The Great Treason Incident - Anarchism in Japan

Sketch of the anarchist defendants
Sketch of the anarchist defendants

A podcast episode on the Great Treason Incident and the early Anarchist movement in Japan.

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 16, 2018

The History of Japan podcast is a podcast detailing the history of Japan, created by Isaac Meyer whose site with episode listings can be found here. It covers a very diverse range of topics but I felt this episode would be of interest to users of the site.


From Episode 81 of Isaac Meyer's History of Japan Podcast
In 1910, an anarchist plot to assassinate the Meiji Emperor was uncovered. Seizing the opportunity, conservatives in the government pounced in to arrest 26 anarchists. The background of this confrontation between the government and the radical left, the trials themselves, and their modern legacy are our topics

Transcript of the episode.

The Great Treason Incident

Anarchism in Japan

Isaac Meyer December 6th 2014

Hello and welcome to the History of Japan Podcast, episode 81 the Great Treason Incident. Picture the setting, a small room in Nagano Prefecture in 1910, home to one Miyashita Takichi a lumber mill employee. The date is May 20th and outside the police are lining up to prepare to raid the place, they break in and begin to search, only to find exactly what they feared would be there, parts to produce a bomb. This confirms their worst fears, it’s exactly as they suspected, someone is plotting to kill the Meiji Emperor.

The raid on Miyashita’s home was the climax of an investigation which came at one of the most unsettled point’s in Japans national history. Only five years early crowds had rejoiced in the streets of victory over Russia, but that rejoicing had been short-lived. The military had done an excellent job of keeping a lid on just how hard things had been going in Manchuria and as a result the majority of Japanese were simply not aware of how much they had sacrificed for victory. In particular they had no good explanation for the fact that their country’s debt was not being wiped out with a massive war indemnity- the Japanese had in fact decided their position was not good enough to demand one from Russia- for the fact that their country was not annexing everything up to the Amur river in northern Manchuria -same reason- and for the fact that rice prices were spiking inexplicably.

Military requisitioning was driving up the prices, but most people assumed it was just war profiteering. The result was riots that started in the Hibiya district of Tokyo but spread across Japan’s big urban centres and in which over 1 million people participated. For the Meiji leadership this was some of their worst nightmares. They were dangerously close it seemed to losing control of the masses. You see perhaps because some of their first experiences abroad really coincided with the high water marks of the European left, the Paris Commune for example or the steady rise of the German Socialist Party, or the early days of the British Labour party. The leaders of Meiji Japan were always very worried about the threat of leftist ideologies Marxism, Anarchism or Socialism.

They worried that Japanese industrialisation would naturally bring these same problems to Japanese shores. In part that fear actually spurred these leaders to be more progressive than they otherwise would have been. Borrowing from the playbook of Otto Von Bismarck, did the exact same thing in Imperial Germany. The Meiji leadership lead by Ito Hirobumi, Yamagata Aritomo and the fiscal expert of the bunch Matsukata Masayoshi decided to implement several reforms to pre-empt a lot of the issues socialists traditionally drew support from.

In particular they arranged for the passage of factory acts regulating working conditions and hours in the 1880s, at which point Japan had less than 50 factories across the entire country. The idea basically being, `We’ll need these laws eventually, so we might as well have them now`. This kind of system is referred to as a Social Monarchy. In essence the Monarchy provides reforms normally associated with socialist parties, in a sort of paternalistic way designed to attach the people more directly to their ruler. [Sarcastically] Who cares clearly, so deeply for their well being [/sarcastically].

Despite their best attempts to keep a lid on things however, the radical left began to gain strength in the early 20th century and that scared the hell out of the Meiji leadership. It’s kind of hard for those of us born at the tail end of the Cold War to really grasp, because we tend to think of ideologies like Anarchism or socialism as `that thing your slightly stoned friend from college won’t shut up about` but at the time these were really potent ideologies that scared a lot of establishment people because of their potential for forcing radical change.

This was particularly true of Anarchism, which as an ideology had motivated a wave of assassinations in Europe and America during the latter half of the 19th century. Tsar Alexander II in Russia in 1881, President of the Republic of France Marie François Sadi Carnot in 1894, Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary in 1898 -incidentally her corset was laced so tight that after she was stabbed she didn’t start to bleed seriously until it was taken off- and President William McKinley of the United States in 1901. And those are just the highest profile ones, there were plenty more.

