ILO COOP 100 Special Interview Series “Cultivate the COOPs” - Vol.2 Mr. Nobuhiro Tamaki (Japan Workers’ Co-operative Union)

News | 03 August 2020
On 23 March, 2020, the ILO Cooperative Unit celebrated its 100th anniversary. The Cooperative has a history of providing essential infrastructure and services to areas beyond the reach of government and corporate services, contributing to decent work and the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At a time when the world is facing the challenge of the spread of the new coronavirus and the need for solidarity among people is more important than ever, cooperatives are in the spotlight.

We take this opportunity to reflect on the activities of cooperatives in Japan in order to make the image of cooperatives (old and distant) more familiar and attractive to the younger generation. What role do cooperatives play in the future of work, our lives, consumption, and manufacturing , and in a time of crises, including the current COVID-19 pandemic? How can they create a better future? Through this interview series with cooperators who are active in their respective cooperatives, we would like to cultivate and explore the strengths and possibilities of cooperatives together with the ILO-Tokyo interns.
Mr. Nobuhiro Tamaki
After being involved in civic activities and NGOs related to environmental protection when he was a university student, he joined the Central Worker Cooperative (CWC) belogning to the Japan Workers’ Co-operative Union (JWCU)  in April 2006. He has been involved in projects for elderly care facilities, community centers, children's centers and after-school day-care center, projects to support young people and projects to support welfare recipients and the needy. Since September 2014, he has served as the Secretary General of the Japan Social Solidarity Organization, and in 2019, he was appointed as the Managing Director of the CWC, and the director of the JWCU. In April 2015, he moved to Nakagawa Village, Kamiina County, Nagano Prefecture. He is currently seeking collaboration between agriculture, community development, and welfare in worker cooperatives, and established Social Farm Nakagawa together with local friends (established in September 2019), where he also serves as Secretary General and Executive Director.

What is Workers’ Co-operative?

● How do you explain Workers’ Co-operative?

A Workers’ Co-op is a cooperative in which all working people and citizens invest in the co-op, participate in the management, run the business democratically, share the responsibility, and create jobs that benefit people and the community.
In an agricultural cooperative, full membership is limited to farmers, and in a consumer’s cooperative, the people who purchase goods become members. However, basically, the Workers’ Co-operative does not have specific category for membership. Although it includes various kinds of work, it's not just any kind of work, and in the proposed Workers’ Co-operative Act (the Workers’ Co-operative Bill), it says that types of work which Workers’ Co-operatives are engaged with should contribute to the creation of sustainable and vibrant communities that are necessary for the community. Therefore, communities are important for us. Without a relationship with communities, our business cannot be established in the first place.

Four pairs of shoes: from nationwide organizations to a local general incorporated association

● What kind of work are you currently in charge of?

This is a quite difficult question (laughs). Like other cooperatives, there is a national federation called the Japan Workers’ Co-operative Union (JWCU), and I am one of the board members. I have two other jobs apart from this.

The Central Worker Cooperative, while being a member of the JWCU, is engaged in welfare (support for the elderly, child care, and people in need), building maintenance and cleaning, and other projects across the country. In this organization, I work in a department that is responsible for the overall direction of the organization, including business management and athletic activities, as the Managing  Director.

Management has always been a big part of the Workers’ Co-operatives as well. Fifteen years ago, the Japan Social Solidarity Organization was established the JWCU to carry out activities based on "linkage" that are useful and necessary for the community but are not immediately viable as a business. I am currently the Secretary General of the organization.

In addition to the above, I have been working at Social Farm Nakagawa General Incorporated Association since last year to create a kind of worker's cooperative to create jobs. Nakagawa is a small village in Nagano Prefecture, where I live.

● The scope of your project coverage seems very broad. Did Workers’ Co-operatives originally work on the same kind of projects from the beginning?
From the post-war period until the 1990s, there was a national program to address unemployment issues in which the government provided jobs for the unemployed. However, after the high economic growth, the role of this program ended and the system was eliminated. With the increased unemployment due to the end of the system, the Workers’ Co-op was established so that workers do not just work for someone else but raise money by themselves and run their own business. Therefore, in the beginning, the main work was cleaning up roads,  buildings and parks, which were part of the original unemployment countermeasure program, but from 15 years ago, the program expanded to include welfare work.

The "before" and "after" the creation of the Workers’ Co-operative Law

● Do you mean that Workers’ Co-operatives (Workers’ Co-op) and general incorporated associations are compatible in terms of how they are organized?
No, they're not. It's not completely compatible because the purpose of the organizational establishments themselves are different, and the right to invest for each worker does not exist in a general incorporated association. Also, NPOs are not allowed to make investments, so it is not possible for an NPO to have a system in which people can invest in the association when they join and have their money returned when they leave. In that sense, we are making a new Workers’ Co-operative Law. We don't have a law for worker's cooperatives at the moment, so we are taking various forms, such as general incorporated associations and NPOs, and incorporating elements of worker's cooperatives into our management methods as we carry out our activities. When the new Workers’ Co-operatives Law is passed, we will convert organization forms into Workers’ Co-operatives.

