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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. 44, 29 October 1932, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(Continued from last issue)

Rise of Japan, Decline of England

The rise of English capitalism caused the ruin of the handicraft cotton industries of India, China and Japan. But not forever could England guard and keep secret the machines that gave her power. To-day nemesis stalks the British Empire and the East ousts England from her greatest markets for cotton manufactures. Naturally England will use every weapon of resistance to fend off the inevitable, the British Empire will not vanish without gigantic struggles, death-throes one might well call them. The tariff, imperial preference, the capitalist onslaught on wages, particularly in the Lancashire mills, – these are symbols of the decline of British capitalism, of the precarious position she occupies in world markets, of the depletion of her natural resources (coal), of the rising costs of manufacturing. The rise of Japan as a manufacturing nation is an added force tending towards accelerating the decline of English capitalism.

The Rhythm of Cotton Technology

The more advanced the technology, the finer the yarns and piece-goods it can produce. The Lancashire mills, the oldest in the world, are still pre-eminent in the making of fine goods, the kind used in the more advanced countries. But the East – India, China, Japan – with its teeming millions, uses coarse yarn and goods, the type first developed by a new technology. The mastery of cotton manufacturing has followed the same rhythm in every country, Japan being quite typical. At first Japan was a market for coarse piece-goods and the heavier, coarser yarns of English make. Gradually the yarns of coarse size were produced at home until they ceased to be imports and became exports. In this stage Japan ousted England from India and China for this type of yarn. Still later the coarse yarn was used in domestic weaving to produce coarse piece-goods which thus became the export. At this stage Japan captured the Asian market outside of India almost completely away from England. Japan encroached rapidly even on the Indian market with the results already outlined, the closing of India to Japan by England. In this process not only has Japan imported greater and greater amounts of raw cotton but latterly she has been importing additional yarn (made in China) for her factories.

Limited Possibility for Japanese Growth

The entire development of Japanese capitalism is conditioned by the epoch in which it arose, the era of imperialism. Forced to follow in the wake of the imperialist powers, Japan’s normal growth was stunted. Imperialism signifies the decay of democracy and the militarizing of the imperialist power in its desperate struggle for larger and larger markets. This fact helps to account for the omission of the bourgeois revolution with its democratic phase in Japan’s development and for the ease with which the feudal lords were able to direct Japan’s course. If today, before the achievement of any “real” democracy in Japanese government, we witness movements calling themselves Fascist, the reason is that developments are foreshortened in Japan so that the so-called Fascism, the outgrowth of the military oligarchy, tends to strangle democracy in its very birth.

On the economic field imperialism gives occasion to the peculiar phenomenon of the export of finance capital by Japan to China for the setting-up of cotton mills there even before Japan has saturated her own home market. Practically 40% of all Chinese cotton spindles are owned by Japanese capitalists. In the developments of Chinese and Indian cotton manufacturing, we see however the same fate meted out to Japan that she meted out to England, – the loss of markets. Already China has ousted Japan from her market for the sale of yarns and India already has more spindles than Japan. Japanese capitalism rests on cheaper labor than that of England but both India and China rely on labor still cheaper than that of Japan. A girl spinner in Japan gets 50 to 60 cents for 10 hours of work. A male spinner in India gets from 34 to 43 cents for 10 hours.

Japan’s development in the last 70 years, looked at closely, has been slow rather than fast, much slower than that of England even during its experimental stage. Her home market is not a strong one; for example, in the cotton industry, on the basis of yarn consumed Japan does not produce nearly as much goods as England, the U.S. or even India, and yet Japan exports more cotton cloth than any other country except England, – because she sells less at home due to the lower per capita consumption of her poverty-stricken population. It is a foregone conclusion that Japan will never attain the height of development reached by England in the cotton industry which, nevertheless, is Japan’s greatest industry.

“The Big Five”

A striking phenomenon illustrating Japan’s uneven capitalist development under the imperialist forces shaping her institutions, is the growth of tremendous empires of monopoly capitalism side-by-side with her backward industrial forms. The Japanese government has consistently encouraged combinations of capital. During periods of crisis when capitalists find themselves on the verge of bankruptcy, the government intervenes directly to bring about amalgamations and greater monopolistic concentrations of industry, banking, etc. The “Big Five” of Japan are the very heart of Japanese imperialism. They are. banks in the same sense as the National City Bank in the U.S. and the Midland Bank of England; that is to say, they are the sources of finance capital. No big undertaking can be started in Japan without the aid of one or more of these banks. To enumerate the companies controlled by the Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Dai-Ichi, Sumiton and Yasuda banks would be to catalog every great Japanese enterprise. The Mitsui Co. alone controls 25% of the entire export trade of Japan and handles coal, copper, sulphur, lumber, cotton, silk, sugar, etc. It imports ships, locomotives, steel bridges, opium, machine tools, paper pulp. It is the largest owner of coal mines in the East. It handles the millions of tons of the soya bean crop of Manchuria and practically owns the forests of Hokkaido besides having the monopoly of camphor in Formosa. The Mitsubishi Bank controls the shipping industry and all the large shipping companies of Japan. It has vast interests in the engineering industries. It is vitally concerned in the South Manchuria Railroad. These banks, the “Big Five”, are gigantic combines, vertically and horizontally, with tremendous and cynically recognized power in government. Japanese papers refer to a Mitsui cabinet or a Mitsubishi ministry since the Mitsui’s “own” the Seiyuaki Party and the Mitsubishis subsidize the Minseito Party.

Effects of the War on Japan

The World War gave Japanese capitalism so tremendous an impetus that it can be said to have reached maturity with this period. The war freed Japan temporarily from the strangling fetters of competition. After a year of painful readjustment, Japanese capitalism seized its opportunity to invade all the markets of the East as well as Africa, the South Sea Islands and Australia. No better measure can be given of the extent of its new trade than the relation of exports to imports. From the Sino-Jap war up to the World War, imports exceeded exports each year, leaving a total excess of imports of 928,803,000 yen at the beginning of the War. The first three years of the War canceled this deficit so that by 1918 there was an actual surplus of exports amounting to 467,000,000 yen.

Before the War England controlled 53% of the imports of cotton piece-goods to China, Japan sending only 20%. By 1925 Japan had 51% of this business, England only 38%. The present Japanese steel industry is the product of the War. The number of factory workers increased almost half a million from the outbreak of War to Oct. 1917.

Of far greater importance however, are not these figures, but the changed social conditions, the enriching of the few and the utter pauperizing of the masses. The same process of inflation occurred in Japan as elsewhere. Prices doubled, then tripled and went skyrocketing. Wages remained stationary or lagged far behind the rising cost of living. Food became scarce. The profits made by the capitalists were simply enormous. Certain mushroom steel companies, sugar manufacturers, shipping concerns, showed profits ranging from 38 to 120%. While the Narikin, the newly rich, lived riotously, the workers and peasants felt the pangs of hunger gnawing ever more fiercely. A period of growing strikes and tenant outbursts culminated finally in the nation-wide rice riots of 1918.

The post-war period brought an even more severe crisis in Japan than in the other capitalist countries. Once more Japan’s imports exceeded her exports so that the first five post-war years showed a greater deficit than the enormous surplus of the four War years. Unemployment became general and took on unprecedented proportions for the first time in Japan’s history. The mushroom companies of the war period, the over-expanded industries, experienced widespread failures. In 1923 the Great Earthquake added its ghastly burden to the suffering of the masses. On the land the War accelerated the process of concentration of ownership. The number of peasants owning their own land had fallen by 38,000 during the six years before the War but in the five years following the War this class decreased by 450,000.

(To be continued)

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