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Nigel Harris

Japanese workers’ struggles
after the Second World War

(Summer 1984)

From International Socialism 2 : 24, Summer 1984, pp. 123–127.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Joe Moore
Japanese Workers and the Struggle for Power, 1945–1947
University of Wisconsin Press, London & Madison 1983

The Japanese ruling class is probably the world’s most accomplished in presenting their people as a single unified block, without serious internal divisions. Only rarely is this piece of nonsense exposed so that we catch a glimpse of the rich reality beneath the myth – whether the reality of a Prime Minister caught with his hand in the till or a workers’ struggle or a peasants’ riot. Furthermore, it is in the interests of most of the other national ruling classes to aid and abet the Japanese establishment in fomenting the myth, for by this means they aim to terrify their respective populations with the threat of the fearful unity of the Japanese people – here, they say, is a people that never ceases to work hard for its rulers, never flinches in its total loyalty to Emperor and employer, and will never be taken alive in the defence of the ruling class.

We are now exceedingly privileged to have this long and detailed account of one of those moments when the myth collapsed, and the Japanese ruling order came within sight of working class revolution. It is a remarkable story, and it is very rare to have it told not only in scholarly detail, but also from a political standpoint so close to that of this journal. The struggle for workers’ power is the single thread which binds this large and complex account together.

In 1945, a basic preoccupation of Japan’s rulers was the fear that, in defeat, the Japanese workers would overthrow the system which had inflicted such a catastrophe upon them. They sought by all means to preserve the existing structure of power against American efforts to destroy it. They even defended themselves against the charge that they had led Japan to defeat with the preposterous doctrine that the Japanese people were collectively guilty of defeat (a proposition that was not so absurd that a large number of Americans and Europeans did not share it!) However, to a profound psychological shock at the military disaster – with millions of Japanese streaming home after years of extreme hardship – was added a vengeful occupation force, determined to revolutionise Japanese institutions on a liberal American model, and conditions of extraordinary deprivation and destruction in Japan itself. Capital was on strike, the economy ruined, and food supplies incapable of sustaining even the most austere standard of subsistence for all.

In August 1946, the index of industrial production was about 30% of its 1935–37 average. The Tokyo consumer price index (1935–37 = 100) rose to 17,482 – the national wage index was a mere 3,213. Those lucky enough to have some work – an estimated one third of the labour force was unemployed – received in real terms about ten per cent of their pre-war pay. The food shortage led to a flight of people from the cities in search of village grain, so that the 1944 urban population of 30 million is said to have dropped to 19 million by November 1945. A quarter of the housing stock – and half of the housing stock in the cities – had been destroyed by the endless waves of extraordinarily dense US bombing; some 22 million were homeless. Furthermore the 1945 rice harvest was poor and the public procurement system in ruin; hoarding and speculation were rife; farmers refused to sell when there was nothing to buy with a rapidly depreciating currency; starvation deaths in the streets were commonplace.

This was only half the picture. The American occupation forces ordered the release of thousands of political prisoners to the understandable horror of the Japanese authorities; millions of Japanese returned home from the wrecked empire, for the first time free of the baleful authority of the infallible Emperor system; masses of Japanese workers realised that, despite years of self-sacrifice and deprivation in keeping the war machine going, their leaders had led them to an appalling defeat. The demand arose on all sides for a settling of accounts. The Americans called for democratisation, the liquidation of the great business empires, the zaibatsu, the end of the military oligarchic system, and there was a remarkable echo among the masses of ordinary Japanese. Beginning in the Hokkaido mines – where the 140,000 foreign miners (out of a total of 400,000) began occupations to force their own repatriation – to the famous seizure of the Yomiuri newspaper by its workers, democratisation rapidly exceeded the boundaries implied in the American occupation policy. Factory managers had colluded with the fascist state, and furthermore, hoarded foodstuffs and scarce goods for sale on the black market. The call went up for them to be tried in people’s courts; offices must be seized to open the archives; warehouses opened to popular inspection. Company managers were put on the stage and tried or negotiated with in front of the entire workforce. Industrial trade unions spread with astonishing speed – 2.5% of miners were unionised in October 1945; 92% by December 1946. Nationally trade union membership rose from nothing to six million by late 1947. ‘Production Control’ – seizing the factories and operating them – was the workers’ reaction to the collapsed economy and the unwillingness of employers to restart production. Strikes would only make the famine of goods worse. What began as a tactic, almost stumbled upon, rapidly became something much more thoroughgoing as workers were obliged to create the institutions for collective self-government. The parallel with events in Petrograd, Berlin and Turin after World War I are underlined by the author. By the spring of 1946, some 40,000 workers were involved in struggles to expand production under workers’ control.

The famine of goods forced the workers to reconsider the most important priorities for production. For example, at Toyo Gosei chemical plant, the workers converted production to fertilisers for the farmers; they made barter arrangements with other factories for raw materials, and with the railway workers to ship the goods. Simultaneously, the farmers developed associations to fight the landlords, demand the purge of fascists from the rural administration and an end to compulsory rice procurements by local corrupt officials who then supplied the black market. The struggle to control the rice distribution system led to the seizure of warehouses and local rationing systems.

