The workers' movement in Japan 1882-1905

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The following notes on the history of the revolutionary movement in Japan illustrate with some concrete details the international nature of the development of the working class and its revolutionary vanguard; the fundamental unity of its interests and struggle across the globe to overthrow world capitalism.

This international characteristic doesn’t express itself identically with the same chronology in every country taken separately but has evolved in an uneven and reciprocal way. For various historical reasons Western Europe is the fulcrum of the world communist revolution.[1] The history of the revolutionary movement in Japan indeed notes on several occasions how this movement lagged behind developments in the Western Hemisphere.

However this is in no sense a moral judgement, a result of “Euro-centrism” nor does it express a desire to award points to the country with the most advanced proletarian movement. On the contrary this history will further reveal the unbreakable link that exists between the proletarian revolutionary movement here and in the rest of the world. Through this analytical framework, we can better understand the dynamic of the world revolution of the future, and the vital, irreplaceable role that a section of the proletariat in a country like Japan must play within it.

When we study the history of the Japanese workers’ movement, we cannot help being struck by the profound similarities between the issues and answers developed in Japan, and those confronted by the proletariat elsewhere in the world. Indeed, these similarities are all the more striking given Japan’s relative isolation from the rest of the industrial world, and even more so given the extraordinary rapidity of Japan’s industrial development. This only began in the 1860s after the US Commodore Perry with his “black ships”, followed by the European powers, forcibly opened Japan to outside influence and commerce. Until then, Japan had been frozen in a hermetic feudalism totally cut off from the rest of the world. In only thirty years – barely a generation – it rose to become the last major industrial power to make an entry into the imperialist arena. This it did in the most striking manner imaginable, by annihilating the Russian fleet at Port Arthur in 1905.

For the proletariat, this meant that the experience and ideas which European workers developed over a century or more had to be compressed into a quarter of the time. The Japanese proletariat was born at a time when marxism had already established a profound influence in the European workers’ movement (notably in the 1st International), and yet the first Japanese translations of Marx’s work only became available in 1904.

The first regroupment of revolutionaries

Until the last decades of the 19th century, the ideas in the workers movement were largely influenced by traditional Confucianism where social harmony was paramount and individual activity was placed in the service of the community.[2]

In May 1882 the Socialist Party of the East (Toyo Shakaito) was founded, which based itself on utopian socialism and anarchism. A short time later it was dissolved.

The 1880s were marked by the appearance of circles which set themselves the task of appropriating socialist classics and familiarising the movement with the struggles and debates of the workers’ movement in Europe such as in “Friends of the People” (Kokumin-no tomo) or the “Society for exploring social problems” (Shakai mondai kenkyukai). Their activities were not based on a permanent organisation and they had not yet established links with the 2nd International founded in 1889.

In 1890 for the first time migrant workers of Japanese origin regrouped in the USA in the “Brave Society of Workers” (Shokko gijukai). This group was also rather a study circle with the goal of studying workers’ questions in different countries of western Europe and the USA. The American Trades Unions had a strong influence on this group.

In 1897 the “Society for the preparation of the foundation of unions” was founded (Rodo kumiai kiseikai), which was to report a membership of 5,700. For the first time in the history of the workers’ movement in Japan they had a paper of their own: Rodo sekai – published every two months and edited by S. Katayama. The goals of this movement were the formation of unions and co-operatives. Two years later this union association already counted 42 sections with 54,000 members. The statutes and positions of the unions were based on the models in Europe. The train drivers’ union developed a campaign for the introduction of general voting rights and declared in March 1901, that “socialism is the only definitive answer to the workers’ situation”.

On October 18th 1898, a small group of intellectuals met in a Tokyo Unitarian Church and founded Shakaishugi Kenkyukai (Association for the Study of Socialism), which started to meet once a month. Five of its six founders still considered themselves to be Christian Socialists.

After Katayama’s trip to England and the USA he contributed to the foundation of the Socialist Association (Shakaishugi kyokai) in 1900, which counted some 40 members. It was decided to send a delegate for the first time to the Paris Congress of the 2nd International, but financial problems prevented them from doing so.

The first “machine-breaking” phase of the workers’ struggle (corresponding to some degree to the “Luddism” of English workers at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries) was only superseded at the end of the 1880s, opening the way to a wave of strikes that erupted between 1897-1899. In particular, metalworkers, machinists and railway workers tested their combativity. Due to the Chinese-Japanese war (1894-1895) there was a new push of industrialisation, so that by the mid 90s a workforce of 420,000 had developed. Some 20,000 workers - or 5% of the modern industrial labour force - were unionised, most of the unions were small, having fewer than 500 members. But the Japanese bourgeoisie reacted from the very beginning with the most atrocious violence against an increasingly combative workforce. In 1900 it adopted a law on “the protection of public order” based on the model of the anti-socialist laws of Bismarck which banned the SPD[3] in Germany in 1878.

On May 20th 1901 the first Social Democratic Party (Shakai Minshuto) was founded, which put forward the following demands:

- “abolish the gap between rich and poor and secure a victory for pacifism in the world by means of genuine socialism and democracy;

- world wide fraternity overcoming racial or political differences;

- world peace and the abolition of arms;

- equal & just distribution of wealth;

- equal access to political power for the whole population”.

