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International Socialism, Winter 1965/66


David Baker

The Trade Union Movement in Japan


From International Socialism, No. 23, Winter 1965/66, pp. 19–26.
Trnscribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Editors Introduction
by Nigel Harris

1. Industrialisation in Japan

Japan, as a late arrival on the industrial scene, developed a labour movement far behind that of other countries: in 1899, the number of Japanese employed in factories with ten or more operatives was 423,171 while, in the same year, there were four times as many Englishmen already belonging to trade unions. Pre-war union membership reached its peak of 420,000 in 1936, but this was only six per cent of all non-agricultural workers.

The primary reason for the slow growth of trade unions lay in the nature of Japan’s agrarian settlement. The destruction of feudal property relations resulted in a large-scale dispossession of the peasantry. However, the peasants were allowed to stay on their farms as tenants or part-tenants by the large landowners, who were not interested in developing farming into a capitalistic enterprise but, rather, in collecting rent.

The small landowner, unable to pay the land tax in bad years and plagued by the usurer, and the tenant, forced to take all the risks encountered in production and deprived of the profits by the high rent charged by the landlord, were always in a precarious position economically. Their situation was worsened considerably by an increasing birthrate. There was, therefore, a desperate need to find an outside supplement to the family income.

The need was, in part, met by the textile industry which sent its recruiters into the overpopulated countryside to sign up the daughters and, to a certain extent, the younger sons of the peasant families for work in the spinning plants. The labour turnover in the textile industry was usually between 40 and 60 per cent a year, since textile operatives, like a majority of the early labour force, considered their employment temporary and returned to the countryside at every opportunity. There, the Japanese feudal family system cared for them as best it could. This type of transient, unorganisable labour force prevailed until the First World War (WWI) and even today it remains an important feature of Japanese industrialism. There was also a small hard core of workers who were brought in as members-for-life of the new family-like enterprises (Zaibatsu), but union organisation here was rendered difficult by employer paternalism and/or despotism. (Actually, paternalism in its pure form was and is more characteristic of the small- and middle-sized enterprises and begins to grow over into despotism as increasing size makes the intimate personal relationships necessary for its successful operation impossible.)

Paternalism (coupled with enterprise unionism, which will be discussed later) is still the most important essentially Japanese factor contributing to trade-union weakness. In brief, it is a carryover from the feudal, family-type relationship between the master craftsman and his apprentices and workmen. The employer-father is responsible for the welfare and security of his worker-sons and they in return must be completely loyal, obedient and submissive. Such an attitude can still be found in small workshops employing less than ten workers. But paternalism was, and to a certain extent is today, also expressed in managerial policy at large factories employing thousands of workers. In the early period of industrialisation, long before the principles of ‘enlightened management’ had begun to influence Japanese employers, welfare measures like the discharge allowance, the semi-annual bonus and the voluntary granting of allowances to workers in cases of sickness, injury, marriage, child birth and death existed. Such acts, whether calculated or otherwise, were very important to the employers in their ideological battle with the trade unionists for working-class support.

2. Pre-War Trade Unionism

Paternalism, however, was not strong enough to prevent the formation of real trade unions in certain non-Zaibatsu industries. The most important of these unions were the Iron Workers’ Union, founded in 1897, and the Railway Engineers’ and Firemen’s Union, founded in 1898. By 1900, the former had 5,400 members and was supplying most of the finances for the Labour World, the labour movement’s first newspaper, and the latter was probably the most tightly disciplined union in Japan at the time. It had its origin in the famous strike against the Nippon Railway Company, which demonstrated that the railway workers were capable of a high degree of organisation, including the very ingenious use of a prearranged telegraphic code.

The first unions in Japan were industrial unions, but this pattern of organisation did not spread beyond a few of Japan’s more organisable industries, eg iron, maritime trades, land, transport and mines. First, the basic economic pattern for heavy industry was set by the Zaibatsu, whose huge agglomerations cut across rather than ran along industrial lines. Second, despotic paternalism in almost all enterprises helped to foster enterprise consciousness rather than industry or class consciousness and the young trade-union movement never grew strong enough to challenge it seriously. Paternalism itself, of course, was one of the causes of trade-union weakness, but it was not the major one and could never have triumphed over the trade-union movement in general and industrial unionism in particular if there had not been a third factor, government repression. In 1900, the Imperial Diet enacted the Public Peace Police Law which, in effect, prohibited the industrial workers and the tenant farmers from organising themselves into unions. This was the beginning of a twelve-year period of systematic suppression of the labour movement. During this period, many of the union activists, most of them intellectuals from well-to-do families, began to concentrate their energy on campaigns to popularise socialism among the working class, but this often meant neglecting the fallen unions. As a result, the workers were totally unprepared to wage an organised struggle for better conditions of employment and their discontent burst out in undisciplined riots which were crushed by government troops (1906 and 1907).

