My week: Liz Atkins

The NCVO's director of public policy really likes Japan, but can't master the art of bowing.

Liz Atkins
Liz Atkins

Monday: I'm in Japan as a guest of the Japanese Association of Charitable Organisations, with Dame Suzi Leather, chair of the Charity Commission, and Ben Harrison from the Office of the Third Sector. The NCVO often gets invited by its international sister organisations to share its experience, but this feels particularly interesting and important because Japan is in the process of reforming its charity law to regulate public benefit corporations, as charities are known here.

In Tokyo, the JACO briefs us on the new legal framework and we meet the Public Benefit Status Recognition Commission, soon to be the Japanese Charity Commission, the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, which is sponsoring our visit, and the UK ambassador.

Tuesday: The first of two international conferences at which Suzi, Ben and I have been asked to present the UK experience of collaboration between charities, the regulator and government.

The JACO faces a similar challenge to the NCVO: the difficulty of maintaining the sector's independence while trying to stimulate a more active and vocal civil society. But the context is very different. In Japan, public benefit corporations are governed by the relevant government departments - for example, those focused on disability are subject to the Ministry of Health. Yet voluntary groups cannot rely on the tax benefits we have in the UK.

We are well received by everyone. We don't seem to commit any cultural faux pas, although we acknowledge that we haven't cracked when and how deep to bow - it's a complicated art.

Wednesday: We are off to Osaka on the Shinkansen train, a classic example of Japanese efficiency. The train covers 350 miles in two hours 40 minutes, leaving and arriving dead on time. It is spacious, comfortable and spotless - and the conductor bows as she checks the tickets. We meet Osaka-based organisations and discuss the progress of civil society in Japan.

Thursday: Our second conference today, again focused on the lessons that can be learned from the UK. Then we're off to Kyoto for some sightseeing before our return to Tokyo and London. Suzi and Ben are the best possible company and we all relax over a few beers. Ben and I have picked up the Japanese practice of referring to Suzi as "Dame Suzi". After our week in Japan, I realize that the focus on peace, harmony and respect is growing on me. But I must remember not to bow when I see Stuart Etherington. I think it would create quite the wrong impression.

- The NCVO is the umbrella body for the charity and voluntary sector.

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