Li Fu-jen

Japan Faces the Abyss III

The Revolutionary Perspectives [1]

(April 1944)

From Fourth International, Vol.5 No.4, pp.112-118.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The low productivity of agriculture and of household and artisan industry means that, low as is the standard of life of the Japanese people, the surplus which they produce beyond their own consumption minimum is very small. Hence Japan’s shortage of capital, the survival of handicrafts, the low wages paid in industry. The standard of life of the peasants drags down the wage level of the industrial workers; the low productivity of handicraft industry, and the low wages paid in the small workshops and domestic industry, keep down the wages of the factory workers. Hence large-scale, modern industry, where it exists (particularly textiles) enjoys a tremendous advantage over that of other countries. The Japanese cotton and rayon industries, whilst utilizing the most modern technique, draw their labor force from among the daughters of the poverty-stricken peasantry with their medieval standard of life. As a writer in a Japanese newspaper, the Jiji, expressed it:

“The farming population constitutes the reservoir of industrial labor and its size serves to keep the wages of industrial workers from rising.”

The cotton spinners and textile manufacturers are able to benefit both from the maximum productivity of labor arising from the use of modern power-driven machinery, and from the maximum degree of exploitation of the labor force, made possible by the extreme poverty of the peasants. So long as this supply of cheap labor is forthcoming – and of late years it has become more and more abundant as conditions in the villages have gone from bad to worse – industrial capital is content to leave undisturbed the feudal survivals and the wasteful small-scale production of the countryside. It does not want a large class of landless laborers such as furnished Britain’s early industries with their labor, since it is assured of a much safer and more easily manageable labor force from amongst the daughters of the peasantry. Nor, since the large-scale industries work for export, are they concerned with the narrowness of the home market which is a natural consequence of the backwardness and poverty of Japanese agriculture.

Japan’s textile capitalists, representing the country’s largest single industry, benefit not alone from the poverty of the village which supplies them with the cheapest possible labor, but also from the peculiarly medieval status of women which renders the latter docile and defenceless. It is above all in the matter of treatment of women that Japan has retained her Asiatic-feudal mores. Both social custom and law keep women in subjection and give her a status but one degree removed from slavery.

The Japanese woman has no legal personality, no social or political rights. She can be sold to a factory or a brothel by a legal contract signed by her father or husband or other male guardian, and she can be divorced without cause at the will of her husband. A married woman has no property rights and no rights over her children. Women are forbidden by law to join a political party, and by social custom from going to places of entertainment with their husbands; from dancing (unless they are paid cafe entertainers or taxi-dancers) or from any other social intercourse with the other sex. Yet while women remain subject to a medieval or patriarchal code which virtually deprives them of all liberty, they are exposed to all the brutality of the earliest forms of capitalist exploitation. They may not enjoy such social or political rights as men have (limited though these are), but they must earn their living side by side with men in offices and factories and on the farms.

In the feudal era, daughters could only be sold to the houses of prostitution, or as geishas (entertainers), and the superfluous female children were to a large extent got rid of by infanticide. With the development of silk filatures and cotton mills, daughters became a profitable investment for their parents. The houses of prostitution buy the girl outright for a cash sum, whilst in the case of silk filatures or small weaving sheds the girl’s labor is usually contracted for by the year, the contract being renewed from year to year if her work is still required and her health has not broken down. In the case of the big factories, two or three years is the usual contract period, but only a small sum is paid in advance. Of recent years, the big mill-owners have not needed to employ recruiting agents for their labor. Agrarian distress has been so acute and the indebtedness of the peasantry has grown to such fearful proportions, that the landlord or usurer-trader of the village can be counted on to see that the peasants contract their daughters into industry in order to obtain the money to pay rent and interest. Girls and their parents naturally prefer industrial employment to the brothels, since the former is temporary whereas the latter means slavery for life because the resulting debt can never be paid off. However, in certain districts far from any industrial center, such as Aomori and other northern prefectures, it is not always easy to arrange for contracts with factories. The latter can get plenty of labor nearer at hand without paying for a long railroad journey, and so in these districts a higher percentage of girls go to the brothels.

Neither as regards the brothels or the factories does the girl herself play any part in the transaction except as a commodity. The father or other male head of the family signs a contract with the factory agent, for example, which provides that his daughter shall work for a stated period and either the whole or a part of a year’s wages is paid to him in advance. When the advance is small, it is stipulated that a part of the girl’s monthly wage shall be sent to her parents. In the case of the brothels, a much larger sum is paid to the father and the girl cannot leave her “employment” until it is worked off. Since in addition to this sum bills are charged against her for expensive clothing, and since each day’s illness makes another charge, she can only in exceptional cases ever work off the debt. Commander Gumpei Yamamuro of the Japanese Salvation Army investigated this type of slavery and found that at the rate at which girls in brothels are able to repay their debts during the first two, or three years, it would take them about 189 years to regain their freedom.

