In the March 2014 issue of the journal Organization Studies, Aegean Leung, Charlene Zietsma, and Ana Maria Peredo have published a fascinating case study of a Japanese cooperative network that is little-known in the English-speaking world: the Seikatsu Club.
Founded in 1965 in Tokyo as an all-woman consumers’ collective, the Seikatsu Club has grown over the past 50 years into a network of 30 consumers’ cooperatives with 300,000 women members and annual sales of one billion US dollars. As it grew, the Seikatsu Club also diversified, branching into electoral politics and worker ownership. In 1979, the Club established the Seikatsusha Network, a grassroots political organization founded to advance the Club’s social and environmental agenda. To date, the Seikatsusha Network has successfully elected some 150 members to local government. Then in 1982, the Club established Ninjin, the first of 600 worker-owned businesses in the network that now employ 17,000 women, with a combined total annual sales of 150 million US dollars. (Leung et al. 2014: 427, 450)
The scope and scale of the Seikatsu Club is astounding and it is a shame that it isn’t better-known outside of Japan, but most of the primary information about the club is (not surprisingly) published in Japanese. There has been very little published about the club in English, and in this respect, this article by Leung et al. is particularly welcome. Leung et al. have mined the social history of the club to build a case study that examines how membership in the club changed the lives of the women involved. Most of the members of the Seikatsu club are middle-class Japanese housewives who perform a very traditional role in Japanese society. The Seikatsu Club originated as a buyers’ club where housewives cooperated to source safe and inexpensive milk for their families. The safety of domestic goods was a principal concern of the Club in the beginning, and as the Club expanded, the members were drawn ever deeper into the production and supply-chain for these goods, eventually setting up their own businesses to produce better, safer products. (Leung et al. 2014: 436–9)
Leung and colleagues argue that involvement in the Club provided Japanese housewives with an opportunity to enact their traditional role as managers and protectors of the family but in a way that ultimately changed that role and gave the women far greater control over their own lives and a chance to make a significant mark on the Japanese economy and Japanese society outside of the home. As one member wrote:
Working in the collective gave me a good feeling that I could make a contribution and have a place in society, not as a mother or a wife of so-and-so, but as myself … We create our own work and we are in charge.
(Kutsuzawa 1998: 100; quoted in Leung et al. 2014: 440)
Leung et al. demonstrate in their article that through the Seikatsu Club, Japanese women are democratizing the Japanese economy, and ultimately, altering the structure of Japanese society, but also, conversely, the Seikatsu Club is changing its members, expanding their role-identity as Japanese housewives into new domains: out of the home and into politics, the public sphere, and the economy. For these authors, social structure and individual agency are linked. Social structure delimits the choices we have in our lives and determines what social roles we can take, but at the same time, within the boundaries set by the structure of our society, we do have choices, and how we live our lives and how we choose to enact our roles can ultimately reflect back and alter the structure of society, particularly if we choose to act collectively.
The authors explain that the middle-class housewives who joined the Seikatsu Club were not initially seeking to change Japanese society:
It is important to note the divergence between the aspirations of the founders and the goals of the women who became members of the Seikatsu Club in its early days. While there as a clear intention from the founders at the starting point of the Seikatsu Club to bring about social change by unleashing the power vested in the institutionalized role-identity of the housewives, most members joined the club to purchase better-quality products at lower prices. At least initially, the women were not seeking to challenge the traditional boundary of their roles.
(Leung et al. 2014: 435–6)
The authors don’t explore this point much, but it is clear from their analysis that the founders were key. This transformational identity work could never have happened – indeed, the Seikatsu Club would never have existed – without the initial involvement of ideologically committed founders. The Seikatsu Club was founded by a young socialist couple, Shizuko and Kuniyo Iwane, (Leung et al. 2014: 434) and in 1965, these two socialist entrepreneurs organized a cooperative buyers’ club of 200 women (Leung et al. 2014: 427) that has since grown into a billion-dollar, economy-transforming cooperative network.
It would be fascinating to learn more about this couple, but again, most of the primary information is only available in Japanese. Kuniyo Iwane wrote a memoir (1979) but unfortunately it was never translated into English. Still, there is some secondary information on the couple available in English, and from these sources, it seems as though Shizuko and Kuniyo Iwane founded the Seikatsu Club after becoming disillusioned with established socialist politics in Japan. Kuniyo Iwane was a member of the Japan Socialist Party, and within the Party, he became involved in a group that espoused ‘structural reform’, the notion that the best path to socialism was to progressively change the structure of society from within. Kuniyo eventually quit the JSP, and with his wife, concentrated on developing the grass-roots cooperative economy in Japan (Avenell 2010: 220–22), and it is clear from the analysis in Leung and colleagues’ article that they were remarkably successful. Through the network of cooperative consumer clubs and worker-owned businesses that they founded, Shizuko and Kuniyo Iwane initiated a movement that is significantly restructuring Japanese society in radical new ways.
Avenell, Simon Andrew (2010) Making Japanese citizens: Civil society and the mythology of the Shimin in postwar Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Iwane, Kuniyo (1979) Seikatsu kurabu to tomone. [Together with the Seikatsu Club]. Tokyo: Shinjidaisha.
Kutsuzawa, K. (1998) Gender, work and the politics of identity: Work collectives and social activism among middle-class housewives in contemporary Japan. PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut.
Leung, Aegean, Zietsma, Charlene, and Peredo, Ana Maria (2014) “Emergent Identity Work and Istitutional Change: The ‘Quiet’ Revolution of Japanese Middle-Class Housewives.” Organization Studies 35(3), 423–450.