● What changes will take place when the Workers’ Co-operative Law is passed?
I believe that if we can have the first worker's cooperative law established in Japan, it will be an opportunity for not only the Workers’ Co-op, but also for Japan to spread the idea of forming cooperatives by people themselves. I think it is possible to create joint-stock companies, NPOs and general incorporated associations, but currently there is no image of cooperatives being created. If the law is passed, cooperatives can be established with three or more members.

In Europe, there is a recognition that community cooperatives, social cooperatives, or organizations are formed by people who share the same interests to solve the common problem of their mutual interest. I heard that in France, there are many Workers’ Co-ops similar to IT ventures, and in Germany, there are renewable energy cooperatives. In Italy, when mental hospitals were abolished in the 80s and 90s, people thought that the local community would be able to take care of patients, so they created social cooperatives to provide a place of work and care.
In Japan, we have finally received support and assistance from various cooperatives and labor organizations, and there is a growing momentum in the Parliament to make a law. There is the possibility of very good progress in creating diverse worker's cooperatives of various people, and I'm very excited about this ongoing development.


Care and primary industries are key to tackling climate change

● You are involved in a variety of organizations and fields. What is your particular focus in such work?
The most important thing to my mind is the question of "What is care in the Workers’ Co-op?“ Up until now, I think there has been a lot of discussion about welfare based on the relationship between “supporting” and “being supported”, but nowadays, the general perception among the Workers’ Co-op membersis that “the Workers’ Co-ops’ care exists in a relationship of equality”. We receive visitors  from abroad, and they sometimes visit our elderly care facility in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, where we have members with disabilities working as helpers. I think we have a situation where a range of people are working together. For example, people who are cared play a role in caring for other people with dementia, while people with alcohol issues  work at the JWCU headquarters and people with developmental disabilities work as well.

The other question is “what can the Workers’ Co-ops do to address climate change?” We have always been thinking about jobs that are needed in the community and sustainable and cyclical communities, but if we leave the climate change issues unaddressed, the fundamental part of our work could be shaken from the bottom. In this situation, I believe that the care (welfare) and primary industry projects of the Workers’ Co-op will play a very important role in combating climate change. As a specific initiative, we are currently collecting tempura oil called BDF and recycling it into biodiesel (fuel) at three locations across Japan.

At the time of earthquakes, Workers’ Co-ops worked to create jobs together with  the victims themselves

● How have you collaborated among Workers’ Co-ops in crises, such as the spread of the new coronavirus, the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and the Great East Japan Earthquake?
I heard that at the time of the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, Workers’ Co-op was onsite to provide disaster relief volunteers and other assistance. At the time of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, there was a lot of collapsed buildings, so they set up a local Construction Industry Workers’ Co-op to provide support.
When the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in 2011, we took the initiative to transfer part of our headquarters to the Tohoku region. At the time, I was in charge of the northern Kanto region, and once a month I went to the disaster area to offer a soup kitchen with members. Together with the Tohoku Reconstruction Headquarters and the Tohoku Division, we have been working to create jobs "by the victims themselves" to date. While the visible infrastructure rehabiritated, the psycological scars may never heal. Even in this difficult situation, members in their 20s and 30s set up offices together with the people affected by the disaster through trial and error. I think there was a strong sense of ownership by loclas in the affected areas, more than a mere relationship of “the supported and supporters”.

● Do you think the impact of the new coronavirus is different from that of the previous disasters?
It can be very different. In the past natural disasters, some non-affected areas had been able to support affected areas. However, I think this time there will be more severe unemployment and poverty around the world. There is probably not much that the Workers' Co-op can do as a single entity. I think it is necessary to work together with agricultural cooperatives, consumers’ cooperatives, forestry cooperatives, fishing cooperatives, financial cooperatives and non-profit organizations.

Furthermore, if we think about the long term, the way we live and work will change dramatically. Because we saw the vulnerability of society in this pandemic with its concentration in the city and its lack of respect for the primary industry. I believe that it will be important to create a variety of small, yet deep relationships within the community in order to build society in the future. Considering this, I think that organizations like Workers’ Co-operatives should work in cooperation with various people, which will be important from a medium- to long-term perspective.

 Encounter with Workers’ Co-operative = encounter with people who share an impression of society

● From now on, I would like to ask you about your own career. Why did you decide to work at Worker’ Co-op?
I was looking for a place to settle down to do farming, which I had loved since I was a student, but I didn't think it would be a good idea for me to say, "Even though I was born and raised in Tokyo, I don't like Tokyo, so I want to live in the nature." Therefore, I decided to look for a job in Tokyo that would contribute to the community. At that time, I saw an newspaper ad saying a Workers’ Co-op had been commissioned to run a local community center, so I went to talk to them. I was always familiar with cooperatives in general, but I didn't know about Worker's Co-operatives. At the time, I couldn't think about investing money in a Worker's Co-op before working there, but at the briefing session at the Workers' Co-op, I received a detailed explanation of the history and current state of the organization, and at the end of the session, I was asked, "This is the kind of organization we are, is that OK for you?”

