Ôsugi Sakae

Submitted by Spartacus on February 26, 2011

1. Ôsugi and Bakunin

"For Kropotkin one feels respect, but not attraction. There is a man who is much dearer to me ... a born anarchist, one so constitutionrilly rebellious that he would have remained a rebel even in an anarchist society. A man who was neither regular nor ordered in his habits, who lived a life which was bohemian and unruly. I cannot help but smile at myself when I reflect upon the life of our ancestor Bakunin."
Ôsugi Sakae

Ôsugi himself was a born rebel, a truly uncompromising anarchist who put his numerous prison sentences to good use by resolving to learn a new foreign language with each imprisonment. Despite his reputation as a thinker and translator in the fields of natural science and human philosophy (he translated 'Mutual Aid' and 'Origin of Species', as well as much of Romain Rolland and several works by the French biologist Fabre), one would have to say that, though it was Kropotkin from whom he drew most of his scientific inspiration. it was Bakunin that exercized the greater sway over him as a man.

Ôsugi, it is said by the few surviving Japanese anarchists to have seen him perform, would come striding onto the stage where he was to deliver his speech, wrapped in a black cloak, his eyes flashing with fire: "I am Ôsugi!'' he would shout. He came across, maybe, as a kind of politicized Mick Jagger-in-his-prime, but the very sight of him at the rostrum was enough to cause the waiting police to allege a breach of the peace and declare the meeting closed. His popularity among socialists was fantastic, and the news of his arrival in some place, as with Bakunin, brought people crowding to meet him and hear him speak.

Ôsugi interpreted Bakunin's dynamism as figuring in the chaotic transitional period between the decline of European feudalism and the rise of modern capitalism; whereas Kropotkin's scientific bent was more suited to (and in fact grew out of) the half-century of relative peace which followed the triumph of capitalism in Europe. With World War I, however, and the revolutions in Russia and Germany, the world had been ushered into a new phase-of disorder which would eventually mean the death of capitalism and the victory of freedom and justice. In Japan, the repression following the execution for treason in 1911 of Kôtoku Shûsui and eleven others had sent what remained of the socialist movement underground. As for Ôsugi himself, a three-year prison spell from 1908 to 1910 had given him the opportunity not only to avoid the 1911 mass reprisals, but also to expand his knowledge. From Bakunin, Malatesta, Kropotkin and Jean Grave, the focus of his reading shifted to works of science and philosophy, and for the next five years or so until the socialists began to stick their heads up out of their holes once more he went through a period of high-powered reading and translation. Then came the war, and a fresh departure in the tone of his thinking.

The revival of the popular movement in Japan after the war - particularly the sudden outbreak of the 'Rice Riots' of 1918 - convinced Ôsugi that the time for action had come again: Japanese capitalism was dying and the people were revolting. Bakunin had ooze beat into his own. From then until the end of his life ^Ôsugi remained a Bakuninist, while advocating anarclao-syndicalism as the most practical method of organization in Japanese conditions. Though he continued to read and translate Kropotkin, publishing Japanese editions of, 'Mutual Aid' (Sôgo Fujo Ron; 1917) and 'Memoirs of a Revolutionist' (Kakumeika no Omoide; 1920), the main focus of his studies was Bakunin. In 1926 there appeared a posthumous reprint of Ôsugis essays 'Studies on Bakunin' (Bakûnin Kenkyû), which included 'The Father of Anarchism'. 'Life of Bakunin', 'Marx and Bakunin', and 'An Examination of the Peasant Problem' (on the Lyon insurrection of 1870). This collection was a companion to his 'Studies on Kropotkin' (Kropotkin Kenkyû), published in 1920.

As the best-known agitator in the country (and No. 1 on the Kempei-tai's death list), Ôsugi, prolific as he was, was never given the chance to set down his ideas systematically. As in the Europe of Bakunin, there was always too much happening, and Ôsugi's natural inclinations, like Bakunin's, led him to the heart of any fight that was taking place. To find the core of "Ôsugi-ism" one has to read between the lines of his many translations or, even better, examine his actions.

