Catching up on some of what we did with my favourite institutional visit of the stay. Keijinkai seemed, for me, to meld the best of Japanese traditions with a more relaxed and informal approach to working that is a strength of many UK based charities. It also demonstrates some of the differences between what a charity is in the UK and what an NPO is in Japan: how the cultures, legislation and traditions differ.

It is a large complex of apartments, residential care, dementia care, day centres and outreach services. It also has social workers who are able to advise people and help them to develop packages of care and support to meet their needs. It is an NPO but it was founded by the Director’s grand-father so in many ways more resembles a UK family business than a charity. While I am sure that the Director, his father and grand-father make a good living from successfully managing the home I did not get the impression that they were getting rich. While the bottom line would clearly be a critical factor the ethos of care in the home was very strong.

We started our visit touring around the apartments and residential rooms. The buildings are light, spacious and very clean. The first activity group we visited were arranging flowers under the guidance of a volunteer. We then went on to visit the rehabilitation room where a physiotherapist was working with one of the residents who appeared to have had a stroke. The physio in our group, Anne, was comparing notes with the local physio on the use of heated packs for treatment.

Next stop was a Day Centre where a volunteer was in full flow leading the group in song. It turned out she was a retired music teacher and this use of skills from working life to volunteer in retirement is a wonderfully common feature of Japanese life. She led the group in performing a song for us and then we all sand a Japanese song “Furasato” together. Furasato means cherry-blossom and the annual blossom festival is a major event in Japanese culture but sadly one we were around a month early for. With the words to the song written up on a wipe-board she then led us in singing it along with the older people. By guiding us up and down the notes with visual clues we were able to sing along enjoyably despite having no prior knowledge of the words or tune.

We also visited the higher-dependency wing where most of the clients were in the advanced stages of dementia. Staff were performing a traditional Japanese dance called the “eel dance” for the clients. There were also a couple of staff members in the audience with the residents and what was striking was the level of physical contact and intimacy between staff and residents. You could feel the warmth and care emanating from all sides. In the kitchen, lunch was being prepared as the cook filleted fishes expertly.

Finally we all returned to the meeting room for a discussion with staff, volunteers and managers. Often in other visits these discussions were chaired by the senior manager present and others would only speak when invited to do so. There was no such formality here and people readily chipped in with their comments and views. A common issue facing care organisations in Japan and the UK is high levels of staff turnover. I asked about the situation at Keijinkai and was told that they didn’t have such problems. When I asked why all the staff and volunteers looked at the Manager who shrugged and said “I don’t know, we don’t pay very much”. Cue laughter and comments from the staff along the lines of “You’re right, you don’t”.

Overall it was a relaxed, warm and caring setting that I would be proud to see in the UK. Staff were confident, motivated and engaged with clients. The older people we saw seemed happy and comfortable in their surroundings. Clearly there were some signs of it being an institutional setting – it cared for over 100 older people – but overall it was a place I would be happy to end my days.


I’m skipping a few days but will try and catch up in due course, but today has been seriously good so I wanted to commit it to the ether before it evaporated. This morning took us to the Matsue Social Welfare Corporation and some of the local structures suddenly started to come clear.

This may sound very dry to start with but stick with it as it is a fascinating approach to locally determined services and local decision making.

In basic terms Matsue (population 193k) has a city council. One part of the City Council is the Health and Welfare Department – this deals with such matters in the city. The next level down is the Community Welfare Section – of which there are 28 in the city in total. Each Community section then has a number of community associations within it. We were visiting the Inbe Community Welfare Section. Inbe is split up into 17 Community Associations each of which has between 12-95 households in it. Each unit has a monthly meeting and their own plan to address local needs as well as ensure disaster plans are in place covering such things as who might need help in the event of a disaster and who might be able to provide that help.

Funding for the Community Sections comes from the City Council and from local membership fees – payable by every citizen but not high (about GBP5 per person per year). They also get a fair amount of money from people’s estates when they die. It wasn’t clear if this was tax or voluntary donation.

