The History of the Workers' Movement in Japan, ii
The debate on the means of struggle
The revolutionary events of 1905 in Russia provoked something like an earthquake in the whole workers' movement. As soon as the workers' councils were formed, as soon as the workers launched mass strikes the left wing of Social Democracy (with Rosa Luxemburg in her text Mass strike, Party and Trade Unions, Trotsky in his text on 1905, Pannekoek in several texts, especially on parliamentarism), started to draw the lessons of these struggles. The emphasis on the self-organisation of the working class in councils, the critique of parliamentarism, which was pushed forward in particular by Rosa Luxemburg and Pannekoek, was not the result of a tendency towards anarchism but was a first attempt at grasping the lessons of the new situation at the onset of capitalism’s decadence and of trying to understand the new forms of struggles.
Despite the relative international isolation of revolutionaries in Japan the debate on the conditions and means of struggles that also arose in Japan reflected the tumult in the working class and its revolutionary minorities on a world scale.
Much more clearly than before, two tendencies clashed.
On the one hand the tendency around Kotoku, with strong anarchist leanings, since their whole emphasis was on “direct action” along anarchist lines: a general strike and revolutionary syndicalism. Kotoku went to the USA in 1905/06 and became acquainted with the positions of the syndicalist IWW and established contact with Russian anarchists. The anarcho-syndicalist current published the paper Hikari – The Light – from 1905 on.
On the other hand, Katayama defended unconditionally the parliamentary road to socialism in Shinkigen (New Times). Despite the divergences between these two wings they joined in 1906 to form the Socialist Party of Japan (Nippon Shakaito), which – as Katayama suggested – was to fight for socialism "within the limits of the constitution".
The Socialist Party of Japan existed from 24/02/1906 until 22/2/1907 and published the paper Hikari until December 1906.
In February 1907 the 1st Congress of the new socialist party was held, where different points of view clashed. After having elected a delegate for the Stuttgart Congress of the 2nd International the discussion began. Kotoku spoke up vigorously against parliamentary work and demanded direct action (chokusetsu kodo). "We will absolutely not be able to carry out a real revolution for the objectives of socialism through universal suffrage and parliamentary politics. There is no other possible method than the direct action of the united workers (...) Three million men preparing for elections is worth nothing [for this] does not represent three million conscious and organised men". Tazoe defended the struggle on the strictly parliamentary terrain, while the majority adopted a compromise resolution tabled by T. Sakai. This went no further than to remove from the statutes the words "within the limits of the constitution".
At the same time the members were entitled to choose whether or not to take part in the movement for general voting rights, in anti-militaristic and anti-religious movements.
The positions and critique of Kotoku degenerated into anarchism and failed to take up the critique which began to be put forward by the left wing of the 2nd International of the opportunism of social-democracy, against parliamentarism and trade unionism.
Following this debate, Kotoku, who considered himself an anarchist from 1905 onwards, acted more and more as an obstacle to the construction of an organisation; above all he prevented searching elements from dealing in more depth with Marxism. He wanted to propose the perspective of "direct action". Instead of pushing forward the theoretical clarification of political positions, thus contributing to the construction of the organisation, he felt an urge for frenetic activism.
As soon as the congress was over the Socialist Party was forbidden by the police.
After a renewed resurgence of strikes in 1907 there was another reflux of the class struggle between 1909-1910. During this time police hunted revolutionaries like dogs. The mere carrying of red flags was already considered a crime. In 1910 the anarchist Kotoku Shusui was arrested and accused of having plotted to assassinate the emperor. Many left socialists were also arrested. In January 1911 Kotoku and eleven other socialists were sentenced to death and executed – under the pretext of wanting to assassinate the emperor. The socialist press was banned, meetings were prohibited, and socialist books, which could be found in bookshops and libraries, were burnt. In the face of this repression, a large number of revolutionaries went into exile or withdrew. The long period of the “Japanese winter” (fuyu) began.
Revolutionaries who had not gone into exile and intellectuals now used an editing house – Baibunsha – for publishing their texts in conditions of illegality. In order to escape censorship, the articles had to be written in an ambiguous way.
