Weber (Jacobs) Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Japan: Its Rise from Feudalism ...

Jack Weber

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

(December 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 50, 17 December 1932, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Agrarian Problem

“The foundation of all highly developed division of labor that is brought about by the exchange of commodities is the cleavage between town and country. We may say that the whole economic history of society is summarized in the development of this cleavage between town and country.” (Marx, Capital) In the development of capitalism this cleavage occurs by the increasing subjection of the system of agriculture to the intensive exploitation of the town industrialists through the capitalist market. The utter hypocrisy of Japanese “planned” economy is revealed in the indescribable living conditions of peasant and worker resulting from the “blind” play of capitalist economic forces.

Status of Japanese Farming

Half the population of Japan is still dependent on farming for its livelihood, a proportion equalled only in Italy and Russia. Considering the arable land only the density of population reaches the extreme figure of 1,375 per square mile. Necessarily the land is cultivated by the most intensive methods to feed this over-crowded population. But these methods are still crude hand methods, human labor being the cheapest of all commodities. It has been figured that whereas it requires 2 days of labor for the southern U.S. farmer, with the aid of a team of horses, to grow an acre of rice, the Japanese peasant gives 110 days of labor to this most important crop. Every Japanese peasant uses electric light but the mechanical farming methods of the West make slow headway against the poverty and the cheap labor and, above all, the small size of peasant holding.

When, after the Restoration, the Japanese “enclosures” occured, the feudal lords retained over half of the cultivated land. Today the large landowners own 54 percent of the arable land with their portion ever growing. The “petty owners” of land, forming 70 percent of the rural population, hold 2½ acres on the average. In 1928 only 70,000 families out of 5½ million cultivated more than 12 acres. In its ½ acre per member of each rural family, Japan is worst off of all modern countries.

Just as the tenant system with crop sharing grew out of slavery in the South, so this same system grew out of feudalism in Japan. In the course of the first twenty years of this century, the number of tenant farmers increased by 30 percent. The present crisis accelerates the process at great speed, the area cultivated by tenants is constantly increasing, the tenantry already represents more than 30 percent of the farm workers.

Bankrupt Rural Economy

What with the scarcity of land in terms of demand, land rents are extremely high. Tenants are forced to hand over 50 to 60 percent of the crop in kind, a fact which gives complete control of the market to. the capitalist-landowner, permitting him to rig the market with ease against the small farmer. At least 13 percent of the crop goes to pay for fertilizer, the rest being insufficient to support the rural family. To make up the deficit created under these conditions, the farmer is forced to resort to extra work. Two million peasant families engage in the extremely underpaid silkworm industry, thereby doubling their income. They resort also to weaving, spinning, etc., the rural family being the unit of domestic economy, notoriously a sweatshop system. Furthermore to secure a little ready cash the peasant hires out his daughter to the textile mills or even sells her to the city brothels. Nearly half a million persons migrate from country to town each year, half of them women. However, just as in pre-revolutionary Russia, there is a constant migration back to the village. Official statistics show that a quarter of those who return home have tuberculosis, the terrible scourge of modern Japan.


The process of land concentration and peasant exploitation occurs here as elsewhere through the mortgaging of the land. The peasantry owes over 2½ billion yen to the banks. As in America during the present crisis, the banks find it more economic, and less fraught with danger, to await “better times” before foreclosing on the bankrupt farmers. The capitalist economic system permits the industrialists to fasten the burden of the crisis on worker and peasant. With the silk market completely shattered, the peasant’s labor goes begging and his conditions of living become indescribable. He eats the food intended for his animals, the seed for planting, the few cattie remaining – and then he starves miserably.

The Solution

“The (Japanese) peasantry in its entirety represents an elementary rebellion.” This rebellion manifests itself ordinarily in Japan through tenant unions which fight first of all for rent reduction. These tenant unions grew from 130 in 1917 to 4,065 in 1926 with a membership of 368,000. The tenant unions have the sympathy and support (sometimes the leadership) of the workers’ unions in the cities.

It was his analysis of the revolutionary significance of the Russian peasants that led Lenin to his concept of the role of the proletariat in a democratic agrarian revolt. The peasants can be put at the service of the revolution only by the force that takes over the state power. The seizing of the land and the democratic aspirations of the agrarians can be fulfilled only through the leadership of the proletariat which, however, does not stop short at this goal but establishes the dictatorship of the proletariat for the transition from capitalism to socialism. Starting from these same premises, Trotsky generalized and broadened the ideas involved, ideas primarily applicable to backward countries, and formulated in greater detail and more precisely than previously the idea of permanent revolution, applicable to world economy in such manner that a successful proletarian victory in one country becomes the starting point for the consolidation of proletarian victory in all countries.

