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Mizushima and her Creation of TimeBanking

Date interview: November 1 2016
Name interviewer: Paul Weaver
Name interviewee: Jill Miller
Position interviewee: Independent researcher

Values Reputation/legitimacy Providing alternatives to institutions New Organizing Interpersonal relations Experimenting Emergence Connecting Civil Society organizations Breakthrough

This is a CTP of initiative: Volunteer Labour Bank/Network (Japan)

This CTP concerns the invention of TimeBanking in Japan and the founding, in Osaka, of the first known TimeBank by Teruko Mizushima. The concept was first proposed by Mizushima in the immediate post-WWII period. The first TimeBank was founded in 1973. This led to the creation in Japan of a nationwide network of TimeBanks, established first under the name Voluntary Labour Banks (VLB). After the passing of the Non-Profit Organisation (NPO) Law (see related CTP) the VLB network of TimeBanks legally incorporated under the name Voluntary Labour Network (VLN). The VLB/VLN constitutes a civil society organization experimenting with new values-based forms of interpersonal relations and new ways of organizing tasks, such as caring for the elderly. This providing alternatives and new opportunities for carers by connecting women carers with each other, so enabling them to arrange mutual aid and respite.

The establishment of the VLB/VLN paved the way for the emergence of other TimeBank networks in Japan, each offering innovative variants of the original (VLB/VLN) TimeBanking model. These innovative variants emerged in co-evolutionary relation with on-going contextual changes in Japan, especially surrounding the aging of Japanese society. The innovative models of TimeBanking were better aligned to the changing context than ‘purist’ models of TimeBanking. Their greater appeal and effectiveness (relative to VLN) has enabled them to grow, overtake VLN, and become the dominant forms of TimeBanking in Japan. This has contributed to the gradual decline and ‘withering away’ of the VLN. The VLN has declined to now having only 500 members (mostly elderly women) with very few active exchanges (ca. 1000 hours per year).  

While the VLB/VLN is no longer the dominant Japanese TimeBanking network, it was nevertheless the breakthrough innovation, the pioneering civil society organization and a source of inspiration and learning for other Japanese TimeBanks, although some of these were more (and in some cases largely or only) influenced by US experience.  

As regards transformative societal change, an important aspect of context is the nature of traditional Japanese society; i.e. the norms and conventions of Japanese social roles and interpersonal relations. The main features and traditions of Japanese society in the immediate post-WWII period, all of very long-standing, and which are relevant from the TimeBanking perspective included:         

  1.  A strong separation of male and female social networks (with those of men centred on work and public spaces and those of women centred on the home and private spaces);       
  2. The idea that aging involves a gradual withdrawal from society and that withdrawal should occur in the confines of home and close family;     
  3. The assumption that the burden of support of the aged should fall to the wife of the oldest son; and      
  4. The convention that a woman not immediately giving up all other roles and activities to assume this burden, including paid work, education, hobbies or interests, would be stigmatized in her family and community.  

By tradition and assumption, any support to the aged (financial, physical and emotional) was a family responsibility, with physical and emotional care falling to women. The role of TimeBanking in transformative societal change is (partly) related to change within and of these norms, a process that began formally only in the late 1980s and through the 1990s with the establishment of the Gold Plan (1989). The Gold Plan was a first attempt by the Japanese government at the establishment of a state-based system of social security for the elderly. The Gold Plan included efforts to increase the number of qualified carers and the number of care homes/institutions offering care. However, this was limited both in the scope of its coverage (providing care for only the very needy) and in its cost-effectiveness, proving too expensive to generalise (see related CTP). Its deficiencies led to further changes in policy and the introduction in 2001 of compulsory care insurance for those aged 40+ through the Long-Term Care Insurance (LTCI) Law. Both the Gold Plan and the LTCI Law changed the operating and opportunity context for Japanese TimeBanks.  New ‘mixed-currency’ models of TimeBanking emerged with operating rules different from those of ‘purist’ models.  

Mizushima both pre-empted any state involvement in care provision for the elderly and was foresighted in recognising the problems of an aging society and in designing and establishing a TimeBanking system that might provide for security in old age without relying on family, but would be based, instead, on mutual support and benefit deferral. She was thinking about these issues in the immediate post-WWII period (1945-1950) and even though she did not establish her TimeBank until 1973, this was still 15 years before the introduction of the Gold Plan. By the time that the Gold Plan was established, Mitsushima had already built a nation-wide network of TimeBanks and a networking organisation to support them.   