If the girl runs away from either brothel or factory, her father’s goods, or his guarantor’s goods, are liable to distraint, so that she dare not return home, even if she escapes, for she knows that her father or his creditors will send her back again. In any case, escape is very difficult, since if the girl manages to evade the guards of factory or licensed quarter she may be caught by the police and returned to her “owners.” Moreover, since she has no money (her wages are “saved” for her by the management if she is contracted to a factory, that is, if there is anything left over after the cost of her food and the sums sent to her father have been deducted) she cannot even pay her fare home. The girls who do manage to escape can only get work in another factory where conditions may be even worse, or become cafe waitresses or unlicensed prostitutes. A police investigation in Tokyo revealed that 70 percent of the unlicensed prostitutes in the city’s suburbs were ex-factory workers.

Peasants who sell their daughters into this kind of debt slavery are in most cases driven by direst necessity. Even if it were thought more natural that the men of the family, in times of acute distress, should leave their farms and seek industrial employment, there is no demand for their labor as there is for that of young girls. All that is open to them is coolie labor or casual work in industry or transportation. But it is not thought more natural for the men to make any sacrifice. The whole tradition of Japan insists that it is the women who must be sacrificed.

The family system and all it entails, the patriarchal ideology which has survived in spite of the decay of patriarchal economic forms, places women in a lower category than men and treats them as inferiors who should be glad to sacrifice life or liberty for their masters, whether fathers or husbands. The whole force of tradition and custom, dating from the feudal period and assiduously fostered, praised and preserved by those who profit from it most – landowners and factory owners and the whole bureaucratic apparatus of government – keeps large-scale industry run on indentured female labor and prevents the breakdown of the patriarchal-feudal village system and the creation of a working class divorced from agriculture and able to combine to improve conditions of labor. It is not always poverty or famine, or a crushing burden of debt, which causes the peasant to contract his daughter to a factory or brothel. So ingrained and natural, and admittedly praiseworthy, is the power of the head of the household over the female members, that peasants sometimes sell their children in order to acquire some capital to advance themselves in the world, or even just in order to go on a spree. A peasant may sell his daughter to a brothel, or contract her to a silk filature or factory, taking all her wages for a year or two in advance, in order to acquire more land, or in order to buy a loom or two to set up as a small village manufacturer, or to start a tiny silk-reeling establishment – in a word, to acquire capital and become a small capitalist. When a man has thus, by means of the most ruthless exploitation of his own kith and kin, acquired his own “means of production,” in the shape of a few looms and perhaps a small motor, he is nevertheless little more than an agent for the merchant-manufacturer who supplies him with yarn and takes the woven cloth from him.

The merchant-manufacturer finds it more profitable to give out yarn to be woven in these household establishments at a fixed charge, than to employ labor himself in a factory of his own. Here one sees how the large merchants and industrialists profit from the poverty of the peasants and from the subjection of women. The peasant can be relied upon to work his wife and children and any hired labor he employs 14, 15 or 16 hours a day in the frantic effort to become a small capitalist, or to keep his land free of mortgage, or to hold his creditors at bay; whereas the merchant who profits most from this exploitation could not keep labor employed directly working such long hours for so paltry a return. To some extent the law would restrain him, and sooner or later workers in a factory always combine to improve their conditions. Herein lies the secret of the survival and extension of domestic industry in Japan.

Working Conditions

What are conditions like in the large textile mills? The girls are kept without money. Anything left over from their earnings after deductions for food, monthly repayment of debt, health insurance, and a small sum of pocket money, is “saved” for them by the management and handed over only upon completion of the contract. Many of these girls are not yet 14 years old. The majority are around 15-16. Brought in from the country, with no knowledge of even such laws as do exist for their protection, they are almost defenceless in their relations with the employer. Although their contracts are not strictly binding in law, they do not realize this. Even if they did, the letter of the law and the practice of the authorities are not at all the same thing. The police, in fact, assist the employers and ignore the law by always capturing and returning to their owners girls who run away from brothels or factories. The practice is less avowed than it used to be and if an escapee stands firm, and is not kidnapped by soshi (hired bullies), she can keep her freedom. But even then she dare not return home even if she could find money for the fare, for she knows her father will send her back again, either because, having already received a sum of money from brothel or factory, his small property will be distrained on, or because without the monthly remittance from her earnings the rest of the family would starve.

