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From pricey textbooks to curry, 'gift economy' ideas see uptake in pandemic-hit Japan

Ko Hayakawa, an associate professor at Osaka International University, is seen holding some of the books he gives away in his gift economy scheme, in Moriguchi, Osaka Prefecture, on Dec. 23, 2020. (Mainichi/Mai Suganuma)

OSAKA -- Due to a surge in people facing financial difficulties amid the coronavirus pandemic, ideas stemming from the concept of a "gift economy," in which people offer gifts to one another without seeking recompense, are gaining traction in Japan. Could an economic model based on mutual assistance take root during the pandemic?

    Among the initiatives are one run by an associate professor at a university in the west Japan city of Osaka in which new academic texts are offered to students and others at no charge under a "kenpon (complimentary book) gift economy" system.

    The system was started by Ko Hayakawa, 39, a cultural anthropologist at Osaka International University's Faculty of Business Administration and Economics. Items are introduced via Twitter using a hashtag relevant to the scheme, and the works are offered free to undergraduate and graduate students, and postdocs.

    "In the humanities, published books are like your second representative after your business card," Hayakawa says. As a result, he says, researchers have a culture of exchanging their latest published works. After giving away a book, Hayakawa then buys a copy himself to keep the economy going.

    Buying books is indispensable in the humanities. But many of the books are specialist titles and are therefore expensive, saddling students and young researchers who buy them with a heavy financial burden.

    Mirai tickets are seen put on a board at the Genki Curry canteen in Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, on Jan. 17, 2021. Customers buy the tickets and put them up, after which children are entitled to take them and have a free meal. (Mainichi/Mai Suganuma)

    There are ways to donate complimentary copies to libraries and other institutions, but Hayakawa tweets about the books to an unspecified number of people online. "By increasing the range of people the message is addressed to, we can make new connections with those who accept the books. A society with chance encounters is a healthy one, and it also spreads gift economy concepts," he said.

    Hayakawa has experienced firsthand life as a student on scholarship, which made even buying books difficult, and his idea was sparked by feelings of obligation to others in the same situation after he found a stable position as full-time faculty.

    To prevent the complimentary copy gift economy idea being overtaken by concepts of obligation or indebtedness, Hayakawa thought of it as doing what he could to give something back to society. Researchers and educators have come forward to take part in the scheme, and they are intending to look into ways to get the word out in places other than Twitter, and are planning to deliberate the possibility of supporters creating a platform in the future.

    The main concept behind the gift economy already existed in Japan as the word "on-okuri," which came into usage during the Edo period (1603-1868). It doesn't mean directly returning a favor that someone has done you, but instead passing on the kindness to a third party.

    A similar English-language concept, "pay it forward," was also used as the title for a film in 2000, and since the global financial crisis following the collapse of financial services firm Lehman Brothers, initiatives employing the idea have spread. It gained attention in Japan following the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, and "children's canteens" and food banks that offer low-priced or free meals and a chance to meet others began popping up across the country.

    One example of an economic system in which people give without expecting reward is the Genki Curry canteen in the west Japan city of Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, which began a "mirai (future) ticket" system in 2018. In addition to paying for their meals, customers can purchase mirai tickets for 200 yen ($1.90) and put them on the wall.

    A child is seen using a mirai ticket at the Genki Curry canteen in Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, on Jan. 17, 2021. To stop individual users from feeling they owe something to the ticket buyer, all of the contributions are anonymous. (Mainichi/Mai Suganuma)

    Using a ticket entitles an individual to a free meal. To encourage use of the tickets, it was decided that children would always use the tickets. The initiative attracted visits from businesses across the country, and canteens in Okinawa Prefecture, Tokyo, and Osaka Prefecture took up the mirai ticket scheme.

    The Genki Curry canteen is run by Shigeru Saito, 49, who also manages a cram school. When he learned there were children who don't have the money to take extracurricular lessons or eat enough, he decided to start a canteen that could provide curry popular among kids, cheaply. Initially, it was 100 yen per plate for children, but one day a child without even that much came in. A customer who happened to be at the eatery offered to pay for the child's meal, which sparked the idea for the mirai ticket.

    Adults, too, can buy a plate of curry for just 200 yen. The low price is reportedly what forms the customers' sense of "indebtedness," and leads to them buying the tickets. Sato explained, "The tickets are set at a price which doesn't break the bank, and when the person who buys one next comes to the store, they can see that it's been used, so it makes them feel it's been worthwhile."

    A 46-year-old company employee who visits the canteen two to three times a month told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I want this kind of initiative to spread further and further. My son is allowed to use the tickets here. Through us parents eating here, we can support the initiative."

    Saito says that what encourages the program to be sustainable and cyclical is that the giver has an easy, uncomplicated way to help others, and the receiver can receive help without feeling burdened.

    He also said that there have been junior high school students who went on to find work and give away tickets instead of using them. "There probably are people who are taking advantage of a free ride, and it's probably not good to help with everything. A bit of struggling is also important for children's development, but I think it's also necessary, at minimum, to have a system that gives all kids the same starting line," Hayakawa stressed.

    The gift economy, which has been spreading in recent years and attracted greater attention amid the coronavirus crisis, still hasn't caught on to the point of being a commonplace idea. Hayakawa's read on its current situation is that "it seems some think of gift economy activities as being applicable only in special circumstances."

    He continued, "The economic historian Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) maintained that what was important was that different types of economics embed themselves in society and change it. Gift economics does not only apply to special cases alone; the idea is that it's an essential form of economics for a human society, and that it is therefore not limited to specific areas or single services, and that a simultaneous large number of initiatives, or fast spreading ones, must be properly attempted."

    (Japanese original by Mai Suganuma, Osaka Regional News Department)

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