What is “Kyodo-baiten”?
Communities residing on the Okinawa and Amami islands, which are spread throughout the southern end of Japan, have created commercial entities referred to as a “kyodo-baiten”. It is a community cooperative association of stores and other commercial enterprises that are run by the local community. This concept of community cooperative associations have a very long history within the Okinawa and Amami archipelago, the first such cooperative originating over a 100 years ago. The words, “kyodo” and “baiten”, that form the compound word is equivalent to “co” and “store”, respectively, in the English language. The kyodo-baiten was established with the intent of supporting its community residents.
Closer to Taiwan than Mainland Japan, Okinawa was once an independent nation called the “Ryukyu Kingdom”. Even back then, the “Ryukyu Kingdom” was heavily involved in the trade business with other Asian countries such as China. It can be said that Okinawa played a gateway role for Japan and other Asian cultures. With the aftermath of World War II and Okinawa kept under US control for a very long time, Japan and Okinawa were somewhat separated economically allowing for unique practices, like the kyodo-baiten, to evolve in Okinawa over time.
Okinawa has about 50 inhabited islands. However, the population is concentrated in the southern and central main island areas. Much of the northern part of Okinawa, as well as the remote islands, are sparsely populated often making transportation between regions difficult, thus giving a crucial role for the kyodo-baiten in these disadvantaged areas.
Background, Origin, and Development
The very first kyodo-baiten was named Oku kyodo-ten which was established in a small community near the north end of Okinawa (the main island) in 1906. Until the 1950s, the northern part of the main island and the remote islands had no choice but to depend on others ships, such as “Yambaru-sen”, for its inter-regional trading with other municipalities, like Naha City, the capitol of Okinawa Prefecture. In the early 1900s before the kyodo-baiten concept was born, private enterprises ran by traders from other areas dominated the trade business. Since these traders had already owned boats and other essential capital, they bought agricultural and forestry products from villagers at a relatively cheaper price. On the contrary, they would turn around and sell commodities purchased at Naha back to the villagers at a much higher price. Some residents with little or no money were forced into subjugation to shop owners because they could not repay their debts. This problem was not unique to Okinawa. It became an epidemic throughout colonies as well as the rural areas of developing countries. The Oku kyodo-ten, the first kyodo-baiten, was created to fight against foreign capital disrupting local commerce. Following the lead of the Oku kyodo-ten, about 200 kyodo-baiten cooperatives were established in various locations.
Unique Cooperative Association
Structurally, the kyodo-baiten is similar to a consumers’ cooperative (co-op) or an agricultural cooperative association. It can be said that the kyodo-baiten laid the groundwork for other cooperative associations in Japan. But because of its unique structure, the kyodo-baiten does not get regulated under the Cooperatives Acts of Japan. It is almost like a private organization neither controlled, nor protected by law. In this regard, the kyodo-baiten is a very unique concept not only in Japan, but in the world.
One of the prominent characteristics of a kyodo-baiten is that it has a close relationship with the local community. Each kyodo-baiten has no ruling body or regulating authority. The community establishes it voluntarily and is creates its own bylaws, thus giving the organization its own autonomy.
Another interesting observation is that the kyodo-baiten concept, despite its literally definition, has evolved away from just dealing with local stores and commerce. They also exist in a wide range of industries such as lumbering, power generation, rice milling, tea manufacturing, etc. They can also be found in the private financing sector, particularly in the micro-credit market that deal with very specific niches like tuition funds, consolatory payment for diseases, and disaster relief. They can also be found in the bus transportation network system, the communal communication assets, and even the communal bath establishments. A local researcher refers the kyodo-baiten as “communal general corporate entity”.
Re-evaluation in the Modern-era
As seen above, the kyodo-baiten has played an essential role towards communities achieving economical independence and reducing poverty levels within their jurisdiction. As many as 70 are still in operation today. Still, regional areas plagued by depopulation and a growing life expectancy continue to be a serious issue in Japan. Nevertheless, you will still find a string of establishments — “stores capitalized by residents”, that have adopted the kyodo-baiten concept. This shows that across the nation there is still a vital role for the kyodo-baiten to support the socially vulnerable, such as senior citizens or those disadvantaged by a poor transportation network. It is no surprise then that the kyodo-baiten organizations have well expanded into the genres of social welfare, urban planning, and disaster prevention.
Information was provided by the Kyodo-Baiten Fan Club, a non-profit organization in support of the kyodo-baiten mission.
KyodoBaiten Map 2012-13
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