In Europe repression and the imposition of the anti-socialist laws were not able to stop the growth of Social Democracy (for example the German SPD or, still more severely repressed, the RSDLP in Russia and the SdKPIL in Poland & Lithuania). The workers' movement in Japan faced even more difficulties to grow under conditions of repression and to gain in strength and set up revolutionary organisations functioning with a party spirit, in other words of going beyond the practice of small circles where the role of individuals was preponderant, a practice whose weight had always dominated the movement in Japan.
Neither on a programmatic nor on an organisational level had the movement reached the step where a marxist wing could become significant. Despite the first contacts with the 2nd International closer links were still to be established. The movement in Japan was still dominated by the circle spirit and individual leaders continued to play a dominant role. Anarchism, pacifism and humanitarianism still had a big influence.
Despite these specificities, we can see that the working class in Japan had become “integrated” into the international working class, and, although lacking the long experience of class struggle accompanied by the major programmatic and organisational acquisitions of the revolutionary movement in Europe, it faced much the same questions and showed similar trends as the class elsewhere. In this sense the history of the working class in Japan has more parallels with the history of the class in the USA or other more peripheral countries, where a marxist wing had not been able to gain the upper hand and where anarcho-syndicalism still played a major role.
The Working Class and World War I
Although Japan declared war on Germany at the end of 1914 in order to snatch the colonial assets from Germany (within a few months Japan conquered German colonial outposts in the Pacific Ocean and Tsingtao [China]), Japanese territory was never touched by the fighting.
Since the centre of the war lay in Europe, Japan only participated directly in the war in its early phase. After these early military successes against Germany it refrained from further military activities and in a certain sense played a ”neutral role”. Whereas in Europe the working class was more and more urgently confronted with the problem of the war, in Japan the class war provoked an economic boom. Japan had in fact become a major arms supplier, and had an enormous need for manpower. The number of factory workers doubled between 1914 and 1919. In 1914 some 850,000 employees worked in 17,000 companies, by 1919 1,820,000 employees worked in 44,000 companies. While male employees still counted for a weaker part of the total workforce, in 1919 they had risen to almost 50%. By the end of the war there were 450,000 miners. The Japanese bourgeoisie thus became one of the big beneficiaries of the war – it became a big war supplier and at the same time it was spared the mass mobilisations and the total militarisation that occurred in the European powers.
Because Japan found gigantic outlets in the armaments sector during World War I it could evolve from a still mainly agriculturally dominated society into an industrial society. The increase of production between 1914 and 1919 was 78%.
Because Japanese military involvement remained very limited,, the working class in Japan did not face the same situation as in Europe. Unlike the ruling class in Europe, the Japanese bourgeoisie did not find it necessary to undertake the mass mobilisation and militarisation of society. This made it possible for the trade unions in Japan to abstain from establishing a "holy alliance” with capital, as the unions did in the European countries, and so to avoid being unmasked as pillars of capital. Whereas the workers in Europe were confronted both with starvation and enormous imperialist massacres with a total loss of 20 million lives, years of trench warfare, and the loss of the flower of working class youth, the proletariat in Japan was saved from this choice between life and death. Thus the driving force of the struggle against war, which had pushed the working class in Europe, in Germany and Russia in particular, into struggle, and radicalised it, was missing. There was no fraternisation, as occurred between Russian and German soldiers or on the Western Front.
This contrast in the situation of different sectors of the world proletariat during World War I was an indication that, contrary to what revolutionaries thought at the time, the conditions of imperialist war were not the most favourable for the development and generalisation of the world revolution.
Revolutionaries in Europe, who put forward internationalist positions and perspectives shortly after the beginning of World War I and who met in Summer 1915 in Zimmerwald and later in Kienthal could refer to a revolutionary tradition of the period leading up to World War I (the position of Marxists in the 19th century, the statements of the 2nd International at the congresses of Stuttgart and Basle). However, socialists in Japan had to pay the price of their relative isolation in relation to this question, because their internationalist resistance could not base itself on a more profound, solidly anchored position in Marxism. As in 1904/05 most of the voices raised against the war were pacifist or humanist, and revolutionaries in Japan failed to take up the perspective propagated by the revolutionary vanguard in Zimmerwald – the 2nd International is dead, a new International must be formed, war can only be finished through turning the imperialist war into a civil war.
