We have had a welcome set of visitors, from the co-operative sector in Japan in recent weeks.
The Japan Co-operative General Research Institute (JC-Soken) coordinated a powerful delegation of co-operative leaders, from a diverse range of the country’s wonderful range of co-ops – from insurers to worker co-ops.
Kenki Maeda, from JC-Soken, briefed me at the outset on the state of the Japanese sector. Having been writing on the history of the co-operative movement, I was delighted to find that Japan too, as with many other countries, had forerunners of the modern co-operative movement.
Sontoku NINOMIYA was born in 1787 and was an administrator, innovator and philosopher. He saw agriculture as a communal venture, where surpluses could be put to communal benefit, extending farming land, saved for reserves or shared when required. Credit was key, but it needed to be affordable. His lead helped to spread of mutual organisations called “Hotokusha” across communities.
In the twentieth century, co-operative laws helped to establish and underpin the growth of a wide range of co-operatives, including agriculture, fisheries, consumer retail, health, insurance, credit unions and forestry.
In agriculture, for example, JA-ZENCHU operates as the Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives, with around 660 primary co-ops in the sector. In the consumer co-operative sector, JCCU (Japanese Consumers’ Cooperative Union) estimate that there are 558 primary co-operatives, with a combined membership of 28.7 million people. In the insurance sector, the Japan Co-operative Insurance Association estimates that there are over 2,600 co-operatives, covering 75.38 million members.
While having specific laws with their own focus and link into government and local communities, one unintended consequence has been the lack of a joined up and integrated framework for co-operatives as a whole. Worker co-ops for example lack their own law, while few co-operative leaders are convinced that the current, or new, government of Prime Minister Abe is sympathetic to Japan’s co-operative traditions. Business governance is high on the political agenda, with a Corporate Governance Code and Stewardship Code introduced since 2013, but this is conventional corporate governance rather than the member-owned or community-oriented model of co-operatives.
The Japanese associations of co-operatives are therefore exploring how to work together more effectively, trying to reorganize the existing Japan Joint Committee of Co-operatives (JJC) and to create a stronger cross-sectoral organization with more human and other resources. It was under these auspices that the Co-operative College in the UK hosted a distinguished delegation of senior co-operators – keen to learn what works and what doesn’t work so well here in the UK.
The new cross-sectoral organization will have three roles
- Promotion of, and support for, cooperation among cooperatives in various sectors, at the local, prefectural and national levels,
- Policy advocacy and public relations for cooperatives as a whole,
- Education and research of cooperatives (gathering, sharing and disseminating information, such as cooperatives’ good practices).
It is inspiring to have this dialogue and contact across nations.
Each has its own deep historical roots and identity. Each has shared challenges and things to learn.