Dr. Inazo Nitobe and Co-operatives

Dr. Inazo Nitobe and Co-operatives

by Yoshiro Takahashi

As an introduction before taking up the main theme of this article, an
overview of the state and background in which Japanese co-operatives of
those days found themselves is warranted.

Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, as capitalism began to spread its
wings in Japan, quasi-co-operative organizations, which are considered
antecedents of sale, purchase and consumer co-operatives, emerged.

Against this background, in 1900, a law known as the Co-operative Society
Law was enacted.  Japan at that time was above all an agricultural nation,
despite the fact that agricultural economy was in an exhausted condition as
a consequence of progressive industrialization at the end of the 19th
century.  In view of ameliorating this situation, the government officials
were drawn to the possibility of forming German Raiffeisen-type rural
credit co-operatives.  The Co-operative Society Law was drafted with the
transplant of this system to Japan in mind. This law was revised several
times thereafter, and in the end, expanded to apply to not only
co-operative societies in rural communities, but also to a variety of
co-operatives including urban credit societies.  In response, credit
co-operatives and purchase co-operatives were established in urban areas,
and four kinds of co-operatives, namely, credit, purchase, sale and
production, in rural regions centering around villages of agriculture,
fishery and forestry which were later integrated as a result of combined

In this way, during the period from 1900 to 1920, the origins of today's
diverse co-operative societies took shape, thus initiating the co-operative
movement in Japan.

It is significant that among the people who had contributed to the initial
phases of the co-operative movement in Japan, were included directors of
the Central Union of Co-operative Societies, established in 1905 as the
administrative organ to provide national guidance, and prominent scholars.
Dr. Inazo Nitobe was one of these people.  He arrived at the scene when a
man of his qualifications was needed, and played an important role in
promoting the co-operative project.  Dr. Nitobe was, indeed, exactly the
kind of person with qualities invaluable to the promotion of co-operative

Inazo Nitobe was born in 1862 into a warrior class family as a third son,
in Morioka in the Tohoku Region of Northern Japan.  As a youth, he studied
at Sapporo Agricultural School and went on to the Tokyo Imperial
University.  At the interview for entry to the university, it is well-known
that he expressed his dream:  "I wish to be the connecting bridge over the
Pacific Ocean."  This statement is truly descriptive of the driving force
that led him through his entire life.  As a university student, he avidly
read works by Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Charles Kingsley and others.
After graduation, he went abroad to study at John Hopkins University in the
United States, where he authored the famous book, the Soul of Japan, in
English.  Even today, this book is read the world over.  The next academic
institution he headed for was Bonn University in Germany, from where in
1887, he visited England to meet with John Bright of the English Liberal
Party.  It was also during his stay as a student at Bonn University that he
made a tour of the 1887 Agricultural Exhibition held in Neuwied, Germany.
In 1891, he married an old American acquaintance, with whom he spent his
remaining lifetime.

In 1919, Nitobe was marked out to represent Japan as a delegate to the
League of Nations, established at the conclusion of the First World War.
In this choice for an extremely important post, no one could have matched
him from the standpoint of his expertise in such areas as agriculture, law
and education.

With the launching of activities under the organization of the League of
Nations, Sir James Drummond of England was selected Secretary General, and
Nitobe was charged with responsibilities related to cultural exchange as
one of the Deputy Secretaries.  Since Sir James Drummond was not keen on
making speeches, on many occasions, Dr. Nitobe was obliged to speak on his
behalf.  His speeches won favorable reactions, and since by then he already
had an established reputation of being a man of knowledge, it was rather
the benevolence that radiated from him to which the audience had been

The Tenth Congress of the International Co-operative Alliance took place in
Basel, Switzerland from August 22nd to 25th of 1921.  Each year, it was
customary for a congratulatory address to be presented by a representative
of the League of Nations, and at this particular congress, Dr. Nitobe made
a speech of which is outlined below:

