ILO COOP 100 Interview

Mr Akira KURIMOTO, Chair of the ICA-AP Research Committee and former Professor at the Institute for Solidarity-based Society at Hosei University, Japan

Established in March 1920, the ILO’s Cooperatives Unit marks its Centenary in 2020. On this occasion, the ILO COOP 100 Interview series features past and present ILO colleagues and key partners who were closely engaged in the ILO's work on cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE). The interviews reflect on their experience and contributions in the past and shares their thoughts on the future of cooperatives and the SSE in a changing world of work.

Article | 13 July 2020

Could you tell us how you got interested in working with and researching cooperatives?

Mr Kurimoto
I joined a university cooperative’s student committee when I was a student at the University of Tokyo amid the student protests in 1968. We were not radicals crying for university destruction but pursued its democratic reform. As a board member of the cooperative, I made efforts to promote the cooperative idea among students campaigning for consumer rights.

After graduation, I joined the Japanese Consumer Co-operative Union (JCCU). After working at several sections including member relations department, executive office and planning office, I became a manager of the international department newly set up to prepare for the Global Congress of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) in Tokyo in 1992. Then, I moved to the Consumer Co-operative Institute of Japan (CCIJ), JCCU’s research arm. During my career, I realized some differences between cooperatives in Japan and other countries, especially Western Europe and North America. Therefore, I have been interested in understanding why and how cooperatives were born and evolved differently. My research interests include comparative cooperative laws and policies, the global cooperative history, cooperative economics and management and the social and solidarity economy (SSE).

As far as my association with the ILO is concerned, I had used the training manuals developed by the MATCOM project to train cooperative managers in the developing countries and collaborated with the COOPTRADE project to develop trade links among cooperatives as a development officer at JCCU. I also took part in a law specialists conference in Geneva to prepare for the ILO’s Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation, 2002 (No. 193). In more recent years I participated in the SSE Academy in Montreal in 2011, and the ICA-ILO Research Conference in Antalya in 2015. It was also a pleasure and honour to work with ILO COOP in preparing a working paper on Rokin Labour Banks – Japanese cooperative banks set up by the trade unions – and a brief on statistics of cooperatives in Japan.

The Institute of Solidarity-based Society was established in 2015 by the Japanese trade union movement in collaboration with cooperatives and civil society organizations. What was the reason behind the establishment of the institute?

ISS professor and students
Increasing poverty and widening disparity among people have been threatening socio-economic sustainability under economic globalization and information revolution. Now that insecurity and uncertainty have become a normal state of everyday life due to the economic model based on market fundamentalism, we need wisdom, power and actions of people who demonstrate solidarity for mutual and general interests. The idea of the SSE or the third sector is presented to remedy market imperfections while growing attention is being paid to social enterprises in tackling with social exclusion.

The origin of these organizations dates to the time of industrial revolution in the 19th century. To solve the miserable state of life brought by the dominant political and economic system, workers organized into trade unions and cooperatives for solidarity while non-profits were born from religious institutions and charities to provide relief to the poor. Despite the differences in their purposes (mutual or general interests) and means (economic or political actions), these organizations share a vision of a solidarity-based society that brings together individuals and organizations divided by competition. It was in this context that the Institute of Solidarity-based Society (ISS) was established in April 2015 as a postgraduate school at the Hosei University to create a better understanding of larger solidarity beyond organizational barriers.

Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General
The ISS aims to develop future leaders in non-profits/NGOs, social enterprises, cooperatives and trade unions who pursue social and general interests through solidarity, who can combine policy formulation and implementation skills to build a solidarity-based society. It was built on the initiative of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (JTUC-Rengo), Japan Labor Culture Foundation, JCCU, National Federation of Workers and Consumers Kyosai Insurance Cooperatives (Kokumin Kyosai Co-op, then called Zenrosai), Rokin labour banks, and other interested organizations. It works as a graduate school for cadres of trade unions, cooperatives, and non-profits. When it was created, ILO’s DG Guy Ryder kindly sent a congratulatory message.

