Japan: Co-ops lead help mission for Kobe'quake victims (1995)

"Co-ops lead help mission for quake victims"

Suvendrini Kakuchi

Tokyo (IPS) - The impressive, multi-storey building of Co-op Kobe,
said to be the largest cooperative building in the world, was
reduced to rubble in the massive earthquake that struck western
Japan in January.

But cooperative 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 that a 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 Cooperative Union (JCCU),
says the people of Kobe found solace in cooperatives 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 cooperatives
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 cooperatives, 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 post-war Japan until 1993.

With its focus on improving the quality of family life instead of
industrial growth, Japan's consumer cooperative movement has often
been associated with the country's left-wing political parties.
Indeed, grassroots activism has been the motto of the consumer
cooperatives 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 exorbitant price tags.

"The Japanese government values the producer over the consumer and
co-ops preached the opposite message," says Kei Kurimoto, a
cooperative 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 cooperative movement.

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

The groups also organise and run an assortment of activities in their
communities. Among the most popular are study and cooking sessions
and peace activism.

Advocates of cooperatives 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
the people suffering from shock and injuries.

More and more Japanese cooperatives 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 Cooperative 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 cooperative development throughout the
Asia-Pacific region through the ICA.