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/ ---- [c] 1994, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS) All rights reserved May not be reproduced, reprinted or posted to any system or service outside of the APC networks, without specific permission from IPS. This limitation includes distribution via Usenet News, bulletin board systems, mailing lists, print media and broadcast. For information about cross- posting, send a message to <firstname.lastname@example.org>. For information about print or broadcast reproduction please contact the IPS coordinator at <email@example.com>.