This structure came about because Shimane is facing an ageing population like nowhere else in the world. Out of its 192k population 46k are over 65, or 28.6%. By comparison UK stands at around 16% and Japan at 22%. So Shimane sits at the front line of the ageing world. The structures outlined about are their attempt to respond to this situation. The Inbe Community Welfare section sent out a questionnaire in 2001 and got a response rate of 84% which is a marker of the different culture, history and situations of Shimane and UK. Transport was identified as the major problem, which serves as a reminder that whatever the differences in culture the needs are often the same.

With a bit of support from the City Council they purchased community buses – part of the deal was that the community helped make some of the rural roads usable. This included clearing trees and repairing the tarmac in places. Only the main road is maintained by the national highways agency so much of the local infrastructure requires local resources to maintain it. These vehicles are now subsidised by Inbe and are driven by volunteers. Though when Japan speaks of volunteers they often mean people paid around 6-800 Yen per hour (about GBP5). These people are often retired and welcome a bit of cash and the opportunity to help out. They charge 150 yen per trip (GBP1) for journeys that could have cost up to 4,000Yen by taxi.

The local community associations organise a range of activities, the ones we heard about and saw were mostly focused on older people. They have monthly meetings and a newsletter comes out of these and is delivered by volunteers to every house in the area but they also maintain roads and parks and do other work that needs doing. One of the nicer sounding projects was that there is a public garden in most local areas that is maintained by the older people in that area. I will upload a photo of a number of these, but it sounds like a wonderful way of bringing people together and engaging them in meaningful activity.

Matsue is not representative of Japan and the approach is pretty new (though the ideas are not). There are also some major differences between the UK and Japan. But it is a model of grass-roots democracy that empowers local people and engages them in maintaining local infrastructure and services. How directly applicable it would be to the UK is an open question but it would well worth a try in my book.

NPO Forum


The annual Japanese NPO forum was held at the National Youth Centre (formerly the Olympic Village) from 4-7 February. It brought together the groups from Finland, Germany and UK participating in the exchange programme with a number of Japanese people working in the NPO sector. The final output of the days was a series of presentations and agreed statements to representatives of the Cabinet Office. Great importance is placed in these, particularly the statements that are used in a number of ways – most notably as one way of informing the Cabinet Office of the state of the local NPO sector, where it is heading and what support needs it has.

The recent change in Japanese government – the first such change in over fifty years – has presented the new, grass-roots, NPO sector with opportunities to develop and access government support and resources in ways that didn’t seem to be so possible under the previous administration. There is an opportunity for conversation and discourse, and a desire from the Cabinet Office to engage – as seen by senior representation at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Forum.

The forum opened with some traditional Japanese efforts on hospitality and trying to put visitors at their ease. This largely consists of orientation (or induction if you prefer) where they let you know what is going to be happening, when, where and what you need to be doing at various times. It also consisted of introducing every Japanese person present at the forum, which took a while, and involved so many names that even if they had have been familiar names then there is no way I would have remembered them. It is all very considerate and polite but can push the patience a little.

Anyhow, introductory talks were given by the lead representatives from UK, Finland and Germany. A few things stood out from them. Firstly that the Finnish talk could almost entirely be applied to Britain. An emphasis on dignity, empowerment and new legislation to allow for personal assistants. A third sector seeking to break hierarchies and work through partnership and projects. Germany seems markedly different. The thing I loved was the principle of subsidiarity. For NPOs this means that if they are able to provide services then the state must allow them to do so and should not seek to compete or set up alternative provision. It also works at regional and national level where the higher tier of government should not involve itself in matters that can be dealt with locally. It is, apparently, breaking down a little, but a good philosophy with which to approach government in my book.

More to follow…

A couple of days ago we were treated to a talk on the situation of older people in Japan. Takahicho Kogima of the Japanese Cabinet Office presented. These notes are from that talk – any mistakes are most definitely mine!

In 1995 the Basic Law on Ageing Society was introduced which set out the framework and objectives which are still being worked towards. There is an annual report to the Diet (Japanese Parliament) setting out the current situation, progress against implementation and plans for future work. It does not cover pensions, health, medicine or nursing as they are covered by another department.

The five principles of the law are: to challenge stereotypes, focus on prevention, focus on the community, gender equality and technology. In addition there are four cross-sectional challenges: to support independence, treat older peopl

e the same as others, to do intergenerational work and community participation. The aim is to focus on opportunities for participation and not to treat older people as passive recipients.

