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Rushed Tokyo food delivery co-op worker describes 'extraordinary' upheaval amid pandemic

Masayoshi Yoshizawa is seen loading up crates into a truck at the Tohto cooperative association's Setagaya center in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, on April 9, 2020. (Mainichi/Makiko Osako)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government is asking citizens to refrain from going outdoors amid the spread of the novel coronavirus, and as a consequence work for delivery services bringing goods direct to people's doors has increased hugely.

"Running the business now is like a tightrope walk, but we'll continue to do our best to deliver essential products to those who need them," said Masayoshi Yoshizawa, 55, assistant head of the product department at Tohto cooperative association. The Mainichi Shimbun spoke with him to find out how his cooperative has fared as it continues delivering food and daily use products amid increasing demand and membership numbers.

The association, established in 1973 and headquartered in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, has some 250,000 members. Its main business is its deliveries of products selected based on environmental and health concerns, including farmed products direct from producers, and processed meat with no added colorants, among other goods.

Question: What kind of effect have the temporary school closures and the stay-at-home request had on your home deliveries?

An employee at Tohto cooperative association is seen handling toilet paper, which is still being ordered in huge amounts, at the Setagaya center in Tokyo, on April 9, 2020. (Mainichi/Makiko Osako)

Masayoshi Yoshizawa: We've had so many orders that I think you can call these extraordinary circumstances. Over this period last year, we were delivering about 58,000 pieces of fresh fruit and vegetables a day, but this year it's up by about 1.4 times at 80,000. Frozen and refrigerated goods are also up about 1.2 to 1.3 times from the same period last year.

We're seeing a lot of orders especially for toilet paper, that's up three times from last year, and rice is up 1.7 times. Because schools closed we've also seen a lot of sales of products that even children can make, like instant ramen with toppings and garnishes included. There's also a lot of orders for things with long shelf lives, such as pasta, dried noodles like udon or soba, instant rice pouches, cereal and other things.

We're also seeing a deluge in people asking to join our association, and right before the state of emergency was declared on April 7 our phones just kept ringing. Enquiries on our website too came to about 400 just for the weekend of April 4 and 5. Even at our Setagaya center, from where we deliver to about 7,000 households, we've suddenly had about an extra 500 families added to our dispatches.

The association has known tough times before, such as during heavy snow, typhoons, and the Great East Japan Earthquake, where we haven't been able to deliver goods. But this time we don't know when it could end. It's not like we can work remotely, and even if all our staff came out to work it still wouldn't be enough, so we can't lose even one person. It's been a tense time.

A Tohto cooperative association worker is seen handling products at its Setagaya center in Tokyo on April 9, 2020. With an increase in orders, many drop-offs at certain areas can no longer be completed with one truck. (Mainichi/Makiko Osako)

Q: With such a sudden rise in orders, is it possible to respond to them?

MY: Both the number of deliveries and the volume per person has increased, which has an adverse effect on how efficiently we can work inside the trucks to deliver goods. Our delivery workers are ending up spending about one to two hours longer than usual on the job each day. From mid-March, we started seeing trucks that couldn't load all the day's consignments on, so they've had to do two trips from their centers a day.

Even if they're working hard and doing overtime, there are instances where we're late for the time they're meant to be dropping off goods with association members. We've even had some of our users asking us what's going on. If employees are getting home late, then that's an increased burden for them, and we worry about them quitting.

To try to ease their difficulties, we plan to reduce the number of products we handle to improve efficiency, thereby preventing the working environment from worsening while also responding to our association members' needs.

Masayoshi Yoshizawa is seen at Tohto cooperative association's Setagaya center in Tokyo, on April 9, 2020. (Mainichi/Makiko Osako)

Q: Are there problems appearing other than those from staff shortages and extended working hours?

MY: What's gotten quite serious for us is our shortage of containers to put goods in and the carts to carry them.

Our goods are first loaded onto containers and delivered in 4-ton trucks to each center from the distribution hub in Saitama Prefecture. At these centers we then split the products based on where they're going, and repack them onto smaller trucks for delivery to our members.

Ordinarily, the distribution hub sends out today's containers full of products, and then prepares the containers to go out the next day. But now there are too many containers leaving the facility, so they don't have enough to prepare for the following day's business. To avoid an interruption in deliveries, the containers taken to centers now have to be returned to the distribution hub on the same day. A group, which I'm part of, returns the containers by going around collecting them from each of our centers, loading them onto trucks, and then getting them back to Saitama.

At the moment we're waiting on an order we placed for 4,000 more containers, but it was a difficult decision to make because if we buy up too many we'll have all this excess equipment after the outbreak has wound down. It's a balancing act to keep going while my phone continually lets me know about where we've got too much or too little distribution equipment, and which center is holding what.

Q: Are you also taking care to prevent infections when doing deliveries?

MY: Among our customers now, we do have some who wear gloves to accept deliveries, and who try to do all of the interactions with our staff over intercom to avoid face-to-face interaction.

We used to have customers who would express their thanks to the staff, that kind of communication, but now with the risks of infection that's been something people want to avoid doing, too. For us working here, we can't afford being delayed by one of us getting infected. For that reason, we have from April 10 been informing our members of our delivery policy, in which deliveries will be done without direct interaction, such as leaving goods in boxes in front of their homes.

Q: The battle against coronavirus appears to be turning into a long one. How will this affect you?

MY: The hard thing is that a lot of events like food tasting sessions that were held almost every week at local festivals and post offices aren't happening. We handle a lot of products directly from the farmers we're contracted with, and we've come to really specialize in safe, reliable food, so we're seeing chances for people to find out about us being taken away. That for us is a real blow.

But I think that our purpose is to support our members' everyday lives by making sure that we deliver safe products. We'll continue to harness the organizational strength of a cooperative, which is that it is a mutual aid organization, while improving our infection-prevention and delivery efficiency with the help of the members to do our best at this time.

(Japanese original by Makiko Osako, Integrated Digital News Center)

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