Although the idea of time exchange has been independently thought of and acted on since by other people in other countries unaware of events in Japan (including by the women of Grace Hill Community, St Louis in the US, whose ideas fairly exactly mirrored those of Mizushima and whose activities informed and inspired Edgar Cahn, who went on to codify these and establish his Time Dollar Institute in the US) it was Mizushima who first formalised the concept of TimeBanking, set out its underlying values and principles, established a TimeBank that could demonstrate these in practice, and built a nationwide network of TimeBanks.

Certainly, the spread of TimeBanking internationally owes more to the influence of Edgar Cahn who, writing in English about TimeBanking, introduced the TimeBanking concept, especially to the Anglophone world. Cahn also influenced a ‘third wave’ of US-influenced Japanese TimeBanking in the 2000s. However, VLB-Osaka, founded by Mizushima, was the world’s first formal TimeBank and her VLB/VLN network was the world’s first national network of TimeBanks. The VLB/VLN also spread to the US by establishing a first US branch among the Japanese-American community living in Gardena, California, in February 1983. A visit took place between members of the Japanese and US arms of the VLB/VLN in 1984.  

In 1950 Mizushima won a newspaper competition seeking innovative ideas from Japanese women. Her success gave Mizushima and her ideas legitimacy and launched her as an authoritative social commentator in Japan and gave her a media platform and presence. She fully fundamental the principles and values of TimeBanking and the mechanism of time exchange as she conceptualised and theorised them as a way for new organising elderly care. Her work was widely publicised and known about in Japan through her own writing and radio broadcasting long before there was any TimeBanking activity in the USA or in Europe.  

Within a very short time (3-5 years) of her establishing the first TimeBank in Japan in 1973, a nationwide Japanese TimeBanking network was operating that engaged more than 4000 members and had local TimeBanks in every province of Japan. Her TimeBanks operated on the principle that people work better in small groups, so the membership of VLB/VLN TimeBanks was limited usually to around 6-10 women.  

TimeBanking as practised by VLB/VLN (a ‘purist’ form) became relevant as a mechanism and vehicle “for improving conditions for women as carers of the elderly.”. It did so by operating within the framework of traditional Japanese society, which had aspects that could be considered as rigidly conservative and highly constraining. The direct target group as beneficiaries was women carers. They benefitted directly by the opportunity to connect and organise mutual help within their group and by the possibility that by sustaining their groups over time through continuous recruitment they could also secure help for themselves in their old age by banking time credits and redeeming these in later life. This ‘purist’ model of TimeBanking can be considered as person-to-person exchange, using only time as currency.

Mizushima’s model had a mix of horizontal time exchange (giving and receiving services in the current period) and vertical time exchange (banking of time credits for future use). In Mizushima’s concept, vertical TimeBanking was a mechanism for arranging intergenerational support. Additionally, there was an element of pure volunteering. Mizushima required that TimeBank members provide 2 hours of community service per month for which no time credits were awarded. This was often provided in the form of care support for the institutionalised elderly. Thus, the frail elderly were indirect beneficiaries of this innovative initiative, but the direct target group were the women members of the TimeBanks and (in respect to the volunteering component) professional care givers in care institutions for the elderly.  

This first network of TimeBanks in Japan paved the way for other networks of TimeBanks and variant forms of TimeBanking to emerge in Japan in and after the 1980s. In turn these later networks have operated more to challenge and change traditional institutions of Japanese society and have been able to play into societal changes being driven also by socio-economic and demographic pressures, such as more women in the workforce, earlier male retirement (through economic recession and redundancy), longer life expectancy, and an aging population. By the late 1980s and 1990s pressures were already forcing a re-thinking of traditional societal roles and interpersonal relationships in Japan that were becoming increasingly untenable in the face of such pressures.  

TimeBanking is an important (nationwide) organiser of mutual- and self-help activity at community and personal levels. In turn, TimeBanking and other social innovation networks and groups have together played a significant role in legitimating and organising ‘volunteering’ and related activities in Japan. TimeBanking Organisations connected and worked together with other social innovation organisations and alongside government and its agencies to create the Non-Profit Organisation Law (see related CTP). ‘Volunteering’ and being active in self- and community- help and development activity are now legitimate and major elements in the way Japan addresses societal challenges. Timebanking engages the active elderly, especially.  

Japanese TimeBanking (in various forms) is now well on the way to being mainstreamed if it is not already. Especially in its later variants (second and third waves) TimeBanking has contributed to transformative societal change in Japan both by challenging traditional gender roles in society (men as well as women as carers) and casting the active elderly in a new role as providers of services, including for the older and infirm elderly. This has supported the development of new societal interpersonal relations, new lifestyle models and new welfare and social security arrangements in Japan.  