2. Ôsugi and the Rice Riots1

The Rice Riots - three weeks of near-rebellion - were the greatest mass uprising in modern Japanese history, expressing popular anger at the profiteering of money-grabbing rice dealers amid the post-war inflation. Most important of all was the fact that the impetus came as much from the peasants in the countryside as from the urban proletariat. A total of around ten million people took part in the "riots". which occurred at 636 points mainly in western Japan and largely in the rice-producing areas. The army intervened in 107 places, including the three major cities Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, where the Burakumin, an oppressed outcaste ethnic class played a militant role. The overall number of-victims is unknown, though the army killed dozens of people during some of its interventions. The number of arrested ran to several thousand, with an indictment rate of 90% or more.

It was established custom in the Japan of 1918 for rice dealers to sell on credit. No matter how poor the family, as long as they had an add~ ress they could count on receiving rice on credit with the understanding that the bill would be settled every autumn and year-end (traditional periods for settling debts in Japan). What was more, the rice would be delivered t their door.

For those unable to pay on the appointed day, however, the results could be dire. Many a family tragedy was sparked off in this way, particularly on the last day of the year; whole households frequently dropped everything and fled before the dawning of the New Year.

Consequently, there was nothing outwardly unusual when housewives In Namerikawa, Toyama prefecture, marched into their local rice merchants' and walked off with their supplies of rice. Although they did not seek to pay, there was no thought of robbery in their minds - who ever paid for rice on the spot? The rice merchants, however, had their own views on the matter, for the price of rice was rising daily, and rice sold tomorrow brought more Profit than today's. They tried to hold on to the rice. The housewives of Namerikawa, angered by the merchants' attempt to hoard the rice, thus merely helped themselves and walked away. The "Rice Riot" only came into being when certain merchants sought to resist.

At the time these events were taking place (early August), Ôsugi Sakae was on a train returning from Kyushu to Tokyo. Upon reading in the newspaper of the disturbances he left the train at Osaka and went straight to the house of Henmi Naozô,2 where the sole topic of conversation became, inevitably, the "rice riots".

"There's going to be some action here in Osaka too, mark my words. Meetings and things are being held all over the place already."

"Ah. Sounds interesting. Where's the agitation going on?"

"Well, I reckon it's going to start down by Kamagasaki a [workingclass ghetto district in downtown Osaka]."

"Right. Let's go down now and take a look."

Leaving their police tails with the impression that they were still talking inside the house, Henmi and Ôsugi changed their clothes and slipped into the street, When they arrived in Kamagasaki, though, they found little out of the ordinary. Even in front of the rice dealers' there were no signs of any people gathering. Only when the went through into a backstreet tenement block did they find a group of women gossiping. One of them, who knew Henmi, Promptly greeted them with a question:

"What do you think then, about these women up in Toyama sorting out the rice dealers?"

"Twenty-sen rice is selling for fifty sen now here in Kama - let's go and get them to reduce it to twenty-five - all of us just walk in and tell them to. That's what we've been talking about just now. We can't take much more."

Ôsugi, who had been standing listening with arms folded, now grabbea Henmi's arm and hustled him out into the main street where they hailed a rickshaw.

"What's up? Where are we going?"

"Never mind, just stick close to me, There's going to be some fun soon."

Getting the rickshaw to wait for them, Ôsugi and Henmi made the round of Osaka's newspaper offices:

"Down in Kamagasaki they've started agitating for rice hoarders to sell all their stocks at twenty-five sen. He and I have just been there and seen it happening. The sparks from Toyama have already drifted down to Osaka!"

This was pure Ôsugi, agitation mixed with bluff. As soon as the editor was sold on the story the pair moved on to the next paper. Before they had even finished their rounds the sensational press had brought out their early evening editions with great headlines splashed across the front pages: "Kamagasaki Rice Dealers Forced to Sell at 25 Sen!!''