The trade-union movement did not revive until after WWI. With the growth of heavy industry accompanying the WWI boom, more and more workers found themselves in a permanent wage-earner status. In 1921, the Japan Labour Federation (Nihon Rodo Sodomei, or Sodomei) was formed. Two years later it had a membership of 100,000 in 300 unions. Through the 1930s, even though the government constantly interfered, union membership continued to increase. However, it never reached more than eight per cent of the industrial work force. Although numerical weakness, especially in the face of the increasing power of Japan’s rapidly developing police state, made working-class unity the order of the day, the upper-class intellectuals who held most of the positions of leadership in Sodomei wasted much time and energy debating which foreign ideology (business unionism, Fabianism, syndicalism or Marxism) should guide the trade-union movement. By 1926 Sodomei had split into three, a Left, a Right and a Centre federation.

The ruling class, of course did its best to widen the split by giving concessions to the moderates and suppressing the radicals. In 1937, the Left-wing federation was declared illegal. Meanwhile, the Right (still called Sodomei) and the Centre had already begun to capitulate. As early as 1934, Sodomei had opted for union-management cooperation and in 1937 renounced resort to strikes. In 1940, with Sodomei’s full cooperation, the government established its own ‘labour front,’ the Patriotic Industrial Association (Sangyo Hokokukai) or ‘Sampo,’ and the trade-union movement disappeared. The causes, then, of the labour movement’s failure to prevent the rise of fascism in Japan can be summarised briefly as follows:

  1. the weak economic position (labour surplus) and semi-proletarian composition of the working class;
  2. despotic paternalism;
  3. government repression; and
  4. the sectarianism of the pre-war union leaders, who not only placed ideological purity above all other considerations, but also concentrated their organising efforts in the most organisable industries, trying to steal members from one another instead of enlisting new recruits from more difficult industries, e.g. those controlled by the Zaibatsu.

3. The Post-War Trade-Union Movement

The initial stimulus for the rebirth of the trade-union movement came from SCAP, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (headquarters of the occupation forces). The Labour Division of SCAP developed a policy of negative and positive measures. The negative measures included the abrogation of laws restricting labour organisation and an attempt to weaken the power of the police through abolition of the most repressive higher police units and decentralisation. Fearing the SCAP ban, the various patriotic organisations, like ‘Sampo,’ which had carried out the regimentation of labour during the war, voluntarily disbanded. In order to prevent them from reappearing under different names, SCAP ordered their assets confiscated. Even though the departments in the wartime government which had controlled the labour administration were abolished or stripped of their labour functions and the labour front organisations were dissolved, there was still the danger that individuals who had participated in them would again become a menace to the labour movement. In order to prevent this, SCAP issued directives banning such individuals from government or union posts.

On the whole, the negative measures adopted by SCAP were successful, some more so than others. For example, the police, although their organisational strength had been greatly reduced, still continued to keep a close watch on and interfere with union activities. With the recentralisation of the police in 1954, this tendency was encouraged. Also, many of those who had been purged returned as soon as the period of occupation terminated in 1952. Nonetheless, a great improvement over the ‘30s and ‘40s had been made and the negative measures adopted in this and other areas succeeded in removing the most oppressive of the artificial obstacles standing in the way of the labour movement.

The positive measures, some of which at first seemed to hold great promise, were less successful. In order to provide a legal framework for the new labour movement, two very important laws, the Trade Union Law of December 1945, and the Labour Relations Adjustment Law of September 1946, were passed.

The Trade Union Law, patterned after the Wagner Act, guaranteed the right of union organisation to all workers except firemen, policemen and employees of penal institutions, and defined trade unions as organisations of workers for the betterment of their economic status. According to this law,

’An organisation which admits to its membership persons representing the employer’s interest or which depends on the employer for the major part of its expenses is not a trade union.’

