Community Currencies in Japan(As of Nov 02, 2000)
Department of Advanced and International Studies,
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences,
University of Tokyo
Community currencies, or movements to create alternative currencies by non-governmetal initiative, are more and more popular in the whole world. Experiences like LETS(Local Exchange Trading System) in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other English-speaking countries, SELS (Système d'Echange Locaux) in France, Tauschrings in Germany, Ithaca Hours in Ithaca, New York, United States, The
Other stock exchange(La Otra Bolsa de Valores) in Mexico and the Global Exchange Network(Red Global de Trueque) in Argentina are the better known ones that have taken root to each society for its own way. In Japan, where people don't enjoy having the second highest GDP per capita in the world due to high prices and to the fear that the Central Government won't offer enough welfare service due to this serious financial reality, some similar projects have emerged to overcome the social difficulties that are typical of this country. All along this article Iíll try to show some reasons that gave birth to community currencies in Japan and their characteristics.
1): Ecomoney: the community currency suggested by the public sector
I'd like to begin this section with the fact that in Japan the public sector is more interested than the private one in starting community currencies. This is because they were made known to the Japanese public first of all in the book "Ecomoney - from Big Bang toward the most human society " (Nihon Keizai Hyoronsha, 1998) written by Toshiharu Kato, then director of the Division of Industries of Service of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). In this book Kato shows his vision on the globalized current economy, insisting on its fragility and on the need to create another currency called Ecomoney (eco of Ecology and Economy) to defend the local economy from the transnational financial threat and to offer more opportunity to newly-established companies. After its publication many local governments were interested in introducing it into their communities, and several groups have begun to study their viability, although up to now very few of them have ended up with carrying it out, only aiming to receive subsidy from the central government for community currency's implementation, (some local governments are even more interested in the subsidy that the solidarity economy, main concept of community currencies).
In fact the concept of community currency had been introduced into Japan earlier than Kato's book. Makoto Maruyama(contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org), currently my professor, did his Ph.D. in Canada when he came across some LETS experiences and later wrote of them on a book (Junkan-no Keizaigaku, Gakuyo-Shobo, 1995). Kato, when elaborating his book, adopted this term, explaining the advantage of the limited community currency area to keep the acquisitive power inside the community, one of the main concepts of LETS. This conceptcoincides with the reality of Japanís countryside that suffers from community degradation, and Kato took advantage of this given situation to suggest the officials of local governments to adopt community currencies with the purpose to strengthen the knot inside the local community.
Kato, however, changed his attitude in 1999 and he restricted the ecomoneyís use only to the services, fearing that the Ministry of Finance may forbid all the community currencies as violation of the exclusive right of the Bank of Japan to issue money. And he only insists on the importance of the service sector not because itís his task in the Ministry, but because he hopes the service exchanges' increase will reduce the Central Government's expense for social welfare, which coincides with the interest of the Ministry of Finance with a hard obstacle of the great deficit that already amounts to more than $3 trillions. The Japanese demography shows that the generation between 1946 and 1950(so-called the first Baby-boomers) constitutes a great number due to the fact that after the Second World War the Japanese soldiers returned to the country, were married to their girlfriends and as a consequence many babies were born in that period. It's easily previewed that in ten years they go into retirement, and the country will have a great number of old men to maintain. With the aging boomers the elderly that need domestic services (preparation of food, exchange of diapers, taken to the bathroom, etc.) will increase, a lot of money of the public sector is required to satisfy such demand in the name of welfare, and the Central Government wants to take advantage of the community currencies only to cut off their expenses for such purposes.
Many of the coordinators of community currencies of private initiative are against Kato because he deformed them into a complementary tool to strengthen the community, eliminating other social possibilities in order not to offend the Ministries. A number of dependent experiences of ecomoney have settled down in several parts of Japan.
2): Peanuts, community currency pioneer in Japan
Kazuhiko Murayama, sub-representative of the NPO called Chiba Machi-dzukuri Support Center(Chiba Urban-Planning Support Center), is the first one to realize the possibility of the community currencies in Japan. Chiba is one of the 47 prefectures in Japan which is located next to Tokyo and for its neighborhood to the capital is considered as a satellite prefecture of Tokyo together with other prefectures like Kanagawa and Saitama. Chiba has about 6 million residents, but many goes to Tokyo to work or to study and they only live in Chiba because they couldn't get their home in Tokyo. Murayama, wishing to develop Chiba for a community where inhabitants are eager to identify themselves with that, believed that the community currencies would be very useful to promote the urban planning of the prefecture, contacted Kato and he began to study them. And Peanuts LETS (called Peanuts because it is the representative product of the prefecture) began in February 14, 1999, limiting its use inside Chiba. At the beginning Peanuts was a system in which every transaction was recorded in checks (pictures can be found at http://www.appropriate-economics.org/gallery.html or http://www.seaple-n.icc.ne.jp/~murayama/letspeanuts.html to see them), but he decided to transform it in the use of notebooks (its picture lies below the previous one, and in Japanese its current system is explaind at the second graph of http://www.seaple-n.icc.ne.jp/~murayama/peanutsc.html) after studying other cases and to travel Great Britain to inspect the real cases of LETS, seeking to transform it into a similar system to the Wirbank of Switzerland in the future.
