Taking Inspiration from the Past for Post-Disaster Restoration

 We often take inspiration from the founders of the co-operative movement. The story of the Rochdale Pioneers is well-known, and deservedly so. Recently, at the Co-operatives United close...

 We often take inspiration from the founders of the co-operative movement. The story of the Rochdale Pioneers is well-known, and deservedly so. Recently, at the Co-operatives United close of the International Year of Co-operatives in Manchester, UK, a new film was released heralding their story. Similarly, the inspiring vision of Friedrich Raiffeisen for an agricultural credit system is another oft-repeated story. Last year, the Fenwick Weavers in Scotland celebrated their 250th anniversary and, again, important pioneers were acknowledged.

The commemoration of our early days, however, is too narrowly focused for a movement whose genius is local and reach global. Too often we gloss over individuals whose gift was to be able to adapt the core principles of the co-operative idea to societies with very different cultural and historical roots. We were reminded of one such individual this week, when ICA’s Asia-Pacific Region met in Kobe, Japan.

Toyohiko Kagawa, the father of the consumer co-operative movement in Japan, was born in Kobe. When Toyohiko began his work in 1909, Kobe was an impoverished area, and he was a young man of 21. He had a broad vision for the relief of poverty and later for its prevention. He was a man of action, who saw direct assistance as essential: health care, shelter, job training and placement. And he was a man of vision, who saw the connections between the agrarian, peace, and labour movements.

It’s not surprising that, from these roots, grew the first and largest consumer co-operative in Japan. Toyohiko went on to spread his vision throughout Japan, establishing the Japanese Consumers’ Co-operative Union at the end of the Second World War, and serving as its chair until his death in 1960. With the severe food shortages and inflation that followed the War, membership in co-operatives rose to three million people almost immediately. Today, 30% of Japanese households, 26 million individuals, are members of a consumer co-operative.

Toyohiko’s legacy is still strong today and his influence fresh. Meeting in his birthplace, with the memorials to the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake around us, and the recovery from the 2010 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami still underway, the ICA Asia-Pacific Regional Assembly adopted a resolution to guide co-operative participation in recovery from future disasters. The impact from disasters has been growing, due to climate change and urbanisation along coastal areas. The call to restore communities better than they were pre-disaster is an opportunity to insert the co-operative framework into the infrastructure redevelopment. We may well find, looking back in ten years, that this will have become an area akin to co-operative engagement in peace, labour, and the agrarian movements.

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