This was a very important provision because it not only outlawed company unions, but also struck a blow at paternalism. In a number of cases, Japanese workers, long accustomed to looking to management for guidance, did not hesitate to elect company officials to important posts in their new unions. This did not always result in the sacrifice of labour interests — many of those ‘representing the employer’s interest’ who had become union officials fought hard to achieve union goals. This phenomenon can be explained partially in terms of the traditional paternalistic attitude which employers held toward employees, but it should also be remembered that this was a period of tremendous union growth, that management had lost much of its self-confidence and was offering little resistance to union demands and, especially, that company officials were being very careful not to incur the wrath of SCAP, which was, at that time, placing the full weight of its authority behind the unions. However the tendency for management to dominate the unions and attempt to turn them into company tools was a more typical expression of the traditional paternalism. This tendency was greatly strengthened as management began to regain its self-confidence and as the unions began to encounter resistance from SCAP. For this reason, the provisions in the Trade Union Law which outlawed employer representation in the unions were of the greatest importance. Other important provisions of the Trade Union Law forbade employer discrimination against an employee for ‘legitimate union activity,’ recognised the legitimacy of collective bargaining and established Labour Relations Committees which were to perform certain functions in enforcing the law and assist in the settlement of labour disputes as provided for in the Labour Relations Adjustment Law.

The purpose of this second important labour law was to establish machinery for hte ‘peaceful settlement of labour disputes.’ Provision was made for conciliation, mediation or arbitration, but not for compulsory arbitration. Also, the Labour Relations Adjustment Law imposed certain restrictions on acts of dispute in ‘public welfare’ industries (those in which strikes would ‘hurt the national economy or endanger the daily life of the public’) and expanded the category of workers not allowed to engage in acts of dispute to include the national, prefectural and municipal government workers. Employees of public enterprises were ex-cepted from this provision. The Labour Relations Adjustment Law was, at the time, opposed by almost all sections of organised labour because it took away rights that had been gained under the Trade Union Law.

4. Trade-Union Growth

The Japanese workers’ response to SCAP’s initial labour policy was more than enthusiastic. Between the fall of 1945 and the summer of 1946, union membership increased at the rate of 500,000 a month. The rate of increase then began to slow down, but by the summer of 1947 there were 5.7 million organised workers and the number of unions exceeded 23,000. A number of pre-war unions, including the Japan Seamen’s Union and the Tokyo Transport Workers’ Union, were revived but they were soon overshadowed by the unions formed in industries previously unorganised. There was no central organising drive and local unions grew up spontaneously. (This may partially explain why enterprise unionism remained an important feature of the post-war trade-union movement.) The rate of turnover was high. Many of the unions began to form regional, enterprise-wide and industry-wide federations. From the beginning, the Socialists and Communists (the latter just released from jail where they had spent the war years) played an important role in the organising of the new local unions and the various federations. They were the prime movers in the drive to set up a national labour centre. Two separate national federations, the Japan Federation of Labour (Sodomei) which included most of the Socialists and the Congress of Industrial Unions (Sanbetsu) which included the Communists and others who did not trust the old guard Sodomei leaders because of their role in the war, were established. There were also important structural differences between the JFL and the CIU, the former maintaining a tight centralised control over prefectural federations of local unions, and the latter primarily made up of national industrial unions which were more difficult to control. (It was not until 1949, when many of the most powerful industrial union federations left the CIU, that the Communists were able to establish more or less complete hegemony.)

As a result of the amazing growth in trade-union organisation and because of the extreme economic hardships in Japan after the defeat, the country experienced an unprecendented outbreak of labour disputes. The principle demand made by the unions was for higher wages. A second major concern was the mass layoffs which became more and more frequent as private business and the government began to ‘rationalise’ or shut down factories that were operating at a loss. During the post-war period, these were the issues most often stressed by the unions, but there was a host of other demands as well, including those related to working conditions and employer recognition of unions and union activities.

5. SCAP Interference

During the summer of 1946, economic conditions deteriorated further and the conservative Yoshida cabinet was completely incapable of finding a solution to the problem. Spearheaded by the CIU, a wave of protest against low wages in general and the Yoshida cabinet in particular began to build up throughout Japan. It declined slightly in late 1946 and then, when a Joint Struggle Committee of public office, railway and communications workers and teachers was organised, it increased with renewed vigour. All of organised labour seemed ready to support the government employees and when the Joint Struggle Committee scheduled a strike for 1 February 1947, the Japanese government, fearing a general strike, began to make minor concessions. These fell far short of union demands, however, and the strike rapidly gained momentum, stimulated by the anti-government agitation of labour militants including the Communists. After unsuccessful private negotiations with union leaders, SCAP, in the person of General MacArthur, issued a formal order banning the strike and criticising the union leaders for attempting to use such a ‘deadly social weapon.’ [1] The general strike ban of 1947 was the first instance of SCAP interference in the labour movement on a large scale. However, the change of attitude, brought about by a number of factors including US imperialism’s need to bring Japan out of its economic chaos, the intensification of the cold war and the militant tactics of the labour movement, was not institutionalised until the following year. During the summer of 1948, the government employees, whose wages still lagged far behind those of workers in private industry and farther behind the rising cost of living, again demanded wage increases.

They were represented by the National Council of Government and Public Workers’ Unions (independent, with some of its affiliates belonging to the CIU) which asked the Central Labour Relations Committee to mediate the dispute and refrained from striking for the time being. While negotiations were thus under way, the Supreme Commander issued an open letter to the Prime Minister, Ashida, in which he stated that no government employee had the right to strike or use other delaying tactics and that collective bargaining did not apply to public service, with the exception of public enterprises like the railways. The Ashida government used the SCAP letter against labour. Temporary ordinances suspending current mediation proceedings involving government employees and denying even employees of public enterprises the right to bargain collectively were issued, while the government made plans for revision of the labour laws.

The latter half of 1948 saw the following important revisions: The National Public Service Law of 1947 was amended to outlaw strikes or other dispute tactics and collective bargaining for employees of the regular government service, authorising jail sentences and fines for violations. The National Personnel Authority was established for the settlement of grievances. The Public Corporations Law set up public corporations for the government railways and for the government’s salt, camphor and tobacco monopolies. Employees of public corporations were given the right of collective bargaining but they were not allowed to strike. Violators would lose employment rights or suffer dismissal.

During the following year, the Labour Relations Adjustment Law was amended so that the power to designate an industry as a ‘public welfare’ industry was transferred from the competent Minister with the concurrence of a majority each of the labour, employer and neutral members of the CLRB to the Prime Minister with the approval of the Diet. This meant that the conservative-dominated government could at will designate some particular section of the economy as a ‘welfare industry,’ thereby forcing the workers involved to accept a thirty day ‘cooling off’ period. The unions were thrown into a state of confusion by the new legal restrictions and the obviously stiffening attitude of SCAP.

Labour was further weakened by the effects of the ‘Dodge Plan,’ an austerity programme designed to stop inflation and revive the Japanese economy. Some employers used the programme as a weapon against the unions by citing it as they used to cite the war effort, in evidence that labour should be concerned with duty and obedience instead of rights and privileges. It is ironic that SCAP’s austerity programme strengthened the very paternalism that their labour legislation was supposed to destroy.

A second and more dangerous effect of the ‘Dodge Plan’ was the utilisation of ‘rationalisation’ schemes for discharging Communists and other Left-wing labour activists. With SCAP’s encouragement, both the government and private employers used this tactic extensively, often discharging workers on the grounds that they were ‘uncooperative’ or ‘disloyal.’ These methods were successful in purging the trade unions of most of their Left-wing leadership and made it possible for the Mindo (anti-communist and moderate ‘democratisation leagues’) to gain control of many of the largest national union federations. Faced with the austerity programme, restrictive labour legislation, and the ‘red purge,’ the labour movement began to retreat. Membership declined from around 7,000,000 in 1949 to slightly more than 5,000,000 in 1950. Sanbetsu disintegrated and the reorganisation of the trade-union movement began.

