports many other organizations?
JNPOC: We have about 700 members, including corporates, nonprofit organizations (NPOs), and individuals who are interested in supporting the development of civil society in Japan. We held virtual meetings with local NPO support centers early on to better understand how to help our members. Together with these centers, we established a platform called Covid-19 Intermediary Social Solidarity (CIS) to help NPOs overcome this difficult time through knowledge-sharing. In addition to conducting surveys, the CIS team has launched a website to provide information on Covid-19 response and resources that may be useful for civil society organizations.
CAPS: Do CIS surveys tell you anything about how Covid has impacted Japanese nonprofits?
JNPOC: The full impact of Covid on the nonprofit sector is yet to be seen. But a CIS survey of around 1,000 organizations in April found approximately 80% of respondents saying that the pandemic is currently affecting their activities. Around 94% said they expect Covid to affect future activities.
For those engaged in business activity, 76% found Covid was either having a negative impact or anticipated a negative impact. When asked what kind of help was most needed during this time, the most common answer was financial support.
Our NPO members have also expressed a worry that funding from private donors, including corporations, will decrease or cease altogether as the financial situation for businesses worsens. NPOs that rely on government funding are also concerned amid uncertainty caused by procurement projects being postponed or suspended.
CAPS: One trend we see in the Doing Good Index 2020 for Japan is the weak engagement of individual donors and corporate donors with the social sector. Is Covid changing this as the imperative for private and corporate donors to do more strengthens?
JNPOC: Not yet, it seems. Multinational corporates appear to have been more active than local businesses, but it’s tough as businesses themselves also being severely impacted right now. Many of them need to think about their own business results. If they are able to they may continue their CSR programs next year.
CAPS: Is the government helping address the financial uncertainty businesses and nonprofits are facing?
JNPOC: One initiative, inclusive of NPOs, is the Subsidy Program for Sustaining Businesses, announced in May by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. To be eligible an organization has to show its revenues have fallen by 50% or more due to Covid-19 in at least one month compared to that same month the previous year. We already know of many NPOs who have applied for this subsidy.
But it is also clear to us that many NPOs do not meet the conditions of getting public support via programs like this one. Currently, CIS is conducting a new survey with additional questions on the public support system for NPOs. We plan to use the findings to make policy recommendations that would make it easier for NPOs to access public support.
Another effort to revive the Japanese economy showcases the Covid dilemma for government: people’s safety vs. economic development. The government attempted to implement the “Go To Campaign” to boost domestic tourism and related services, but the rise in Covid cases prevented local governments from embracing it. Tokyo, one of the most important local travel destinations, had to be excluded.
CAPS: In the past, there has been an immense humanitarian response from the Japanese people during natural disasters like Fukushima and Kobe. Have you seen that same tendency during this crisis, even though Covid-19 is not a natural disaster?
JNPOC: At this point, no. Covid is a very different case since all people living in this country are facing the danger of Covid, whereas other disasters were more localized. In Covid, we all risk being a victim. For Fukushima and Kobe, people distant from affected areas stepped up to help, and this aid was mainly coordinated by local social welfare councils and other nonprofits. While we haven’t seen the same type of response because the coronavirus has affected every prefecture in Japan, there are still organizations and individuals stepping up to help.
CAPS: Do you think we’re going to see the closing down of NPOs as a result of this crisis?
JNPOC: Yes, we have heard of organizations that need to consider closing down. For some, it may not be a direct result of the coronavirus, but with lean budgets the coronavirus might have been the last blow.
Additionally, art institutions and cultural organizations, including private museums, orchestras, and music halls, have been badly hit. I worry about this because once cultural organization groups have decided to withdraw, I don’t know if they can revive again.
CAPS: That is very worrying, especially as so many people during this time of duress are tapping into the arts, music, free online concerts to keep them uplifted. Do you think the social sector is seen to be even more important now than before?
JNPOC: A tougher world is coming after corona. We can expect to see a widening gap between the haves and have-nots. Even once the health dimension is taken care of, its aftershocks will continue. It is too early to judge whether people will believe the social sector is more important than before once the dust has settled. But as someone who works in this sector, I am a strong believer that the social sector can often do what governments cannot do.