 "... to wish it all success in its future undertakings, whether in the
economic field or in the deeper and wider spheres of the moral and
spiritual renovation of the world.  I have felt more than ever this morning
that the ideas which are actuating you are identical with those which the
League of Nations has set before it.  The idea of the League of Nations
lies in the new force of International Co-operation, and I have therefore
good reason to express my heartiest congratulations for your success in the
past, and my sincere desire that you may have a like success in all your
future undertakings." (Report of the Proceedings of the 10th Congress of
the ICA, p12)

The encounter in Geneva between Dr. Nitobe and Hiroshi Nasu, then Professor
of Tokyo Imperial University and the lecturer for Central Union of
Co-operative Societies, immediately prior to attending this Basel Congress,
is worthy of note.  Hiroshi Nasu happened to be in Geneva in 1920 during
his travels undertaking agricultural research in the United States, France
and Switzerland.  Following Nitobe's suggestion, Nasu decided to accompany
him to the Congress at Basel where he sat in as an observer to hear the
enthusiastic arguments and discussions concerning the co-operative movement
by those concerned in different parts of the world, and was greatly
inspired.  This experience made him aware of the current situation as well
as the future of co-operative societies.  Upon his return to Japan, Nasu
took two actions.
One was to voice, out of a firm conviction of the bright future outlook,
the necessity of improving and revising various aspects of living, by means
of co-operative societies which can organize rural economic activities and
upgrade the economy and the standard of living of people in rural

Secondly, he recommended to the self-appointed reformists, Gentaro Shimura,
the second President of the Central Union of Co-operative Societies, and
its Chief Secretary, Kohtaro Sengoku, to apply for membership with ICA.  As
a result, in 1923, the Japanese Central Union filed its application for ICA
membership, and was accepted.  Time was ripe, with the number of domestic
rural co-operative societies increasing, and the organization being
equipped to be fully functional.

At the same time, Sengoku devised an economic organization backed by
co-operative societies, and made an appeal to the National Congress of
Co-operative Societies to implement the expansion of this organization.
This appeal was approved by unanimous consent, leaving an epochal footprint
on the history of the co-operative movement.  In particular, as rural
communities economically lagged way behind their city counterparts where
commercial and industrial activities had been in progress, Sengoku's
proposal invigorated the young and those at the prime of life in the rural
communities who were concerned about their future.  Educational and
publishing activities were also animated through this project.  It is
especially noteworthy that the first general hospital was built in
Aoharamura Village to meet the demand which arose from the credit, sale and
purchase enterprise.

 This small bud was to bloom later in the form of medical treatment
facilities located in comparatively impoverished areas.  And today, 173
medical co-operative societies and clinics can be found throughout Japan.

As Deputy Secretary of the League of Nations, Dr. Nitobe gave two lectures
in certain industrial cities of England to present the objectives and ideas
of the League of Nations.  In November of 1925, he also addressed an
audience in Birmingham and Rochdale. He was deeply touched by the mayor of
Rochdale, who was surprisingly democratic, without a hint of haughtiness.
The seminar in which Nitobe made a speech to a large audience at Rochdale
was sponsored by the Rochdale Charter of the League of Nations.  The
outline of this speech was presented on the local newspaper, Rochdale
Observer*, of November 14th.  Nitobe's speech was a success, because of his
thorough understanding of the strong bond holding Rochdale and its
co-operatives together, and as soon as he mentioned that, when he first
came to England in 1887, he had brought a letter of introduction to be
presented to John Bright, a thunder of applause resonated.  He then spoke
of the spirit of the League of Nations, and when he mentioned specific
examples of the role played by this international organ, such as its
efforts to settle the dispute between Greece and Bulgaria, which had been
consequently achieved in an unexpected short period of time, an even louder
enthusiastic applause was elicited.

Having completed his term of service, he returned to his native land in
1928.  His extensive circle of friends kept him busy after his return.
However, he never failed to explain the role played by the League of
Nations at co-operative meetings and stressed that (1) co-operation, (2)
honesty and (3) goodwill must underlay all co-operative activities.  His
opinion is assumed to have been formulated through his own direct
observations of co-operative activities in the West European countries.