As regards employment in the larger factories, little was heard in more recent years of girls trying to escape. Economic pressure is sufficient to keep them at work, conditions are somewhat better than in the small factories, and the crude methods of compulsion used in the past are no longer necessary, although they survive in the brothels and in small enterprises and domestic industry. The improvement should have meant that these workers, realizing that their life for some years at least must be spent in a factory, would combine to force better conditions. Such combination, however, has been made most difficult, first by the training of these girls, secondly by the living-in system. It takes some time for the girls to throw off the ideas of inferiority and submissiveness to authority inculcated in them from babyhood. And by the time that the conditions of their new life, and the conceptions of labor solidarity taught them by the men workers in the factory, have prepared them to throw off the patriarchal ideas of the village and to realize their common interests with other workers, their contract is up, or their health ruined, and it is time for a fresh batch of juvenile serfs to take their places in the factory. Then, too, there is the almost insurmountable obstacle of the dormitory system. Strikes do sometimes occur in Japanese mills, but the employers then simply lock the girls into the dormitories, thus separating them from the striking men outside and preventing any communication. Even if they can get out they are almost helpless, since their wages are held by the company, or taken in repayment of their fathers’ debts, and they have nowhere to go but the streets. These girls, whose wages are often the mainstay of their homes, cannot seek the protection of their homes when on strike. Yet despite all the difficulties strikes do occur, being invariably started by the men, with the girls joining in. It is the men who are mostly feared by the factory management, for it is they who encourage the girls to revolt and who begin strikes. Accordingly, every effort is made to dispense with men’s labor as far as possible, and in the textile industry today only a very small percentage of the labor force is represented by men.

The “ideal” life of Japanese contract labor as depicted by apologists for the system in the textile industry, is in reality a bird of quite different hue, as we have already seen. But there is still more to it. Much is made of the fact that the girls receive full board and accommodation provided by the owners at half cost price. Accommodation consists merely of 1½ mats’ space on a floor (a mat being 6 ft. by 3 ft.) in dormitories which are heated during the cold winter months only by a bowl full of ashes with some glowing lumps of charcoal in the center. Food consists of rice and barley with a little vegetable and pickle, a small piece of fish three times a week, and very occasionally a little meat. As for the so-called cultural work carried on in the factories by the benevolent employers, it is designed either to make the girls better workers or to keep them submissive. Those who can hardly read or write are taught enough to enable them to understand the instructions given at work. Then there are classes in “flower arrangement” and the “tea ceremony.” These are arts taught to girls of middle and upper class families, and the instruction in them received by factory girls is designed both to give them the hope of “marrying well” and to preserve their docile feminine outlook. Similarly with the classes in “ethics” held in all the large factories. “Ethics” here means the rules of good conduct, obedience and loyalty to parents, employers and the Emperor, hard work, meekness and submissiveness as the supreme feminine virtues.

What of wages? By 1934, the general level of wages in the cotton industry, never very high, had sunk below 70 sen a day. Since then the government has suppressed all the trade unions and the present-day wage, even if it has not dropped below that figure, is certainly not very far above it. As American workers have discovered, wages never keep pace with currency inflation and rising prices. But compared with American workers, the Japanese workers of recent years have been almost completely defenceless in their relations with the employers. Their unions were disbanded and their leaders jailed or killed. As a result, the gap between wages and prices has grown wider and at a faster pace than in the USA.

What does 70 sen signify in terms of American currency? It means a wage of something less than 20 cents for 8½ hours of the most intensive labor. Similarly pitiful wages characterize all the industries of Japan producing consumers’ goods. Some are a little higher than those of the cotton industry operatives, some even lower. Only in the branches of heavy industry, where production rose to record heights after the invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and where an acute shortage of skilled labor was felt, did appreciably better wages prevail. Thus blacksmiths in 1934, according to figures of the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry, were earning the equivalent of $1.25 a day and foundrymen only slightly less, while lathe men topped the list with a wage equal to almost $1.50 daily. As compared with wages in either America or England, these rates are inordinately low, but they are very high in comparison not only with those of women textile workers, but also with those of men in all other industries. The wages of engineers in Japan in 1941 were nearly three times as large as those of potters or carpenters or workers in the chemical industry, and nearly seven times as high as those of cotton weavers. In considering these wages in terms of American or British equivalents, one should not be led away by the argument of the Japanese exploiters that, low as they are, they are adequate to maintain the workers in comfort. The cost of living has never been cheap in Japan – except for foreign tourists and the representatives of foreign business houses who had good foreign money jingling in their pockets and were astonished at the “cheapness” of Japanese servants. The retail price of rice, for example, was always higher than in London. Cotton goods are little if at all cheaper, and rents are very high owing to high interest rates and the large profits made by landlords, who normally recover the cost of building in seven or eight years. Moreover, the majority of working class families occupy extremely small quarters. In the poorest districts of Kobe and Osaka workers live in tiny three or four-mat rooms (a mat is 6 ft. by 3 ft.); and in some cases there is insufficient floor space for the whole family to lie down and sleep at the same time. Indoor cooking is impossible and takes place on charcoal braziers set up in the narrow alleys that run between the rows of miserable cabins.