But just as TimeBanking in Japan has become more mainstream, it is the later (more innovative and less purist) variants of TimeBanking that are the now dominant forms on the Japanese TimeBanking scene; over the course of this institutionalisation journey, VLB/VLN has withered. In part this owes to the premature loss of Mizushima as the innovative leader of her organisation (see related CTP).  

It is also to be borne in mind that the contribution of TimeBanking to the overall challenges of elderly care as a community responsibility in Japan, if judged globally, is limited. Its role in overall care provision is sometimes exaggerated or taken out of context. TimeBanks contribute to care, they are not sole providers. Japanese TimeBanking has been viewed from outside over-simplistically without due reference to its being a complex and contextually-embedded phenomenon that has developed alongside and in relation with co-evolving Japanese contextual conditions.  


Teruko Mizushima was born in Osaka, Japan, in 1920. She spent one year (1939) in the US. The original intention was for her to have stayed and studied in the US for three years, but deteriorating international relations between the US and Japan in the period leading to the Pacific War forced her to foreshorten her stay. Her time in the US appears nevertheless to have influenced her thinking, especially about differences between western society and traditional Japanese society in social roles and relations. She became deeply impressed by the power of original thinking and became an advocate of original thinking, innovation, experimentation and research.

Related events

WWII and the period immediately after (the Period of Occupation) were very significant. Japan suffered shortages of basic material goods (food, clothes, shelter). There was a breakdown of the economy and a breakdown of government services. The Japanese currency suffered hyperinflation. The population lost trust in the Yen as a currency. The Yen was not well accepted as a medium of exchange or a store of value. This created uncertainty and insecurity.  

During this period Mizushima routinely saw or experienced emergencies and the failure of formal systems to avert these or respond to them effectively. She became acutely aware of the need for people to gain control in order to be able to deal with emergencies that occurred daily in post-war Japan. In her subsequent writing she mentions the kinds of situation she encountered routinely, such as the untimely demise of a mother with young children or with aged parents to look after. She determined to establish an organisation to provide alternatives and to enable people to provide mutual security through mutual aid.  

The material basics of life – such as food and clothing – were scarce in post-war Japan. Bartering services became a survival mechanism for Mizushima. But she had skills as a seamstress and also spoke English, so she directly bartered these skills for food. This reinforced her idea that time is a resource available to everyone and that time, if correctly managed, could be more useful than money. These factors influenced her reasoning about time; i.e. that time as resource and unit of account and exchange is not affected by inflation and that if time could be used as a currency people could exchange time as a basis for providing mutual support and for addressing time and energy deficits/surpluses across the life course.  

More than 20 years elapsed between her first articulating these ideas in the 1950s and founding her first TimeBank in 1973. She had postponed implementing her ideas until the last of her children married. Her founding of the first TimeBank coincided with the first major oil shock, which caused a downturn in the Japanese economy and triggered panic buying and shortages of material goods. The timing was right for an innovation aimed at connecting and giving people more control in their own lives and providing resilience to system shocks.  

Another significant factor – although a slow burner - was aging of the Japanese population. Mizushima was among the first in Japan to recognise that demographic aging would pose significant challenges for Japanese society once the generation of baby boomers reached old age. From the 1950s to 1980s recognition only slowly grew in Japanese society and at the political level that traditional forms of support for the elderly were inadequate. The Japanese government had begun to introduce welfare reforms (state welfare provision) in the early 1960s with universal pension and healthcare schemes (1961) and the Act for the Aged (1963). The latter introduced a system of institutionalised care for the (then) relatively few elderly suffering declining health, poverty and having no family support. But ambitions for a greater role of state insurance schemes were curtailed by economic downturn in the 1970s, brought on by the oil shocks. Policy on aging for the rest of the 1970s therefore maintained the traditional approach of seeing the aged as a family responsibility. The Ministry of Health and Welfare only returned to the challenges of an aging society in the late 1980s when it developed the Gold Plan (1989), but by then the problems of large number of under- or un-supported elderly living in their own homes was already upon Japanese society. Mizushima was ahead by 30+ years in pre-empting the crisis.  


