Lessons from Japan’s story of co-operation

Last week I was invited to Japan to speak on behalf of the Plunkett Foundation at the International Co-operative Agriculture Organisation General Meeting in Kobe.

Last week I was invited to Japan to speak on behalf of the Plunkett Foundation at the International Co-operative Agriculture Organisation General Meeting in Kobe. 

I was asked to speak about Plunkett and the Dunsany Declaration for Rural Co-operative Development. The meeting took place as part of the Asia-Pacific gathering of the International Co-operative Alliance where I met co-operators from the host country Japan along with delegates from South Korea, India, Mongolia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Turkey.

At the door to the venue all delegates were handed leaflets encouraging people to visit the memorial centre for Rev. Toyohiko Kagawa, the ‘father of the co-operative movement in Japan’ who started his work in Kobe where the event was held.

During the visit I heard about the amazing work that Japanese producer and consumer co-operatives did following the devastating tsumami in 2010.  This rebuilding work has not gone unnoticed by the Japanese public and it has led to an upsurge in interest in and support for co-operatives. 

I also heard about how consumer co-operatives in rural Japan are providing the bulk of their services through online ordering and delivery through their extensive network of members.  I couldn’t help but compare and contrast community-owned shops in the UK with what I was hearing.  It has been well documented in recent years the great work that community-owned shops do to support their community during times of extreme weather. 

They’ve not faced anything like the devastation seen in Japan following the tsunami but I’m sure that if faced with anything more serious that what they have dealt with already they’d do their best to support the most vulnerable in their community through the challenges. We also heard about various forms of Community Supported Agriculture which first started taking off in Japan in the 1960s and are also thriving in the UK.

On the second day I took part in a study visit hosted by JA-Zenchu, the huge nationwide Japanese multipurpose farmer co-operative to three parts of their co-operative – to their JA Awaji-Hinode co-operative HQ, to their onion, rice and figs processing facilities and to their co-operatively owned farmers’ market store.

It’s worth saying just how small Japanese farms are – 94% of farms are under 0.4 hectares (4,000 square metres).  Because of this around two thirds of farmers are part time and earn a living from other activities alongside farming. 

Farming is also facing similar problems in Japan to the UK – primarily an ageing population (the average age of a Japanese farmer is now over 70) and declining interest in farming as a career.  Their rural communities are also suffering from young people leaving to seek jobs and opportunities in other areas. 

We also heard about how they are facing similar changing weather patterns to the UK – longer dryer periods and more intense rain. We also heard about the challenges maintaining rural services in these areas and the need to look for new ways of doing things. I’m certain that co-operative approaches will play a role here.

I couldn’t help but be hugely impressed with what I saw.  At the regional farmer co-operative HQ we heard about their marketing strategies and processing capabilities. 

They have three tiers of products that the farmers produce:

• Core products which includes rice and cabbage
• Regional promotional products which included beef and tomatoes
• New promotional products which included figs


They take these approaches to best meet the needs of their farmer members in providing them with sustainable livelihoods.

We then went on to their processing facilities where we saw their onion and rice processing. The co-operative and their members take great pride in the humble onion. They say that their onions look like pearls due to the care and attention their members place on growing this crop. 

They are marketing using their provenance. We heard from them how an increasingly westernised diet is changing demand for products and how their farmer members are being challenged to change and adapt to these changing needs.


After a long but rewarding day, we all returned to the hotel and the morning after I headed back to the UK after a great few days learning about the Japanese co-operative movement and that of the Asia-Pacific region.

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