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Sherman Stanley

Breaking Through the Oriental Censorship

The Japanese Empire at War

(October 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 26, 7 October 1940, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

BREAKING THROUGH THE ORIENTAL CENSORSHIP: – Sherman Stanley, Labor Action’s correspondent, has just returned from an extensive tour of the Far East. In this, the first of a series of articles he has written tor Labor Action, Stanley gives his daily impressions of Dai Nippon, Land of the Cherry Blossoms.


KOBE, Japan – Daily life in Japan today furnishes practical evidence of one axiom of modern politics: Imperialist war doesn’t pay!

Japan’s endless “incident” in China is two years ahead of the European war. That is, the living standards of the masses have had two years longer in which to decline as compared with their less unlucky brothers in Europe’s madhouse. The decline has now reached a stage where the existence of a Japanese worker, clerk or farmer is comparable to that of a primitive toad in a frog pond: eat, hop about at the long day’s work and sleep!

The masses are frankly puzzled by the “sacred incident” that was supposed to end after three months. The more they tighten their belts so that the final push may be made and all of China’s supposed riches fall into their laps, the more they are asked to tighten their belts! Even the belt of Asiatic fatalism has just so many notches. Where and when does this vicious cycle end?


Japanese cities are about the cleanest one can find anywhere. But a good “economic” motivation lurks behind it all. No scrap material can go to waste! Everything except the cobblestones must be picked up, sorted and used. This goes for bits of scrap iron or metal, pieces of string not long enough to mend, a busted shoe lace, bits of odd paper (try to obtain toilet paper in Japan!), candy wrappers, etc. Everything goes into the totalitarian war machine the oh! so subtle Japanese politicians are trying to erect.

The Last Union

Japan’s last union- – the Japanese Seamen’s Union- – has just been “voluntarily” dissolved. The union bosses decided this was in the Nation’s interests and, without consulting a ship’s crew, wrote finis to Japan’s organized labor movement. Now, only secret unions can exist as in any fascist country. Such is “national unity” in the land of the Lotus Flower.

They Are Hungry

Walk along any Japanese street and watch the people carefully. (One sees few young men, mostly old people and children with their mothers.) These people are hungry – even the office workers in their badly-fitted suits. They are small in stature, with bad features and posture (the result of centuries of racial in-breeding); their appearance is that of lean meat, with few cheerful expressions.

An American worker on a Japanese diet of rice, fish and a few vegetables would soon reach the enfeebled, dull level these people seem to live on.

The Bottomless Yen

The Japanese Yen is worth about $0.25 to the American dollar officially. Unofficially – on the “Black Bourse” – one can obtain within Japan itself anywhere from 7 to 9 for $1.00! And outside the country, in Shanghai or Hongkong for example, 11 to 13 for the dollar is the normal rate. Three years of war have driven the Yen down to one of the world’s most depreciated currencies.

The burning economic necessity of obtaining foreign currency – particularly the American gold dollar – to bolster up the collapsible Yen lies behind Japan’s feverish attempts to increase its. exports. But the Yen just holds its own as the belt tightens.

For now everything possible is exported: even rice, although there is a shortage and for the first time in Japan’s history it was found necessary to import a cheap grade from North China. All silk, cotton and textile products, every toy and luxury article must be exported or the Yen folds up. Japan is a poor, third-rate capitalist power putting on the act of a big-shot imperialist bully.

Price and Value

It is estimated that the general cost of living has increased by 2 to 2½ times since the China war. Needless to say, wages, in keeping with usual capitalist practices, having remained practically stationary.

In inns, restaurants and eating houses, the prices listed alongside the food items are not printed, but written in pencil or ink. Thus they can be changed without waste of time or menu cards. Changes, of course, are unilaterally in the upward direction. The number of food items available, however, constantly descends. Even a foreigner with money in his pocket can go hungry unless he goes to one of the expensive European-style hotels!

One way of testing and examining mass living standards is to go through city department stores where commodity goods are displayed. Outstanding factor in Japan’s stores – aside from the unprecedentedly high prices – is the universal poor quality of the goods displayed. Made of flimsy, shoddy material; unattractive and drab; imitative and ill-fitting – these are the only suitable descriptions of the textile, clothing, furniture etc. stock that is on sale. Much of it comes from the widely prevalent “home industry” found ail over the country. Why the high prices for these cheap objects? Certainly not due to high wages being paid to the “home” workers! It is due to shortage of basic materials, plus manufacturers’ and contractors’ profits.


FOODS: Rice, butter, eggs, fruits, sugar (½ pound per month is permitted the Japanese), coffee.

DRINKS: No foreign whiskies or wines are available (Japanese Asahi beer has a taste equivalent to that of skunk urine). Sake wine is the national drink. Henceforth, acorns (!) are to supplant rice in the manufacture of sake – a true taste of Oriental ersatz!