Sure enough, by 4 pm that day tens of thousands of People were converging at top speed upon Kamagasaki in search of cheap rice. One after an other they began to crowd into the dealers' shops, but:

"Twenty-five sen!? We can't sell at that price! You'd better try some where else…"

So went the initial response. Soon, however, cowed by the mounting numbers of people, dealers began to sell at the demanded price after all, but instead tried to limit each person to one sho (1.8 litres). After that it was not long before people began helping their selves. There was little the dealers could do about it.

When one shop's stocks ran out the crowd would move off in search of the next, shouting victory cries, milling around on the corners and growing ever bigger until someone shouted the location of another dealer, when they would surge off in the appointed direction. Gradually the agitation spread through the city.

For example, at that very time the lnukai/kidô faction of the opposition National Party (Kokumintô) was holding a public meeting in nearby Tennô-Ji on the subject of - ironically enough - the rising price of rice.

"O-oy! Fuck your public meetings! They selling rice at twenty-five sen!"


"All over the city!"

The hall was empty in seconds.

After gathering in Tennôji Park for a few minutes to get the adrenalin going, the crowd moved off in search of rice, taking in as they went liquor shops and goal merchants. Moving haphazardly about the streets, they invaded every shop they could find until a shout went up:

"The Sumitomo warehouse in front of Minato-machi station is stocked cram full of rice! What are we waiting for!?" No-one paused to elect a leader. The agitation was developing into a full-scale riot, even an insurrection, for Sumitomo was one of the major zaibatsu with close ties to many political figures.

With the approaching darkness the crowds had begun to swell to even greater proportions. When, they reached the Sumitomo warehouse, however, they found drawn up in front of it the 8th and 37th regiments of the Imperial Japanese Army. no less, part of the division based permanently in Osaka. The troops responded to the bamboo staves and stones wielded by the crowd with blank volleys fired over their heads and with bayonet charges. After several hours of similar skirmishes and minor conflicts all over the city, people at last began to drift away to their homes The fire, however, was only dampened, not extinguished, and the embers remained to be fanned into new life the next day.

Henmi and Ôsugi, meanwhile had gone home.3 There they found several local anarchists waiting to greet Ôsugi, including Takeda. Denjirô, Kanasaki Dômei, Iwade Kinjirô, Yoshimura Otoya and Yamazaki Shôjiro.4 Ôsugi, wearing an air of innocence, went back into town once more that evening in their company. His police tail, though there was no evidence of his involvement in the afternoon's events, had suddenly multiplied twenty-fold.

"Thanks!" he told them, "with so many of you to look after me I can relax! OK everybody, we can go sight-seeing without any worries. . . "

Ôsugi, openly delighted, visited every inch of Kamagasaki, responding to the comments of the others with "Uh", "Right!", "I see" more as if he were talking to himself. Finally the police chief who was following us around complained :

"Sensei! (a term of respect] Give us a break, will you! Call it a day. If anything happens, it's awkward, and if HQ finds out about it I'm in a fix."

After a while it was decided to call a rest at an inn run by a sympathizer of the movement.

At the time I was still a mischievous boy of no more than sixteen. I ran about the town watching A the day's events as if in a trance. It was my first meeting with Ôsugi. My initial impression had come when his police tail, strung out in a line behind him, attempted to enter our house along with him:

"You bastards get back down there!"

They all jumped as if they had seen a tiger and fell back immediately to the stipulated twenty-metre distance. The sound of Ôsugi's voice, filled with dignity despite his famous stutter, has rung in my ears ever since.

That night, the gathering having moved to the house of Yamazaki Shô-Jiro, Ôsugi described his impressions of what had happened riots" had cleared the way for a new surge my the popular movement; whatever the authorities' reaction, the people were now uncrushable; their movement had bared its strength for the first time; we ourselves now had to get down to serious work, go even deeper among the people then we had already, and stand in the forefront of the struggle. he had never felt so confident as he did today. The rest of us too, infected by what we had seen and heard that day, discussed spiritedly the various ideas which people raised.

