The Labor Movement in Japan by Sen Katayama (1918)

Chapter 2
A Period of Success

Eighteen months after we had begun the labor movement in Japan our experiences assured us that our prospects were very good. The Iron Workers' Union organized on December 1, 1897, and R. R. Engineers' and Firemens' Union, organized in March, 1898, were in a flourishing condition, both with a growing membership. The year just closed was the most fruitful one for the labor movement in Japan.

Every one connected with the movement had a firm faith in the great future of the working class and all worked with courage and enthusiasm. Two of our leaders settled in Kobe and started a similar movement in that city. One of these was a shoemaker by trade who had been in America for some time. He was a good labor agitator and now worked at Kobe for the movement.

At Tokyo labor meetings were held regularly in various parts of the city and its vicinity. To all came increasing audiences. Subscribers to the Labor World were increasing steadily, this being the only organ of the working class that gave any information about the new labor movement abroad. It was, in fact, the sole organ of labor propaganda. It attempted to educate the working class in general. Our working class was then very eager for any new knowledge and they were not slow to act on an idea when they got hold of it.

Propaganda on the subject of co-operatives for half a year or more in public meetings and in the columns of the Labor World, resulted in many co-operative distributive stores, organized and conducted by members of different unions.

In July (1898) the Labor World published a report on eleven co-operative stores. The total paid up shares of these unions amounted to 7,620 yen, an aggregate monthly business of 7,497 yen and a total membership of 1,346. One of the eleven stores still exists today at Omiya where a great railway workshop is located.

Five years ago this co-operative union built a large club house with an auditorium which has a seating capacity of over one thousand persons and which is used for theatrical performances. This store has been of great benefit to the people of Omiya as well as to the workers. Although the labor union was crushed a few years later, this co-operative store survived and has been flourishing ever since. On account of the co-operative store, retail prices of foodstuffs and other necessaries have always been cheaper here than in adjoining towns.

But to return to the labor unions. Thus far we had been comparatively free from any government interference in our work except that we could not parade in the streets or hold open air meetings. Occasionally the police attempted to stop a labor meeting, but this did not interfere with our agitation to any great extent. On the contrary, slight police interference at our meetings gave them an impetus and public sympathy was on our side.

But a strong and utterly unjust discrimination was made against us in January, 1899, when the Iron Workers' Union gave their first anniversary celebration at Uyeno Park. The government suddenly dissolved the meeting, although we possessed a permit issued to us from the park authority, which means from the Imperial household, the park belonging to this administration.

This high-handed suppression was carried out by applying an old law copied from Prussia.

The authorities were attempting to obstruct the growth of the labor movement, but so far there was no actual law to apply to them, so that we carried on a lively work of education and propaganda for several years. Even police interference was utilized to our advantage by the agitators.

To the Japanese workers then a strike means an effective weapon with which to secure their due demands. In fact, in most instances they got what they wanted by striking for it.

Our history of feudalism shows in abundant cases that tenant farmers secured an adjustment of their grievances against their lords or their officers by means of riots. Riots in Japan during feudalism played a very important part for reform and for the progress of the working class. In the same way our workers use strikes today as a direct weapon to better their conditions.

In March of 1899 the plasterers reorganized their old guild into a new union under the leadership of Mr. Sukenobu Ota, who had been an able labor leader in his trade guild for more than half a century. The Plasterers' Union had then 2,600 members.

Beside the Japanese unions already mentioned, such as the ship carpenters, stone masons, etc., there were others who followed the example of the former unions. The Labor World, in an issue of August 1, 1900, printed the following union items:

The Cargo Boats' Union has. 2,000 sailors as members who work on 500 boats. The owners of boats supply medical and some benefit funds.

Sangiyo Kumiai is the name of the dockers' union in the Bay of Tokyo and has a membership of 400.

There are two unions for men who work in the wharfs with a total membership of 1,800.

There are two dockers' unions besides Sangiyo Kumiai, one consisting of workers on ship-board and the other on the wharfs. The former has 3,000 members and the latter 1,000."

This shows that the labor movement was then well advertised throughout the country and that the workers in every trade felt the need of having their own union.

The Printers' Union of Tokyo attempted to work out its own problems by different tactics than those employed by the iron and railway workers. From its very inception this union advocated the so-called identity of interests of capital and labor. To clearly illustrate its attitude:

The union elected Mr. Soburo Shimada, M.P., as its president, because they considered him a friend of both capital and labor. The Printers' Union adopted this policy in order to accomplish its ends and in fact, they received the ardent support of the professors of the Imperial University of Tokyo. They were even given a splendid feast on the celebration of the founding of the Printers' Union on November 3, 1899, at the Tokyo Y.M.C.A. Hall. This union claimed to have a membership of 2,000.

At this time the university professors and their followers, encouraged by the friendly attitude toward them of the Printers' Union, inaugurated a sort of social reform movement under the name of Social Reformism. These university men were influenced largely by German ideas. They advocated pure and simple reforms, based on the present capitalist society. With them we held heated discussions at public meetings and also in the pages of the magazines. The majority of the workers sided with the attitude taken by the Iron Workers' Union and the editors of the Labor World.