● What was the deciding factor for you?
The people who interviewed me were all very attractive, and it was interesting to hear their small talk. Of course, the mission of the organization is important, but I think it's very important to have colleagues who share your daily thoughts. This sense of empathy has continued after I joined the Workers’ Co-op. There are a lot of difficulties, but at the end, that's how we are connected (in terms of how we feel about society). The Workers' Co-ops do not address just one type of projects, so the projects areas and the backgrounds of the people who work there are very diverse, and I think that's the most attractive thing about our organization.

Workers co-operatives are a "school of democracy" that trains “students” to deal with people, including conflict

● Isn't it difficult to make decisions and implement some measures because of the diversity?
I think this difficulty itself is interesting. It's very important to recognize that there are things that other people can do and you can't do at all or never think about. Based on this premise, I think we need to build up our ability to face each other through daily dialogue training including conflict, otherwise social inclusion is far from being achieved. I think the Workers’ Co-op is a place where you can train your democratic skills in your daily life. The former mayor of Nakagawa Village, where I live now, told me that the Workers’ Co-op could be a school of democracy, and I was very happy to hear that.


● How do you feel about doing such democracy training at Workers’ Co-op so far?
Well, it's exhausting (laughs). We often say that there is no end. There is no straightforward “successful approach” in the Workers’ Co-op. I think it's better to think that what you're doing now, or what you're facing, has value itself. In that sense, the primary industry might be a perfect fit. When I talk to young colleagues who are involved in the forestry industry, they tell me that the trees they cut down were planted 80 years ago, and that the trees they planted may be cut down 300 years later from now.

2030 Vision...Creating a self-sufficient food, energy and care (FEC) zone in the region

● What is your vision for 2030?
As the Japan Workers’ Co-operative Union, in response to the climate crisis, we are now creating a medium- to long-term plan for a post-Corona society with an emphasis on what is called the Green Economy. When we talk about the Green New Deal, we are trying to create a self-sufficient zone for food, energy and care (FEC) within the region. We've been working on this for the past 10 years or so, but after Covid-19 pandemic, I think we'll put even more emphasis on it and organizational development will become more important. Up until now, the national headquarters (Tokyo) and the branches have shared roles and managed their operations, but from now on, I think it will be necessary to delegate more decision-making to the local branches. I think it would be great if we could create a dynamic organization structure that connects the entire country with a network of branches.

● What is your personal vision for 2030?
Together with about ten friends, I established a social farm where anyone can work.One of the main goals of Social Farm Nakagawa is to create a sustainable industry to contribute to society by using local resources. Last year, we started researching the cultivation of medicinal herbs and trees in cooperation with neighboring companies, farmers, and researchers at Shinshu University, partly because a famous medicinal health alcohol called Yo-mei-shu was originally produced in Nakagawa Village. We are considering about whether these products can be produced, processed, and sold by local people with disabilities. In addition, I think that managing vacant houses in the community will become critical because of the aging and depopulation in Japan. Over the next three years or so, I'd like to create a system and a relationship in which the elderly and people with disabilities are able to take on these community resources as their work.

“You don't have to do everything by yourself” ... a cooperative as an alternative to being involved in various communities.

● How can we expand the cooperative movement to young people?
Younger people, including those of my generation, do a lot of activities on an individual basis, and I think it is wasteful indeed. It may be difficult or troublesome to do something with others, but you don't have to do everything on your own. If I want to repair my house, I can get a friend who is a carpenter to do it for me. We could also set up a cooperative and share the house itself, or if someone wants to rent a house, we could mediate with them. I think it would be an option for people to not only work for one worker's co-operative, but also to create a workers’ co-operative while having their own jobs and to establish a local consumers’ co-op, so that they can have a variety of channels in their own lives. I think it would be great if we could create a social climate where people could have more freedom in the way they live and work.


● Finally, how would you describe the cooperative in one word?
This is the first time I've thought about it. I think it's a "human-centered organization". There are many good joint-stock companies, but I think that capital is at the center of their structure. In my opinion, a cooperative is a human-centered organization that values working and living like a human being.
Humanity has changed in many ways over time, and there is no end in sight. There may be some improved and lost dimensions when we compare the present humanity with that of 100 years ago, when cooperatives were established. In that sense, the humanity will change again in the future, and people involved in cooperatives will continue to think about it.
We make a decision and move on, but we make a mistake and change directions, which I think is what human beings do. When you make mistakes along the way, what a cooperative, a "human-centered organization", does is to acknowledge the mistakes and to try other ways.


●    Thank you very much for corporation!