Five areas are measured: working & income, health & welfare, learning & social participation, the living environment and research. In the the third area NPOs are seen as critical to success

In 2005 Japan had over 20% of the population aged 65+. They are the oldest and fastest ageing society in the world. The increase of the 65+ population in Japan took 24 years, in the UK it took 47. Their female life expectancy is the highest in the world and for males they are third highest. By 2055 40% of the population will be over 65 and this is against an overall decrease in the total population of Japan. This means that the ratio of working age people to older people will be 1.3 to 1.

Poverty is a growing problem for older people although the picture is complex with many wealthy and very wealthy older people – meaning an increase in inequality. Employment rates for older people are higher than many places with 50% of men and 28% of women aged 65-70 still in employment.

The challenges faced by older people are social isolation, housing, care and support from families, community participation and work/care balance for families. More detail on these areas is below.

Social Isolation

  • 8% of older people only have 1 conversation every 2 or 3 days and in older males living alone this increases to 40%
  • 3% say they have no one to rely on
  • 1 in 4 older men are living alone
  • Unnoticed deaths are increasing


  • This is especially a problem for low income older people living alone
  • Places in communal establishments are often not available
  • People can end up being forced to live in non-registered homes and face risk of fires in unsuitable premises
  • There is a national system of social housing but it is inefficient

Care and support from families

  • 400k older people want to enter nursing or residential care but cannot find a place
  • The Civil Code of Japan places a requirement on families to provide support
  • There are isolated cases of older people being murdered by their carer
  • Voluntary groups are often the primary providers of support to carers

Community participation

  • There are 3 million baby-boomers in Japan aged from 63 to 65
  • These people are often care givers
  • Many could also be volunteers to help address the needs identified above
  • Only 4% of the 60+ population volunteer for a NPO
  • 43% want to but don’t know how
  • A national campaign to recruit community leaders is underway

Work/care balance for families

  • There are growing numbers of people in their 40s and 50s being forced to give up work and care for a parent
  • The unions and government started a campaign to persuade employers to enable continued work through reduced hours and flexible working

The retirement age is 60 although some companies will allow people to work later. In 2005 the state pension age was raised to 65 and new legislation enacted which encourages employers to keep employees on longer.

For older people with low income and no savings there is a social welfare system that provides housing and cost of living. Only 2% of older people are entitled to receive this benefit. There are also a number of companies who say they provide services to poor people, gather together, register them and retain 90% of their benefits in return for housing and food. These can be legitimate but are not always.

There is no clear campaigning organisation for older people in Japan. There are a number of powerful NPOs and individuals who will lobby.

The coda to the meeting was a discussion about Mr Kogima’s role which is 50% funded by Canon. This provoked debate as it could not happen in the UK and the reasons for why Canon funded it and why the Cabinet allowed it were probed. It wasn’t entirely clear but the impression I got was that companies in Japan are very civic minded, and see themselves as having duties to wider society. They, therefore, try to find ways to contribute and help. The Cabinet office needed expertise and was trying to get more people from the private sector involved to try and change the culture. Just another marker of how different the culture can be.

Local Visits


Thursday was the first day we managed to get out of the hotel on visits to two local organisations. The morning took us to the Japanese office of YMCA. There are a network of local YMCAs in Japan and the office we visited was that of the coordinating body. The overview of the organisation was given to us by a Director of YMCA who insisted we call him Pumpkin. Given the focus of the forthcoming NPO forum is developing the next generation of third sector leaders he focused heavily on the development programme that YMCA have in Japan. This is called the 3 Step approach and starts with training in the local YMCA. Step II is the significant one for those who aspire to higher level jobs in the Japanese YMCA. It is a 75 day residential course that is held once a year. Last year 12 people attended the course so places appear to be limited. The content of the course seemed to focus on developing the character of the participants. Great store is placed in finding people who have the capacity to sustain the culture of the organisation.