Nevertheless the tiny minority of revolutionaries in Japan did recognise the responsibility which lay on their shoulders. They raised their internationalist voice in illegal newspapers, they continued to meet in secret,
and despite their limited forces, they did their best to spread internationalist positions. While Lenin and the activities of the Bolsheviks were hardly known, the internationalist position of the German Spartakists and the courageous fight of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg received a lot of attention.
Food Riots in August 1918
Although Japan had experienced a certain economic boom during and because of the war, the onset of the period of capitalist decadence in 1914 was fundamentally an economic phenomenon on a world scale that made itself felt in every country, including those that had been spared the military ravages of World War I. Japanese capital could not hold itself aloof from the permanent crisis of overproduction, brought about by the relative saturation of world markets. Likewise, the working class in Japan would have to face up to the same change in conditions and perspectives forced on the proletariat on a world scale.
Although wages had risen in all industrial sectors by 20-30%, due to a labour shortage, prices increased between 1914-1919 by 100%. Real wages fell altogether from a level of 100 in 1914 to 61 in 1918. These big price increases forced the working class into a series of defensive struggles.
Between 1917 and 1918 the price of rice doubled. In the summer of 1918 workers started to protest against the price increases. There are no reports about strikes in the factories and a generalisation of demands to other areas. Apparently thousands of workers took to the streets; however these demonstrations did not take on a more organised form, or formulate any specific aim or demand. Shops seem to have been plundered. In particular agricultural workers and the recently proletarianised workforce, as well as Burakumin (social ”outcasts”) seem to have played a very active role in the looting. Many houses and company offices were looted. There seems to have been no unification of economic and political demands. Unlike the development of the struggles in Europe there were no mass meetings and no workers' councils. After the repression of the movement some 8,000 workers were arrested. More than 100 people were killed. The government resigned for tactical reasons.
The working class had arisen spontaneously – but at the same time the political immaturity of the class became glaringly clear.
Although workers' struggles can erupt spontaneously, the movement can only develop its full strength if it can draw upon a political and organisational maturation. Without this more profound maturation a movement will quickly collapse. This was the case here; they collapsed as fast as they had arisen. There doesn’t seem to have been any organised intervention by a political organisation.
Without the persevering activities of the Bolsheviks and Spartakists the movements in Russia and in Germany would have faltered very quickly. In Japan such an organised intervention was fatally missing.
But despite the different conditions of experience in Europe and in Japan, the working class was to make a big step forward.
The Echo of the Russian Revolution in Japan
When in February 1917 the working class in Russia put the revolutionary process into motion and took power in October, this first successful proletarian rising also found its echo in Japan. The Japanese bourgeoisie immediately understood the danger springing from the revolution in Russia. From April 1918 it was one of the first to participate in the most ruthless manner in the setting up of a counter revolutionary army. Japan was the last country to withdraw its troops from Siberia in November 1922.
While news about the Russian revolution spread very quickly from Russia to the west, and the revolutionary development in Russia had a great impact in particular in Germany and led to a destabilisation of the armies in Central Europe, the echo of the revolution was still very limited in Japan. Not only geographical factors contributed to this – several thousand kilometres separated Japan from the centre of the revolution and Petrograd and Moscow – but also the lower level of radicalisation in Japan due to the war. However, the working class in Japan was to take part in the international wave of revolutionary struggles that unfolded between 1917-23.
The Reaction of Revolutionaries
In the beginning, news about the Russian revolution only spread very slowly and patchily to Japan. Only in May and June 1917 were the first articles about the revolution published in the socialist press.
Sakai drafted a message of greetings under conditions of illegality, which was printed by Katayama in the USA in the migrant workers’ newspaper Heimin (Commoners), in the IWW paper International Socialist Review and also in Russian papers. In Japan Takabatake was the first to give an account of the role of the Soviets in "Baibunsha", emphasising the decisive role of revolutionaries. However, the different roles that the parties played during the revolution in Russia was not yet known.
The level of ignorance about events in Russia and about the role of the Bolsheviks can be seen through the first statements of the best known revolutionaries. Thus Arahata wrote in February 1917: "None of us knew the names of Kerensky, Lenin and Trotsky". And in the summer of 1917 Sakai called Lenin an anarchist, and even in April 1920 he claimed that “Bolshevism is somewhat similar to syndicalism”. Even the anarchist Osogui Sakae wrote in 1918 that “Bolshevik tactics were the tactics of anarchism”'.