In general, the argument that the Japanese enjoy their old-style mode of living in unheated wood and paper houses, devoid of any furniture, and that wages are adequate for this traditional mode of life, does not bear close examination. The wealthier Japanese are glad to live in stone houses or apartments with modern heating arrangements, and to eat European. style foods. Furthermore, the wages of most workers are not sufficient to maintain life decently even in the old manner. Superficially, this would be more evident than it is if not for the incredible industry of the poor Japanese housewife who somehow manages in face of the most fearful handicaps to keep her children clean and her humble abode in similar condition. During all the years of falling exchange, mounting prices and unprecedented expansion of exports, the textile manufacturers and others went on reducing wages, thus making the lives of the workers still more unendurable. They were able to do this simply on account of the agrarian distress which represented a bottomless reservoir of cheap labor, and the defenceless position of the unorganized workers. As the bourgeois economist Kamekichi Takahashi once remarked: “The national standard of wages in Japan is based on the income of the peasant.” He calculated that the wages of two women in cotton spinning were equivalent to the income of an agricultural family of three adult persons.

There is not another leading capitalist country which displays such a primitive, disproportionate and gravely decayed economic structure as that of contemporary Japan. Nowhere is there a country so burdened with relics of its past; a country of such deep and widespread poverty alongside colossal wealth; a country in which class antagonisms have accumulated a social tension so great that the breaking point is always near.

We have already seen the immediate reasons for the diseased condition of Japan’s national life. The fundamental explanations, however, are to be found in the peculiarities of her development. Where the capitalist class in the Western world grew up and came to power as an independent social formation, with interests apart from and antagonistic to the feudal nobility and aristocracy, in Japan the capitalist class represents an organic offshoot of the feudal ruling classes. The bourgeoisie of the West established its power and freed the productive forces from the fetters of feudalism by civil war and violent revolution against the defenders of the old society, sweeping away in the process a great deal of the accumulated rubbish which hindered the advancement of society to a new and higher level under a system of capitalist relationships. In contrast, Japan’s merchant-capitalists, embryo of the modern bourgeoisie, allied and later merged themselves with a section of the old feudal rulers instead of overthrowing them, and preserved all they could of feudal institutions and customs that could in any way be fitted into the new system of capitalist exploitation.

This brings forward another question: Why did this occur? The answer is that the development of capitalism in Japan, in contradistinction to the countries of the West, arose not from an accumulation within the womb of the old feudal society of economic and social factors which imperatively demanded a clean break from the old system, but from fear of foreign conquest and domination. And the “new” ruling class which came to power with the Restoration of 1868 embarked on a course of imperialist conquest without adequate economic resources to sustain it. The infant capitalist economy was burdened with heavy military expenditures before it could stand on its own feet. This stunted and distorted it from the very beginning.

Toward the end of the feudal era, the rulers of society, at whose head stood the Shogun, did all in their power to hinder the natural development of the productive forces. This was no arbitrary policy but a measure of self-protection at a time when feudal society was falling apart from decay.

Until 1868 Japan was a collection of separate feudal principalities or fiefs – 260 of them, to be exact – under the overlordship of the Shogun (literally, the “hereditary commander-in-chief of the armies”). The Daimyo, or nobles, were his vassals or fief-holders, and the Samurai were in turn the military retainers of the Daimyo. During the last period of feudalism the Emperors languished in virtual exile in Kyoto, frequently in conditions of severe poverty. The royal house was resuscitated and refurbished in the Restoration of 1868 by the new ruling combination of feudal aristocratic elements and merchant-traders. We are concerned here, however, with the historic causes which, in this last period of feudalism, prevented that development of new productive forces which in the countries of the West gave rise to an independent capitalist class, strong enough to make itself the undisputed master of society, as contrasted with Japan’s very feeble bourgeoisie.