From the beginning of the year 1899, the Labor World had been giving a special column in every issue to the discussion of Socialism. Before that time it had, from time to time, reported events in the Socialist movement abroad, but now we thought it time to educate the workers on the aims and principles of Socialism.

In November of the same year there had appeared in Osaka a labor paper called The Osaka Weekly. It advocated Socialism outright as the only solution of the labor problems. It was owned and edited by Mr. Kentaro Oi, the veteran of a prominent liberal movement before 1890, when the liberals were demanding a national constitution and a parliament. But the Osaka Weekly failed soon on account of lack of means and support from the workers.

Eighteen hundred and ninety-nine was very prosperous year for our movement. I made two trips to the northeast along the Nippon railway lines, first in the spring and again in the autumn, both in the capacity of secretary of the Iron Workers' Union, with gratifying success. Every branch of the Iron Workers' Union was in the best condition and there was little or no trouble for the labor movement. In Tokyo a Cooks' Union and in Yokohama a Furniture Makers' Union were organized during that year under the direct auspices of the Labor World and its editor.

Socialism a Popular Polilcy of the Day

The year nineteen hundred dawned with even brighter prospects for the Socialist and labor movement of Japan. The public in general had become very much interested in Socialism and especially in social reform. Count Itagaki, the founder of the liberal movement in Japan and one of the leaders in the revolution of 1866, founded a reform club called the Doki Club, based on Socialist principles. At the cities of Wakayama and Omiya, both industrial cities, a labor club was established for the education and amusement of the workers. Dr. Ukichi Taguchi, M. P., editor and proprietor of the Tokyo Economist, who is a recognized leader of the school of "laissez faire" economists, came out as an ardent advocate of the principles of the single tax and severely attacked the landlords.

The rising interest in and the eager discussion of social reforms came at this time as a reaction to capitalist injustices and the utter cruelty of the capitalist classes toward workingmen and women. To give a few examples:

In June, 1899, at the Hokoku Colliery, Kiushiu, 207 miners were buried alive and permitted to be burned to death in order to save the mining properties. A little later thirty-one young spinning girls were burned to death in a dormitory of the spinning company. After working sixteen hours a day these girls are locked up in the dormitories, to which doors and windows are fastened on the outside to prevent the girls from escaping from their jobs. When the fire broke out at one o'clock in the dormitory where the tragedy occurred, the poor worn-out girls were unable to escape. Those who jumped from the windows were maimed or killed and the others were all burned to death. Again forty workmen were killed on the Nippon R.R. line on account of the utter neglect in supervising the bridge at Howoki.

These and many other disasters occurring in various industries throughout the country awakened the public into a conscious or unconscious indignation. These joined in protest against capitalist brutalities. Consequently the policy adopted by the Labor World were largely approved by the public.


In the spring session of the Imperial Diet, 1900, a bill was passed and enacted immediately. The law is entitled the Public Peace Police Law. It proved to be the death knell to all phases of the labor movement, because it prevented the working class from organizing themselves into unions. The law practically prohibits the industrial working classes as well as the tenant farmers from agitating in their own interests and against the employers and landlords.

To attempt to enlist others in a movement to raise wages, shorten hours of labor or to lower land rents was declared a crime against the peace and order of society. And later the law was interpreted to mean that all labor movements were a crime!

In the same session a co-operative law was voted upon. But on account of the Public Peace Police Law the workers were never able to utilize the co-operative law.

The very oppressive features of the Police Law against the working classes caused these classes and their friends to feel an urgent need of obtaining universal suffrage in Japan. With this purpose we organized an Association for Universal Suffrage. Many prominent men came into the association. The Tokyo Barbers' Union and the Nippon R.R. Workers' Union joined. But all the suffrage movement ever achieved was the passage of a Universal Suffrage Bill in the lower house. The bill was killed in the House of Peers.

Meanwhile, we preached Socialism at the workingmen's meetings, perhaps with more zeal and enthusiasm than we showed for trade unionism, and this was altogether a new subject, although at the same time the oppressive measures against the working class adopted by the government gave our cause a great and convincing impetus. These measures impelled us to agitate among these workers for Socialist politics.

There was then more freedom of speech for labor and Socialist politics at public meetings than there was freedom on the subject of trade unions, strikes and the boycott, since the latter were directly concerned with the existing industries of the country. This being the situation we gradually educated the Japanese workers in Socialism for several years. The following was perhaps the first direct result of our propaganda.

The Nippon R.R. Workers' Union, at its annual meeting, held in the city Mito, in March, 1901, voted a resolution proclaiming that Socialism is the only ultimate solution of the labor problems, and instructed its executive committee to join the Universal Suffrage movement.


The clear stand on Socialism taken by the Nippon R. R. Workers' Union in this resolution and many other signs of the times convinced us that our workers were fairly well prepared for political action, so on May 20th, 1901, after deliberation and consultation at the headquarters of the Iron Workers' Union for a few weeks, we formed a Socialist party which we called the Social Democratic Party. At the same time we published a Socialist Manifesto and a Party Platform. The original members of the party were: D. Kotoku, I. Abe, N. Kinoshita, K. Kawakami, K. Nishikawa and myself.

