August 31, 2015


'Omusubi Money': Local Currency at Kids' Markets Empowers Communities in Japan

Keywords: Civil Society / Local Issues Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.156 (August 2015)

In this issue of the JFS Newsletter, we feature an interview with Dai Yoshida, head of the Barter Economy Bureau, launched in Toyota City, Aichi Prefecture. This non-profit group is engaged in a unique project involving a newly created local currency, called Omusubi Money. ("Omusubi" means rice ball in Japanese, which also implies here a connection between people.) It is a really interesting initiative.

Edahiro: What brought you to start such a local currency project?

Yoshida: When I moved to a rural area, I participated in a skills-building program for forest volunteers, with the aim of getting my own firewood for my wood stove. This began to raise my interest in environmental issues. While experiencing and studying a lot of things, I came to realize that these are really economic issues. As far as nature is treated as being separate from the economy, environmental problems cannot be solved, I supposed.

Also, since settling in the rural area, I have received a lot of kindness from elderly people in my neighborhood. For example, they often give me vegetables they grew themselves. I thought that I should give something back to them, so first I bought tasty sweets in the big city for them. But I started to feel that something was wrong. I was wondering, "What kind of gift would be appropriate to respond to their favors?" Then, I started to think about the values that we cannot convert into money. I suppose the vegetables they gave me would cost around 200 to 300 yen (U.S.$1.60 to $2.50) if I bought them at a supermarket. Meanwhile, the sense of contentment I got from their gift of vegetables -- such as a secure and happy feeling -- cannot be converted into money. There are so many things that cannot be measured in monetary terms in this world. But, nowadays, everything is calculated in monetary value, and people judge the level of affluence from that value. As a result, we are losing the connection between people, and now we "re-appreciate" the importance of community.

While I studied various things, I found out about the monetary theory of Silvio Gesell, a German merchant and economist. As Gesell advocated, if monetary value decreases over time, like the value of food, clothes, and houses as they age, then I thought that we could solve various problems at the same time. But I had no idea how I could get people to use a new currency whose value gradually decreases, while the value of Japanese yen retains its value indefinitely.

Then one day I was struck by the realization that every commercial deal is based solely on price and that the major concern of buyers and sellers is their profits and losses. So there is little way for a person-to-person relationship to develop. But if I buy a cup of coffee at a coffee shop I'm acquainted with in the area then the shop owner may accept my offer to barter some rice for coffee. Even so, it is impractical for me to carry rice to the shop every day. Later on, I came up with the idea of paying for the coffee using a ticket that says, "I will bring you some rice after the harvest in exchange for your services." But there is another problem: rice eventually goes bad. That is, there is a limit to the rice maintaining its value. By creating a currency system based on rice, I can bring Gesell's theory into play, can't I? Instead, using money in a barter system, such as rice for coffee, allows us to keep a favorable connection between individuals, because equivalence of value is unclear in this system. That's why I launched the Omusubi Money initiative.

Edahiro: How did it start?

Yoshida: The project was launched without too much concern about the details. I first handed out Omusubi Money bills to volunteer staff at the Earth Day Market in 2010, as I knew someone there, and I asked stores at the market to accept the currency when making transactions. In order for it to become popular, we had to avoid giving them out for free, and we asked many people to buy them. Then I thought, "How about having a kids' market using the currency?" Based on this idea, I began promoting the Kids' Dream Market at local shopping areas. So the residents, including the children's parents, started buying some Omusubi Money. In the two years since 2013, over 5 million yen (about $41,000) worth of the currency was issued.

Edahiro: How does it function?

Yoshida: The Kids' Dream Market is run by elementary school children, who set up their stores in an open space at shopping plazas in Toyota, Okazaki, and some other cities in Aichi Prefecture. The children are free to sell whatever they want at their stores, including used toys, out-of-size clothes, and their own original crafts. Some sell rubber band pistols, some perform a magic show, and some hold workshops. If a student decides not to open a store, they are still able to get work experience in various positions such as job-placement staff, police officer, broadcaster, or cleaning staff. We find many children's stores along the shopping arcades on market day, and the area is crowded with many people.