Out of enthusiasm about the development in Russia Takabatake and Yakamawa drafted a Manifesto (ketsugibun) in May 1917 in Tokyo, which they sent to the RSDLP. However, due to the chaos in transport it never reached revolutionaries in Russia, and since there was hardly any direct contact between the milieu of revolutionaries in exile (most Japanese revolutionary elements living abroad such as Katayama lived in the USA) and the centre of the revolution, the manifesto was only published two years later at the founding congress of the Communist International in March 1919.
This message from Japanese Socialists declared:
“Since the very beginning of the Russian revolution we have followed your fearless activities with enthusiasm and deep admiration. Your work has had a great influence on our people’s consciousness. Today, we are indignant that our government has sent troops into Siberia under whatever pretext. This undoubtedly serves as an impediment to the free development of your revolution. We deeply regret that we are too weak to counter the peril with which you are threatened by our imperialist government. We are quite unable to do anything because the government is persecuting us with severity. However, you may rest assured that the red flag of revolution will wave over all of Japan in the not too distant future.
Along with this letter, we are sending you a copy of the resolution approved at our May 1, 1917, rally.
With revolutionary greetings, the Executive Committee of the Socialist Groups in Tokyo and Yokohama”
The "Resolution of the Japanese Socialists" read as follows:
"We, the socialists of Japan, assembled in Tokyo May 1, 1917, express our deepest sympathy for the Russian revolution, which we follow with admiration.
We recognise that the Russian revolution is both a political revolution of the bourgeoisie against medieval absolutism and a revolution of the proletariat against modern-day capitalism.
Transforming the Russian revolution into a world revolution is not a matter for only the Russian socialists; it is the responsibility of socialists of the entire world.
The capitalist system has already reached its’ highest stage of development in all countries, and we have entered the epoch of fully developed capitalist imperialism.
In order not to be deceived by the ideologists of imperialism, socialists of all countries must steadfastly defend the positions of the International, and all the forces of the international proletariat must be directed against our common enemy, international capitalism. Only thus will the proletariat be able to fulfil its’ historic mission.
Socialists of Russia and of all other countries must do everything in their power to put an end to the war and assist the proletariat of the warring countries to turn their weapons, today aimed at brothers on the other side of the trenches, against the ruling classes of their own countries.
We have faith in the courage of the Russian socialists and of our comrades around the world. We are firmly convinced that the revolutionary spirit will spread and permeate all countries.
The Executive Committee of the Socialist Group in Tokyo” (Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress, March 1919, published in Premier Congrès de l’Internationale Communiste, p. 224).
“At the same time that the Russian revolution signifies, in one of its aspects, a political revolution by the rising commercial and industrial class against the politics of a medieval despotism, it is also, in another of its aspects, a social revolution by the class of common people (heimin) against capitalism.
Therefore on this occasion it is the responsibility of the Russian revolution - and, at the same time, of socialists in all countries - to resolutely insist on an immediate end to the war. The class of common people (Gemini) in all the warring countries must be rallied and its fighting strength redirected, so that it is aimed in each case at the ruling class in its own country. We have confidence in the brave struggle of the Russian Socialist Party and the comrades in all countries and look forward to the success of the socialist revolution" (resolution of 7/5/17, from Tokyo-Yokohama socialists).
The same socialists of Tokyo sent another telegram to Lenin, of which they sent a copy to the USPD and to the SPD in Germany.
“The moment, when in view of the social reorganisation of the world, our movement will be reconstituted and when together with the comrades of all countries we shall work together as best as we can, this moment probably is not so far from now. We hope that in this critical phase of truce and in view of all these important events we can take up contact with you. As far as the foundation of an International of Socialists, which is planned for the near future, is concerned, if we can we want to send a delegation and we are still in the process of making preparations to do so. Hoping that you recognise our organisation (Baibunsha) and hoping for your support and much advice (...) the representatives of socialists of Tokyo greet you”.
This message shows the internationalist orientations, the efforts towards regroupment and the support for the foundation of a new International. However, it is hard to assess which precise preparations to set up an organisation were taken by Baibunsha at that moment.
While this message was intercepted by the secret police and it probably never reached the Bolsheviks, the SPD and USPD, however, kept it secret and never published it.