The reason Murayama stopped using checks and adopted notebooks instead is to avoid unnecessary criticism of the Central Government that maybe considers that the community currencies are movements that can endanger the stability of the yen economy. The checks can be considered by the officials of the Ministries as a form of counterfeit bank note (the Japanese law system can be interpreted so too), but the notebooks are without this danger, preventing Peanuts from such conflicts. When making each transaction in peas (name of the currency unit, a pea is equivalent to a yen (about the same as a US cent) each member takes out their notebook, they write the date, who they sell to or they buy from, type of good or service, value in yen, the total value, the DISCOUNT (the sum paid in peas) and the signature of the other one.
I'll highlight some typical points of community currencies in Japan. In the first place, the fact that payment is made both in yen and in pea (y other community currencies also) at the same time may seem hard to accept for Argentinians, Uruguayans or other community currency members whose system don't permit the intervention of central bank moneys, but itís because Peanuts, as other community currencies in Japan, is based on the idea that the necessary expenses in yen should be remunerated in the same currency. Letís say, for example that Charly and Helen are Peanuts members. Both live very far, and Charly wants to buy apples from Helenís farm. As there is no way for Helen to deliver the apples to him directly, she needs to go to the post office or other transport companies to send them. When she goes to the post office or delivery company, she has to pay this cost in yen so as not to end up with being in the red in yen due to this transaction. She also spent yen in the farming, for example, to buy fertilizers, and of the same reason this cost also has to be recovered in yen. As a result Charly pays Helen both in pea as in yen.
The second point that should seem strange to community currency members outside Japan is the concept of DISCOUNT, an original and exclusive one of Peanuts. Murayama, after negotiating with the owners of several stores to introduce the system, reached the conclusion that it would be better that the payment in Peas is considered as a discount in yen. For the stores, Peanuts is nothing else than a tool to promote their sales in yen, because they hope Peanuts can take their clients, who until now prefer the big shopping malls, back to their stores. Murayama also Peanuts to help such stores prosper.
Thanks to Murayama's efforts this system began to expand more and more quickly. Itís expected that as members go on increasing the time will come when they're enabled to transform Peanuts into a financial system like Wirbank in the Switzerland Murayama wishes.
* For further information contact the following address:
NPO Chiba Machi-dzukuri Support Center
203 1-21-16 Midori-machi Inage-ku
Chiba 263-0023 JAPAN
3): The TV program Ende's Money-go-around
To profile the movements of community currencies in Japan itís indispensable to speak of the role played by this TV program broadcast by NHK (Japanese public broadcasting station: according to the legislation itís an independent organization, but it tends to be less critical than other private broadcasting stations as for the government's politics and one can say that structurally itís very similar to the BBC of Great Britain). This program, broadcast on May 4 and 5, 1999, begins with Michael Ende (1929~1995, German writer and author of "Momo" and The Never Ending Story)'s message which stresses the importance to rebuild the monetary system to overcome the social problems from his economic viewpoint. Ende gave the case of Wörgl, Tirol, Austria that introduced Silvio Gesell's oxidizing currency" theory in 1932, and in the TV program other cases of community currencies, like Ithaca Hours and Wirbank, were reported. In Japan itís the first TV program on such experiences, and it caused a great repercussion. In fact I am one of those who were impressed to watch it too, and when I saw it in a VTR I began to build a website on that TV the program(http://www3.plala.or.jp/mig/will-uk.html).
Little by little those who were interested in community currencies met toghther on the Net, and after the Gesell MLs opening on June 2, 1999, dozens of people have joined to exchange opinions, ideas, suggestions, and so on. Itíll be enough to give the number of 5.548, submitted e-mails to the list within one year, and that of 236, ML members, to see the enthusiasm that the Japaneses feel for the community currencies.
The repercussion was so enormous that the TV program crew which produced it decided to publish a book on the program to offer to the public more details of Gesellís theory and of the experiences of community currencies. The book was published in February, 2000m as a work of Atsunori Kawamura (TV program's director), Eiichi Morino(president of Gesell Research Society Japan), Junko Murayama (another director who covered European cases) and Hitomi Kamanaka (another who covered Ithaca Hour). Dozens of people have watched the VTR and the book know the experiences and the importance of community currencies. The English version of this TV program is already editted and NHK it is also looking for foreign TV stations eager to broadcast it. Contact me for further information in case you know someone who may be interested in acquiring it.
4): LETS in Japan
After Ende's Money-Go-Around some LETS have started. Their system is almost the same, but what's typical in Japan is that every LETS group has a specific goal. For instance Poran, of Kenji's school (an anthroposophy-based group), is introduced in July 1999 to enable the mutual help between its members, and the network between such LETS is hard to establish as their interest is so different it's next to impossible to integrate them. The following case is only a good example of LETS in Japan, and note that similar movements are under way too.
