The Labor Movement in Japan by Sen Katayama (1918)

Chapter 1
Its Background

Foreigners who visit Japan often claim that Japan's recent progress, however remarkable, is a superficial one, is skin-deep, a mere adoption of western civilization. They say there is no real development and progress, but merely an imitation of the West.

Thus saying, they tried to discredit the present achievements of the Japanese and reached the conclusion that the Japanese are inferior to the western peoples, stimulating in this way the anti-Japanese movement among the white peoples.

To understand the real character and feelings of a present-day Japanese worker, however, it is necessary to know something about his past, the background leading into feudal times. Feudalism in Japan would be a most interesting study in itself, because Japanese feudalism has a unique history of many centuries ending after the time of the American Civil war. It enjoyed a peaceful life of activities and developments for three centuries. During these years Japan shut herself off from all outside influences and civilizations.

Hers was an independent life and she created a unique and a genuine Japanese civilization. Class lines were drawn quite sharply and distinctly. Farmers, artisans and merchants, each enjoyed life in peaceful development. The study of these classes is illuminating, but our aim is to show that some of the good qualities possessed by the Japanese workers were developed during feudal times. Here we will speak only of the artisan class of that period in order to illustrate that the present working classes have their roots and history in the past however much they may appear to differ from the Japanese working class of to-day.

During the days of Japanese feudalism the artisan class made very good progress. Their products are of great value to the present generations and beautify not only the civilization and life of Japan, but museums and art galleries in the West.

In some of the old crafts, organized into guilds, our artisans have devised ingenious means to protect their interests against the masters and also against outsiders. One of the most interesting guilds is that of the wood sawyers. The Woodsawyers' Guild of Tokyo includes master sawyers, journeymen and apprentices. All the journeymen must serve first as an apprentice, regardless of his skill. Wages were dependent upon and regulated by the prices of rice.

Rice has been, and is still, the chief food of the Japanese. Its price regulated all the other necessities of life in the past: Another requirement of the guild was that each member should pay to his employer a small percentage of his wages, for the use of the lumber yard. This nominal payment gave him an exclusive right to work in the lumber yard and the owner could not employ any outsider. Thus the sawyers' guild attained a perfect closed shop, in the modern sense; also a wage scale based on the price of rice.

The miners' guild is far more extensive and thoroughgoing in its organization. It was communistic and it included miners of all Japan and of all kinds of mines. After a miner worked for three years the guild issued to him a membership card or scroll and this membership entitled him to seek a job in any mine in the country. And this institution still holds at the present day.

Wherever the miner goes he is treated as a comrade and a guest by the working miners. He may work, if there is work, at any mine, or he may remain in the hope of securing work. If he prefers to try his luck at other places he receives a sufficient allowance from his fellow miners to reach the next mine.

When an old miner quits his job on account of his age, or when a miner is crippled in some accident, he is authorized by the guild to collect from all the miners throughout the country. Each mine is an independent and self-governing unit of the one great guild.

The miner thus authorized in one mine will be allowed by all other mines to collect benefits amounting today to from one to two thousand yen, according to his standing. For this institution still holds at the present day.

During the feudal period our miners had entire underground as their exclusive jurisdiction and their own territories. None but miners might enter there. Besides the miners received the best wages, which is shown by a Japanese idiom - Kanayama Shotai - to describe their pay. This phrase means luxurious living or Epicureanism.

The miners called each other "brother." Their mutual relations were most warm and cordial. All the bachelors, or single men, lived a communistic life. They could travel all over Japan without any difficulty. Of course, they possessed defects and shortcomings, being the products of their own age, but theirs was a strong and well-regulated guild. Each and all miners benefited by it.

But the miners of feudal times were considered, in the eyes of the public, to be the most rough and dangerous members of society. No doubt they were outcasts in the public mind, for the mines were considered a refuge for criminals and outlaws. It is said in Japan that if a man is degraded enough to enter a mine, he is absolutely free from the grip of the law. It is true that in the feudal days there existed neither social intercourse nor sympathy between the miners and the people of Japan. But the miners of the old days were an orderly group.