After the initial presentation we split off into two groups, one stayed with Pumpkin but the group I was in went away with an Operational Manager who had been through Step II training. He was clear that the benefits for him – aside from enabling him to move on in the organisation – were personal development, offering him time to reflect on his personality and develop the maturity he needed to become a leader. When asked what were the most important characteristics of a leader he said consideration for others to ensure that there is a pleasant working environment. It was unclear exactly how people got selected for the Step II course, and the career path is clearly very structured (four distinct paths were set out) and the answer to every question often provoked many more questions than it answered. I was aware that there were clearly assumptions and differences that were deeply rooted in such a way that the conversation glossed over them in such a way that you could forget they were there. One example being that the significant majority of Directors in the YMCA have been with the organisation since after college or first starting work. How you develop people in such an organisation is a very different question to how you do so in the free-for-all of the UK jobs market.

The afternoon took us to Bethania Home for Elderly People. Founded in memory of a French Priest who lived in Japan in the early 20th Century. It is an interesting tension in Japanese culture that they are pretty closed to foreigners in terms of immigration and access to jobs. Indeed until the end of the 19th century they were contentedly isolated from the rest of the world. This sits happily alongside their incredible hospitality and desire to welcome visitors and put them at their ease but jars slightly with the small, but notable, number of foreigners who are venerated in their history.

The first presentation at Bethania was given by one of the Sisters who work alongside the older people in the home. This focused heavily on the ethos, values and mission of the home. She handed over to the Home Manager who talked through their approach to personnel development. He contrasted the hierarchical approach of businesses with the more complex approach needed by NPOs. The former being driven by the bottom line and the latter having to take into account the clients, families, volunteers and the desire to transform individuals and society.

We then undertook a tour of the home. Set out over four floors we started at the roof, where on a clear day you could see Mount Fuji, unfortunately it was not a clear day, although the views across to Shiboku (a suburb of Tokyo) were impressive. From there we moved down a floor to where there were 29 flats. Every flat had its own front door and was largely self contained although meals were generally had communally – the flats having only basic cooking facilities.

The next floor down was more like a residential care home with 40 beds, mostly provided through single rooms but a number of twin and even four bed rooms. The Manager felt that single rooms were better, and homes built today are solely single bed but said that some older people preferred the company offered by shared rooms. The next floor down was similar, though people with dementia seemed more in evidence. A number of activities were underway in different parts of the home including calligraphy, singing and when we joined one group an old lady grabbed one of our group for a dance. The other group touring round had been treated to a traditional Japanese ceremony where a character representing wealth or prosperity is seen off by a devil, who is then, in turn, seen off by the people present who throw beans at him. It is performed on the first day of Spring.

Overall the home felt similar to many you might find in the UK. You could find much worse examples as well a many better. The tensions faced were in some ways similar – high staff turnover, insufficient capacity to do all the activities with the residents that they would have liked. There is however one gaping difference, namely the level of demand. Bethania had a waiting list of 800 people and it was common for applicants to have to wait 5 years to get a place. There is also limited availability of bought in support for people in their own homes. The traditional family support systems are clearly being stretched and in many cases breaking down but there is no obvious solution available through either the private or NPO sector.

The final part of the visit was a round table discussion with staff at the home. It was clear that they felt unable to contribute anything without the express permission of the manager but the dynamics at work were not straightforward. There is clearly the hierarchical aspect but also a strong desire not to offend or upset a senior colleague, Japanese society is very hierarchical but in different ways to the UK, an area I would like to understand better but not always the easiest area to probe.



After a surprisingly good night’s sleep we reassembled in the basement of the hotel for orientation. That was after the wondrous breakfast buffet that was provided. I chanced my arm and opted for the Japanese options, the first time I have had sushi, noodles, grilled fish (which you took from the grill yourself) and an assortment of vegetable dishes. I went for variety over quantity and thoroughly enjoyed all of it aside from the sour plum. Even the coffee was drinkable which was a pleasant surprise.

Orientation started with an opening ceremony where the assembled visitors from Finland, Germany and Russia sat down with our country flags at the front and a stage for various ceremonies. A number of welcome and initiation speeches started. Culturally the Japanese put a lot more store in putting you at your ease, explaining what is happening and welcoming you so this all took much longer than it would have done in the UK. In reverse the ‘what’s happening’ talk probably would have been covered on the bus from the airport with a quick welcome speech in the hotel the next morning. Here, however, much of the morning and the early part of the afternoon was given over to explaining what was happening in the coming days.

