1868-2000: Anarchism in Japan

1918 rice riots in Okayama
1918 rice riots in Okayama

A history of the once-influential anarchist movement in the Japanese Islands in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Submitted by Steven. on September 13, 2006

Today Japan brings to mind to mind
high tech corporations, stressed out primary school students and
a gruelling work ethic that demands loyalty to the company. One
hundred and thirty years ago it was a very different place, predominantly
agricultural and ruled over by a fuedal elite. In 1868, these rulers
decided to industrialise the country and create a highly centralised
state. For this reason, the Japanese experience of capitalism is
different from that in many European countries.

Here, aristocrats were replaced (either gradually
or by revolution) by a rising class of businessmen. There, the
aristocrats became the new businessmen. The culture of feudalism
wasn't rejected and replaced, rather it was remained and provided
the background to the new society. This meant that Japan at the
turn of the century was a country that was becoming more industrial
and yet remained extremely conformist. It was in these difficult
conditions that anarchism ideas first took hold in Japan.

The movement was to be dramatically influenced
by the world wars in which Japan played a leading part. Three
phases are evident: from 1906-1911, from 1911-1936, from 1944-present

Ideas have to come from somewhere. In Japan
anarchist ideas were first popularised by Kotoku
. Born in a provincial town in 1871, he moved to Tokyo
in his teens. His political ideas developed on the pages of a
number of papers he wrote and edited. Though these early newspapers
weren't anarchist, they were liberal enough to bring him to the
notice of the authorities. He was imprisoned in 1904 for breaking
one of the many draconian press laws. As it is for many, prison
was to be his school.

There he read anarchist communist Peter
's 'Fields, Factories and Workshops'. In prison he
also began to consider the role of the Emperor in Japanese society.
Many socialists at the time, avoided criticising the Emperor,
in contrast Kotoku began to see how the Emperor was at the centre
of both capitalism and the power of the state in Japan.

Following his release from prison he emigrated
to the USA. There he joined the newly formed Industrial
Workers of the World
(the IWW, also known as the Wobblies),
a syndicalist trade union, strongly influenced by anarchist ideas.
In the US he had access to more anarchist literature, reading
Kropotkin's 'The
Conquest of Bread

On his returned to Japan in 1906 he spoke
to a large public meeting on the ideas he had developed while
in the US. A number of articles then followed. "I hope"
he wrote "that from now on the socialist movement will abandon
its commitment to a parliamentary party and will adapt its method
and policy to the direct action of the workers united as one".

In the following years the anarchist-communists
concentrated on spreading information about anarchism, through
the production of oral and written propaganda. Although the work
they did was similar to work Irish anarchists do today, the conditions
they had to operate in were very much more difficult. Faced with
continuous police harassment, some anarchists considered turning
to more violent methods. In 1910 four of these were arrested following
the discovery of bomb making equipment.

This was the opportunity the authorities were
waiting for to comprehensively clamp down on dissent. Hundreds
were taken into custody. Finally 26 were brought to trial. Though
they were charged with plotting to kill the emperor, in reality
they were being tried for having anarchist beliefs. All but two
were sentenced to death. 12 had their sentences commuted to life
imprisonment, and 12, including Kotoku, were executed. Following
his death, many activists fled into exile. Those that stayed faced
repeated imprisonment.

Yet despite these exceptionally harsh conditions,
the movement did not die. The end of the First World War brought
a period of spiralling inflation, which led to rice riots in many
towns and cities. The new industrial workers began to organise
and labour disputes increased. The Russian Revolution caused intense
debate in Japan, as elsewhere; how can we create a better society?
What should that society look like? This flourishing of opinion
was temporarily dimmed, following the tragic murders of two anarchists,
Osugi Sakae and his partner Ito

In 1923, a major earthquake hit Japan. More
than 90,000 people died. The state took advantage of the turmoil
and hysteria that followed. The two anarchists, along with Osugi's
six-year-old nephew were seized by a squad of military police
and beaten to death. The brutality of the murder compelled some
anarchists to seek revenge. Once again, anarchist attempts at
retribution were met by state repression that struck indiscriminately.

However, all was not lost. Indeed anarchist
organisations were growing as never before. In 1926 two nationwide
federations of anarchists were formed. The following years were
characterised by intense debate between anarchist- communists
and anarchist syndicalists. At issue was the central question
as of what was the best method with which to build towards a revolution.
Hand in hand with their theoretical discussions, these anarchists
were active in struggles over wages and working conditions.

War however once more loomed on the horizon.
As the state began to move towards external confrontation with
Manchuria, it also began to silence internal opposition. A new
wave of repression ensued. Although the anarchist movement adopted
many strategies to survive, the state was determined to succeed.
With the beginning of the Second World War, all anarchist organisations
were forced to shut down. The anarchists themselves had to maintain
a low profile, hiding their political ideals from public view.

Post-war, Japan was under the effective rule
of the United States. Their political policy for the country see-sawed
between trying to artificially create a 'right' and a 'left' political
party, to trying to remove all left wing influences from politics.
Heavy investment and a rapidly growing economy were accompanied
by a clamp down on trade union autonomy. Although the anarchists
re-grouped and re-organised, they found it difficult to flourish
in these conditions.

The movement today is much smaller than before,
and from the UK it is difficult to find much English language
information about them. There are a few websites around by anarcho-syndicalists
and -communists, and some small collectives active in Kyoto, Osaka
and Tokyo that we at libcom.org know of. No doubt they face many
of the same problems that we do; how to show people that they
don't have to just make do, how to convince people that an alternative
is possible and that they have power to create it.

Perhaps the economic turmoil that Japan is
now experiencing will lead people to criticise and reject the
current system. If that happens, hopefully Japanese anarchists
will be able provide a vision of society based on freedom and
equality, begin to rebuild the movement, so once more anarchist
ideas have mass influence.

Edited from an article from Workers Solidarity
No 58 published in Oct 1999, by the Workers Solidarity Movement