6. A New Labour Centre

With the active participation of SCAP, the Mindo leaders began to build a new labour centre. Sohyo (abbreviation for the Japan General Council of Trade Unions) came into being on 12 July 1950. It was composed of the Mindo movement, another, smaller national federation called Shinsanbetsu, which later withdrew, and various non-Communist national unions which had previously been unaffiliated. Sodomei split over the issue of whether to retain their organisational structure (built largely on the basis of personal influence) within Sohyo or dissolve and let its components join Sohyo on the basis of industrial unionism. At its national convention in November 1950, a motion to dissolve was carried and the Left-wing delegates led two thirds of Sodomei’s membership into Sohyo. The Right-wing delegates kept the remaining third and the name Sodomei. They did not affiliate with Sohyo. The textile workers and the seamen, traditionally supporters of the Right wing of Sodomei and of the Socialist Party but at the same time industrial unions, were an important part of the group that joined Sohyo. At first, the new labour centre represented what SCAP thought would be a pro-Western and moderate tendency in the labour movement. They were soon disappointed, however, as Sohyo began moving Left. In 1952, the year the occupation officially ended, Sohyo announced its opposition to the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which excluded the USSR and included a ‘defence’ agreement with the US, and proposed instead that Japan follow a neutralist policy. The faction led by Minoru Takano, which constituted the mainstream of Sohyo at that time, then went on to adopt a pro-Soviet position, calling the USSR and China the ‘peace forces.’ During the same year, Sohyo organised the largest strike wave in Japan’s history. The government workers were again in the front ranks. The strike movement failed when, frightened by a government threat to use the restrictive labour laws against them, the coal miners and electrical workers split and a number of the constituent enterprise unions went back to work.

The Takano leadership organised strikes and other union campaigns in such a manner that not only workers but also their families and local tradesmen could participate. The choice of this particular policy fitted in with and was probably influenced by the JCP’s strategy for ‘National Democratic Revolution.’ The Takano policy was doomed to failure. Even though it produced massive demonstrations, strikes organised in this way usually did not last long enough to exert any real pressure on management or the government. This was because Takano’s brand of industrial action failed to go beyond the confines of a given company and also led to severe fragmentation in the union. It was a policy of localised, geographical struggles executed at a time when the most urgent need was for industrial unionism. Alarmed by the militancy of the Sohyo campaign and its anti-Western position, the seamen, the textile workers and splinter groups (No.2 Unions) among the railway workers, miners, electric power workers, teachers, and auto workers withdrew from Sohyo in 1953. The following year, these groups, together with Sodomei, which retained its organisational structure, formed Zenro Kaigi (abbreviation for the Japanese Trade Union Congress). The new labour centre adopted a policy designed to discourage militancy in labour disputes and also pushed for a pro-Western foreign policy. (In 1964, Sodomei merged completely with Zenro Kaigi and the resulting organisation is called Domei Kaigi.)

Within Sohyo too, Takano’s policy met opposition, although of a different sort. At the Sohyo national convention held July 1955, he was replaced by Akira Iwai as Secretary General. A new Chairman, Kaoru Ota, who is today the most important man in Sohyo, was also elected. The Ota-Iwai policy was based on ‘third force’ (as opposed to ‘peace force’) neutralism and industrial struggles instead of geographical struggles. This policy, coupled with support for the JSP, has guided Sohyo ever since.

8. Current Tasks and Problems

Before looking at the present picture, it is necessary to say a few words about certain factors which are peculiar to or unusually significant for the trade-union movement in Japan.

A. Enterprise unionism

An enterprise union is usually not a company union, although there is always a tendency for it to assume this form. It is, rather, an organisation formed independently by the workers in a single company. It may include many factories or one. It cuts across craft lines in almost all cases and industrial lines in large economic complexes like the Zaibatsu. White- and blue-collar workers are usually included in the same organisation. Between 85 and 90 per cent of all Japanese unions are of this type. The reasons for the emergence of enterprise unions (Zaibatsu type-organisations at one end of the economic scale and a large number of tiny family-operated enterprises at the other) have already been mentioned, but the last of these, the lack of a central organising drive after World War II, must be expanded upon. During the period of extremely rapid and disorganised growth immediately following WWII, Japanese workers not only included sections of management in their new unions, but in many cases actually took over and operated the enterprises themselves, crediting all profits to the owner’s account. This particular tactic, adopted when management threatened to close down operations (a frequent practice during those chaotic years) was called ‘production control.’ Efficiency was increased in most of the enterprises under ‘production control’ and many showed a profit. There were, of course, difficulties in marketing. At any rate, ‘production control’ was soon declared illegal. Still, because it was carried out in the absence of any plan for coordinated, widespread industrial action, it exerted a lasting influence by strengthening enterprise consciousness.

