Cooperatives in Japan (Article Series): Part 1/4 — Challenges and the Necessity for Cooperatives

Mathias Sager
7 min readFeb 10, 2019


Overview and Conclusion article for Part 1 — Part 4, please see here.

The article presents Japan-specific details related to economic, demographic, and cultural challenges that can potentially be addressed by a more cooperative economy. Despite national peculiarities and unique cultural phenomena, the background against which the issues have to be seen should not be forgotten. When analyzing why social and environmental problems cannot be improved, one will always be led back to the observation of excesses that are caused by the capitalist economy’s ultimate fight for maximum profits. Where is the limit between acting responsible and exploiting natural resources and workers? Unfortunately, the answer is that there will never be a healthy balance resulting from a system that seeks maximization of monetary profits for a small elite above anything else.

“Japan has experienced ‘two lost decades,’ with zero or minus growth (Gross Domestic Product (GDP)) and price deflation (Consumer Price Index (CPI)).” [1, p. 416]

Figure 1. Minus growth and price deflation [10]

After the burst of the economic bubble in 1991, many of the small and medium-sized enterprises have gone bankrupt, and consumers’ buying power declined. The big corporations haven’t maintained the diverse vitality and innovation of the SME’s [1], despite the continuous pressure to innovate and create new markets in Japan, especially in information and communication technology sectors [2].

The real winner of the 2014 reform package (deregulation of farmland) could be land-hungry companies with little or no interest in the future of Japanese agriculture [5].

The political system is considered to be in need of further procedural and methodological upgrades, especially on local levels [3]. For example, there exist unresolved conflicting goals related to the aspired consolidation of farmland (respectively enlargement of farms for increased productivity) by the local actors and regarding the deregulation of farmland, which makes it accessible to corporations [4]. The essential Japanese cooperative sector for agriculture is threatened by recession, deregulation, and ease of trade barriers [5].

Japan is one of the largest importers of farm products, and its record-low food self-sufficiency contradicts the many agricultural fields that lay idle [13]. More local sourcing through cooperatives would be beneficial.

“The most important and useful alternative to resolve a deadlock of fiscal policy and social policy by the governments is to develop the social economy sector” [3, p.263]

“The humanization of labor also is considered as the way toward the self-realization of individuals.” [3, p. 262]

Japanese culture includes a strong sense of mutual obligation and loyalty and a collectivist way of relating to others. Even for small and usually, in Westerner contexts, independent small businesses, there exist most often some business alliances (Dana, 1998). These cultural specifics may speak for a naturalness of cooperation to Japanese individuals and organizations. On the other side, also in Japan, there are tendencies towards more individual lifestyles and the desire for improved work-life balance (Ishizuka, 2002). The former possibly a negative aspect for community building, the latter speaking for more co-operatively organized work.

“It is ironic that the countries who have fared best in industrial and economic development are now facing a crisis in personal care, particularly for the elderly.” [7, p. 199]

Japan’s care situation is worse than in comparably wealthy nations, for example in Europe. Governments’ positions are still referring to welfare to be provided by the family, private employers, and today increasingly also by voluntary organizations. However, the daughters who used to care for their parents are entering the corporate workforce too, and only one-third of the corporate workforce is having access to the system. Japan faces the challenge of a high need for welfare services while keeping low taxation rates. The relegation of welfare services to non-profit organizations (NPO) and cooperatives is one strategy taken [7].

The capitalist economy is increasingly using women in its drive for profits but chooses to ignore the burden of reproductive work which they carry. [7]

In fact, the super-aging Japanese society has an aging rate of more than 25% (i.e., every fourth person is 65 years or older, with most extreme situations in rural farming communities [13]). Japan lacks enough doctors [8] while the hidden asset of family welfare is not available anymore as women are absorbed by their work life and corporate careers [9].

“It is deeply worrying that youth are unable to find regular jobs for decades after graduating from school. They are called the lost generation, and many call themselves freeters (‘free part-timers’), as they look for miscellaneous part-time jobs.” [1]

Although criticized by neo-liberal voices, the Japanese lifetime employment has led to comparatively low unemployment rates: while for heads of households it was 3%, for the rest of the family it was more than 8%, and unemployed people are increasingly becoming more extended term cases. Long-term employment offers are decreasing while non-standard jobs are on the rise [11]. More than half of all female workers of any age were already in 2009 non-regular workers, usually cheap part-timers, which is a peculiar characteristic of the Japanese labor market [1].

