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Japan: Its Rise from Feudalism ...

Jack Weber

Its Rise from Feudalism to Capitalist Imperialism
and the Development of the Proletariat

(October 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 42, 15 October 1932, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(Continued from last issue)

Present Status of Japanese Manufacturing

In the Western sense of the term, Japan, with all her speed of development, far from being advanced industrially, is still in the handicraft stage. Not more than 10% of her population (workers and their families) depend for their livelihood on the factory system. Small scale industry is still the rule with higher factories the exception. In 1928 the largest number of factories (29,116) employed only from 5 to 9 workers; 2,283 factories employed from 100 to 500 whereas only 537 factories employed 500 workers and over. Three industries have passed entirely beyond the domestic stage and are concentrated in factories or establishments employing more than 500 workers. These are cotton spinning (95%), shipbuilding (91%) and the primary metal industries (73%), the percentages representing the number of workers in the large establishments.

The Textile Industries

The textiles industries form the line of least resistance in Japanese development. They require relatively inexpensive plants and light machinery, using little power. Above all they represent an intensive exploitation of cheap labor.

Textiles engage 50% of the factory workers; they represent some 45% of the total value of all manufactures; they absorb 26% of the total capital investment in partnerships and stock companies ; they use 24% of the total power consumed by industry; and finally they form 68.7% of the value of all exports. These figures do not include household production which is extremely important. Thus, silk reeling, the most important industry, employs 395,000 workers in 3,500 filatures (20% of all factory workers) but there are, in addition, 62,000 peasant households engaged in reeling raw silk.

The Contract System

Just as in England before the industrial revolution, contracting is resorted to on a vast scale by wholesaler and jobber. Almost every farm household does some weaving as a necessary adjunct to the farm labor. The women, the very old and the very young are used for this work at sweatshop piece rates. Women earn about 30¢ per day – 50¢ if 12 hours). This home-sweatshop system applies to a large number of industries they work steadily all day (more than besides weaving of cotton or silk. Where the articles are complicated they go into a number of separate homes, the final asembling or finishing being done by the entrepreneur in a “factory”. Thus lanterns are made by 6 different families, each one specializing in some part of the work.

Nothing illustrates better the poverty of Japanese agriculture than the willingness of labor to keep alive so parasitic an industry as the production of cocoons for the manufacture of raw silk. 81% of the cost of producing raw silk is due to the cost of the cocoons, produced almost entirely in peasant households. The exacting labor for their production goes almost totally uncharged, the peasant relying on the small sum of money paid him for this “extra” commodity to make up for the losses sustained in farming.

Raw Silk in Foreign Trade

Japan does not use her raw silk for manufacturing but exports 88% of it, by value, to the world’s richest market, the U.S. The reason for this lies in the protective tariff set up by the U.S. (amounting in 1930 to about 70% ad valorem) which acts to strangle Japan’s attempts to establish a silk industry. Raw silk forms 40% of the value of all exports so that when “prosperity” gave way to the world economic crisis, Japan was placed in an extremely precarious position, the burden falling most heavily on workers and peasants.

The Cotton Industry

At the present time the competition for the cotton piece goods markets among the exporting countries is at the very forefront of the imperialist struggles on the economic field. Cotton cloth is a staple in great demand in densely populated lands with little industrial development. Design and quality are of little importance in the largest markets (China, India) which buy the cheapest goods obtainable. The cost of labor is a vital part (more than ½) of the cost of the finished product, so that Japan, with its lower paid worker’s, has a great advantage over England and the U.S. in competitive markets. Thus England is in danger of being ousted from the Indian market, particularly with the Hindus boycotting British goods. Each year from 1923 to 1929 Japan exported considerably more cotton tissues and yarns to British India than did Great Britain. Similarly, in these years Japan practically controlled the Chinese market. This has had far-reaching results of such tremendous significance for world economy that it is worth digressing into a short history of the cotton industry in general.

Cotton and Opium – A Study in Historic Materialism

Although known in ancient times, cotton was virtually discovered for Western Europe by the East India Company in its trade with the Orient. In the latter half of the 16th century the company bought Indian cotton piece goods for England where a large market was created. Soon the enterprising merchants decided to do their own manufacturing and they began to import raw cotton. Expert Hindu weavers were engaged to teach the English workers their art. At the same time cotton seed were carried to the new colony in Virginia (1650) and shortly this colony became a more important source of supply than India.

Mercantilism and Money

The early stages of capitalism were marked by a shortage of the money medium which was in great demand. This shortage gave rise to the mercantilist theory of a favorable balance of trade, the exports to be greater than the imports so that money would flow into a country rather than out. In its trade with the East, the India Company was under the constant necessity of shipping large sums of money out of England to pay for its purchases of spices, cotton goods, etc. This raised so loud an outcry from other English merchants that the company’s charter was twice withdrawn and the export of silver coins was forbidden. The India merchants were thus forced to cast about for some means of securing gold and silver elsewhere with which to finance their trade, particularly in cotton. China appeared to be a fabulous source of wealth, with its accumulations of ages.

(To be continued)

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