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Sylvia Merrill

Japan: Its Labor Movement and Class Action

(January 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 2, 11 January 1943, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(Concluded from last issue)

The period after the war saw the progress of liberalism. The fight for the extension of the franchise, was carried on not only by working class organizations but by the liberal capitalist groups.

In 1920 an attempt had been made to organize a socialist party that would include both the communists and socialists. This attempt was frustrated by the police, who raided the meeting. According to an article appearing in Proletarian Outlook, May–June 1940, in 1924 the Socialist League of Japan had 114,000 members!

With the granting of the franchise in 1925 another attempt was made to form a united party, but three hours after formation it was disbanded by the government on the grounds of communism. Nevertheless, a fusion did take place which, however, did not last long as the communists gained control of the organization and the reformist wing left the party. Within this reformist wing a left (centrist) wing grew up which split away.

In 1932 the reformists and centrists united to form the Social Mass Party. This is the Social Democratic Party of Japan.

It is interesting to note that the Stalinist movement in Japan has gone through all the twists and turns of the Stalinist parties in the rest of the world. Following the line promulgated in Moscow, they formed the Red Trade Unions. In 1928 the general round-up of communists led to their suppression. In 1931 they were again suppressed. In 1937 they dissolved their party and formed q new party in line with the popular front policy at the time. They were, however, suppressed. The police were not concerned with their attempts at class collaboration.

Despite our sharp political criticism of the Stalinists, one feels admiration for the heroism of its members who have carried on in the face of this police terrorism.

Depression Spurs Strike Action

In all the countries of the world one is able to say there were such and so many unemployed during the depression. But not so in Japan. Since there is practically no social legislation, hence no unemployment compensation, the worker returned to his village or his city home and became a burden on his family – no one was unemployed! But in 1929 and 1930 there were hunger marches all over Japan.

The depression saw a great many strikes. In 1929 there were 1,420 strikes; in 1931 2,456.

In one strike, which was given no publicity in the newspapers, and in which the boss refused to negotiate, the workers felt, that something had to be done lest they lose. One heroic worker, who felt he would rather die than see the strike lost, mounted the factory chimney and stayed there, refusing to take food. The police threatened and ranted; the population came out to see this phenomena. The newspapers could no longer ignore it. They came and took pictures and speculation was rampant as to how long he could last up there. The boss was put on the spot. The strike became a major issue and he was forced to negotiate. This form of strike action, the “chimney-man” was many times repeated in various strikes to the point where police would throw a guard around the chimney when a strike was called.

In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria and with this came a rise in the nationalist feelings of the labor movement. The trade union movement buckled under to the government and strikes decreased until 1935.

Capitalizing on the nationalist sentiment of the workers, a fascist union movement arose based on collaboration between labor and capital.

Rising Prices and Labor Disputes

The reformist trade unions entirely support their government’s war policies and have consistently opposed every effort on the part of the workers to gain any wage increases. In many cases the workers disregard their union leadership and attempt to fight for their elementary right to live.

The war in China in 1937 brought with it the intensification of the building of heavy industry. In Japan Over Asia, William Chamberlain says that with the drift toward a wartime economy, beginning with the China War,

“Labor disputes in so far as they are not repressed by stern administrative measures, tend to occur more frequently because the wage which seems adequate today may fail to cover essential living costs within a few months in view of the rising prices.”

In 1936 there was an increase of 20 per cent in the number of labor disputes in the metal and machine industries. In the first six months of 1937 there was an increase of approximately 50 per cent in the number of disputes.

At the outbreak of the China War, in August 1937, a trade union conference meeting was in progress. They passed a resolution giving support to the government, pledging not to strike for the duration and asked their members to buy war bonds.

It is easy to understand the rise in the number of strikes in 1939, despite trade union pledges to the contrary, if one can visualize the cost of living going up 34.2 per cent from 1931 to 1937, and wages going “up” 2.5 per cent in that same period! By 1939, all things considered, it is difficult to figure out what the Japanese worker was eating.

Despite the many betrayals of the workers’ interests by the reformist trade union movement and its political counterpart, the Social Mass Party, the Japanese worker has, ever since 1932, voted for this party. In the first elections held by the SMP the returns were very poor and there were desertions on the part of leaders from the party to the ranks of the fascists. In 1936 they won eighteen seats and in 1937 doubled their vote. In addition they had fifty-eight members in prefecture assemblies and 151 in the municipal assemblies.

Despite our powerfully organized trade union movement, American workers have little reason to scoff at the backwardness of Japanese labor when we note the fact that the Japanese working class at least sent thirty-seven of its own representatives to represent them in the Diet. (How they represent them is another question!)

From the foregoing we can see that the popular concept of the Japanese as a peculiar race, immune to the effects of the class struggle which takes place wherever capitalist industry exists, is far from the truth. While in numbers and stability, Japanese labor has not achieved the status of the American labor movement, the effects of war weariness in Japan as elsewhere should prove a great spur to the Japanese working class.

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