The last of the Shoguns, the line of Tokugawa, were hostile to new ideas and suspicious of foreigners carrying them. They expelled all foreigners (including missionaries) from the country and forbade foreign trade of any kind under pain of death. Moreover, they hindered internal trade by prohibiting construction of roads and bridges. Even on the few highways that there were, as from Yedo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto, no bridges were allowed and the rivers had to be crossed by ferry or forded. The root of this internal policy was the Shogun’s fear of the Daimyo revolting against him as the old feudal society tended more and more to break apart. The policy itself was in striking contrast to that of the English monarchs who developed the “King’s Highway” as a means of keeping the feudal lords in check and which contributed materially to the development of trade in England.

The period when Japan was practically cut off from all contact with the outside world, known as the Tokugawa Seclusion, lasted from 1641 until 1853 – more than two centuries. It came to an end in the latter year when Commodore Perry, under orders of the United States President Fillmore, arrived in Yedo Bay with a naval squadron to demand and to secure the opening of certain Japanese ports to American shipping. During all that lengthy period Japanese society had stagnated. A class of merchants had developed, but the forced seclusion of the country made it impossible for them to use their wealth in foreign trade, while the rigid maintenance of serfdom and a rice economy in the village, together with the artificial division of the country and other hindrances to the free interchange of commodities, prevented their using it to develop industry and internal trade. Capital accumulated in trade went into the land in the shape of usurious loans and mortgages.

The Feudal-Capitalist Alliance

The merchants finally united with the anti-Tokugawa clans – the Satsuma and Choshu, Hizen and Tosa – and with the hordes of discontented Samurai and Ronin (Samurai without a lord) to overthrow the Shogunate and to unify the country under the Emperor. In the civil war of that period, it is important to note, the rebellious clans were financed almost exclusively by the merchant class. It was principally the merchants of Osaka, which had become the country’s greatest trading center, who were the financial backers of the “revolution.”

This strange alliance of feudals and capitalists has persisted to this day, for after the Restoration the merchants did not cast aside their feudal allies, but proceeded to merge with them. There were several reasons for this development. On the one hand, the interests of the merchants and the feudal ruling class were too intermixed. There was no large independent middle-class, and so the aristocracy was able to retain political control even after the Restoration and eventually transform a section of itself into industrialists and bankers. On the other hand, the danger of foreign invasion, the fear that Japan would become a colony of the Western powers (they had already compelled Japan to grant extra-territorial privileges to their nationals, as in China), forced the country along the road of militarism and thus gave strength and power to the military caste formed out of the feudal nobility. After the Restoration, it was the new national state, run by and in the interests of the leading Samurai of the victorious clans, which undertook the financing of industrial development, and it was the feudal aristocracy, to some extent fused with the merchants and usurers, which eventually became the new ruling class of big business, bankers and bureaucrats – allied with the landowners.

Without going into more detail, it can be said that the transformation of one section of the feudal aristocracy into a capitalist class in the space of a generation, and the use of the State power – which remained in the hands of the victorious group of the aristocracy, namely, the Samurai of Satsuma and Choshu – directly to further industrial development for the benefit of a small group consisting of themselves and those of the merchant class who had allied themselves with the clans, which in large part accounts for the ill-proportioned nature of Japan’s national economy today and for the weighty feudal survivals. At the same time, since the transition to a modern state came as a result of the fear of foreign invasion (the Western imperialists were already dividing neighboring China at that time), and since the Samurai retained their influence and were firmly entrenched in the army and navy where they directly molded national policy, the state fostered industrial development with military requirements always as the first objective. In other words, because the transition to modern industrialism came as the result of an outward stimulus, and not as a natural development over many generations, and because the development of the country had previously been artificially stunted, there was no possibility of a sharp break with the past. Feudalism was left almost intact below to poison and warp Japan’s future growth.

At the time of the Restoration, as has been shown, the embryonic bourgeoisie was too feeble to establish its own undivided rule and to sweep society clean of all the accumulated feudal rubbish. Today, grown to maturity, it cannot do so without sweeping itself away. The task of cleansing Japanese society therefore falls upon another class, the working class, in alliance with all the exploited elements of the village. In fact, so decayed and rotten is the entire economic and social structure that the Japanese masses can continue to survive only if they rise up and destroy the present order of things. The proletarian revolution, in cleansing the country of every last vestige of feudalism, and thus discharging a historic task which the bourgeoisie has been incapable of discharging, will be obliged to overpower and expropriate the bourgeoisie, prop and mainstay of all forms of backwardness and reaction, and proceed to reconstruct society along socialist lines. The “democratic” tasks of the Japanese revolution are thus intertwined with the socialist tasks of the proletariat, as they were in Russia. This is Japan’s future road.