Toyohiko Kagawa, a Christian crusading for social reform, was planning was
planning to build, in the suburban area of Tokyo-shi, a medical
co-operative society which was to cover medical costs of the low-income
segment of the urban population, to whom medical payments were a
considerable burden, in the hope of improving the economy of destitute
households.  However, because the domain of activities carried out by
co-operatives had expanded, an anti-co-operative movement sprang up on a
national scale.  The Japan Medical Association took the side of this
opposition force, and began a campaign aimed at suppressing Kagawa's plan.
As a result, they were successful in impeding the legal authorization to be
granted for the establishment of a medical co-operative society envisaged
by Kagawa.

Kagawa sought Dr. Nitobe's help to acquire the official approval for
establishing the medical co-operative society, because he had won Nitobe's
sympathy in Geneva where the latter was working as Deputy Secretary of the
League of Nations.  Dr. Nitobe had expressed high esteem for the settlement
work in which Kagawa was engaged for the relief of the poor, such as
consumer co-operative activities, etc.  Nevertheless, the politically
potent Japan Medical Association stood in the way, and the authorization
was not granted for quite some time.  In the end, however, Dr. Nitobe's
persuasion finally bore fruit, and the authorization of Tokyo Medical
Co-operative Society was granted.  Dr. Nitobe was selected the first
president of this co-operative society.  The medical co-operative hospital
was supported by medium standing staff members of the Central Union who
contributed to its resurrection after the end of the war, despite a period
of takeover by the state during World War II.  Since then it has continued
to exist and is currently known as Nakano General Hospital of Tokyo Medical
Co-operatives, with 288 beds and a staff of 430 persons consisting of
doctors, nurses, culinary personnel and administrative clerks.  At present,
an average of 1,000 outside patients visit this facility each day.

Dr. Nitobe expected democratic ideologies to permeate gradually in Japan,
taking into account the social climate he had observed while living in
Europe.  As a reflection of the previously mentioned process by which the
Co-operative Society Law was established, co-operative societies could not
be completely detached from state control from the standpoint of

This is evident from the fact that governors chosen by authorities also
acted as presidents of the prefectural branches of the Central Union of
Co-operative Societies. From around this time, the idea of co-operative
societies' independence surged among the new generation, and in Iwate
Prefecture of the Tohoku Region of Japan, Dr. Nitobe's birthplace.

Dr. Nitobe himself was selected and appointed President of Iwate
Prefectural Branch of Central Union of Co-operative Societies, not by the
authorities but by the people, in 1931, following the displacement of the
prefectural governor.  Without doubt, the very first step to independence
was thereby taken.  However, owing to circumstances of those days, this
initial move was not followe by other prefectures.  And to make matters
worse, Dr. Nitobe fell ill and died while participating in the Pacific
Conference held in Banff, Canada, in 1933, rendering unproductive all past
efforts toward independence. Furthermore, in 1940, immediately preceding
the outbreak of World War II after the Japanese military invasion of China,
the Japanese co-operative societies withdrew from the International
Co-operative Alliance as a result of ICA Chairman, Henry James May's
recommendation, and pressure from the internal political state of affairs.
It was after the termination of the war that separate laws were established
for new agricultural co-operatives, forestry co-operatives, fishery
co-operatives and consumers co-operatives, from the standpoint of
administration by government offices.  One by one, each of these
co-operative societies became a member of ICA after the year 1953.

 *  This paper has been taken from the photocopy of the article made at
    Rochdale Library and sent to us by the late Mr. Roy Garrat of UK's
    Co-operative Union, Ltd.

 Author:  Mr. Yoshiro Takahashi
Presently Executive Director of Tokyo Medical Co-operatives.  Formerly
Officer of Central Union of Co-operative Societies and Executive Managing
Director of IE-NO-HIKARI Association.