Japan: Consumer Co-ops Make It Big (1995)

JAPAN: Consumers Co-ops Make It Big

An Inter Press Service Feature

By Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Feb 21 (IPS) - Japan has an abundance of supermarkets
offering consumers an impressive array of items, but for 40-year-
old housewife Kei Nimura, they are no match for the local co-op
store.

''My priorities lie in getting safe and fresh food products and
I realised subscribing to the plain and simple local co-op is the
only way of getting the stuff,'' says Nimura, an enthusiastic
supporter of Japan's growing cooperative movement.

The services offered by Nimura's cooperative do not stop at
selling quality goods at low prices. It also organises and runs
various activities which Nimura says have helped her become a
better mother and individual.

''The co-op offers lessons on nutrition, cooking and health. I
also participate in volunteer work and take my family on their
tours to farms and tree-planting,'' she says.

''Our goal is to improve society and make it a caring place for
our children,'' she adds. ''We realise that we must work toward
this aim ourselves. We cannot rely on the government.''

Nimura's co-op belongs to the Japan Consumers Cooperative Union
(JCCU), which has expanded its membership to 18 million since it
opened its first office in 1952. An estimated one million new
members sign up every year.

''Members comprise almost 40 percent of Japan's households even
though our sales amount to only 2.7 percent of the Japanese retail
market,'' says Akira Kurimoto of the JCCU's international
division.

Nimura represents the most common type of member at the JCCU.
The Tokyo housewife is among the women who form the base of
Japan's successful cooperative movement. There are 663 consumer
cooperatives in the country, according to the International
Cooperative Alliance (ICA) to which the JCCU belongs.

Divided into 'han' groups, they rely on the joint purchase
system offered by the cooperatives. Food ordered the week before
is delivered to the group on a specific day.

Grassroots activism has been the motto of Japanese consumer
cooperatives since the first co-op league was set up in 1945. With
its focus on improving the quality of family life instead of
industrial growth, Japan's consumer cooperative movement has often
been associated with leftwing political parties.

''The Japanese government values the producer over the
consumer. The co-ops preached the opposite message,'' says
Kurimoto.

The difference between government agencies and cooperatives is
perhaps best illustrated by their contrasting responses to last
month's killer quake that levelled parts of Kobe and claimed more
than 5,000 lives.

JCCU executive director Maseo Ohya says victims of the disaster
found themselves relying more on cooperatives and other non-
governmental groups who rushed to their aid, while government
relief and rescue efforts got entangled in red tape.

''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.

Co-op Kobe, which opened only last April, has turned out to be
a huge success and is said to have become the largest cooperative
in the world with an estimated 1.5 million members.

The co-op's multi-storey building was one those reduced to
rubble by the powerful earthquake but many members clawed their
way through the debris soon after the temblor struck to bring out
basic supplies for quake survivors.

Ohya also points to the success of an emergency open-air market
that began selling goods a day after the disaster.

''Unlike the volunteer groups giving help for free in the area,
the market sold goods cheap,'' he says. ''We focus on fostering
self-help.''

JCCU's Kurimoto says consumer co-ops are independent of the
state, unlike agricultural cooperatives which have been around in
Japan since the 19th century and are heavily subsidised by the
government.

''We depended on no one for assistance. We are a pure
grassroots organisation,'' says Kurimoto.

But the consumer cooperative movement fought hard to gain the
acceptance and respect it now enjoys. Kurimoto says they faced
fierce resistance from local retailers who would not tolerate
competition and had close links with important politicians.

This explains Japan's peculiar retail law that only allows
members to shop at co-op stores, adds Kurimoto.

The JCCU official says they also have to deal with opposition
from agricultural co-ops, which number more than 3,200. These
groups, to which most farmers belong, do not welcome consumer
cooperatives that sell organic products.

Despite these obstacles, however, Kurimoto sees a bright future
for Japan's consumer cooperatives. ''The economic miracle has
increased the social needs in this country,'' he says. ''Our
services provide the answer.'' (END/IPS/SK/LNH/95)


Origin: Manila/JAPAN/
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