The stone masons' guild is one of the most highly developed and best regulated of the Japanese labor organizations. They possessed a technical monopoly and were considered the most trustworthy artisans in the country. They always received the highest wages.

These are only a few examples. Each trade has had its own guild and a history of struggles common to all the working classes of the world. Each protected its own interest to the best of its own ability, but most of them were broken up by the coming industrial system under modern capitalism. Yet we can trace many good features existing today to the old organizations, particularly in the metal industries, in shipbuilding and in factories using the modern machine processes. The best Japanese workers today are the old blacksmiths who forged and wrought swords and plows, or those trained by them.

The very first Japanese factory was started by the feudal government and managed by the English. Those who went to work in the factory were the blacksmiths of that time. It was so with other industries.

Such is the background of our modern Japanese industry in which over one million factory workers are now employed. Fifty years ago there was no cotton mill in Japan; now there are one hundred and sixty-two cotton spinning factories, with nearly three million spindles and several hundred thousand young girls are working in the mills day and night.

Beginning of the Labor Movement

The modern labor movement in Japan may be said to have begun in the summer of 1897 after the war with China. For the first time in the history of Japan the industries had been prosperous on account of the war indemnity taken from China. The working class seemed to awaken. The workers were demanding an increase in wages owing to the increased cost of living. Many strikes were reported with varied successes and failures. The modern industrial system was a new experience in Japan so there was no legal restriction upon the labor movement or upon strikes.

This was shown by the fact that in six months we gained over two thousand members for the Rodo-Kumiai Kiseikai, a labor association organized for the purpose of forming trade unions. A majority of them were iron workers employed in the government's arsenal and the railway workshop at Shimbashi, Tokyo, and at the Yokohama dock and the Yokosuka navy yard.

Labor meetings were well attended and the topics discussed were the power of the unions, the strike and boycott, and above all we urged the necessity of organizing the working class. Our work was most pleasant during this period. The men from different factories talked to their fellow workers on the labor movement during meal time. Each week our membership increased. Each successive meeting was held with a larger attendance than before. Soon the labor meetings were arranged by the workers themselves. Three of us, Takano, a journalist, Sawada, a tailor and I often went to speak at these meetings and we found new speakers among the workers who were able to address these gatherings of their fellow workers.

Iron Workers' Union and the Labor World

On the 1st of December, 1897, the Iron Workers' Union was organized in Tokyo, with over one thousand members. This was the first trades union in Japan. Its constitution and by-laws were copied from those of the American trades unions. On the same day the first number of the Labor World was published, this being the sole organ of the labor movement. I was one of the secretaries of the Iron Workers' Union and editor of the Labor World.

This little journal had played a very important part in the Japanese labor movement. It contained one full page of labor news in English for the benefit of the foreign exchanges. The last number appeared December 21, in 1901, making just one hundred issues that had been published. It was enlarged to a daily on January 1, 1902. The tone and spirit of the labor movement at that time can be illustrated by a quotation from the Labor World:

The people are silent. I will be the advocate of this silence. I will speak for the dumb; I will speak for the despairing silent ones; I will interpret their stammerings; I will interpret the grumblings, murmurings, the tumults of the crowds, the complaints, the cries of men who have been so degraded by suffering and ignorance that they have no strength to voice their wrongs. I will be the word of the people. I will be the bleeding mouth from which the gag has been snatched. I will say everything.

The time for beginning the labor movement was auspicious, as is shown by the government report on strikes from June 20 to November 19, 1897.

Number of strikes29
Number of strikers3,768
Of men3,594
Of women184
Largest strike500
Smallest strike7
Suppressed by police12
Wages partially increased1
Strikes successful12
Partially successful6
Strike leaders dismissed28
Longest strike25 days
Shortest strike5 hours
Big Railway Strike

The year 1898 began with a great strike in the Nippon Railway Company, at that time the largest railway company in Japan. Its lines extend from Tokyo to Amori, a distance of over five hundred miles, forming two large circles. The company employed over ten thousand persons. Engineers and firemen numbered about 1,000. They were harshly dealt with by the company so they were dissatisfied with conditions. The company was ever watchful to prevent any one from organizing for better conditions. It promptly picked out the rebels and sent them to distant stations, often to a poorer climate and an isolated point. This was called "exile."

