Katsuko Nomura—a builder of consumer, labor, cooperative and women’s rights groups for over 55 years in Japan—passed away this month at the age of 99. She was one of the most remarkable civic leaders anywhere in the world. With her range of activities, she could be called a world citizen.
To recognize her indomitable spirit and humanity, one has to understand the conditions with which she had to contend. Born in 1910 in Kyoto, she lost her husband and many relatives and friends during World War II. By August 1945, her country was reduced to rubble. Destitution, hunger, homelessness, inflation were daily experiences.
Mrs. Nomura witnessed crises everywhere, but she also saw vast opportunities for building a just and democratic society. This was no small feat in a male-dominated society under U.S. military occupation.
She started her dynamic career building consumer cooperatives—a banding together that then was critical for families facing drastic shortages of life’s necessities. She took her experience and legislative success with the Cooperative League of Japan to become a founder of the Japan Housewives’ Association whose mass boycotts and marches challenged Japanese companies accustomed to very little government regulation.
During these struggles, she forged a unitary approach to those kept powerless in the economy—organizing consumers, workers and small businesses around their common interests. She became a strong voice, especially for women, in the General Council of Trade Unions of Japan and helped found the Consumers’ Union of Japan, which she directed for over a decade.
All these formal associations cannot do credit to watching her in action. Well into her eighties, she aroused audiences of younger Japanese activists and prodded them to raise expectations for themselves as change-agents. She was often the toughest person at any gathering.
A devourer of information, a prodigious translator into Japanese of what U.S. consumer groups were reporting and doing, she fought for economic, health and safety advances in Japan by publicizing better practices she discovered in other countries.
Neither U.S. food exports to Japan of dubious safety nor the injustices inflicted on less developed countries by Japanese multinationals escaped her pointed criticism and agendas for action.
Of course, the mix of political, economic and cultural factors are quire different in Japan as compared with the U.S., where citizen and labor groups focus heavily on regulatory and judicial tools to achieve their goals. In Japan, more nuanced informal pressures, demands and shame can be used, though the country is moving toward more reliance on agencies and courts.
In 1990, with considerably less than half the population of the U.S., there were 31 national consumer organizations with a combined membership of over eleven million people and 1,267 consumer cooperatives serving roughly 35 million Japanese. Today, with over 300 million people, the comparative U.S. membership figures may not reach that level.
On the occasion of the celebration of Mrs. Nomura’s 88th birthday, I wrote the following words:
“An ancient Greek philosopher said that ‘character is destiny.’ Mrs. Nomura’s life of dedication to the pursuit of justice, to the building of a deeper democracy reflects her many skills but above all her character.
“Her character is a finely textured collection of traits, beyond honesty, which are attentive to the many obstacles, problems and power centers which she and her associates have had to confront. She is always focused on the ultimate objectives while paying close scrutiny to the many paths that must be traveled to reach these objectives. She transcends discouragement and fatigue. She deploys a limitless ability to absorb information, to digest it into many strands for distribution to others. She needs no motivation because she possesses a public philosophy that has given her the Motivator’s role.
“This public philosophy produces a consistency over the years—so much so that she is still the most concrete, grass roots organizer among citizen activists half her age or less. She sees through politicians or anyone who displays insincerity, deception or superficial rhetoric.”
She was nominated as one of “1000 women” for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. But Mrs. Nomura was never interested in honors and resolutions, not to mention endless meetings without action, bureaucratic pomposity or make-work. She always had her focus on results, on helping those in need confront the abuses of the corporate powers.
In her later years, she wanted to write an autobiography. But in failing health, she used her time fighting for rights instead of writing her own story so that future generations could stand on her shoulders and spirit, moving forward.
Perhaps, her friends and admirers can produce a biography and a documentary on her life—one that teaches so well the wisdom of the Chinese saying that “to know and not to do is not to know.”
As she advanced in years, Mrs. Nomura would call herself “an old woman” followed by a short, wistful laugh. It was as if she regretted not having more time to put more forces into motion.
Such regret was not unfounded. A wise person once said that “the only true aging is the erosion of one’s ideals.” Mrs. Nomura was always the most curious, creative and youngest of leaders in this respect, making the most out of small budgets.
May her legacy be a source of self-renewing energy for many seekers of justice in this tormented world of ours. For she was the essence of resilient self-renewal.
RALPH NADER is the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel.