Sen Katayama

Economic Condition of Japan

(November 1922)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol 2 No. 98, 13 November 1922, pp. 785–787.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive

Japan is a mountainous country, about the size of the British Isles; arable land therefore forms a very small portion.

At the present time we have about 3,000,000 cho of cultivated land – patti fields – and of sterile land 3,000,000 cho. (One cho – 2.45 acres.) This arable land is divided into 4,845,000 parcels and is cultivated by 5,481,000 families. Japanese farmers have very small farms; there are nearly 2,000,000 families who cultivate only ¼ of an acre, 1,800,000 families who cultivate ½ acre, l,000,000 who cultivate 1–2 acres, and 4,890 families who cultivate 2 acre farms.

Recently, industry has become quite prosperous, and, in one sense, Japan has been rapidly becoming an industrial country. Fifty years ago, there were no railways and hardly any steamers, no machine shops, and no steam power used. But today we have many factories and 6,000 miles of railway, factory workers alone number 2,000,000 including small workshops, but the so-called proletariat or city workers numbers over 5,000,000.

The last government census gives the number of city inhabitants as over 10,000,000 out of an entire population of 56,000,000.

Our textile industry is the best developed in Japan and employs 7–800,000 people. The war brought Japanese economic conditions into a very unstable state, because during the war, Japanese industry was prosperous and workers were recruited from all over the country. Europe was cut off from export trade, and Japan was the supplier of goods along the Pacific isles and other Asiatic countries and exported to the European Allies. But with the end of the war, Japanese industry suffered a crash.

At the present time there are said to be over 800,000 unemployed. This increases daily on account of the reduction of armaments and the depression of industry. But the national expenditure has been growing. Twenty years ago it was only 200,000,000 yen, but the national budget today is 600,000,000 yen. Out of this nearly 45–50% is expended on armaments, and this abnormal expenditure almost brought Japan to the point of bankruptcy.

The Japanese economic condition is just now in its most critical stage because of the big financial and industrial crisis of 1920 which was followed by depression of industry and commerce and there is hardly any hope in the future of industry recovering to the position in which it once stood. In spite of this, and in spite of the reduction of the army and navy, the Japanese government finances are not much reduced. There is still a big budget of over 400,000,000 yen. The government is attempting retrenchment, but, it is unable to do so on account of the difficult circumstances prevailing In order to reduce the army, 6,000 officers must be dismissed, each receiving 5 years salary in advance, so that even the reduction of officers can’t help very much. 50,000 government employees are to be dismissed; they will demand at least 2 years wages, but it is hardly possible that the government will grant this.

For this reason, labor troubles are growing, even in the government factories, but the government continues dismissing workers, in a high-handed manner. Many factories are entirely closed, and the number of unemployed is increasing. The Japanese eat mostly rice, and the price of rice influences the price of other goods. Usually 6,000,000 koku of rice are imported from China or some other Asiatic country.

The government put an import duty on rice, which means that all big landlords are profiting through high prices. It would seem that the high price of rice ought to be profitable to the farmers too, but in reality it is not so. The majority of farmers cultivate only ½ or 1 acre of land, and they are compelled to sell their crop as soon as it is gathered; the cheapest selling price prevails at that time; the price of fertilizers is very high, and since the Japanese farmer plants rice each year on the same land, it is necessary to use some artificial fertilizer in order to get any kind of a crop. Taking all this into consideration, the average farmer is poor and exploited. Only the big landowners who do not cultivate the soil, but exploit their tenant farmers, reap profits: Out of 5,000,000 farming families, 1,500,000 are tenants and 2,150,000 employed as agricultural workers.

The farmer’s condition is acute; he has to sell during harvest time and therefore receives a very low price for his rice, the big landlord sells whenever rice is high; he can afford to wait a few months.

Japanese city workers are also exploited, as there is always an increasing number of workers, enabling the employers to pick and choose. The sons of the farmers all come to the city to get jobs, and the increasing population always supplies fresh “hands” for the city factories.


The city worker suffers a great deal on account of high rents. All the city houses are over-crowded, and the house owners keep on demanding higher rents in spite of the times through which the country is passing.

In all respects the Japanese economic life is in a very bad plight. No improvement in industry and agriculture is undertaken. Hardly anybody gives it a thought, because Japan spends so much on unproductive armaments.

A radical change must take place in Japan, otherwise it will be faced with bankruptcy. The Japanese people are also awakening, and demanding radical changes in regard to taxation and expenditures. Recently the cry was heard for the reduction of armaments and increase of funds for education, agricultural and industrial improvements.

The Labor Movement

The number of proletarians in Japan increased greatly during the war, for during that time Japanese industry made a big step forward. But the metal workers, textile workers, and miners have been increasing in numbers for the last 40 years. For instance, we have nearly 700,000 miners. Of these about 400,000 are coal miners. Coal was never mined in Japan before the introduction of Western civilization within the last 30 – 40 years.

The proletariat is inexperienced in the industrial field. Western industry is quite different from Japanese, with the exception, perhaps, of mining. For this reason the proletarian had to learn in his field of industry, and acquire his own technique. For a long time the Japanese were much occupied in learning how to use the steam-hammer, to run railroads, how to use electric excavating machines in the mines, etc. Consequently, they had very little time to work for their economic and social betterment. The capitalists knew also how to establish industry and commerce according to the western method, and how to exploit the proletariat by many different methods adopted from the western countries.

The government took care to protect the employers against the workers. This was the condition of the Japanese proletariat until recent years. It had no chance even to attempt to better its conditions.

The labor movement in Japan is very young. It really started from the great rice riots which were undertaken by the poor people in general. This movement was taken up by the industrial workers in the form of strikes, and the number of strikes has been steadily increasing, both in number and in demands from the employers. Some strikes developed into great destructive riots against the employers, but almost all were crushed by the gendarmes and military.

In Japan a strike is a crime, and a striker is deemed a criminal. Accordingly, the police may arrest all strikers and put them into prison – usually for 6 months.

Organization of trade unions is practically prohibited, but the workers have been carrying ou strikes and organizing themselves into unions in spite of the law and the police force and government suppression. This has been especially the case since the creation of the International Labor Bureau. Being a member of the League of Nations, Japan was requested to send a representative. The International Labor Bureau provides that each country send its representatives, hence the government cannot completely ignore the workers, and labor organizations of some sort must be recognized.

At the first Labor Congress held in Washington in 1920, the government manipulated, and itself appointed the labor representative from Japan. This roused the ire even of the petty bourgeois labor representatives.

Since then, the workers have been steadily organizing and their labor unions are growing. Japanese trade unions follow the western way of organization; some are organized as craft unions, and others as industrial unions. But, although the Japanese labor unions are of recent origin, they nave not yet developed into petty bourgeois unions. Instead of resorting to petty bourgeois leadership, the Japanese labor movement has become more radical and revolutionary, perhaps because of the revolutionary spirit that has developed in the western countries and is extending all over the world!

Japanese trade unions have usually been organized as the result of a strike. Some have originated because a strike was a failure and the workers have recognized that without united action they would never win their demands. In other cases, because of the victory of the strike. The latter cases are more common than the former. Japanese strikes are somewhat different from Western strikes. Japanese strikes usually break out without any strong, open trade unions, but most of them have been successfully conducted by secret organizations. Strike funds are non-existent. Money is collected for the most needy strikers from workers and by public subscription.

In recent times, strikes have assumed a more radical and revolutionary character. Street battles between the military and strikers are every-day occurrences.

For instance, the Kobe dockyard strike of last year was a typical Japanese strike. The workers in two of the biggest shipyards in the country went on strike simultaneously. The number of employees of the two dockyards Kawasaka and Mitzubishi was about 40,000. Their union is really insignificant, but they all went on strike, not one remaining at work, they were out for nearly a month and a half, and the striking spirit had to be kept up daily by propaganda. The strikers could not all be assembled at “one meeting place”, they had mre than 30 meetings in Kobe and Hiogo. Many days were occupied in street demonstrations, which ended in street fights with the police forces. At least 3 persons lost their lives.

The labor leaders kept up a wonderful spirit during the 6 weeks strike of 40,000 workers. It was all done by propaganda and public meetings and street demonstrations. All agitators are compelled to act secretly, otherwise they are arrested and kept under lock for 24 hours. As soon as they are released, they are allowed a few minutes freedom, when they are again arrested, and put into jail for 24 hours. In this way some labor leaders have been held for weeks. Some 260 agitators were arrested and kept in prison until the end of the strike. According to law, it is not permitted to retain them for more than 24 hours, but by using the above-described method, this regulation may be practiced as may times as the policy authorities please, there is no restriction against this.

As the government became more and more oppressive, the strikers became more unruly and resorted to all sorts of tactics. Finally, of course, the strike was simply crushed by national troops. But the strike had been so skillfully conducted, that the workers emerged from if much stronger than before – as organized trade unionists.

Japanese labor union tactics consist not only of strikes; the workers also resort to sabotage, which is peculiar to Japanese conditions. Open and well-organized sabotage of a whole factory is well-known in Japan. I can give one very good incident of sabotage. It was in 1920, in the Kobe Kawasaki docks where over 16,000 workers are employed. After these had failed to get their demands by a strike, they came together and voted for sabotage. The 800 horse power electric current was reduced to 400, and all the work of the factory went on in proportion. All the workers reported each morning for duty, but things seemed not to move at all. This continued for 10 days, when they conferred as to whether to continue the sabotage or not, for the company showed no signs of yielding. The unanimous vote was for the continuation of the strike. This sabotage was the first in Japan which had been carried on in such an open way. Finally they were successful, the company yielded to almost all their demands. The saboteurs even received wages for the days they produced nothing. Since then, sabotage has been quite a popular means for bettering the lot of the Japanese worker. Strikers can be arrested, but what is to be done when the workers are quite peaceful and orderly, and yet carry on a more effective strike than the usual kind? The police can’t go into the factories and arrest them, nor can a whole factory-full of workers be dismissed. Sabotage is a much better method than a strike. Sabotage keeps the workers together all the day; a strike scatters them to their different homes. In the factory, it is much easier to keep up agitation and the “sabotaging spirit” against the employer. Of course, the company does all it can to break the sabotage, but what can a few engineers and foremen do against a mass of workers? If one or two workers were slack, these could be dismissed, but when the whole factory is idle, which worker can you dismiss and which leave in the factory? The Kawaskaki sabotage was successful, and has been followed since by other factories and even street-railways, as happened in Tokio and Osaka.

Sabotage is one of the tactics of the Japanese labor movement and is successfully used until today. The Japanese labor movement being revolutionary, this often leads to destructive sabotage. We have many records of strikes ending in destruction of machines and factories, and many workers being arrested, some of whom are still serving in prisons today.

For instance, in one factory of 300 workers which had been on strike tor a month without the company yielding, the police guard about the factory became lax owing to the apparently peaceful and tame attitude of the strikers. This chance was utilized by the strikers, and one night, when the police were absent they broke into the factory and destroyed everything they mould lay their hands on, leaving the factory an absolute wreck. They all escaped through the back entrance before the police returned.

The effect of this strike was remarkable. Soon afterwards all sabotage strikes were won and the employing class was terror-stricken, and strikes were won, one after another.

Step by step the Japanese labor movement has been growing more radical in its manner of strike and strike demands. As a consequence, the workers are awakening to class-consciousness. The Japanese labor movement is a fighting movement, and the workers involved in the strikes – no matter if the strike is a success or not – come to realize that without organization, class-conscious organization, they will not gain anything whatever from the capitalists.

Last updated on 3 December 2020