One final question remains to be briefly investigated: Did the ruling class, in the few years of intensive war preparations which led up to the Pacific outbreak, succeed in so altering the economic structure of Japan and the accompanying system of social relationships as to bring about a qualitative change and thus invalidate the analysis we have made? Is it, or is it not, still true that Japan is the weakest link in the imperialist chain?

Under the strong impression of Japan’s smashing blow at Pearl Harbor, and the comparative ease with which her armed forces conquered Hongkong, Malaya, Burma, the Netherlands East Indies and the Philippines, bourgeois publicists united in a frantic chorus of self-criticism, the refrain of which was: “We underestimated Japan’s strength!” And with the rather unseemly haste which seems to characterize them in such matters, the “Workers Party” joined in among the others. The fever of revisionism consumes the theoreticians of this camp. Under the impact of the Red Army’s invasion of Finland, Poland and the Baltic States, they abandoned the Marxist definition of the Soviet Union as a “degenerated workers’ state,” discovering that it was, after all, nothing but a “bureaucratic collectivist state.” With the fever continuing and giving them no rest, they deserted China’s struggle against Japanese imperialism, discovering that it had ceased to be progressive. Next they found that we had underestimated the strength of Japanese imperialism “along economic and military lines” (see article entitled War in the Far Pacific, by Henry Judd, New International, May 1942). Trotsky’s penetrating estimate of imperialist Japan was then incontinently thrown out the window. Scientific analysis suddenly lost its meaning in the glare of Japan’s initial military victories. Had these flimsy-minded “analysts” been politicians in Lenin’s day, they would probably have been impressed by the initial might of the “Russian steamroller” and accused Lenin of “underestimating” Czarism.

Impressionistic appraisals, arrived at on the basis of episodic or conjunctural events, are no substitute in revolutionary politics for scientific analysis. Those who follow the former line mistake the accidental and incidental for the main substance and eventually lose themselves in a maze of trivialities. Caution is no part of the character of the petty-bourgeois revisionists. The weight of scientific evidence of Japan’s great and fundamental weaknesses should have given them pause. But no: “Japan has won some victories! Japan could not have been as weak as we thought! We must revise our estimate!” It is precisely here that the revisionists revealed the distance they had traveled from Marxism. The very essence of the Marxist method is to proceed from a fundamental economic and sociological analysis in which secondary phenomena find their natural place. The revisionists abandoned this method and substituted for it their own brand of petty-bourgeois impressionism.

They realized, of course, that Japan’s victories alone furnished no adequate basis for revision. And so, after some casting about, the theoretician of the New International found that Marxists had “ignored” certain important industrial and political changes that had taken place in Japan, changes which “have been proceeding roughly since the last war.” In what did these changes consist? According to our theoretician there had been “a shift from agriculture and light, consumers’ goods industry to heavy industry,” while on the political side “secret societies and military castes that now fully dominate the life of the country have succeeded in canalizing and concentrating the nation’s energies behind their sinister schemes.” With thoroughly characteristic carelessness, the writer failed to indicate the actual weight of the industrial changes he alleged had taken place. And at least some of his readers and co-thinkers must have rubbed their eyes at the assertion that the imperialist bourgeoisie had lost power in Japan and been superseded by “secret societies and military castes.”

Our analysis of Japanese economy refutes the assertion that – either beginning with the last war or later – there were any qualitative changes in the structure. The proportions between industry and agriculture, between small-scale industry and large-scale industry, and between heavy industry and light industry, have remained fairly constant. There is no evidence whatsoever that even in the last years before war broke in the Pacific there had been anything even slightly resembling a radical alteration in any of these respects. And if the Japanese bourgeoisie, in all the years of comparative peace, did not and could not effect such a change, it is quite certain that during the past two years, under the stress of war with powerful antagonists, it has not taken place. The feudal survivals unquestionably remain in all their force, and with them the economic and social backwardness. It is not denied that frantic efforts were made to build up heavy industry and that there was some slight shift away from light industry. But the results of these efforts were pitifully inadequate and the basic proportions of the industrial economy – rather, the disproportions – have remained. Socially, the slight change that occurred meant increased hardships for the masses because of more shortages of consumers’ goods, and a consequent heightening of class tension.