The most interesting part of the morning was a presentation by ___ who gave some background statistics and information about the voluntary sector in Japan. It showed up some illuminating differences between Japan and the UK. There are three sets of legislation covering what the Japanese call NPOs – non-profit organisations. The oldest, dating back to 1896, allowed for the government or private businesses to set up Public Benefit Corporations (PBCs). From what I have heard this sound much more like what we would call Quangos. The government would develop a strategy and then set up a new organisation to deliver the strategy. The second set of legislation followed the Pacific war and offered wider scope for new organisations covering medecine, welfare, education and other areas. The legislation also made it easier for non-governmental organisations or groups to create PBCs.

The final set of legislation followed directly from the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji or Kobe earthquake. The public response to the earthquake and the international help provided showed the Japanese that they lacked the means to harness people’s offers of help. The PBCs were too complex and difficult to register so new laws were developed and passed in 1998. This allowed far easier registration and enabled grass-roots organisations to form far more easily. The legislation saw the number of NPOs increase from under 5000 in 2001 to over 38K in 2009

At lunch time they allowed us time to pop out and find a local restaurant. Only slightly hampered by not having a common language with the waiting staff we gesticulated and ended up pointing to the next table and ordering the same as them. It was, of course, delicious, rice, tempura fish, miso and pickles, and rounded off a good morning.

The First Night


Quite a welcome to the cultural and food life of Japan. After being welcomed by our hosts and given supplies of multi-vitamins, a thermometer and local information we showered and headed out. Tiredness levels were pretty high as no one had got much sleep on the flight but there was a clear desire to head out and find some local food. We headed to the Roppongi district, considered Tokyo’s equivalent to Soho. Lots of cafes, restaurants and a bustling night scene. The walk there was mostly along a main highway towards the city centre which features two roads running along the same length above it for sections. We found a local restaurant and got shown into a private room with a sunken floor underneath the table. The menus were the most confusing I have ever seen, two different publications with page after page of pictures and options. Eventually we put ourselves into the hands of Sam, our token Japanese speaker, who took various ideas and orders and, with the help of our waiter, moulded them into a promising sounding assemblage of Japanese food. A round of beers arrived and we relaxed into our temporary home.

A free starter arrived that, after eating, we remained unsure about its composition. It looked a bit like shelled oysters on seaweed but the texture and taste were more of fish. The main spread included Tempura balls, sushi, fried tofu, noodles, another round of beer and some warmed sake. We happily ate and drank our way through everything available and were confronted with a bill of just over 2000Yen a head. Around 12 quid in UK terms. A couple of people headed back at this stage as tiredness started to take its toll. The rest of us set off in search of a bar, easier said than done it turned out. Shunning the ‘British Pub’ that was on offer, we walked round in a large circle before giving in to some street sellers who guided us up three floors to a bar. In many ways it was an internationally common experience, loud music, flashing lights and lasers and the occasional blast from a smoke machine. One difference with the UK was the presence of ashtrays on the table, which could mean I need to wash a few more clothes than I was hoping.

So, we settled in and had a beer, and then a couple more. It was at that point we realised that we didn’t have any change, a problem that could be solved by the simple option of buying another round of beers. Jet lag seemed to be a thing of the past so we enjoyed that beer and headed back to the Hotel. That would have been the end of it had it not been for the discovery of a bar on the 36th floor. Deciding it seemed the perfect place for a night-cap we headed up in the lift and got ushered into an up market jazz cafe with panoramic views across Tokyo in every direction. A round of various cocktails and, for me, a Yamazaki whiskey were ordered and we settled in to enjoy the view accompanied by smooth jazz choons.

The Flight


OK, finally got some access after struggling to find a way into Japan’s online world that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. A few posts to cover most of what we’ve done in the last couple of days….

12 hours on a plane with very little sleep sounds like a lot longer than it felt in reality. Largely helped by working my way through 4 films. Informant with Matt Damon making an interesting start, especially with the references to life in Japan (are there really vending machines that sell second hand underwear?). I followed that with The Siege, eerily predating 9/11 by three years but depicting a series of Islamic terrorist attacks in New York. When I gave up trying to get to sleep I watched Young@Heart – all about the 80 and 90 something singers who have been touring and scored a hit with ‘Talking ’bout my Generation’. Wonderfully uplifting homage to the benefits of singing. Finally, to culturally acclimatise I watched ‘Mind in the Shell’ a Japanese Manga film which meditated on the definition of life from the perspective of part cyborgs and one fully artificial entity.