Mizushima’s ideas were recognised to be positive and innovative. They were well-received from the start. She won awards and prizes for her intellectual and innovative contributions and became an accepted and highly-regarded social commentator in newspapers and on radio. The founding of the first TimeBank in 1973 coincided with the emerging women’s liberation movement. Whereas this is perceived as a radical movement, the VLB (even though it held the potential to challenge the established order) was basically conservative. Until the late 1980s, state policy in Japan operated on the basis that women could be counted on to provide care for the aged. This remained the norm until the introduction of the (limited) Gold Plan in 1989 and the (universal) Long-Term Care Insurance (LTCI) scheme in 2000/2001, which were milestones in shifting beliefs and practices toward elderly care as an individual and societal (community) responsibility to be mediated by government through obligatory payments (insurance, taxes) and new ways of organizing.  

TimeBanking on the VLB/VLN model was intended to improve the lives of women unable to reach their potential because of being confined to the home as carers. It created opportunities within the constraints of Japanese tradition of women as carers. It did not confront or contest that tradition. Similarly, the VLB/VLN model provided recognition for women, their skills and their roles in family and community life. It provided time points/credits as remuneration for contribution. Time credits placed a higher value on domestic labour than had previously existed in Japan, but TimeBanking on the VLB/VLN model did not challenge or contest the employment structure (mostly male) or the wage system per se, except by pointing out weaknesses in fiat currency, such as inflation. 


Mizushima was ahead of the times in her thinking, especially on women’s rights and aging, but also on local resilience and the role of community currencies and local exchange economies in resilience.

In Japan in the 1950s average life expectancy was 50 and families were large. Relatively few women would therefore be called to take on the burden of an aging in-law. But by the 1990s, average life expectancy had extended to 80, family sizes were smaller, and women were more likely to be highly educated and to have careers. Those retiring at 65 could expect to live for a further 15 years on average.  

Mizushima anticipated the challenges of demographic change and an aging society 30 years before these became widely evident. She also advocated time exchange as a more reliable system than either capitalism or communism, both of which she argued were failing. She advocated mutualism (co-operativism) as an alternative system. Her advocacy of time as a community currency foreshadowed the emergence of other community currencies in Japan in the 1990s and 2000s as means to revive local economies.  

Her reasons for establishing TimeBanks in Japan where essentially the same in the 1970s as the ones given by those who established similar systems in the US, UK and elsewhere 20 and 30 years later. One aspect of ‘being ahead of her times’ is that not all her ideas were taken up straightaway. Her early idea of using TimeBanking to provide childcare support to working women was not popular immediately in Japan because working women could afford to pay child minders. She therefore focused her efforts on developing mutual support among housewives who had greater need for mutual aid and for whom there were clear-cut benefits, such as those looking after elderly kin.  


 Learning by experience and by observation, but also by systematic research and experimentation, was integral to Mizushima’s approach to problem solving and innovation. For example:

  1. Having observed low attendance rates by mothers at meetings of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) of the school her own children attended, she conducted research into the underlying causes, establishing that mothers’ other duties and fear of leaving the house and aged relatives unattended were prominent reasons for the observed behaviour, leading her to explore ways of organising mutual help to free mothers up.
  2. She used her own household to research into how time could be used more efficiently. Over a 22-year period before she established VLB/VLN she conducted a regular survey of her own family's use of time across a one-month period each year, tabulating each person’s activities and whether that use of time was ‘worthwhile’ in relation to indicators of the family’s situation (health, psychological wellbeing, financial situation, etc.).

The concept of TimeBanking and the contextual and theoretical basis for the values-based time exchange mechanism were fully articulated by Mizushima. She was intellectually gifted, a prolific writer and a competent publicist. She wrote columns for newspapers and used these materials later as content for four books. The VLB/VLN also operated a national newsletter, which spread learning and also charts the progress and breakthrough of the organisation.  

Attempts were made by Mizushima and her group to establish TimeBanks in the USA. The VLB/VLN website reports that a TimeBank was established in Gardena, California in 1982, with members drawn largely from among the Japanese American community. This would be around the same time that (in an apparently entirely separate development) the initiative based around time exchange at Grace Hill, St Louis was becoming formalised through its being named the ‘MORE Programme’.  

Mizushima was recognised for her ideas and innovation both by Japanese bodies and overseas foundations. She first won a prize for her ideas on time in 1950, which helped her to establish a media profile. This helped to spread the idea of TimeBanking, increase the number of TimeBanks and recruit new members. She subsequently won many other prizes (e.g. Avon, Soroptimists International). She returned half of all prize money to the VLB/VLN, which helped to keep it solvent.  

Nevertheless, very little of Mizushima’s writing was translated to English and most of the translated materials focused on gender issues, not on aging and adult social care. Her work on responses to aging has come to be recognised in the Anglophone world only relatively recently through the activities of researchers from other world regions interested in the role of Japanese TimeBanks in addressing the challenges of aging societies, notably the work of Jill Miller.

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