Enterprise unionism presents a number of problems for the unions and the national labour centres, especially Sohyo, which is trying to develop a policy of strengthening united action of federations of local unions throughout a single industry. One of these problems is the temporary worker. The most important factor binding employees to enterprises is job security. In order to guarantee this to ‘his’ workers, the employer needs to have on hand temporary workers whom he can get rid of when there is a slump. The permanent workers, who form the membership of the enterprise union, support this practice by not letting the temporary workers join their union. This results in differential pay scales and treatment. The workers who need unionisation the most are instead used as buffers between the permanent workers and unemployment. This greatly assists management in its role as paternal father and strengthens worker loyalty to the particular enterprise or ‘enterprise consciousness.’

Another problem created by enterprise unionism and enterprise consciousness is the difficulty of developing and maintaining a strong national labour centre. Although most enterprise unions belong to some sort of regional, industrial or national federation and through these are included in one of the national labour centres, they prefer to deal with economic questions only at the enterprise level. The funds necessary to maintain collective bargaining machinery are not sent to the labour centres, but kept at the enterprise level. As a result, the labour centres are always in a weak position financially and, in the event of a crucial strike, must organise nation-wide campaigns to collect contributions. Their only important economic function is to act as focal point and figurehead for the annual spring and autumn wage struggles, in which Sohyo talks with the government and national management organisations about basic pay increases for all of organised labour. Their biggest contribution to the wage struggles is propaganda.

An important corollary of the weak economic position of the labour centres is the fact that political problems become their responsibility. The local unions do not participate in or even take much interest in the formation of political policy. The Left-wing intellectuals who are the leaders of Sohyo usually manage to adopt a fairly militant position on the issues affecting labour. They, for example, join the JSP in opposing anti-democratic revisions of the Constitution, restrictive labour laws, rearmament, rationalisation’s bases and the nuclear submarine. They also talk about the class struggle and the establishment of a socialist society. However, there is a tremendous gap between their stated position and the consciousness of the local union membership. Of course, their statements represent the vague anti-war and anti-government feelings of the local union membership, but these feelings, although occasionally and momentarily translated into action (demonstrations etc.), are a far cry from the clearcut ideology of the leaders. From the foregoing it should be clear that the labour centres lack strong ties, both economic and ideological, with the local enterprise unions and are, therefore, exteremely vulnerable if the government should again decide to suppress them.

B. The No. 2 Union (DaiNi Kumiai)

Another feature which deserves study is the ‘No. 2 Union.’ There is no law in Japan which stipulates that there can only be a single bargaining unit in a single plant. Therefore, employers are often able to split the original union formed by the workers in a plant by setting up a rival or ‘No.2’ union. This tactic is especially successful in long and hard-fought strike battles where a section of the legitimate union’s membership gets tired of fighting.

Perhaps the best known example of the successful use of the ‘No. 2 Union’ tactic is the Miike coal mine strike, which lasted from 25 January 1960 to November 1960, a particularly violent struggle in which gangsters and police were used against the unionists. The legitimate union, the one which led the strike, had almost complete support when the struggle began. However, when the attacks of the police and the gangsters began to break down the weaker willed unionists, a ‘No. 2 union’ was created by management, given preferential treatment and set against the legitimate union. It, in turn, retaliated and the resulting violence of worker against worker at a time when state power was concentrated against them defeated the strike. To make sure that the legitimate union did not regain the ground it had lost as a result of the strike defeat, representatives of management paid a visit to each and every miner, offering a 10,000 Yen pay advantage over the No. 1 union and a free high school education for the miner’s son or daughter if he would join the ‘No. 2 union.’ At present, the membership of the ‘No. 2 union’ is larger than that of the original union, which is disintegrating. And, there is labour peace at Miike.

It should be mentioned that when ‘No. 2 unions’ join federations, they join Zenro (Domei Kaigi) federations. Much of Zenro’s growth resulted from taking members away from No. 1 unions which were affiliated with Sohyo. [2]

C. The small and minute enterprise workers

A third factor working against the trade-union movement is the unusually large number of small or minute enterprises in Japan. [3] The influence of paternalism has already been discussed and it is obvious that it works most effectively in such small scale operations. Another factor is the extremely precarious economic position of the small or minute enterprises. In most cases, one well-conducted strike would mean bankruptcy. Paternalism, the hope that they will someday own their own tiny business, the weak economic position of the enterprise, and close observation by the boss, discourage these workers from thinking about unions. Some Sohyo organisers are trying to combat this situation by encouraging workers to form general unions, with anonymous membership from all the small or minute enterprise workers in a particular area. In these arrangements, the union leader’s function is to negotiate with the various employers and also to find out where job opportunities exist in case unionists lose their jobs as the result of a strike. As long as there is a labour shortage, this form of organisation might prove effective. At present, however, small and minute enterprise workers continue to be the largest, the most exploited and, at the same time, the most conservative section of the Japanese working class.

