Photo/Illutration A "mujin" gathering held in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, in 2016 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Unless you are from Yamanashi Prefecture, you probably don’t know what “furo mujin” means.

It denotes an arrangement whereby homeowners take turns offering the use of their bathroom’s hot soaking tub (furo) to their neighbors.

Another puzzler, “shoseki (books) mujin,” refers to a mutual-help setup for buying books. And there’s also “ryoko (travel) mujin,” which is for pooling holiday travel expenses for use by community members.

Anyway, it was all Greek to me, a non-Yamanashi native, until the terms were explained to me by Shunya Murata, 60, managing director of the Yamanashi Research Institute Foundation.

“Mujin is a concept comprising social gatherings and community financing services, which have been traditionally prevalent in various parts of the Koshu region (present-day Yamanashi Prefecture),” Murata said.

The way it works is that close friends gather at some designated business establishment every month or so, not only to eat and dine together but also to pay their share into a fund that will be loaned in turns.

Although mujin has become less of a financing plan lately, it remains a welcome opportunity for old friends to speak frankly among themselves.

“Many were members of the same extracurricular activity clubs in junior and senior high schools, or have close professional ties,” Murata noted. “What’s common to them all is that they are willing to stay close and help one another for the rest of their lives.”

But the COVID-19 pandemic has cast its pall.

By their nature, these gathering cannot be held without violating the government’s rules against “sanmitsu”--“confined spaces, crowded spaces, and close contact.” Together with karaoke boxes and movie theaters, mujin gatherings were designated for voluntary avoidance, and restaurants and bars hosting such events were hit hard.

However, after the self-restraint order was lifted in June, the Yamanashi prefectural government started a campaign to support local food service businesses through mujin.

Also called “tanomoshi-ko,” mujin is believed to have existed since the Kamakura Period (1185-1333).

Come to think of it, it shares the basic concept with the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh that won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. This community development bank provides small loans without requiring collateral from the borrower, and a few people share collective liability.

This arrangement is exactly what common people need to survive by helping one another.

Never before has the mujin spirit of mutual support come into as much demand as now. It represents the toughness and warmth of people.

I dream of the day when “Corona mujin” comes into play in every corner of the world.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 22

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.