The government’s policies concerning the agricultural co-operatives reform goes against the global trend. The international society highly evaluates and pins high hopes on the value and role of co-operatives. Some countries have enacted co-ops laws, considering that co-ops operated under the principle of mutual aid are an effective institution to solve such problems as hunger, poverty, employment and regional revitalization. It is necessary to renew public awareness and consensus on the significance and role of co-ops today before starting discussions on the revision of the Agricultural Co-operatives Society Law.
International Co-operative Alliance President Pauline Green, who visited Tokyo last month, gave high marks to Japanese co-ops, saying they have made significant contributions to the nation’s postwar economic development and can be considered a model for the rest of the world. The ICA has member organizations – including the Japanese agricultural co-ops (JA) group – from roughly 100 countries, representing some 1 billion members. In October last year, the ICA expressed grave concern over the Japanese government’s moves to revise the farm co-ops law. It said the intended legislation to dismantle the unity of the Japanese agriculture co-operative movement “would diminish the services offered to the farmers and the rural areas and ultimately might be counterproductive to the national economy.” In particular, it criticized the government’s intention to transform some of the co-operative structures into stock companies through demutualization.
As a matter of fact, problems have come up in some countries which conducted co-ops reform. In the United Kingdom, many building societies – mutual mortgage lending institutions – were demutualized in the 1990s following the nation’s reform policies created under the administration of Margaret Thatcher, and assets accumulated by the co-ops were lost in the financial crisis. In South Korea, the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation established financial and marketing holding companies in 2012 under the revised Agricultural Cooperative Law. As a result, the federation’s leadership weakened, leading to a decline in its political power to reflect farmers’ voices in the government’s policymaking process.
The United Nations declared 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives in order to highlight the contribution of co-operatives to socioeconomic development. In a related move, the United Kingdom enacted the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act in 2014, and India amended its Constitution in 2012 to encourage co-operative movements by ensuring autonomy and democracy of co-operatives. The U.N. also designated 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming, and urged member countries to focus on the significant role of family farmers and take policy measures to support them.
What about Japan? In Japan, the government does not respect the value of agricultural co-ops or family farming, and instead tries to promote corporate farming. As for the European Union, the European Commission recognized the need to strengthen co-operative organizations to support family farmers and assigned a group of researchers to conduct a two-year review of policies in each of its member states and compile a policy report. Did Japan put such time and effort in tackling the issue?
The widespread notion that all Japanese belong to the middle class is quickly fading away, and income gaps and poverty are becoming severer than ever. The poverty rate among Japanese households is 16 percent, nearly as high as that of the United States. Toshikatsu Yanagisawa who heads the Japanese Society for Co-operative Studies says the 21st century is an era of co-operatives, adding that societies cannot stand without people helping one another.
Local authorities are forced to cut public services for residents due to tight fiscal conditions and lack of personnel. Primary JAs have supported the lives of their members through mutual aid and other services in addition to farming promotion measures. Because JAs are deeply rooted in local lives, they should develop together with regional communities. If the government is set to focus on regional revitalization, JAs should be their best partners. JAs must be given a legal background to contribute to regional development.
(March 4, 2015)