Co-ops Lead Help Mission for Quake Victims


Co-ops lead help mission for quake victims

by Suvendrini Kakuchi
IPS Tokyo

The impressive, multi-storey building of Co-op Kobe, said to be the
largest co-operative building in the world, was reduced to rubble in
the massive earthquake that struck western Japan in January.  But
co-operative members hardly blinked at the sight of their levelled
office before many were clawing through the wreckage of other
buildings to help victims of the 'quake - which registered 7.2 on the
open-ended Richter scale. More than 5,000 people died in the disaster
and at least another 11,000 were injured. More thana month after the
tragedy, hundreds of thousands remain homeless in Kobe, the worst
affected area.

The Japanese Government is still smarting from criticism that it
failed to respond quickly to the emergency situation there. But Maseo
Ohya, Executive Director of the Japan Consumers Co-operative Union
(JCCU), says the people of Kobe found solace in co-operatives and
other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that rushed to their aid.
"Members of Co-op Kobe were among the first people to start rescue
operations and help get food to people when the quake struck," he
says. Ohya also pointed to the success of emergency open-air markets
that began selling goods just a day after the earthquake reduced much
of the Japanese western port city into rubble. "Unlike the volunteer
groups giving help for free in the area, the market sold goods
cheap," he says. "We focus on fostering self-help."

'Self-help' has been the battle cry of sorts of Japanese co-operatives that
are not farm-based. Akira Kurimoto of the JCCU's international division
says, "we depended on no one for assistance. We are a pure grassroots
organisation." This is in contrast with agricultural co-operatives, which
have been around in Japan since the 19th century and are heavily subsidised
by the government.

 The JCCU opened its first office in 1952. While the league now has 18
million individual members including those who belong to Co-op Kobe (a JCCU
affiliate), officials say the JCCU and others like it had to fight hard
before it finally began to gain acceptance and respect.

"We fought step by step," says Kurimoto,who adds that they had to fight
against 1.6 million local retailers who possessed formidable political
clout as staunch supporters of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that
ruled postwar Japan until 1993.

With its focus on improving the quality of family life instead of
industrial growth, Japan's consumer co-operative movement has often been
associated with the country's left-wing political parties. Indeed,
grassroots activism has been the motto of the consumer co-operatives since
the first co-op league was established in Japan in 1945. But it was not
until the 1970s, when the local economy was gaining strength and the buying
power of the public was growing, that the concept of consumerism began
gaining ground in Japan. For the first time, the middleman was a non-profit
organisation that sold goods, purchased directly from the producer, without
exohrbitant price tags.

The Japanese government values the producer over the consumer and
co-ops preached the opposite message," says Kei Kurimoto, a
co-operative convert. Nimura represents the most common type of
member at the JCCU. The 40-year-old housewife is among the women who
form the base of the Japanese consumer co-operative movement.

Divided into 'han' groups, the members rely on the joint purchase system
offered by the co-operatives. Food ordered the week before is delivered to
the group on a specific day. The groups also organise a variety  of
activities in their communities. Among the most popular are study and
cooking sessions and peace activism.

Advocates of co-operatives say this kind of networking came in handy in the
Kobe earthquake aftermath, when it became apparent that help from the
government in Tokyo would take some time to arrive. It did not take long
for the medical 'hans', for instance, to get organised and help, along with
other NGOs, to provide first aid to  those suffering from shock and

More and more Japanese co-operatives have taken networking to another
level, reaching out to their counterparts in other countries. The JCCU, for
example, is among the more than 200 members of the Geneva-based
International Co-operative Alliance (ICA). More than 63 percent of the
total ICA membership comes from the Asia-Pacific region and the Japanese
are among the most active and enthusiastic.

 The JCCU itself is taking care of training and dispatching consultants in
consumer co-operative development throughout the Asia-Pacific region
through the ICA.