Beginning October 7, there is a ban on the sale of all luxury (that is, all but dire necessities) goods throughout the country.

This anti-luxury campaign will be handled by the National Spiritual Mobilization Committee (“Joy through Labor”) which will station its snoopers in hotels, cafes, beauty parlors and department stores to deliver lectures, on the evils of purchasing a jar of facial cream or after-shaving powder. The Committee will have a no doubt highly popular Women’s Auxiliary which “will send its members out to spot richly-bedecked woman and thrust into their hands slips of paper reading: “Let us stop wearing rings. Let us cease wearing expensive clothes.”


Japan’s shortage of basic raw materials (iron, coal, etc.) is well known. In addition, restrictions have just been placed on the use of electricity by factories. Use of nickel for manufacture was prohibited on August 24, except in war industries. (This will just about kill the instrument, cutlery and bicycle manufacturers). Out of 1,006 machine-tool manufacturing plants, 600 are being eliminated and the rest will be organized as contractors for 16 major plants.

Morality and Immorality

All places of amusement (bare, restaurants, cafes, movies, dance halls, cabarets, etc.) must now close down no later than 10 p.m. After this hour a Japanese city bears an unhappy resemblance to one of your dirge-like English colonial towns after 8:30 p.m. when the colonial inhabitants have gone home to their slum areas and English society has gathered for whiskey-sodas at the Cricket Club!

The Home Ministry has ordered all dance-halls to close down not later than October 1. Simultaneously, jazz music has been banned throughout the country.

Provisions, however, have been made to exempt the Geisha houses and the charming Geisha girls from these harsh rules. Under your double moral codes, what is bad for the sinful masses is so very, very good for the upper middle class and business men.

Religion has put its foot forward. The Shrine Bureau of the Home Ministry (comparable to our American Department of Interior having an Altar Commission!) has launched a campaign urging each family to own its own shrine. As the China Weekly Review ironically remarks, “Before it, twice a day, the worshiper will be able to contemplate the indispensable qualities of the government which makes self-sacrifice a matter beyond voluntary action.” A shrine in each family is an awful lot of shrines!

Spies, Spies Everywhere

Every citizen is encouraged to have his ears wide open and listen to his neighbor’s and foreigners’ conversation in particular. On August 3. Mike Suzuki, head of the Foreign Affairs, section of the Metropolitan Police board complained of Japanese loquacity. He warned women not to talk too much, to beware of spies in social clubs and to watch out for that spy who utilizes ye olde love technique!


Paramount Newsreel and all other foreign news films have been banned from Japan’s public theatres. Henceforth, the crudely propagandistic Japan Newsreel Company will have exclusive rights. Importation of American and English full-length films has ceased and only 4-6 year old films are revived. Modern German and Italian movies, however, are widely distributed. As for the Japanese film, in technique, acting, lighting, story-plot etc. it belongs to the Middle Ages of Filmdom. Even India – with its infinitely more backward development – has far superior native films.

In Modern Japan, the only significant artistic and cultural achievements that can be pointed to. date back to the feudal period and the days of the Shogunate. There are no important contemporary writers, artists, or intellectuals. The soil of this regime is barren.

Young Manhood

There goes your Japanese young, man, with shaven head and dressed in the drab uniform of the Army or Naval Cadet. For the 17–18 years of his existence he has been taught the virtues of feudal self-sacrifice for the Throne.

Young Womanhood

Here are a group of young schoolgirls, aged about 17. They are dressed in black from toe to foot – cheap black canvas sneakers, coarse black stockings, black cotton bloomers, black middy-blouse and jet black hair all cut the same way, in a military bang with the nape of the neck shaven. Duty and discipline to Father, Church and Throne are written on their faces. In another year they will either be working in some Osaka mill, or will have been married off by the parents.

Away From It All

Despite recent restrictions on immigration to China, on July 1 the number of Japanese residing in China had increased 58,527 over the figure of April 1 – a grand total of 452,156 having left the country. In Shanghai there are 73,150 Japanese; Peking, 67,437; Tientsin, 51,374 etc., etc.

Why are so many anxious to leave the land of Cherry Blossoms and the Lotus Flower? And why, incidentally, does the government now restrict immigration? Isn’t the China affair necessary to provide for Japan’s overcrowded population?

There are two reasons. First, the desire of the petty bourgeoisie to reap some small profit from China’s ruin. Secondly, the desire of those who can – from educated and middle class layers – to escape the stifling atmosphere of this imperialist-capitalist-feudal-military-totalitarian regime. Incapable of launching even a democratic struggle against the ruling clique, they seek flight and fresh air in Shanghai.


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