Between Morioka and Amori on the line there are two locomotive stations which are considered the worst points. At this time there were two or three dozen " exilers" at these stations. Every day they met and discussed the situation. On January, 1898, one of them addressed a letter to firemen and engineers of the entire lines. This letter stated their common grievances and demanded remedies.

The exiled firemen and engineers started to organize secretly, but some one betrayed the cause. At this the company immediately dismissed them. But already the letter had accomplished its intended aim and the dismissal of these ringleaders was the signal for a strike, which began on the 24th of February, 1898.

It lasted only a few days. The company complied with all the demands and the strike was a complete success to the workers, who had conducted the strike very skillfully, using a telegraphic code previously arranged. They accomplished the end sought without a leak. Encouraged by the success of this strike the railroad men formed a union and compelled the company to recognize it, establishing the closed shop.

The Labor World gives a record of fifteen strikes beside the one occurring on the Nippon Railroad during the year of 1898. In thirteen of these strikes 6,762 persons, including 150 girls, were involved. Besides the railroad workers 1,000 printers, 70 dyers and 65 furniture makers were organized and sixteen workingmens' cooperative distributive unions were organized, each with its own store.

These were mostly managed by iron workers and railroad workers who were members of the union. One productive, co-operative union was started by iron workers at Tokyo. In a few years the organization grew into a strong union of over a thousand members with about ten thousand yen in funds.

An indirect result of our labor movement so far, we had at least revived and reorganized two old guilds into a modern union, i. e., the ship carpenters' and wood sawyers' union. One had 1,500 members and the other 2,200. Both had conducted a successful strike during the year. The president of the ship carpenters' union, Mr. F. Saito, has joined the labor association and later became a good Socialist. I have often addressed the meetings of the Ship Carpenters' Union.

In the course of a few years all the unions gained more members than ever before. For instance, the Nippon Railroad Workers' Union accumulated 50,000 yen for a strike fund and 20,000 yen for benefit funds. It published its own monthly organ.

The Iron Workers' Union had enrolled 5,400 members at the end of four years and spent 8,000 yen for the sick and death benefits of members. The I.W.U. bought a house for their headquarters and the Labor World was used as the official organ of the union. If we include the unions revived and reorganized from the old guilds, we had at one time nearly twenty thousand union members.

This was before there were legal obstructions to labor organizations and we had a free hand in the labor movement. We were not, however, left much longer free to grow and to build up our movement. We soon felt the pressure of the government, although there were as yet no laws to directly suppress the labor movement. The first movement against us occurred in the spring of 189S upon the occasion of the Iron Workers' Union Cherry Blossom picnic, when the police authorities prohibited us from marching through the streets of Tokyo and enjoying ourselves at the Uyeno park like other people.

There was another event which we may look upon as an indirect result of the labor movement. The government prepared a factory bill with the intention of introducing it at the coming session of the Imperial Diet. The bill was sent to all the chambers of commerce of the land to get opinions on it. Then the bill was discussed at the meeting of the higher commercial and industrial commissions appointed by the government from a group of prominent persons in the country.

They discussed the bill and finally passed it in almost worthless amended skeleton form. But even in this form of so little use to labor, the bill was not introduced at the next Diet, because of the opposition of the big capitalists, including Baron Shibusswa, the present patron of the Yu-Ai-Kai Friendly Society; and it was laid on the table many years to come.

At the time of the discussion of the bill the Iron Workers' Union appointed a committee to draw up a note stating its desire for amendments to the bill and the committee was sent to call on the commissioners to urge the passage of the bill in the form suggested in the note. But this too came to nothing on account of capitalist opposition. It shows, however, that the Iron Workers' Union and the labor leaders had an active interest in factory regulations.

These checks, however, did not cause us to lose faith in the labor movement, but we vigorously continued our work for the cause of labor.