Japan and Russia

It is a peculiarity of Japanese economy that in no other country has agriculture remained so backward with industry so advanced. Unlike Czarist Russia, Japan has a more powerful capitalist class in close alliance, as yet, with the feudal landed aristocracy. This renders it more difficult for the relatively weak proletariat to assume the leadership and to seize power in a revolution. Nevertheless its role in relation to the peasantry must follow the broad outlines set by the Russian example. It is possible that Japan’s evolution may follow a different course, but only if the vanguard of the working class does not organize into a strong Communist party ready to lead workers and peasants. There are forces at work already to shunt the peasant revolt over to pseudo-Fascist rails. Tachibana, assassin of Premier Inukai, peculiar combination of social revolutionary terrorist turned fascist, reveals clearly the attempts of the military bureaucracy to place itself at the head of any incipient movement of revolt on the part of the peasants so as to render it abortive. The Russian example must be the beacon for our Japanese comrades, showing the way to the only real solution!

Feudal Remnants in Capitalism

The appearance of nationwide unemployment during the prolonged crisis in Japanese capitalism marks a distinct turning-point in its development as well as in that of the working class. In 1930 there appeared for the first time in Japan the American type of hobo, symbol of the end of a period of labor shortage in industry and the beginning of the new epoch of permanent unemployment for an increasing section of the proletariat. Japan’s rising labor costs, in the face of low labor productivity, act increasingly to force rationalization, – in essence the use of more productive machines and less labor. Japan reaches the heights of modernity!

Despite this up-to-dateness the relationship between master and man, boss and worker, is permeated with feudal remnants in unique fashion. Prior to the present crisis, despite the extreme poverty of the villages, the peasantry avoided factory labor, thus creating a continual shortage of industrial workers. The employers were forced to send recruiting agents to the farms, these agents luring young girls to the city by glowing accounts of city life, presents, payment of badly needed cash in advance to the parents and advance of transportation money. Every year 200,000 girls were thus lured to the textile mills, there to be kept behind locked gates in factory dormitories.

Over eight percent of the textile workers are women. The present Japanese factory laws permit children of 12 to work in factories and there are over a quarter of a million girls from 12 to 16 at work. The exploitation of these women and children can be duplicated only by England in the early 19th century. Half the factories have dormitories which “imprison” 1/5 of the men and over half of the women hands. The factory act permits a nominal workday of 11 hours for women and children but this is honored only in the breach. The dormitory permits the prolonging of the work-day with ease. The dormitories are also the breeding-place of prostitution fostered by the bosses. The food provided by the companies at a “nominal sum” (in reality part of the low wages) means slow starvation for the victims. Japanese workers do not sleep in beds but on mats, covered by quilts. A mat occupies a space three feet by six, this space being allotted in the dormitories to two or three workers. Overcrowding, poor food, bad sanitation, confinement – no wonder tuberculosis is the scourge of Japan! All unions make the demand that the dormitories be abolished or, more immediately, that food and sanitary conditions be improved.

Not only in the dormitories is there overcrowding. It is common for two families, each of five persons, with boarders as well, to occupy three mats in workers’ homes. The infant mortality rate among workers’ families is extremely high. Mothers, after long hours of toil, cannot nurse their babies. Here we have the “normal” conditions under Japanese “planned” economy.

Wages and Discharge Allowances

The wages of men in the silk-reeling and cotton spinning mills average from 1.20 to 1.60 yen a day, women receiving 0.90 to 1.00 yen per day. This meagre wage is augmented by bonuses (deferred wages) granted at the pleasure of the boss and constituting an excellent means of defrauding workers. However, the remnants of feudal psychology have, up till recently, led to a recognition of the duty of the employer to continue the worker in employment. Thus if a worker is discharged he is granted an allowance amounting to a considerable sum in many cases. Not only does this apply in case of discharge but even in strikes the bosses are obliged to pay the returning strikers for the time lost. In the famous Noda Shoyn Brewing Co. strike lasting for 217 days in 1927–28, the strike was lost but the company paid $100,000 to the strikers dismissed, each one receiving over $200 and, despite the company’s refusal to recognize the union, $40,000 going to the strike fund. Latterly these allowances have become a cheap means of avoiding any unemployment dole.

(To be continued)

Weber (Jacobs) Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 13 November 2014