These demands are entirely characteristic of the situation in which the Japanese workers’ movement found itself at the time, combining as they do:

- a somewhat naïve “a-classist” vision typical of the earliest phases of the workers’ struggle;

- an insistence on the end to inequalities based on race, which must certainly reflect the experience of Japanese immigrant workers in the USA;

- a democratic and pacifist phraseology similar to that of the revisionist wing of the 2nd International.

Shakai Minshuto (Social Democratic Party) proclaimed to respect the law; anarchism and violence were rejected explicitly; it supported participation in parliamentary elections. By defending the interests of the masses of the people, by overcoming classes, by liquidating economic inequality, by fighting for general voting rights for all workers, the party hoped to make a contribution to establishing world peace.

Although it put parliamentary activities high on the agenda the party was immediately forbidden. The attempt to set up a political party failed. The level of organisation could not yet supersede the level of discussion circles. Moreover repression led to a big setback. The publication of newspapers was continued without an organisation behind them. Thus the main thrust of the activities was still holding conferences, organising meetings and publishing texts.

The struggle against war

On April 5/6th 1903 at the Socialist Conference of Japan in Osaka the participants demanded the socialist transformation of society. While the demand for “liberty, equality and fraternity” was still raised, the demand for the abolition of classes and any type of oppression as well as the prohibition of wars of aggression was raised as well. At the end of 1903 the Commoners’ Society (Heiminsha) became the centre of the anti-war movement: Japan was then expanding into Manchuria and Korea and was on the verge of a war with Russia. Its paper was printed in 5,000 copies. Again, it was a paper without any major organisational framework behind it. D. Kotoku was one of the most famous speakers of this grouping.

Katayama,[4] who left Japan from 1903-1907, attended the Amsterdam Congress of the 2nd International in 1904. When he shook hands with Plekhanov this was seen as an important symbolic act in the midst of the Japanese-Russian war, which lasted from February 1904 until August 1905.

From the outset, Heiminsha clearly opposed the war. It did so in the name of humanitarian pacifism. The strive for profit of the armaments sector was denounced.

On March 13th 1904 the Heimin Shimbun published an open letter to the Russian RSDLP,[5]5 calling for unity with the socialists of Japan against the war. Iskra n°37 published their response. At the same time Japanese socialists spread socialist literature amongst Russian prisoners of war.

In 1904 39,000 leaflets against the war were distributed and some 20,000 copies of Heimin were sold.

Thus the intensive imperialist activities of Japan (the wars with China in the 1890’s, the war with Russia in 1904-05) forced the proletariat to take up position on the question of war. Even if the rejection of imperialist war was not yet based on a solid Marxist footing and still marked by a pacifist orientation, the working class developed a tradition of internationalism.

The first translation of the Communist Manifesto was also published by Heimin in 1904. Until that time the classics of Marxism were not accessible in Japanese.

As soon as the government exercised repression against revolutionaries, putting many of them on trial, Heimin ceased publication and the paper Chokugen (“Free speech”), which was to follow it, was still dominated by a strong pacifism.

Capital had to lay the costs of war on the shoulders of the working class. Prices doubled, then tripled. The state, which inaugurated a policy of undertaking debts to pay for the war, had to impose a lot of taxes on the working class.

Much the same as in Russia in 1905, the drastic worsening of workers’ living conditions in Japan led to the outbreak of violent protests in 1905 and to a series of strikes in the shipyards and the mines in 1906 & 1907. The bourgeoisie never hesitated for one moment and sent its troops against the workers and once again declared any workers organisation illegal.

While there was still no organisation of revolutionaries, but only a revolutionary tribune against the war, the Japanese-Russian war led at the same time to a strong polarisation. A first delineation between Christian socialists around Kinoshita, Abe and the wing around Kotoku (who since 1904-05 had taken a strong anti-parliamentarian stand) and the wing around Katayama Sen and Tetsuji occurred.


1 See the text ‘The proletariat of western Europe at the centre of the generalisation of the class struggle – Critique of the theory of the weakest link’ in International Review n°31, 1982: “…areas like Japan and North America, while they contain most of the conditions necessary for the revolution, are not the most favourable for the unleashing of the revolutionary process, owing to the lack of experience and ideological backwardness of the proletariat”.

2 There is a certain parallel here with the illusions of early populists – and some socialists – in Russia, who believed that the survival of the old Russian village commune (the mir) might make it possible for Russia to jump straight from feudal absolutism to socialism without passing through a capitalist phase of development.

3 Socialistische Partei Deutschland: the German Social-Democratic party

4 During his first period in exile from 1903-1907 he was involved in Texas (USA) with Japanese farmers in agricultural experiments following the utopian-socialist ideas of Cabet and Robert Owen. He was forced into exile a second time by repression in Japan, after the outbreak of World War I and went to the USA. He once again became active in the Japanese immigrant milieu. In 1916 he meet Trotsky, Bukharin, and Kollontai in New York. Once this contact had been established he started to reject his Christian ideas. In 1919 he joined the Independent Communist Party of America and founded an Association of Japanese Socialists in America. In 1921 he went to Moscow, where he lived until 1933. He never seems to have raised his voice against Stalinism. When he died in Moscow in 1933, he received a great state funeral.

5 The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, of which at this time both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks considered themselves a part.