D. White-collar militancy

Since the small and minute enterprise workers are almost entirely unorganised, blue-collar workers in big industry are crucially dependent on an alliance with white-collar workers. 60 per cent of all Japanese unions include both groups. The joint action with blue-collar workers which they engage in for higher wages is one of the causes of white-collar militancy. The habit of cooperation in wage and other struggles was formed during the period of ‘production control’ and extremely rapid union growth which followed WWII. Wages were universally low. Even today the wage differential is not so great. As for the government white-collar workers, the major cause of militancy is the fact that their wages always lag behind those of workers in private industry. A minor cause may be the radically democratic education that many white-collar workers received in the public schools up to about 1960. At present, there is a conservative trend in Japanese education.

9. The Present Picture

At present, Sohyo’s most important objectives include:

  1. A basic wage increase for all organised workers.
  2. A rationalisation scheme that will not mean mass discharges, speed-up, etc. (Militant sections of the railroad workers and miners, who are the most threatened by rationalisation at the moment, are often forced to take independent action, which does not have Sohyo’s approval, because the Sohyo leadership has concentrated primarily on wage issues and failed to carry opposition to rationalisation beyond the talking stage.)
  3. Ratification of ILO Article 87 in such a way as to give certain government workers, especially the teachers, the right to bargain collectively with the government. [4]
  4. Lower food prices.
  5. No revision of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. Such a revision would legalise the Japan Self-Defence Forces (Japan’s military forces) and pave the way for further remilitarisation.
  6. Opposition to US bases and atomic submarines.
  7. Opposition to US intervention in Viet Nam.

The proverbial labour surplus has been one of the main factors allowing Japanese employers to hold down wages and keep the unions on the defensive. At present, however, the labour surplus is rapidly turning into a labour shortage. One would therefore expect to see labour pushing management and the government harder and harder. If the ‘Spring Struggles’ of 1964 and 1965 are any indication, this is indeed happening. In 1964, for the first time in many years, the Council of Public Corporation Workers’ Unions (Sohyo), which includes the railway workers, the telecommunications workers, the postal workers and the workers in the various government monopolies, told all government workers to prepare for a strike. The scheduled half-day protest strike did not come off, however, when an eleventh hour betrayal by the JCP caused the Sohyo leadership to waver and then cancel the strike order. This caused a great deal of rank-and-file criticism, especially in the telecommunications workers’ union and, in 1965, after the telecommunications workers and the postal workers had carried out strikes of their own, the order for a half-day strike went out again. This time there was no cancellation and all government workers’ unions except the national railway workers’ union, which is having ‘No.2 union’ problems, participated. The telecommunications workers were particularly effective. This year’s ‘Spring Struggle’ also witnessed the participation of the private railway workers’ union, which carried out a 24-hour protest strike affecting 20 million people. Plans for a 24-hour ‘united strike’ (almost a general strike) were also made, but it was called off because of the weakened condition of the national railway workers’ union and concessions given to the private railway workers and others.

Government workers, as mentioned above, do not have the right to strike, and the government will soon set about punishing those who participated in the recent disputes. Nonetheless, next year we can expect to see a repetition, perhaps on a larger scale, of the same thing.

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1. The complete text of the Statement by the Supreme Commander Banning the Proposed Strike, 31 January 1947 is printed in M. Farley, Aspects of Japan’s Labor Problems, New York 1950, p. 248.

2. Zenro has 13 national unions and federations affiliated to it. Its major components are: the Sodomei federations (often based on a personal following), the textile workers and the seamen. There are 35 unaffiliated national union federations, two thirds of which are said to be sympathetic to Sohyo.

3. Number of enterprises according to size of labour force:

Persons Employed

500 or more
























Source: Nihon Keizai Zusetsu, Ouchi Kyoe, Iwanami, Tokyo 1963

4. Two thirds of Sohyo’s membership is government employed. 27 of the 40 constituent unions are government workers’ unions. Because of bureaucratic departmentalism, these do not always follow strict industrial lines, so it was necessary for Sohyo to establish a coordinating organisation between the local government workers’ union and Sohyo, and this body embraces all government workers, whether or not their local supports Sohyo.

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