Thus the Meiji oligarchs decided to complement the old velvet glove with a little bit of the old iron fist. If playing nice didn’t work, well how about a little good old repression. The first targets of their wrath were organisations like the Japan Socialist Party, which was first formed in 1901 and then shut down by police within and I’m not kidding; three hours of its formation. Also in the crosshairs was an organisation called the Heimin-Sha, the Commoner’s Association which produced a newspaper called the Heimin Shimbun the Commoner’s Newspaper. Its editor a young intellectual named Kōtoku Shūsui had produced in that paper among other things the first partial Japanese language translation of the Communist Manifesto as well as the works of Russian Anarchist Peter Kropotkin.

The Heimin Shimbun was also shutdown in 1905. Kōtoku by the way is both a fascinating person and central to the story, so we should talk about him for a little bit.

He was the descendant of a rather well-to-do samurai family `because no the stereotype about rich kids embracing Marxism or Anarchism is not a new thing`. From what would have been Tosa domain and what was now Kochi Prefecture, in Shikoku in 1871. In his 20s he fell under the influence of Katayama Sen a prominent Christian Socialist. Kōtoku embraced socialism and was one of the founding members with Katayama of the aforementioned socialist party. Like everyone else he was arrested within a few hours of its formation.

However technically speaking there wasn’t anything they could be charged with so while the party was shutdown they were released. Katayama and Kōtoku however ended up splitting. Katayama moved away from Christian Socialism which was a big thing in the 19th century but not so much in the 20th, towards communism. He would eventually join the Communist International, helped found the Japan Communist Party in 1922 and spend the remainder of his life in exile in the Soviet Union.

Kōtoku meanwhile began moving towards Anarchism. He left Japan in 1905 for the United States, where in the age old tradition of Hippies everywhere -again not making this up- he moved to San Francisco and joined a commune, because some things never change. His rationale for leaving was his desire to openly critique the Emperor and the Imperial family, whom he saw as the legitimising force of the evils of Japanese capitalism. He returned to Japan a year later, after incidentally having lived through and helping rebuild from the great San Francisco earthquake in 1906. A very different man from the one who had left for the U.S. Now he was a committed Anarchist and among other things he abandoned some of the more moderate goals of socialism, including universal voting rights, in favour of a more radical position of direct action against oppressive structures of government.

Direct action of course makes the authorities think of the fates of all those world leaders who had been killed by Anarchists. Because what’s more direct than a bomb throwing or a stabbing? In fact reading his writings its more likely Kōtoku was calling for general strikes than assassination.

Now its worth stopping here to note because if I don’t, any Anarchist who listens to the show will likely flood my e-mail with messages reminding me that most Anarchists, then and now did not advocate violence. Just as with a great many ideologies over the course of human history it was only a small lunatic fringe that did. But of course as a general rule the lunatic fringe out there is always better getting noticed than the down to earth people.

Anyway between his previous past as a socialist and his current one as an Anarchist Kōtoku was now definitely a person of interest for the government. They were watching him very carefully, this despite the fact that after his return most of his public energy seems to have been expended on that great pastime on the left-leaning, internal structures between functionally identical factions. In particular the Japanese left was split between Anarchist, Christian Socialist and Marxist socialist camps. With a smattering of other folks thrown in to keep things exciting.

It’s all very Byzantine and vaguely reminiscent of the whole People’s Front of Judea versus the Judean Peoples Front bit from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. However the fact that Kōtoku and his allies descended into squabbling that would be incomprehensible to most people, didn’t seem to change the pictures much for the authorities. He and his friends were dangerous.

This impression was confirmed in 1908 by what was known as the Akahata Jiken or the Red Banner Incident. On June 22nd of that year a prominent anarchist named Yamaguchi Koken was released from jail after serving out his term. He was greeted by a giant Anarchist rally. Several hundred Anarchists waving banners with slogans like “Revolution” and “Anarchy and Communism” greeted Yamaguchi and the police terrified of this human mass decided that something had to be done. They went in and started beating and arresting whoever they could get their hands on, to disperse the rally.

In the wake of the incident the new Prime Minister Katsura Tarō, -who had taken over a few weeks earlier from our old buddy Saionji Kinmochi, future Japanese delegate to Versailles and tutor of Konoe Fumimaro,- decided that he would crackdown on the troublemakers. He began to push for even more police power to be deployed against Socialists and Anarchists. And that leads us to where we started, on Katsura’s orders the police began digging and through their infiltration of Anarchist cells -sometimes I really wonder how many of these cells were actually Anarchists and how many were all just police informants snitching on each other- they came across a plot.