Early next morning , Ôsugi, his face a picture of unconcern, took a train for Tokyo, leaving Osaka and the still-simmering rice agitation behind him. He never, subsequently, touched upon his activities in Osaka that day, nor did he ever mention them to anyone. Henmi Naozô, though the words were on his lips any number of times, also kept his mouth sealed. He could only wonder at Ôsugi's unique combination of careful insight, boldness, and unashamed prudence, The way he described these three qualities was as follows.

In the first place, Ôsugi , after one look, had immediately sized the situation up and selected the most appropriate way of exploiting it. There had been no plan, no strategy worked out on paper, just his political instinct.

Secondly, he selected a method for carrying out his propaganda which was at once the most effective and the most reliable. The newspapers' reporting of the reaction to the Toyama rice riots was suddenly turned into an Osaka problem, ensuring the maximum effect upon their readers. As Ôsugi had guessed, the papers never tried to verify the story.

Thirdly, Ôsugi successfully resisted the desire to talk about his own role in the unfolding of the Osaka rice riots, and never gave way to the temptations of heroism and self-indulgence. Had he divulged the matter to even his closest comrades, there is little doubt that it would have come out one day under police interrogation, and Ôsugi would have been for it. Perhaps even everyone present on that day would have been implicated. Such was the prudence which invariably accompanied even the boldest of Ôsugi's actions.

The rice riots themselves, having started with such a spontaneous flourish, were only too soon put down by the military, Before the flames had turned to embers, the police too were in action, frenziedly arresting people up and down the country until the gaols overflowed. For the people involved, having seen for themselves the power which lay within them, a new sense of self-confidence and arousal meant that there was no returning to the world of yesterday. The shock which they had dealt out to the authorities was inestimable.

The "rice riots" were the signal for all kinds of activities to break out. The socialist movement which had emerged in the early Taisho period (1911-1925), confined largely to a small intellectual minority of enlightened pioneer agitators, now spread to the workers themselves and their families. In 1919, with a large worker following, Ôsugi founded his magazine 'Labour Movement' (Rôdô Undô). The stage was set for the late Taishô movement, one which was to sink its roots deep among the people before being crushed by the combination of military and secret police which marked the opening of the bloody reign of Hirohito in 1926.

At the same time the politicians, following the fall of the govern ment of the time due to opposition pressure, saw the writing an the wall and set about making minimal changes to protect their base. In 1920 the franchise law was reformed by reducing the property qualification from ten to three yen thus increasing the electorate to just over three million. The authorities had survived, but only by the skin of their teeth.

  • 1This section is an amended translation of the final Dart of Hen mi's article, in which he gives his own eye-witness account of Ôsugi's activities during the "rice riots".
  • 2Henmi Naozô: militant anarchist, the father of Henmi Kichizô. In his youth he stayed in America and worked with Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. He died later in 1923.
  • 3Ôsugi's part in the riots seems to come close to the "behindism" castigated by the Situationist Internationale. A closer reading of these pages though, surely, reveals that what he did was more akin to what - at least in my interpretation of the concept - is called "creating a situation". He did not begin the riot then fade away; he listened to the complaints of the women, then went to the newspapers, and left the people to react in whatever way they saw fit. One could compare it to Durrutti's tactic during the Spanish Civil War, which was, when passing through a village, to merely point out the traitors, explain a few political facts to the villagers, then pass on having created a situation in which the villagers could act as they saw fit.
  • 4Takeda Denjirô: took part in several attempts to popularize libertarian socialism; his elder brother had received life imprisonment in the High Treason Plot (Taigyaku jiken) trials of 1911 in which twelve anarchist militants were murdered by the state.

    Kanasaki Dômei/lwade Kinjirô: both later became communists.

    Yamazaki Shôjirô: died in prison after arrest in connection with the Guillotine Sha anarchist-terrorist group affair in 1924.

    Yoshimura Otoya: disappeared soon after the riots in unexplained circumstances.


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