Women call for more “independence” and “self-reliance” and therefore decry the discriminating Million Yen Wall that is incentivizing women staying at home. [12]

Care cooperatives such as the Fukushi Club are often the only possibility for women with elderly parents to find some work [7]. Another reason for women being forced to work part-time is the fact that few jobs are paying more than $20,000 to woman over 35. And, a tax wall set at $10,000 means that it financially doesn’t pay off to earn $20,000 because all earnings above $10,000 are going to taxes of some form. There seems to be nothing on the Equal Employment Opportunity legal horizon that is likely to change the wide salary differentials between men and women of the same age and education level [12].

“Japanese company-ism has been destroying gradually the relations among persons in the family and the community by obliging adult males to spend most of their waking hours at work.” [3]

Company-ism on the one hand side and contract work on the other have led to decreased job satisfaction [11]. Employee participation program intended to address that problem were far from enabling more democratic working environments and are already outdated again [3]. Worker cooperatives can be an excellent answer to the call for a system that makes it easier to establish businesses responsive to the needs of citizens.

Acting on symbols like ‘help’ without their being explicitly differentiated from the work itself is a condition of smooth cooperative operation. [14]

Leadership issues have harmed cooperatives and their reputation overall. For example, there were legitimate accusations of management incompetence [3]. It is vital to manage cooperatives well and to foster full democracy in the organization [5]. If the democratic decision and economic participation right is seen as a common good that cannot be taken away, for example, even not in case of fluctuating performance, there the behavioral problem of free-riding arises. Therefore, proper management of cooperatives includes leadership using symbols such as ‘help’ instead of monitoring methods that are often rejected by the employees, and which is building the moral community with perpetuating pro-social values enabling cooperation [14].


[1] Kitazawa, Y. (2010). Japan’s lost decades and a women-led socio-solidarity economy. Development, 53(3), 416–420. doi:10.1057/dev.2010.46

[2] Knowledge-based view of corporate strategy. (2007). Strategic Direction, (5), doi:10.1108/sd.2007.05623ead.003

[3] Ishizuka, H. (2002). The Social Economy Sector in Japan. Annals Of Public & Cooperative Economics, 73(2), 241.

[4] Jentzsch, H. (2017). Abandoned land, corporate farming, and farmland banks: a local perspective on the process of deregulating and redistributing farmland in Japan. Contemporary Japan — Journal Of The German Institute For Japanese Studies, Tokyo, 29(1), 31–46. doi:10.1080/18692729.2017.1256977

[5] Klinedinst, M., & Sato, H. (1994). The Japanese Cooperative Sector. Journal Of Economic Issues (Association For Evolutionary Economics), 28(2), 509.

[6] Dana, L. P. (1998). Small but Not Independent: SMEs in Japan. Journal Of Small Business Management, 36(4), 73–76.

[7] Lord, A., & Mellor, M. (1996). Women and the cooperative provision of care: the example of the ‘Fukushi Club’ in Japan. Economic And Industrial Democracy, 17(2), 199–220.

[8] Iguchi, S., Niwayama, M., & Takahashi, H. E. (2015). A conference report of the interprofessional satellite symposium in Uonuma, Japan: an international exchange on the future of community care. Journal Of Interprofessional Care, 29(3), 284–287. doi:10.3109/13561820.2014.966541

[9] Kurimoto, A. )., & Kumakura, Y. ). (2016). Emergence and evolution of co-operatives for elderly care in Japan. International Review Of Sociology, 26(1), 48–68. doi:10.1080/03906701.2016.1148341

[10] Market Monetarist. (2017). The scary difference between the GDP deflator and CPI — the case of Japan. Retrieved from

[11] Nogawa, S. (2012). The Great East Japan Earthquake and a Future Vision for Labor Law in Japan. Japan Labor Review, 9(4), 105–123.

[12] Marshall, B. (2006). Japan’s worker co-operative movement into the 21st century. Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, (23),

[13] Kimura, A. H., & Nishiyama, M. (2008). The Chisan-Chisho Movement: Japanese Local Food Movement and Its Challenges. Agriculture And Human Values, 25(1), 49–64. doi:

[14] Marshall, R. C. (2003). The culture of cooperation in three Japanese worker cooperatives. Economic And Industrial Democracy, 24(4), 543–572.



Mathias Sager

Awareness Intelligence research and application since 1975. It’s humantime., Thanks and all the best!