Our Manifesto was printed in four daily papers and in the Labor World at Tokyo and in one country daily. The party was suppressed by the government. But for the first time Socialism was widely advertised, making a very strong impression on the people because of the widespread publicity given our Manifesto in the four big Tokyo dailies. The trials of the editors who published the Manifesto in their respective papers gave the subject still further publicity throughout the country.

With this splendid advertising of Socialism to encourage them, the six members of the suppressed Social Democratic Party turned their energies into a Socialist educational and propaganda campaign with increased vigor and enthusiasm.

We formed a non-political organization, called Shakai Shugi Kyokai (Socialist Association). Under this name we held Socialist meetings, of course, charging admission. Slowly but steadily our members increased and soon these began to take part in the meetings.

At the time that propaganda for a pure and simple trade union movement was more and more severely dealt with by the authorities, our labor politics and Socialist agitation had comparative freedom and was rather popular among the people. The Niroku, a penny daily, published a series of articles on Socialism which lasted for two weeks. The articles were written by Comrade Isowa Abe, one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party.

Even the big bourgeois dailies like the Jiji, gave us notices for our Socialist meetings while others mentioned these in their news columns. This apparently friendly attitude, of the press in general, tho it may have been based on business motives and a desire for greater circulation, nevertheless helped us much in our propaganda. To give one instance:

With the co-operation of the Iron Workers' Union, whose secretary I was, the said Niroku, whose owner and manager was a personal friend of mine, announced in its columns a working men's social meeting, to be held at Mukoshima Park on the 3rd of April, 1901, one of the four Japanese national holidays. To this meeting some fifty thousand workingmen applied for admission, paying a fee of 20 sen. Six thousand members of the Iron Workers were enlisted. The gathering was announced prohibited by the government, but the Niroku insisted on holding the meeting and, after much discussion, the government consented to permit a meeting of not over five thousand persons. The government claimed that it could not muster over five thousand police and could not, for this reason, permit a larger attendance at the park.

Niroku devised a scheme to meet the situation by announcing that the number admitted would be limited to five thousand - first come first served. Every one of the fifty thousand wanted to be one of the first-comers.

This was an exciting day in the history of the labor movement. Many came to the park the previous evening and remained there all night. When morning came there were already more than the allotted number present and when the meeting opened there were from thirty to forty thousand people present.

The police force was powerless before the peaceful mass demonstration. The assemblage voted a resolution demanding a factory law, universal suffrage, and made other demands. The meeting was a great success in every way. It seemed that for that day at least the working classes of Japan realized their own power. This meeting was followed by other meetings throughout Japan in the course of a month or so. But the government deemed these dangerous to the country, for never again to this very day has it permitted the holding of vast meetings. It must indeed have felt itself powerless before the mass action of the working class!

Immediately after the suppression of the Social Democratic Party, the Yorozu, a popular daily paper in Tokyo, started to organize a party. It was called the Ideal Association (Risodan), a sort of liberal reform club containing a great part of the Socialist program. In the Yorozu Comrades Kotoku and Sakai were the principal writers: The public was under the impression that the Yorozu would take up the work of the suppressed Social Democratic Party, but after a few years this expectation died out.

When the war with Russia became imminent in the autumn of 1903, the Yorozu assumed an extreme jingoistic stand, which caused Comrades Kotoku and Sakai to leave the daily.

The growing interest in the Socialist movement shown by the success of meetings and the increased circulation of the Labor World, made us feel the necessity of enlarging the paper and in the summer of 1901, we announced that it would be changed into a daily with the issue of the coming December number, which would be the last of the first one hundred issues which had appeared. The paper had been a bimonthly.

With this end in view we asked the workers to pay one year subscription in advance, Y 2.40. Our request met with ready response and we received a large number of subscriptions in advance. After about eight months of preparation, on January 1st, 1902, we sent out the first number of the first Socialist daily paper appearing in Japan.

The free use of the Iron Workers' Headquarters was given us, the second floor being given over to editorial and composing rooms. Our office occupied the first floor front and in the back rooms the paper was printed. The daily was chiefly supported by the working class. Comrades Abe, Kotoku, Kawakami, Kinoshita and many others helped by contributing articles. Financially I was wholly responsible for the paper. It cost just one thousand dollars to get types, machines and other necessary equipment.

The paper came out for just two months. At that time the city newsdealers (twenty-one) monopolized the entire business of selling and distributing papers and they wanted to charge outrageously high prices for our paper, so that it was utterly impossible for us to place the paper at the door of each subscriber every morning. Moreover, the lack of business experience more than anything else caused us many difficulties in spite of the hearty sympathy and support of the working class, particularly of the Iron Workers' Union.

Besides my own health was broken down on account of overwork and I had to seek a warmer climate than chilly Tokyo to regain it. These circumstances compelled us to give up the daily with great loss to me and to the cause of labor and of Socialism. We thought it best to cease publication at once and to continue the propaganda work in some form in oder to renew publication in the near future.