"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.