This paper seeks to understand the effect of social, economic and political conditions on the selection and effectiveness of voluntary policy in Japan. Borrowing from two sets of literature, the paper develops a two-dimensional framework for analysis of voluntary policy that helps clarify the contextual factors that determine voluntary policy choice and effectiveness. The establishment of voluntary agreements in Japan are then investigated and the specific experiences of one Japanese city's experience, Kita Kyushu. Findings show that insufficient national and local statutory regulations, local citizen pressure resulting from significant pollution problems, city-controlled non-regulatory resources, and local level regulatory power determined Kita Kyushu's policy choice and the resulting effectiveness of voluntary environmental agreements. Findings then indicate where the Japanese experience falls within the framework. The usefulness of the framework for analysis and practice is then reinforced, and challenges for some of the basic assumptions of current theory are suggested.