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Branch of award-winning Grameen Bank to open in Japan in bid to help poor

Masahiro Kan, executive director of the Japanese branch of Grameen Bank's organizing committee, expresses his desire "to offer support to those in poverty," in Tokyo's Minato Ward, on May 18, 2018. (Mainichi)
Muhammad Yunus, founder and former managing director of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, is seen in this photo taken at the prime minister's office in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on July 20, 2010. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The Grameen Bank, which won the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to extend small loans to the poor in a bid to tackle poverty, is set to open a branch in Japan for the first time in September.

The branch hopes to help those in need of support, including single parents and those wishing to begin businesses and enter the workforce.

The executive director of the Japanese branch of Grameen Bank's organizing committee, Meiji Gakuin University professor Masahiro Kan, 61, stated, "I want to provide chances to start their own businesses or find jobs for people who have the will to work but are impoverished."

Grameen Bank, a microfinance organization for the poor, was established in Bangladesh in 1983, and had 2,568 branches in that country as of late 2017. Borrowers are required to belong to a five-member group, and receive small loans. They aim to escape poverty by using the money and repay it within a year. The repayment rate is over 90 percent.

The system has helped many impoverished women in rural areas of Bangladesh to emerge from poverty, by giving them a chance to start small-scale businesses, like raising livestock and peddling goods. "Grameen" refers to a "village" in Bengali, the official language of Bangladesh.

Grameen Bank expanded to the United States in 2007, as the widening economic gap became a problem there, and as of late 2017 there were 20 branches in the country.

Kan was a former Finance Ministry official, and worked as an executive director for Japan at the World Bank. He is the oldest son of a former small liquor store owner in the city of Fukushima. The professor saw his uncle take over the store, but he became impoverished 15 years later and was forced out of business due to the liberalization of liquor sales.

Kan began to think, "Successful people who have beaten competitors tend to think that people get poor due to their own fault and lack of effort. But is it right for society to deem poverty as an individual responsibility?"

Kan then became interested in microfinance for the poor and in 2008 visited Doctor Muhammad Yunus, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his success in tackling poverty through the Grameen Bank. Kan kept pondering if the same organization could succeed in Japan, and finally reached an agreement with Yunus on the establishment of a Japanese branch of the bank in February 2017.

Kan has applied for registration as a money-lending institution with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and the Japanese branch is scheduled to open in September in Tokyo's Chuo Ward. Thanks to crowdfunding efforts, it only took about two and a half months to raise 10 million yen to cover the expenses of establishing the branch.

The Japanese branch of the Grameen Bank will lend money to five-member mutual assistance groups who can attend weekly meetings and live within an hour from the headquarters. The first loan will be up to 200,000 yen, and loans for the last three members will be decided according to the repayment status of the first two members receiving the loan. Borrowers can use the money to start a business or to acquire qualifications to help gain work.

There is a mechanism in the group for the five members to motivate each other, and to receive assistance with business management and to find jobs. Kan explained, "The bank will act as a tool for the impoverished, who would otherwise likely become isolated, to help them reconnect with society. We hope to have several success stories, and for the system to spread across the country."

One of the targeted borrowers is single parents, who often experience poverty. Michiko Enari, 49, a representative of the Japan single mother assistance organization in the city of Yokohama south of Tokyo, which signed an agreement with the bank, emphasized, "The money earned from part-time jobs that can be handled by single mothers while a child is at day care is usually less than public welfare assistance funds."

Enari raised five children as a single mother, and had to work day and night to manage her household. There are many women who face money problems when they try to acquire qualifications for starting up businesses such as cafes and salons. She hopes that the bank "will open up new choices for people who had a business goal, but gave up (because of money issues)."

(Japanese original by Tamami Kawakami, City News Department)

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