【Opinion】Slow and steady wins the race – educating the public about cooperatives (June 19, 2017)

[By Meiji University Vice President Toshikatsu Yanagisawa]

On Nov. 30, 2016, UNESCO added cooperatives to the list of intangible cultural assets. The list describes cooperatives as entities that “allow for community building through shared interests and values creating innovative solutions to societal problems, from generating employment and assisting seniors to urban revitalization and renewable energy projects.” The cooperatives were listed because they were recognized as communities that helps “to enrich cultural diversity and human creativity,” as stated in the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Cooperatives has built trust in the global society in the current century, as can be seen in the 2001 U.N. Guidelines aimed at creating a supportive environment for the development of cooperatives and the U.N. designating 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives. However, in Japan, various proposals that go against such global trends have been made, including dismantling the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives (JA-ZENCHU) and turning the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations (ZEN-NOH) into a joint stock corporation, and some time ago, breaking up autonomous mutual aid societies. Policies are conducted based on lack of understanding and outdated arguments that cooperatives are unnecessary.

According to the Cooperatives Japan, a national cooperative alliance, there are as many as 65 million members of cooperatives in Japan, occupying 6.5 percent of cooperative members worldwide totaling 1 billion as of April 2017. It is not an exaggeration to call Japan the “coop island” as some do, at least in terms of numbers, considering that Japan’s population occupies only 1.6 percent of the world’s population of 7.4 billion.

Despite such a large population, why is there a growing argument that cooperatives are unnecessary? This is because socially speaking, cooperatives are almost equal to nothing. One survey shows that many Japanese people are aware of JAs (agricultural cooperatives) and co-op stores, but they don’t recognize them as cooperatives. Cooperatives have little presence in the Japanese society.

If they are not acknowledged as cooperatives, cooperatives do not play the role of cooperatives among the people. Having almost no presence in the people’s minds means that Japanese cooperatives have failed to put forward their social existence.

This indicates that cooperatives are also to blame for the recent moves to dismantle agricultural cooperatives. If there are more supporters of cooperatives, such unreasonable actions would not have been allowed. The current situation can be the result of cooperatives contenting themselves within the limits of mutual benefit organizations, shutting themselves behind closed doors and failing to bring up a group of supporters within the public.

One of the five principles of the International Cooperative Alliance is “education, training and information,” which calls on cooperatives to inform the general public – particularly young people and opinion leaders – about the nature and benefits of cooperation. The current state was brought about due to the failure to put this principle into practice. This clearly implies that education should not be made light of. Educating people appears to be a long way round, but slow and steady wins the race.

<Born in 1951, Toshikatsu Yanagisawa has served as professor at Meiji University’s School of Commerce since 1992. He became the university’s vice president in 2016. He was the head of the Japanese Society for Co-operative Studies in 2013 and 2014. He specializes in social and solidarity economy and social enterprises. He has written books on nonprofit and cooperative activities and translated “The Emergence of Social Enterprise” edited by Carlo Borzaga and Jacques Defourny with two other researchers.>

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