Three months after the tsunami

Headed to Seoul to help observe the first anniversary of World Fisheries Cooperatives Day on 16 June, I accepted an invitation from Japanese co-operatives to see first-hand what is celebrated as one of the world’s more impressive co-operative movements.

 I arrived in Tokyo on the three-month anniversary of the terrible Great East Japan Earthquake, which with the tsunami it caused, resulted in the loss of over 15,000 lives.  Half again as many are missing.  90,000 men, women and children remain displaced from their homes.  The topic that dominates the news is not this directly, but the still-unresolved issues surrounding the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which was crippled by the natural disaster.  The hotel where I stayed apologised for the reduction in services, which was not noticeable, due to the national effort to reduce energy usage by 15% in the wake of the power challenges.

 Japanese co-operatives, as you would expect, are at the forefront of the recovery.  In recognition of this fact, Mr. Mamoru Moteki, President of JA-Zenshu and a member of ICA’s global board, was afforded the honor of apprising the Emperor of the situation.  Zenkyoren the insurance arm of the co-operative agricultural group, is working nonstop to pay claims of those affected by the disaster.  Although Zenkyoren is one of the world’s largest co-operatives, with assets in excess of 44 trillion yen (USD 550 billion), these claims will be staggering, and the entire Japanese insurance sector will be affected by the availability and cost of reinsurance in the future.

 Most of the co-operative movement in Japan operates within an agricultural group known as the JA Group.  With the exception of Zenkyoren, the insurance co-operative, which operates nationally, there are otherwise both national and prefectural level co-operative organisations in each sector.  The national organisations are:  Zenchu, for overall agricultural support; Zen-noh, for marketing and purchasing; Norinchukin Bank, for credit; and Zenkoren, for welfare.

I had the privilege of visiting primary co-operatives in Nagano prefecture.  One of the most impressive tours was of the 1000-bed co-operative hospital – Saku Central Hospital — one of the largest in the country, and one of 117 co-operative hospitals with a total of over 37,000 beds.  This remarkable system, which operates on a staff physician model, also includes elderly care facilities, home care, rural health centers, clinics, and mobile health clinics, and funeral care.  It’s just one – massive – example of how a co-operative structure that began with agricultural services grew to envelope its members with supportive services they found of benefit over time.

The population in Japan is ahead of the Western demographic curve when it comes to aging.  Over 20% of the Japanese people are now over age 65, and that number is over 25% in the prefecture I visited.  While seniors are tremendous community resources, there are also significant concerns to address around the cost of health care and the recruitment of future members with numbers like this.  It’s an experience the rest of the world would be well-advised to watch, as aging populations rise in many other countries.

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