Dinner on the flight was good, fish with soy and rice washed down with a Kirin and an Asahi beer – I would recommend the former if you are ever offered the choice. Breakfast (or was it lunch?) was a Japanese interpretation of a fry up breakfast and likely to be forgotten alongside food experiences to come.

First impressions on arriving are that there is little you immediately latch onto to ground you in Japan aside from the language. Much of the infrastructure is familiar but subtly different to the UK, the lamp posts have a slightly more elegant arc to them, the pylons are thinner and seem to possess a denser network of metal, cars are similar but different models predominate. Buildings are often pretty similar – with some notable differences. But you could pass several miles on the motoroway before noting much that would put you in a culture that is so very different to ours. The most striking sites we saw included a Millennium wheel that was illuminated to make it into a multi-coloured star. The views when we passed through the bay in the middle of the city were towering city-scapes in all directions. In any one direction it didn’t look that different to London but collectively it gave the impression of a much more densely populated city.

The Plan…


Well, communications have been flying around and a plan for our stay is taking shape…. As much to get it clear in my own head the itinerary is…

1 Feb – leave London Heathrow 19:00, land Tokyo 15:55 2nd Feb. Flying All Nippon Airways so my “Safety is assured through integrated management system and mutual respect” which is nice. Food should be superior to usual BA grub as well.

They are nine hours ahead which means the flight time will be about 11:55 making it the longest flight I have ever been on, by some way. Better hope for lots of sleep!

Then we have an orientation and welcome with a number of briefings and meetings in Tokyo. We will be meeting up with other visitors from Germany and Finland. Each country is sending representatives from organisations working with older people, younger people and people with a disability. The groups all have charming subtitles, ours being “Life of elderly people with motivation in living”. While in Tokyo we will be staying in the 5* Ana Intercontinental.

On February 4th we leave for the National Olympics Memorial Youth Centre, basically what was the Olympic Village when Tokyo hosted the olympics in 1964. There we will be attending the Japanese annual Not for Profit organisation’s Management Forum. Not sure exactly what that will entail but lots of discussions about how best to manage charitable endeavours whether they be in Japan, Germany, Finland or Britain. Scope for a fair amount of cultural misunderstanding!

It’s then back to Tokyo for an overnight stay before heading on to Shimane Prefecture in the South West of Japan. This trip will be done by just the older people’s group – Shimane has the largest proportion of older people in Japan. We meet with the Prefectural Government, the Council for Social Welfare, and local projects. We then have the bit which I am currently looking forward to most, partly because it is one of the only bits I can get my head round and partly because it is such a rare honour and that is a home stay with a local family. 24 hours at the heart of a Japanese family getting a slice of Japanese life.

From there it’s back to Tokyo and the Ana for a couple of final nights of luxury before heading home with a head full of ideas, experiences, memories and emotions.

We return on 16 Feb – leaving Tokyo at 11.35 and landing at Heathrow 15:15, possibly slightly the worse for jet lag!

Off to Japan!


OK, so, my induction to date for the trip to Japan has included:

* Reading Haruki Murakami – Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – fascinating book split between a kind of Asimov/Banks futurism and Marquez Magical Realism. Well worth a read and doesn’t take the easy options to resolve the tensions it creates. Indeed the resolution made my head spin.

* Watching Akira Kurosawa – Ikuru. A wonderful film, The Coen brothers owe him a huge amount. It is also the best drama based on the workings of local government I have ever seen – set around fifty years before my experiences of local government. I’ve also watched Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata which was a fascinating insight into the more recent underbelly of Japanese society.

* Reading the Japanese dictionary given to me by Kate. Well, looking at the pretty characters might be a more accurate description. The English-Japanese section doesn’t give phonetic translations which makes it pretty useless. The Japanese-English section is based on a system that remains a mystery to me. A very pretty mystery but not one that is very useful when it comes to understanding what the characters mean.

* Listening to “Turning Japanese” by the Vapors. Or at least singing it in my head from time to time.

The above, I feel, should set me up with sufficient cultural knowledge to survive in Japan. I hope. Any recommendations and suggestions gratefully received!

Blog Stats

  • 1,509 hits