The currency we use to run the stores is Omusubi Money . One unit is worth 50 yen (about 40 cents). Transactions at the children's stores can be made only with Omusubi Money. If someone tries to sell or buy goods or services with Japanese yen, then the person might be caught by a market police officer!

Edahiro: How do people obtain Omusubi Money?

Yoshida: The children basically earn money by running their store or by doing a job through the market employment office. Those who don't open a store are allowed to do work, including police officer and cleaning staff, and receive Omusubi Money as their salary from a virtual bank. The dividend resource of the salary is a resident tax of 100 yen (about 80 cents), which is paid by the children to become a member of the market. Adults enjoy shopping at the children's stores after converting their Japanese yen into the money.

Edahiro: It sounds really fun!

Yoshida: Yes. This event gives the children an opportunity to experience adult work using their own ideas. It also offers the educational benefit of developing self-initiative and confidence.

Edahiro: Omusubi Money acts as a medium for goods and services at the market, but what happens to it after the event?

Yoshida: As much as 400,000 to 600,000 yen (about $3,280 to $4,920) is converted into Omusubi Money in a day at the Kid's Dream Market, but it is not refundable. The children that open stores at the market are allowed to exchange it for rice on the day of the event, but they are the only ones allowed to do that. Any currency that people have left over can be spent at participating local small- and medium-sized enterprises or other independent shops.

Edahiro: When I researched local currencies in Japan and the world, I found that the most difficult part was setting up an outflowing path for the currency, while it was easy to issue the currency in exchange for activities, including volunteer work. Otherwise, the local currency does not circulate very well if there are not many shops where people can use it. How many shops are cooperating in the circulation of Omusubi Money?

Yoshida: There are about 400 shops now. A list of affiliated shops is available on our brochure, display panels, and the Omusubi Money website. The maximum use limit is different depending on the shop, but there are stickers on basic information about the currency posted at the participating shops, so users can recognize how much they have to spend and where they can spend it.

Edahiro: After accepting the bills from customers, what do the shops do with it?

Yoshida: Basically, the currency cannot be converted into Japanese yen, but it can be converted into rice at the very end. But a person who does not want too much rice can use it at an affiliated shop, and then that shop owner can use it at another shop.

Edahiro: It's just like playing the card game of "Old Maid."

Yoshida: Exactly. By circulating the currency among affiliated shops, human relationships and the local economy become more active. People who work at the associated shops can even use it at the most popular supermarket in Toyota. A bill of Omusubi Money is first issued with an expiry date with a maximum of six months. Once the bill has expired, the participating shop can receive a certain amount of rice equivalent to the amount of currency -- local rice grown close to where I live.

Edahiro: In exchange for the expired money, then the rice farmers can receive Japanese yen in the same amount as when the bill was issued. Is that right?

Yoshida: That's the way it works. The Barter Economy Bureau, the issuer, receives Japanese yen and issues Omusubi Money, and then pays Japanese yen to the farmers for the rice.

Edahiro: Looking at the list of affiliated shops, I am impressed with the wide variety -- many restaurants, apparel shops, beauty salons, nail salons, printing shops, and even automotive shops providing services such as car inspection and oil changes. What is it that motivates them to participate in this initiative?

Yoshida: It is mainly because they want to support the children. They say, "This is a very good event, so please add my shop to the list of participating retailers."

Edahiro: You have been promoting Omusubi Money at the Kids' Dream Market. What do you want to do in the future, and tell me about the future prospects for your initiative?

Yoshida: I'm working on this project because I wanted to create a more human-hearted economic system. Omusubi Money itself cannot make an economic system. If I wanted to reform the economic system in a big city like Toyota, for example, I would need to set up a system to circulate billions or tens of billions of yen using a local currency. That is what I am aiming for in the future.

Through my activities with the currency, a variety of people -- officials of cities and chambers of commerce -- found it interesting that the local currency was circulating among small and medium-sized enterprises, instead of the coupons exchanged for volunteer activities. I received a grant to organize a demonstration experiment project of an open-ended local currency for small and medium-sized enterprises on the basis of the Omusubi Money system. And now I am planning out this project with my colleagues and stakeholders.

Edahiro: I am looking forward to hearing from you on further progress and updates. Thank you very much.

From an interview with Dai Yoshida, head of the Barter Economy Bureau
Edited by Junko Edahiro