Someone had talked about killing the Emperor and apparently one of the people they’d spoken to was Kōtoku Shūsui. So the investigation continued given more urgency by the assassination of Ito Hirobumi, since his assassin An Jung-geun was often incorrectly described as an Anarchist, a label he is sometimes still given today though he was not, he was very much a Nationalist. The plot the authorities had come across was very real though only five people were involved in it. One of them by the way is someone we’ve talked about before, Kanno Sugako.

She was one of Japan’s leading Feminists and like Kōtoku Shūsui had started out a Christian Socialist and moved towards Anarchism over time. Kanno had also been in a relationship with Kōtoku Shūsui though by 1910 they’d broken things off. Her life story is absolutely fascinating, she was born in Osaka to a family of merchants in 1881 and became involved in socialism because at the time it was one of the few ideologies out there unquestioningly dedicated to the idea of women’s liberation. She became a social critic and a journalist, but over time more committed to direct action.

Unlike in the case of Kōtoku who was definitely not involved in this assassination plot against the Emperor, she definitely was. Someone talked though and the police pounced. In addition to grabbing the five people actually involved in the plot Kanno Sugako, Miyashita Takichi -the guy with the bomb components in his home- and three others. They also took the time to round up 21 other suspected Anarchists. Prime Minister Katsura decided that now that he had the excuse it was time to crack down hard.

Kōtoku Shūsui was one of them, he was arrested at an onsen while recovering from a bout of respiratory illness. [sarcasm]Because obviously when you’re plotting high treason you have to take care of your lungs[/sarcasm]. Ironically enough there were a bunch of other Anarchist leaders the government wanted to arrest as well but couldn’t. People like the Anarchist and labour leader Arahata Kanson. They were in jail as a result of the Red Banner Incident back in 1908 and thus even by the loosely defined standards of evidence which surrounded the whole affair, they couldn’t really be said to be involved.

Now the trial these people were given, well if you described it as a farce it would be a grave insult to the farcical arts. The 26 defendants were brought up on charges from articles 73 to 76 of the Penal Code; which allowed death sentences for those who harmed or attempted to harm the Imperial family and hard labour for those who “disrespected” the family. Which could for example include destroying or damaging a Shinto Shrine. The Chief Prosecutor was a man named Hiranuma Kiichirō, who had gotten his start in the Justice Ministry and was generally considered to be a star prosecutor. He was also very much of the `Tough on crime school` and pressed for the death penalty in every case, even those only guilty by association.

Incidentally he’s come up in our story before but later on in his career as one of the prime ministers of the 1930s. I’d said we’d be only dealing with him one more time on the show but it turns out I was wrong, I actually didn’t know he was involved with this case until I started writing this episode. He’ll come back next August when we turn to the events of 1945 and you probably won’t like him much then either.

Very recently, in fact only a few years ago, a letter from Kanno Sugako to a journalist at the Asahi Shimbun named Sugimura Jyuou, dated directly before the trial came to light. It has shed some light on what was going on in her head during the lead up to the sentencing. The way she wrote it was actually very ingenious, she used a needle to poke characters into a piece of paper so that it looked blank but the writing was visible when you held it up to a light. The letter itself flatly states that Kōtoku Shūsui knew nothing about the plot and implores Sugimura to find a lawyer for Kōtoku. It also correctly predicted the sentencing.

The chief judge [can’t understand name] apparently decided that this was no time to look soft on treason because he went with Hiranuma and sentenced 24 of the 26 defendants to death. The remaining two were given varying terms of imprisonment. Things were getting out of hand, a message had to be sent. This provided an opening for the Imperial House to show its benevolence, the Emperor who at this point was already ailing and would die of natural causes two years later, personally intervened to commute the death sentences of thirteen of the defendants. However neither Kanno nor Kōtoku were among them.

Kōtoku and Kanno spent their remaining months in prison. Kōtoku's own mother actually died when she came down to Tokyo to visit him and Kanno Sugako, whom she was extremely fond of, and then caught pneumonia. Kanno who was quite the writer left a testament of her reflections during the lead-up to the final carrying out of the execution. It’s very moving and deeply depressing, she describes the outcome of the trial quote “ my poor friends, my poor comrades, more than half of them were innocent bystanders who had been implicated by the actions of five or six of us. Just because they were associated with us they now are to be sacrificed in this monstrous fashion simply because they are Anarchists, they are to be thrown over the cliffs to their deaths. We had sailed into the vast ocean ahead of the worlds current of thought, and the general tides of events. Unfortunately we were shipwrecked, but this sacrifice had to be made to get things started. New routes are opened up only after many shipwrecks and voyages. This is how the other shore of one’s ideals is reached. After the sage of Nazareth, Jesus that is, was born, many sacrifices had to be made before Christianity became a world religion. In light of this I feel our sacrifice is miniscule.” End quote.

