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Sylvia Merrill

Japan: Post-War Upsurge in Labor Movement

(January 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 1, 4 January 1943, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(Continued from last issue)

The post-war movement had repercussions among the soldiers, risings among government employees, strikes in three military arsenals. Of 27,000 workers, employed in the munitions factories, 10,000 went on strike. Fifteen thousand workers in the Kawaski plant struck in 1919, occupying the factories. The strikes won an eight-hour day for 100,000 workers and a nine-hour day for many more.

In 1920 the Fuji Knitting Mills went on strike, involving 400 men and 1,700 women. But by this time the reaction had set in and repressive measures were taken against the trade unions and the socialist organizations. The strike was lost. But in 1925 they struck again. It is interesting to note the demands of these women workers:

  1. The right to go home in event of death in the immediate family.
  2. The right to receive visits from close relatives.
  3. Wages of female workers not to be paid to their parents without the consent of the worker.
  4. Meat or fish meal once a day.
  5. Right to organize.
  6. Reinstatement of sixteen dismissed workers.

In 1919, Japan was invited to send delegates to the International Labor Conference of the League of Nations. The government appointed a leading industrialist and the niece of a count to “represent” the workers. Demonstrations were held from one end of the country to the other in protest.

The niece of the count, having a little bit of a conscience, thought she ought to acquaint herself with the conditions of labor, so she toured the country. Everywhere she went she was met by demonstrations on the part of the workers, which evidently impressed her considerably. She appeared at the conference and shocked not only the Japanese delegates but all the other “labor representatives” of that body when she told them that Japanese women were both physically and psychologically victims of the capitalist system.

The significance of this remark becomes more apparent when coupled with the statement of the bosses, who frankly admitted that they feared to use male labor because they were sure strikes and general labor unrest would follow.

So we see that the Japanese labor and socialist movement, on a smaller scale than the European movements, went through the post-war upsurge. But while the labor movement of Europe had many, many years of experience behind it in strike strategy and labor tactics, the Japanese labor movement was but a child in swaddling clothes in 1918.

Then, too, unlike the labor movement of Europe, Japan had never gone through that period known as capitalist democracy. The police suppression in Japan is such that every time a political party is formed, two or three hours later it is declared illegal.

The Japanese ruling class never passed through that phase of being able to pass some of its crumbs on down to its laboring masses. Arriving late on the international scene, they have made the working class pay the price of underselling the world market. As an example: Japanese cotton goods in India sell for less than the Indians can produce it in their own country, and raw cotton is an import in Japan. Takahashi, a Japanese Finance Minister, in 1933 spoke of Japan making up for her lack of capital and for the poverty of her financial resources by cheap labor. “Japan can face England and France’s golden bullets with labor as her weapon.”

The scattered nature of Japanese production has made it very difficult to organize the workers. Unlike the U.S., a 1930 census shows that 53 per cent of the total workers industrially employed were in factories employing fewer than five workers. The difficulties in organizing a working class as scattered as this are self-evident. In additions there is the problem of the handicraft worker.

Paternalism is a conscious policy on the part of the employers and government. This is another factor making union organization difficult. In 1937, the official government year book gives the total number of industrial workers as 6,422,320. Of this number but 395,290 workers, or 6.2 per cent, were organized into unions, and these primarily represented the skilled workers.

Women in Japanese industry have contributed considerably to the backwardness of the labor movement. A Japanese ex-ambassador to the United States described the textile and pottery factories which employ primarily women as follows:

“To see hundreds of young girls, mostly 15 or 16 years old, silently at their work is pitiable, but at the same time inspiring. These girl operators are satisfied with low wages and never grumble. The fact that Japanese goods which are now conquering the world’s markets are made by these maidens makes one thankful to them, warriors of the peace.”

The fact, though, that when these women are reached they react militantly can be seen from the strike in 1925 at the Fuji mills.

A 1937 census showed that 29.9 per cent of the total working population were unmarried females and of these only 1.3 per cent were in unions. Women, tied by ancient tradition and enslaved by the machine, are indeed a problem for organization.

And, last but by no means least, is the problem of the poverty-stricken farmer who has supplied a source of cheap industrial labor in Japan.

(Continued in Next Issue)

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