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Sylvia Merrill

Japan: How Its Workers and Farmers Live

(December 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 52, 28 December 1942, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The past year has added to the considerable confusion that existed about Japan. For years the Japanese were described as some kind of doll-like people who wore kimonos, lived in bamboo houses, grew wonderful flowers in little gardens, lighted their houses with lanterns and grew lovely cherry trees. Of more recent origin has been the concept of the Japanese as wily, slant-eyed rogues, in shorts and sandals, ready to blow themselves to bits.

In actuality, neither of these concepts accurately describes the Japanese. There are fanatics among all peoples, and there are dainty, delightful habits and customs in all cultures.

To the Japanese farmer, that little bamboo house, which looks so delightful in a picture, is a flimsily built, one-room place, little different from that of our own Southern sharecropper, He has no land on which to grow anything but rice, since the cultivation of the soil is very intensive. Prior to the war, the thousands of yards of silk rayon and cotton that flooded the markets of the world from the looms of Japan rarely were seen on the backs of the Japanese workers and farmers. That goes for the gadgets and articles of one kind or another manufactured in Japan and shipped everywhere, but rarely sold in Japan proper. There is no mass market for these things – the workers and farmers are too poverty-stricken to do much more than buy their most needed commodity – food.

At the height of the depression, a leading Japanese industrialist, a Mr. Yatora, at one time president of the South Manchurian Railroad Co., made a speech extolling the poverty of the Japanese worker and farmer:

“If Japan were, a nation which ate a lot of meat and wheat, which wore woolen clothing and were dependent upon a great many international commodities, we should be on the verge of a revolution. But fortunately, or unfortunately, our people eat rice and fish, wear cheap clothing and are almost entirely divorced from the international markets in the essentials of living.”

Mr. Yatora has very eloquently described the poverty of the Japanese masses. He errs only in one point: he thinks they are satisfied with their lot. What is more, the whole world has been educated to believe that the Japanese workers and farmers are content, that they are modest creatures, having few wants, ready and willing to turn out more and more work for the good of country and boss. The actual story of Japanese labor dispels this myth.

As Capitalism Grew, Strikes Increased

Simultaneously with the development of capitalism in Japan began the history of strikes and conflicts in which the ruthlessness of the ruling class and the desperate plight of the workers became apparent.

The revolution which brought the Japanese capitalist class into power took place in 1867, when the Emperor Meiji was restored to the throne. Soon after, in the 1880s, there was a strike of stone masons. The masons had refused to accept a decrease in wages and struck for twelve days. During this same period, 200 knitting mill workers went on strike. During 1887 there were approximately forty strikes in which about 7,000 workers were involved. Miners, railroad workers, machinists and furnace stokers struck to secure higher wages in 1898.

So we see that, contrary to the much-advertised submission of the Japanese workers, peddled by its cynical government spokesmen and “labor leaders,” the workers set out to win their rights by actions not unlike those of their Western brothers. It is true that their actions were not as widespread as those of Western workers, but this was due to the peculiarities of the development of Japanese capitalism which in turn gave rise to a labor movement with problem unlike those of the European and American working class.

The Origins of Socialist Agitation

The revolutionary wave set in motion by the Russians in 1905 affected all Asia and had its reflection in Japan in many large strikes. Coal carriers, glass workers, dock workers, all won wage increases of from 10 to 25 per cent. The miners’ strike was particularly violent and it took four infantry companies to break it.

At about this time socialist agitation and propaganda began to take place, in Japan. In 1898, the Socialist Party of Japan was organized by Sen Katayama. Needless to say – it was outlawed. The Japanese police, long before Hitler’s now famous Gestapo, made careers for themselves as brutal suppressors of the socialist movements.

The trade union movement had less difficulty in carrying on its work than did the political movement, since the state found it necessary to be more tolerant of organizations along economic lines than political.

In 1904, the Russo-Japanese War broke out and while the armies were clashing in Manchuria, the Congress of the Second International was meeting in Amsterdam. There the delegates from the Russian and Japanese labor movement sat around the tables of the Congress, and Plekhanov for the Russian movement and Sen Katayama for the Japanese met and shook hands amid an ovation that expressed the solidarity of the two working classes despite the war then being carried on by their governments.

The Russian Revolution and the revolts in Europe in 1918 stirred the Japanese working class. The year 1918 saw a great spurt forward in the organization of the labor movement. In 1916 there were 108 strikes; in 1917, 398; in 1918, 417; and in 1919, 497.

The spark that set the whole movement going was the “rice riots” of 1918. The rise in the cost of rice, the main food staple in Japan, provoked rioting in several small fishing villages. It soon spread to the larger cities, where the sacking of stores and warehouses took place. In Tokyo, the workers stormed the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce. The price of rice dropped!

The relaxation of the law forbidding unions was a spur to unionization. After 1918 there was a series of strikes and actions which drew in the most backward sections of the working class: girls working in the textile mills. Here paternalism and a brutal slave method of employment prevailed The girls were sold into the factory, boarded at the mill and in most cases never saw their wages as they were paid back to their families.

(Continued in next issue)

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