As these statements show the revolution acted as a powerful spark on revolutionaries. At the same time, the impact of the revolution on the working class as a whole was certainly weaker.
In contrast to many countries to the west of Russia (Finland, Austria, Hungary, Germany etc), where the mere reception of the news about the overthrow of the Tsar and the successful taking of power through the workers’ councils had created such enthusiasm and such an overwhelming wave of solidarity, that the workers themselves intensified the struggles “in their own country”, there was no direct reaction amongst the broad working masses in Japan. After the end of World War I militancy as a whole was on the increase – however, not explicitly because of the revolution ignited in Russia. The reason had more of an economic background: because the export boom sparked off by the big growth in exports during the war period had collapsed shortly after the end of the war. In 1920 a depression started. Workers' anger was aimed mainly at price increases and a wave of lay-offs. In 1919 there were some 2,400 “labour disputes” with 350,000 workers on strike; there was a decline of the movement in 1920, when 130,000 workers struck in about 1,000 separate disputes. The movement seems to have retreated from 1920 onwards.
Workers' struggles remained more or less contained within an economic terrain, and hardly any political demands were raised. This is why there were no workers' councils – unlike Europe or even the USA and Argentina, where the Russian revolution had inspired workers on the US West coast and in Buenos Aires to radicalise their movement
Between 1919 and 1920 some 150 unions were founded, all of which acted as an obstacle against the radicalisation of the workers. The unions were the spearhead and most pernicious weapon of the ruling class to counter-act the rising combativity. Thus in 1920 the Labour Union League, Rodo Kumiai Domei, a national Trades Union Federation, was founded. Until then the union movement was split into more than 100 single unions.
At the same time a large “democracy movement” was launched with the help of the bourgeoisie in 1919, putting forward the demand of general voting rights and electoral reform. As in other Western European countries parliamentarism served as a bulwark against revolutionary struggles. Japanese students were the main protagonists of this demand.
The debate on the new methods of struggle
Under the impact of the Russian revolution and the wave of international struggles, a process of reflection also set in amongst revolutionaries in Japan.
Inevitably this process of reflection was marked by contradictions. On the one hand the anarcho-syndicalists (or those who claimed to be so) claimed adherence to the positions of the Bolsheviks, since they were the only ones who had successfully completed a revolution and aimed at the destruction of the state. This current maintained that the politics of the Bolsheviks proved their rejection of a purely parliamentary orientation (a debate known as the Gikau-sei-saku versus Chokusetsu-kodo line).
In this debate in February 1918 Takabatake defended the idea that economic and political struggles were very complex. The struggle could involve both dimensions – direct action and the parliamentary struggle. Parliamentarism and syndicalism were not the only elements composing the socialist movement. He spoke up against the anarcho-syndicalist rejection of the “economic struggle” as well as the individualistic attitude of Osugi. While Takabatake in a very confused manner placed “direct action” and mass movement on the same level, his text was part of a general process of clarification of the means of struggle in this epoch.
Yamakawa stressed that the identification of a political movement with parliamentary politics was not valid. Moreover he stated, “I believe syndicalism has degenerated because of reasons which I do not understand sufficiently”.
In view of the limited experience and the limited level of theoretical-programmatic clarification of these questions, it is important to recognise that there were voices in Japan who put into question the old methods of trades' union and parliamentary struggle and were searching for answers to the new situation. This demonstrates that the working class was also confronted with the same questions and that revolutionaries in Japan were also involved in the same process of trying to come to grips with the new situation.
At the founding congress of the German KPD the lessons of the new epoch in relation to the union and parliamentary question were beginning to be drawn albeit in a groping manner. The discussion of the conditions of struggle in the new epoch were of a world historical importance. Such questions could only be clarified if there was an organisation and a framework for discussions.
Without an organisation and still isolated internationally, clarification in the revolutionary milieu in Japan was to remain difficult. Therefore it is all the more important to be aware of these efforts during that phase to put into question the former methods of trades' union and parliamentary methods, without falling into the trap of anarchism.