The process of attempting to seize control of production could not take place in political isolation. Workers’ control became an element in popular mobilisations: railway workers and truck drivers began offering free transport to the cities for demonstrations, which may account for the fact that the first May Day after the war in 1946 attracted two million in the country as a whole and half a million in Tokyo. Outside the Imperial Palace a speaker to the massed thousands won gigantic applause for the daring slogan ‘Down with the Emperor!’ Twelve days later, 113 people broke into the palace to inspect the Emperor’s food supplies and denounce the singular privileges of the Imperial family in conditions of mass starvation (seven days later another group broke into the palace for the same purpose). 50,000 marched on the house of the prime minister, Shidehara, surrounded it and were, only stopped from attack by the timely appearance of the US military police. A delegation was permitted to march in to see Shidehara; an American correspondent witnessing it said: ‘They were, most of them, earthy and untutored men with callouses on their hands ...They called Shidehara a cheat and a liar’ (p. 176). The prime minister fled. So much for the inveterate respect for authority invariably displayed by the Japanese!

While the old order struggled to survive and persuade the US occupation forces to defend them, both old political discredited right-wing nationalists to the right-wing Social Democrats (who had collaborated with the wartime governments) – and the new – the Socialist and the Communist parties – sought to regroup. The Communist Party (JCP) was dedicated to the familiar proposition that the coming revolution would not be a working class and a socialist one, but a ‘democratic’ revolution based upon a ‘broad popular alliance’ to achieve a ‘People’s Republic’ The new order would not be based on the emerging workers’ councils, but would consist of no more than the achievement of a left wing majority in the existing parliament. The JCP however could not just ignore the real world, so it attempted to ride both horses, equivocating between workers’ councils and national trade unions, embracing production control but redefining it simply as a dispute tactic rather than the class basis of revolution.

The author observes:

‘In the final analysis, production control could no more co-exist with unions bent on exercising the maximum authority over labor’s rank and file than it could with employers determined to safeguard property rights and their control over labor’.

At the 5th Congress of the JCP in February 1946 – just as the mass movement was moving swiftly leftwards – the Party moved to the right. It raised the slogans ‘loveable Communist Party’ and ‘For a peaceful democratic revolution’. The Party’s new programme shifted the emphasis ‘from workers’ control to workers’ participation, from production control struggle committees to joint labour-management councils and industrial unions’ (p. 125). Indeed, the Party reproached the Social Democrats for extremism. While the Party was putting its primary efforts into building a popular front of parliamentary forces designed to create a leftist coalition, the mass movement tended to overtake the Party on the left. In the late spring of 1946, as links between farmers and workers grew and local neighbourhood committees were created to control food supplies, ‘the rudimentary outlines of the local soviet’ began to appear. ‘Now if ever was the time for the national left-wing leaders to call for the formation of soviets everywhere’ (p. 128).

They did not and the moment was lost. MacArthur and the Supreme Command of the Allied Powers (SCAP) swung hard over to the right as they began to realise what a monster had been conjured up by the call for democratisation. The Japanese establishment must at all costs be defended now lest Moscow foment yet another victory. The story is long and complex, with many reverses, but in essence the process of restoring the position of the Japanese old order had begun. Yomiuri, the most consistent champion of full democratisation and opposition to the oligarchy of the military, the zaibatsu and the landlords was purged along with all other newspapers; censorship was imposed through a restoration of the powers of owners and editors. The US accelerated food imports to take a bit of the edge off mass hardship.

When government workers called a general strike for February 1st 1947 (preceded by massive demonstrations the previous December), SCAP intervened to declare illegal any strike in essential services and to threaten the full force of military repression for any infringement. This did not seem to deter the workers, so on January 30th MacArthur issued an order cancelling the strike on pain of ‘action of the most drastic nature against individual and organised labor’s interests’ (p. 239), while seizing and holding the trade union leaders in SCAP headquarters.

The movement was already much weaker. It had gone so far without a revolutionary party, strategy or unified leadership. Now what began as a check to the movement became a rout. By 1950, Japanese employers had not only stopped the growth of industrial unions, they had replaced them with plant unions, most of the ‘yellow’ variety. The Japanese working class was driven back into silence.

A short review inevitably makes a complex, detailed work crude and oversimplified. The divisions within Japanese business circles (and their fight over alternate strategies), within SCAP and on the left are an important part of this complex and fascinating story which we must omit here. This is a rare work about a remarkable time. The only regret is that as an academic tome, it is priced for libraries, and well beyond the reach of most pockets – certainly of those who most need to read it. Perhaps some left-wing publisher can be induced to buy the paperback rights, or the author – whose heart is so clearly in the right place – can be induced to write a cheap and more popular version, so that many more people can see yet another example of what heroic accomplishments are possible when men and women fight to be free.

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