【Opinion】Let the rainbow of cooperatives shine (June 5, 2017)

[By Taichi Kitagawa, Professor of Fukui Prefectural University]

“No rain, no rainbows.” This is a Hawaiian saying which is used to describe bad times mean good times are coming.

Japan’s agricultural cooperatives (JAs) have been hit by torrential rain in recent years. The government’s intervention in farm coops’ reform efforts goes against the cooperative principles of autonomy and independence which was adopted by the International Co-operative Alliance at its 31st general assembly in 1995. Under the name of growth strategy, the government is trying to forcibly turn JAs into mere entities specializing in agricultural business. Such government control aimed at taking away comprehensiveness and diversity from JAs is a challenge not only for agricultural cooperatives but for cooperatives in general.

The rain is continuing, but lately we are seeing rays of sunlight streaming through gaps in the clouds and feeling a light breeze starting to blow. Last year, UNESCO added the idea and practice of cooperatives to the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The list describes cooperatives as entities that “allow for community building through shared interests and values creating innovative solutions to societal problems.”

Various efforts of community building based on local cooperative movements are being made in different regions in Japan. Cases of such cooperative movement in Shimane Prefecture and the depopulated Okumikawa district in Aichi Prefecture were presented at a recently held meeting of the Japanese Society for Co-operative Studies.

There were three key points in the presentations that attracted my attention.

First, it is important to develop a sense of empathy between those working for the benefit of cooperative members and those working for the benefit of the community, so that they will be aware that both activities are mutually related.

Second, by focusing on diversified personal network of each member of the cooperatives and making them overlap, it is possible to create larger, diffuse networks of loose relationships.

Third, it is necessary to create a place where people can realize their ideas or become aware of issues of concern without rushing to conclusions, and JAs and cooperative societies are functioning as a platform for people to work together beyond differences in their activities and organizational goals.

The next step is to extend such local efforts to cooperation at prefectural levels.

Although the level and size of their activities may differ, there should be an organization of cooperatives existing in most prefectures. They must once again look for small-scale cooperative activities being conducted in their prefectures and seek possibilities to join hands with various organizations to complement each other in the areas of food, agriculture, life and employment. If cooperatives can take a leadership role in activating empathy to build communities that put importance on each individual and priceless values, they will surely be able to strengthen their presence and capacity to accomplish their mission, which is their raison d’etre.

A rainbow flag has long been the common symbol of international cooperative movement. A rainbow after the rain should surely shine beautifully.

<Born in 1959 in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, Taichi Kitagawa completed a doctoral program at Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Agriculture. After working at Tottori University and Kyoto Prefectural University, he has been working at Fukui Prefectural University since 2015. He has written books on regional cooperatives and agricultural cooperatives.>

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