|Love can buy you
Some Japanese communities are learning to work for peanuts and bamboo instead of yen
Jonathan Watts in Tokyo
Wednesday October 9, 2002
They say money can't buy you love, but in one part of Japan at least, love can buy you a babysitter, a massage, home help and a discount on items such as shoes and radishes.
It is a funny kind of love - not so much of the touchy, feely emotional variety but a form of promissory note that guarantees an exchange of goodwill and mutually beneficial services.
Rabu (love) is the most recent and ambitious of a plethora of community currencies that are springing up in regions around Japan to boost local economies and encourage warmer ties between residents.
The new tokens of exchange are unlikely to challenge the yen in the near future, but they are fostering a new welfare-orientated way of thinking about money and barter that stands in contrast to the rise of mega-currencies such as the euro or impersonal electronic transactions carried out over the internet.
In recent years, 130 local governments have introduced their own currencies in the hope of reversing the decline of once close-knit communities.
Most have names reflecting their aims. While 90,000 shopkeepers and residents are able to give and receive "love" in Yamato, near Tokyo, the residents of Okawa island in the Inland Sea exchange dan dans (meaning "thank-yous") in the local dialect and in Tamagawa city they deal in "bamboo".
In Takurazuka, the central Japan home of the world's most popular women's theatre, a local volunteer organisation has launched the zuka. Since 2000, residents who pay to join the currency system can get or receive 30 minutes of gardening, babysitting or advice for 1,000 zuka.
Many of the communities attracted to the new currencies are those where real cash is in short supply and slow to circulate either because of large elderly populations or high numbers of unemployed.
Last year, Kamagasaki in Osaka, which has the highest proportion of homeless people in Japan, introduced the kama for the increasing number of day labourers who have been unable to find work in the recession. During the city's summer festival, the authorities paid kama - which could be used to buy beer - in exchange for collections of empty cans.
In Chiba, people work for "peanuts", the name of a cash alternative that is based on a famous local product. Like most of the systems, it is small in scale but growing fast. As of last month, 540 residents and 50 shops had signed up to the peanut.
"The peanut has really taken off," said Mitsuya Katsushi of the local Community-Building Support Centre. "The number of users has doubled in the past year and now there are plans to expand into other regions."
Local shopkeepers report a 5% increase in sales since the start of the system three years ago, and even attribute the spruced-up appearance of the central promenade to its introduction because the elderly women who tidy up the flower beds are paid partly in the new currency.
But the biggest gain, they say, has been in conviviality because the rules of the peanut system require users to shake hands and cry "amigo" whenever they exchange the currency.
According to the Sawayaka Welfare Centre, a volunteer group that is campaigning for greater use of regional currencies, the rise of such systems reflects a change in society. "Sadly, ties between neighbours have become very weak so people are reluctant to just ask for favours. But these currencies are a stimulus to share services and deepen relations between people," said Yasushi Inose, a spokesman for the group.
In Yamato city, however, they have an even grander vision which could one day see the love ousting the yen for transactions between local people.
"We would like to build a more self-sufficient system that would allow people to pay for everything they need to live in Yamato with love," said Tomoyuki Akiyama, of the Love Support Centre.
Economists see these small steps towards a multi-currency system as a sign that consumers and municipal authorities are losing faith in the established financial structure, which has been on the verge of collapse for almost 10 years.
"Adopting regional currencies is a form of capital flight," said Noriko Hama of the Mitsubishi Research Institute. "If they come to be increasingly widely used as methods of payment among the local citizenry, their circulation could actually lead to a net increase in regional spending power. It all boils down to a question of acceptability, popularity, familiarity and credibility."
Essentially, the love, the dan dan and the peanut are facing many of the same challenges as the euro - a lack of understanding and a suspicion that they may one day be worthless.
Five months after the launch of the love in Yamamoto, local shopkeepers are calling for a rethink of a scheme that they say has had no economic benefits.
"It's just a bother. Hardly anybody has heard of love and, those that do don't trust it as a currency," said Takashi Uchida, whose hardware shop is one of only five retail outlets that have entered the system. "It needs time to work and a new name. I feel very peculiar asking customers to give me love."
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