By their initial territorial conquests, the Japanese imperialists secured for themselves a wealth of diverse raw materials to which they scarcely had access before, but this has been counterbalanced by the loss of leading export and import markets. For her raw cotton, Japan must now rely upon China’s poor crop and such stocks as she was able to accumulate before the war. There is not a single country where she can buy wheat formerly imported from Australia – except, perhaps, Soviet Russia. Nor has she any substitute for Australian wool. In Malaya she has secured some iron and coal, but not nearly enough to compensate for loss of American iron (Japan was getting the iron produced in the Philippines even before the war). There is and there can be no compensation for the loss of all the finished steel and heavy machinery which Japan used to import from America. When her pre-war inventory is exhausted or wears out, her own puny heavy industry will not be able to meet all requirements. Japan has lost her lucrative silk market and one can imagine the dire effects of this loss on the rural communities. Fairly abundant supplies of oil and rubber have come to Japan through the conquest of Burma, the Netherlands East Indies and Malaya. But of what use is such abundance in a country with such a poorly-developed automobile industry? In any case, it must be remembered that the advantage which Japan has secured by gaining access to large supplies of valuable raw materials is temporary and depends upon adequate and protected shipping between the conquered territories and the homeland. For some time Japan’s vital sea lanes have been preyed upon by American submarines. If and when a steel ring of blockade is forged around Japan all advantage from these sources will disappear.

Japan remains weak and vulnerable and for the first time in her history is matched against foes mightier than herself. In the early part of her modern career she had little difficulty in defeating backward China in the war of 1894-5 and seizing Korea and Formosa. A decade later, still a backward country, she challenged a country of still greater backwardness and wrenched from Czarism the “rights and interests” of Russia in Manchuria. In the World War of 1914-18, feeling by no means sure of itself in a struggle between mighty contenders, Japanese imperialism played a minor role, being content to grab Germany’s Far Eastern possessions. In 1931-32 Japan’s armies had a comparative walkover in Manchuria against the demoralized and poorly-trained soldiers of the corrupt and feeble Chang Hsueh-liang. In the second war against China which she embarked upon in 1937, Japan ran into serious difficulties, but by and large succeeded in accomplishing her aims against the reactionary regime of Chiang Kai-shek. Today the case is far different. American and British imperialism are by no means the same thing as Czarist Russia or backward China. In the military campaigns of the past, Japan’s weaknesses were more than counterbalanced by the weaknesses of her opponents. Now the relationships are reversed.

The campaigns which ended in the capture of the British, Dutch and American colonies in the Pacific were no real test of the relationship of forces between Japan and her opponents. Not all of them combined obliged the Japanese imperialists to exert anything like their full strength, subject their system to heavy strain, and thus lay bare its organic frailties. In all these campaigns, moreover, Japan enjoyed the great advantages of surprise and initiative and relative closeness to the intended scenes of action. She also profited from the hatred of the native peoples of those territories for their white imperialist masters. Thus these easy conquests of Japan were no more a test of the inherent strength of Japanese imperialism than the early victories of the Russian armies on the Austro-Hungarian front in the first World War were a test of the inherent strength of Czarism. In asserting that imperialist Japan was afflicted with the gravest maladies, Trotsky did not at all mean to imply that it had no strength at all and was incapable of winning battles. Yet this is what the petty-bourgeois revisionists seem to think. The main forces of the imperialist contenders in the Pacific have not yet been brought into the fray. The fighting now going on is in the nature of skirmishing for position. When the day comes that Japan is compelled to throw everything she has into the struggle, to defend the homeland from blockade and attack, all the debilitating diseases of Japanese society will make themselves felt. The longer the real showdown fight is delayed, the more explosively will these weaknesses assert themselves once that fight has started, for Japanese imperialism is now living on borrowed time and making the deepest inroads into her slender reserves. Wide fissures will open in Japan’s social structure. Military defeat and revolution will follow.

Trotsky’s Analysis Valid

Japan is economically weaker than either Russia or America,” wrote Trotsky back in 1933. This our analysis has proved to the hilt.

Japanese industry is incapable of assuring an army of several millions of arms and military supplies for a war of several years,” he declared. Trotsky obviously did not mean by this the type of war which Japan later waged in China, in which she was never under the necessity of mobilizing anything like her full resources. He meant the type of all-out war which Japan will be compelled in the nearest future to wage against combined American and British imperialism, either of which is by itself economically superior to Japan and which together form a coalition of strength which Japan does not even begin to match. Our analysis of the structure and defects of Japanese economy amply bears out Trotsky’s assertion.