Attempts at clarification and the construction of an organisation
The revolution in Russia, the new historical conditions of the decadence of capitalism, the unfolding of the international wave of struggles confronted revolutionaries in Japan with new challenges. It was obvious that clarification and the search for answers to these questions could only make headway if there was a Marxist pole of reference. The formation of such a pole came up against big obstacles, because its precondition was a clear cut delineation between an anarchist wing, hostile to political organisations, and a wing which affirmed the necessity of a revolutionary organisation but which, however, was still unable to tackle its construction in a determined manner.
Hampered by a tendency to still remain oriented towards and centred on Japan, marked by a predominance of a circle spirit and well-known personalities, who had only recently become more familiarised with marxism, and a weak determination to set up a fighting organisation, these elements were slow in facing up to the task of the hour.
Thus amongst the most famous leading personalities (Yamakawa, Arahata and Sakai) Yamakawa was still convinced in 1918 that he ought to write a “critique of Marxism”. However, in the May edition of New Society, Sakai, Arahata and Yamakawa proclaimed their support for Bolshevism. In February 1920 they reported the foundation of the Comintern in their paper New Social Review (Shin Shakai Hyoron – which in September 1920 changed its name to Shakaishugi [Socialism]). At the same time these revolutionaries were still active in study circles such as the Friday Society (Shakai shugi kenkyu -Studies in Socialism) and Wednesday Society (Shakai mondai kenkyu -studies on social problems).
Their activities were less geared towards the construction of an organisation, than the publication of papers, which were mostly short-lived and which were not anchored in any organisational structure. Against the background of these confusions and hesitations on the organisation question amongst revolutionaries in Japan, the Comintern itself was going to play an important part in the attempts to set up an organisation.
1International Workers of the World. Unlike many anarcho-syndicalists, the IWW defended the idea of "one big union" regrouping the entire working class. As an organisation, it maintained an internationalist position during World War I.
2 Altogether 194 members were registered, amongst them 18 shop owners, 11 craftsmen, 8 farmers, 7 journalists, 7 office clerks, 5 doctors, 1 officer of the salvation army. Clearly, there were very few workers. Women were not allowed to join, since the prohibition for them to organise was still in force. Moreover, the majority of the members were below the age of 40.
In January 1907 the socialist daily Nikkan Heimin Shinbun (NHS) was founded, which managed to spread its’ circulation beyond the region. The first circulation reached 30,000 copies. Unlike Hikari, which acted as a central organ, it was not considered to be the organ of the party. By April 1907 it had ceased publication.
While first attempts were made to present the history of the 2nd International in the "theoretical paper", with a circulation of some 2,000 copies, the paper itself quickly became a mouthpiece of anarchism.. Contrary to the major European industrial countries, where the weight of anarcho-syndicalism declined with the increase in industrialisation and the workers’ organisation in the Social-Democracy, in Japan the influence of anarchism continued to increase, as it did in the United States.
3 It is worth remarking that much of the Japanese workers' movement's contacts with the rest of the world proletariat took place via the United States, both as a result of the travels of individual militants and the experience of Japanese immigration to the US west coast. Unlike the American workers however, the Japanese were unable to benefit from an influx of experience and theoretical development such as the European immigrants brought with them to the United States.
4. Arahata and Osugi published from October 1914 until March 1915 the monthly paper Heimin Shinbun, from October 1915 – January 1916 Kindai shiso – which were all internationalist voices.
5. In the paper Shinshakai a special page under the heading Bankoku jiji (International notes) was dedicated to the international situation. Even if the number of printed copies remained low, a lot of news about the betrayal of the SPD and the activities of internationalists were spread. The publication was printed with photos of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht as the most prestigious representatives of internationalism in Germany. For example the articles had the following headings: Clara Zetkin arrested – The situation in the French Socialist Party one year after the assassination of J. Jaurès – Kautsky’s and Liebknecht’s attitude in the Reichstag in relation to August 4th 1914 on the war credits – The division of the SPD – The attitude of the war protagonist Scheidemann and the neutral Kautsky – Strikes and workers risings in Italy during the war – The liberation of Rosa Luxemburg from prison – On the situation of political prisoners in Russia – Explanations on the Zimmerwald Manifesto. – Liebknecht arrested – The 2nd International Conference of Socialist Parties in Kienthal and the opportunity for the Left to found a new International. – Social-democratic anti-war minority arrested because of spreading the ‚Zimmerwald Manifesto – The situation at the Party Conference of the SPD – The threat of strikes by American railway workers).