The majority of executions including Kōtoku’s were carried out on January 24th 1911, Kanno Sugako was executed the next day. Her execution was particularly politically explosive since she was the first woman ever executed by the Meiji government. The story has a sad postscript, after his death Kōtoku Shūsui became a martyr to the Japanese left, both because of his intellectual presence before his death and because of his show trial leading up to it.

The trials rather than undercutting the Japanese left actually galvanized it to a degree. In fact in 1923 someone tried to avenge him. As then Crown Prince Hirohito was riding to the Diet to open a new session he passed Toranomon an area between the Imperial palace at Akasaka and the Diet building in Nagatachō. A gunshot rang out, the shot missed the Crown Prince, though it did hit a chamberlain in the entourage. The perpetrator was tackled shortly after and revealed to be one Namba Daisuke.

Namba Daisuke was actually the son of a prominent Diet member representative. Who had started his life fairly nationalist, he actually considered joining the army but was converted to radical leftist politics. Among other things he said that he planned to assassinate Hirohito in revenge for the death of Kōtoku Shūsui. Unsurprisingly Namba Daisuke was convicted of high treason in short order and hanged. But now the fear was back. The radical left had not been forced underground by the trials and now someone had yet again tried to assassinate a member of the Imperial family.

To make matters worse the hard left was even more entrenched than it had been before. Like we covered earlier the Japan Communist Party had been founded a year earlier in 1922 and while the Socialists had gone under the Anarchists had not. The Communists if anything were growing far beyond anything the other two had ever managed. They were even openly getting into academia in the form of Marxist economists like Kawakami Hajime. Clearly the crackdown initiated by Katasura was not working – he by the way had been forced out of office shortly there after by a scandal covered in another episode, basically he proved unable to control the army- something even harsher was necessary.

The result was the Peace Preservation law of 1925, easily the harshest and most authoritarian law in Japanese history. And used to justify the vast majority of the oppression that would happen in the 1930s and 1940s. The law was written by the Home Minister who was -wait for it- no one other than our old friend Hironuma Kiichirō, the prosecutor from the treason trial. The first two articles read quote “ Anyone who organises a group for the purposes of changing the national polity or of denying the private property system or anyone who knowingly participates in said group shall be sentenced to penal servitude or imprisonment not exceeding ten years. An offence not actually carried out shall also be subject to punishment. Anyone who consults with another person on matters relating to the implementation of these objectives described in Clause one of the preceding article shall be sentenced to penal servitude or imprisonment not exceeding seven years.”

The remainder of the law went on to specify that inciting others to these activities was also punishable by penal servitude, that financially supporting anyone found guilty of these crimes was illegal and incredibly that you were still guilty even if you broke the law outside of Japanese Jurisdiction. A Japanese citizen writing an editorial in the United States about changing the Constitution would be arrested upon returning to Japan. When a Dietman questioning the utility of the new law attempted to undercut Hironuma by pointing out that the way the law was currently worded a legislator could be arrested for suggesting an amendment to the Constitution Hironuma responded that that Dietman was absolutely correct, it says right in the Meiji Constitution that only the Emperor can propose amendments, so anyone else doing so is a violation of the peace preservation law.

This draconian bit of law making would become emblematic of Totalitarian Japan and incidentally it would also be one of the first laws repealed under the US occupation government. The Peace Preservation law really is the ultimate legacy of the Great Treason Incident. The fear with which the Japanese elite looked at the radical left prompted them to put into place a Totalitarian system of repression that was then seized by the military and turned on the society it was supposed to defend from radicalism.

Kanno Sugako and her four compatriots thought they were attacking the lynchpin of an oppressive system. In reality they never had much of a chance of getting their plan off the ground and all they did was provide an excuse for a crackdown.

Kōtoku Shūsui and all the other innocent Anarchists meanwhile became sacrifices in the name of abstract notions of social stability and national security. They were among the first, but they would not be the last. In a final sad note, after the war the families of the victims tried one last time to get justice. They requested a retrial of the case since legally speaking the original verdicts were still on the books. Even after the war Kōtoku Shūsui was still legally a traitor, their request for a retrial was denied by the Supreme Court of Japan in 1969.

Prior to his execution Kōtoku Shūsui etched the following onto the wall of his cell “how has it come about that I have committed this grave crime? Today my trial is hidden from outside observers and I have even less liberty than previously to speak about these events. Perhaps in 100 years someone will speak out about them on my behalf. “

Well I guess I’m three years late and I’m not the first to bring this up, but for what its worth Kōtoku you were right. That’s all this week.