Garu in Tomakomai, Hokkaido
Garu started last February by Osamu Ishizuka, an independent organic farmer who lives near Tomakomai City and member of Tomakomai-no Shizen-wo Mamoru Kai(Tomakomai Nature-preserving Association), to promote exchanges between its members. As of last September some 65 people have joined it, and Ishizuka uses this system for example to look for those who want to take off the weed from his ricefield. This group seems to grow furthermore, uniting ecologists in this region and supporting ecological activities. For further information visit the following site(only in Japanese).
Below are websites of other LETS in Japan.
Rainbow Ring: http://www.geocities.co.jp/WallStreet-Bull/1964/
Heart Money Azumino Ring: http://www.ultraman.gr.jp/~vop/lets.htm
Yatsugatake Daifukucho: http://www.gardencity.or.jp/~tom/daifukucho/
Ohmi (http://www.kusatsu.or.jp/ohmi/index.html, only in Japanese), in Kusatsu, Shiga, is different from other community currencies in Japan as to the fact that paper bills are circulated. Kusatsu is a satellite cite of Kyoto and Osaka and enjoys the quick growth thanks to the neighborhood of these two main cities of the Kansai region and to the establishment of a new campus of Ritsumeikan University. Thousands of new residents have settled there, and two years ago the Kusatsu Community Help Center was founded. This center opened as a community and autonomous center where residents join in its administration, but because of the high participation requirement (cleaning of the center, inscription fee, etc.) Kusatsu people didn't make use of this new institution. Hiroshi Uchiyama, auxiliary personnel of the center, hit on an idea to introduce the community currency so that this center be better utilized when reading an article about Ithaca Hours, and in April 1999 Ohmi was born.
Ohmiís current system is quite simple but different from other systems in Japan. An Ohmi is worth a hundred yen (about one US dollar), and those who want to join are required to donate to receive some Ohmis(the amount is up to the donation amount), and the rest is reserved for the necessary expenditures to maintain the system. These Ohmis can be used to make payment after using rooms in the center, and you can win Ohmi when cleaning its facilities. You could consider that Oumi is a kind of credit guaranteed as the center's usage fee.
Recently Ohmi faced a hard-to-resolve problem: in June a taxi company announced the acceptance of Ohmi as a part of the taxi fare payment, causing a great controversy inside the city hall. The officials were opposed to such usages saying that itís a kind of fiscal escape, and they reached the agreement as long as the companies spend Ohmis exclusively for the lectures for their employees in the Center. Ohmi follows its own way of taking root in its community, in spite of other misunderstandings.
For further information contacts:
Kusatsu Community Help Center
10-12 Nishioji-machi Kusatsu Shiga 525-0037 JAPAN
6): Watt System
Wat, started last August by Eiichi Morino, may seem strange, but suggest another possible form of community currencies. This system was designed to promote the solar-energy or other nature-based generations, and in the future Wat checks will be guaranteed by some electric power generated by ecological methods. Currently this WAT checks are circulated between Gesell-ML members and other natural-energy advocates, and 1KwH is now considered as equivalent to some one hundred yens(about one US dollar.)
Wat is used as multiple-endorsed checks. The issuer fills in his name and signs on the check, who accepts it can use it when paying to somebody else, and the check circulates between those who support Wat's principles. When the check comes back to the issuer it dies,(as Morino puts it) or he/she breaks it out as the check's role has been completed.
What's good of this system is that little administration is needed to maintain it. Both issuers and first acceptors give birth to new checks on their own responsibility, and there's no need for the center to control it. We're still unsure of its future, but its quickly-spreading use is more and more promising for community currency advocates. Similar system was adopted by Yufu(another community currency in Yufuin, Oita prefecture, started by Ryuji Urata).
For further information visit the following website(only in Japanese).
You can see the characteristics of the community currencies in Japan for their diversity and the adversity especially of the public sector. The Japanese activists, however, collaborate each other to improve the current situation, exchanging very frequently information, ideas and suggestions or researching other experiences outside of the country. With their brief history the concept of community currencies isnít still well accepted in the Japanese society, but the growth of model cases shows a hope that in the near future these systems will be widespread.
8): Contacts to know more on the community currencies in Japan
Dr. Eiichi Morino: Economist who got Ph. D. at Kokugakuin University. Up to 1999 he was the only Gesell researcher in Japan, and currently is devoted to popularize community currencies in Japan. Contact him at:
e-mail: email@example.com, http://www.alles.or.jp/~morino
Rui Izumi: my doctorate colleague. He was interested in community currencies when writing his master paper which, on the variety of community currencies and their theoretical need, was highly appreciated and currently is devoted mainly to the study of Wirbank in Switzerland, JAK banks in Denmark and in Sweden and other alternative banking systems. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org