The Japanese financial system cannot support the burden of military armaments even in time of peace,” Trotsky told us. It was done, however, at the cost of terrible inflation and social distress, economic dislocation, a virtual stoppage of all national development, and the accompanying danger of social revolution, more imminent today than ever before.

The Japanese soldier, as a whole, isn’t good enough for the new technology and the new tactics of war,” Trotsky wrote. Let us consider: What can be the mechanical aptitude of Japan’s soldiers taken as a whole when they are drawn from a country where primitive agriculture prevails, and where a great part of industry is represented by the small factory and domestic workshop in which even a small motor is a rarity and mechanical tools the same; a country which possesses but one automobile to every 800 members of the population; a country where in general there is no widespread use of mechanical devices which could have created the elements of a skill among millions of people in the handling of all the complicated instruments of modern war? And what about the physical condition of the soldier, a by no means inconsiderable factor in weighing the stamina of the Japanese fighter? Decades and generations of the cruellest privation have made of the Japanese a C-3 nation. In his book Japan Defies the World, published in 1938, James A.B. Scherer, who lived many years in Japan, reported:

On the physical side the Japanese recruit is beginning to show alarming results from undernourishment as a child at home, and from overstrain at school. The army has recently published figures revealing that tuberculosis has increased nearly twenty times since 1890, there being now twenty-four tuberculosis cases in every thousand.

A Tokyo publication, Contemporary Japan, in its issue of September, 1936, gave the highly significant information that “for various reasons, forty percent of those examined (for the army) in 1935 had to be rejected. Equally significant is the fact that only a few short years ago the minimum height for recruits was reduced from 5 ft. 1 in. to 4 ft. 10½ ins. in order to get enough men. Long years of malnutrition and semi-starvation have stunted the Japanese people and left them physically debilitated. Trotsky was indubitably right: “The Japanese soldier, as a whole, isn’t good enough for the new technology and the new tactics of war.” The assertion will receive dramatic confirmation in the events now unfolding in the Pacific war theater.

Finally, Trotsky declared that: “The Japanese people are strongly hostile to the government. The disunited nation could not be united by the aims of conquest.” The hostility of the masses to the Japanese ruling class and its government has been demonstrated over and over again. the brutal repressions, the unremitting hunting down of persons believed harboring “dangerous thoughts,” the suppression of labor unions and political parties – all are eloquent testimony to the acuteness of class antagonisms. Thus far, one must assume, hatred of the exploiters has not been extended to include the “divine” monarchy which, together with a parliament which always was a caricature of western parliamentary institutions, crowns the structure of imperialist rule. The corrupt parliament was thoroughly discredited long ago.

For a lengthy period during the Shogunate, the Japanese emperors were exiles in their own land. In the Restoration of 1868 the rising merchant class in alliance with the anti-Tokugawa feudal clans, restored the emperor as an absolute ruler who deigned to “grant” the Constitution of 1889 (patterned, incidentally, after the rigid constitution of Bismarck’s Prussia). These early forerunners of the imperialist bourgeoisie consciously fostered the idea of the theocratic and patriarchal emperor, hoping thereby to effect a “national unity” from above, rather than by fundamental reforms from below. It has not worked. The myth of the “divine” emperor, which is embraced in Shinto, the official state religion, has little real hold in the popular mind. For example, Professor Embree, an eminent authority on Japanese village life, tells us that the Shinto shrine “enters but slightly into the everyday life of the Japanese villagers – which means more than half the population. The inhabitants of Tokyo are virtually compelled to bow low when they pass in the neighborhood of the Imperial Palace, and to do obeisance when the emperor rides forth on ceremonial occasions. soldiers in the field must also, on national holidays, turn their faces in the direction of the Imperial Palace and bow down in reverence.

How much real belief there is in the emperor’s “divinity” and/or benevolence it is impossible to determine. That many follow the cult of emperor-worship is hardly to be doubted. Also not to be doubted is the great value of this cult to the parasitic ruling class, in that it tends to keep the people submissive. nevertheless, emperor-worship – even if general – and national unity are not one and the same thing. the class struggle is very real. this much can be said with absolute certainty: When the masses discover the connection between the monarchy and their exploiters; when they learn, as did the Russian masses in their time, that the monarchy is simply a ruling-class device for keeping them docile and “loyal,” the last dyke against social revolution in Japan will have been breached.



1. This is the third and final article in the series. The previous two articles will be found in the February and March issues of Fourth InternationalEd.


Last updated on 20.3.2005