What are the current focus and priority areas for the ICA-AP Research Committee?

The ICA Committee on Co-operative Research for Asia and the Pacific was born in 1998 and organizes biennial/annual research conferences since 2000. Its Constitution reads, “The overall aim of the Committee shall be to promote and support the initiation and furtherance of research activities within cooperatives and research organizations at regional, national and local levels, so as to enhance their social and economic effectiveness”. As such, its mission is to provide liaison between cooperatives and academics.

Its current focus includes analyses of legal and policy frameworks, case studies of success and failure, and cooperative contributions to the SDGs. It seeks to build a cooperative scholarship in the region since researchers have been mostly isolated from each other or from cooperative practices. So, a few researchers set up the Asia Pacific Co-operative Research Partnership (APCRP) as a voluntary group to further cooperative research in the region in 2014 and collaborated for the publication of the edited volume on “Waking the Asian Pacific Co-operative Potential” which has just come out from Elsevier, Oxford this June. It includes contributions from 34 academics from the Asia Pacific region. The purpose of this book is to provide a review of how cooperatives across the region have overcome difficulties, succeeded, or failed, and point the way for a renaissance in cooperative research and analysis. This book offers a thoughtful and well-researched account on how the cooperative model works and what it can contribute to the sustainable development of the economy, society, and environment. It introduces some e successful cooperatives in Asia and Pacific - many of which are not known in the ‘West’ and, even amongst many in the ‘East’.

An increasing number of countries have formed laws and public policies on the social and solidarity economy (SSE), an umbrella concept for enterprises and organizations that pursue social and/or environmental objectives through economic activities, including cooperatives. How do you see this growing momentum?

There is no internationally agreed definition on the SSE but it can be seen as an extension of the “cooperative sector”, a concept which was coined by George Fauquet, first chief of ILO COOP, and rediscovered by Alex Laidlaw in his seminal work “Co-operatives in the year 2000”. It is an approach to a more just and resilient society to contribute to the SDGs. It is institutionalized in some countries in Europe, Americas and some Asian countries. It is also recognized within the UN system through the establishment of the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on the SSE (UNTFSSE).

However, it has extremely low recognition by governments, media and academia in Japan due to the political economy and legal/administrative system. Its main components, namely cooperatives and non-profits, are divided by specific laws and competent ministries. There is no umbrella organization representing their common interests. This is one of the reasons why the notion of the cooperative sector has not been popular in Japan. Having said that, I recognize a few potentials. The National Council of Workers’ Welfare (Rofukukyo), a network of trade unions and worker-related cooperatives, celebrated its 70th anniversary last year. Since 2000 it has rejuvenated its activities from tackling social exclusion caused by accumulated debts and student loans to promoting a safety net for people in need and decent work. Rofukukyo can become one of the hubs to promote the SSE. The other potential can be seen in the Japan Co-operative Alliance (JCA) set up in 2018 by most of the Japanese cooperative federations to promote cooperation among cooperatives across sectors and strengthen cooperative presence through R&D and publicity. It took over the Japan Joint Committee of Co-operatives (JJC) set up in 1956 and the National Committee for the International Year of Cooperatives set up in 2010. I hope these networks can play a vital role in promoting the SSE in Japan.

The world of work is going through a great deal of changes including climate change, demographic shifts and the unfolding public health crisis around COVID-19. What are ways you think cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy can contribute to responding to these changes in Japan and across the Asia and Pacific region?

There are many ways that cooperatives can contribute to responding to changes and crises through providing essential and affordable goods and services, including health and social care and finance and insurance. They have done these in many ways but now they are facing an unprecedented paradigm shift combined with the “globalization paradox” as Dani Rodrik put it. On hyper-globalization, a major brake has been put as we witness everywhere.

Cooperatives can play a key role particularly in enhancing self-sufficiency of food, making fairer distribution of income, and providing health care (including prevention activities) and integrated community care for the elderly, people with disabilities and children. They can also help people to enhance the literacy in finance and insurance so that workers and citizens have decent work and healthier life.