Political Power Starts in the Kitchen: Japan

Article excerpt

Japan

(From "Japanese Revolt Against Bad Products," reprinted in the Utusan Konsumer, Malaysian consumer newspaper, Number 244, December 1991.)

Michiko Suzuki lives with her husband and two children in a garden flat in Zushi, a southern suburb of the Japanese city of Yokohama.

Most Japanese families do their shopping in just the same way as we do. Once a week, they jump in the Nissan and wheel their trolley round the supermarket, then home to the freezer, the telly, and a nice cup of green tea. But not Michiko Suzuki.

She has a much better way to do her shopping. Along with 170,000 other Japanese households, Michiko's family belong to one of Japan's largest consumer co-operatives, the Seikatsu Club, and most of their groceries are delivered to the door.

The milk comes on Tuesdays and Fridays: Seikatsu members call it the "milk mail." This isn't just any old milk, however. This is milk bought directly from a farm which is owned and operated by the Club; it refuses to use chemicals, and follows a strict code of animal welfare.

With the Tuesday delivery some other fresh foods: eggs, pork, fish, fruit, vegetables and cheese. Then every month the Club also delivers items like rice, tinned and packeted foods, and items like soap and washing-up liquid.

Nearly all of the fruit and vegetables are grown without chemicals, bought directly from an organic agricultural co-op. The eggs are from free-range chickens. The soap has no chemical additives, and comes from a co-operating factory in Kawasaki.

What does Michiko Suzuki pay for this service? She pays a $20 monthly membership fee for three years which the Club invests for a minimum period, after which time she can reclaim the money. The Club currently has $125 million invested in this way. She then pays for each month's order at the beginning of the following month. Prices for basics are similar to supermarket prices, though overall she reckons to pay about three or four percent more for her groceries. But that doesn't take into account petrol for the Nissan, and time spent in a crowded supermarket.

And what does she get? A regular supply of quality foods and household goods, delivered to the doorstep. Guaranteed better health for her and her family.

Started by Angry Housewives

It was in June 1965 that a woman from Tokyo's Setagaya district, incensed by yet another rise in the cost of the Japanese pinta, organised two hundred of her friends and acquaintances to buy three hundred bottles of milk every week. Not only could they now negotiate a sizable discount, but they could also choose where they bought from.

By 1968 there were more than a thousand member families, and the Club started buying other grocery lines. In the early 1970s, organically grown eggs and rice were added, and in 1973 the Club produced its first own-label products--soya sauce and frozen seafood.

1974 saw the launch of the "Soap Movement." Mothers were becoming concerned about the prevalence of nappy rash and chapped skin, the culprits being the synthetic detergents used in most household soap products. Within days of the Club's making a deal with a natural soap producer, nearly seventy percent of the Club's 35,000 members refused ever again to buy synthetic soaps.

By the late 1970s, the Seikatsu Club was an economic and political force to be reckoned with. A dairy farm was constructed in Hokkaido and a milk packaging factory in Chiba, east of Tokyo. There were now more than 100,000 members with a purchasing power of $35 million a year.

Where to from here? Straight to where important decisions are made, of course. After the success of a Seikatsu candidate in the Tokyo ward of Nerima in 1979, the Club put up over a hundred candidates in the 1987 local government elections. …