Ôsugi Sakae in Paris

Submitted by Spartacus on February 26, 2011

1. Alias "Chin Chen"

At the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the 1872 international anarchist conference in St Imiers, Switzerland, it was decided to reconvene in Berlin in February 1923 in order to set up a now international federation. An invitation went out to the anarcho-syndicalist Rôdô Undô group In Tokyo, addressed personally to Ôsugi Sakae, who was already in contact with anarchists in France. On the night of December-11 1922, Ôsugi, after borrowing enough money for the trip and fooling police agents into believing that he was critically ill in bed, set off via Korea and Manchuria for Shanghai, the first stage on his ,journey.

It was only a few months since an irrevocable split had taken place in Japan between the Anarchists and the Bolsheviks (that is, supportera of the revolution in Russia), and the anarchists were seeking to form new international ties instead of the purely national ones they had concentrated upon up to then. Ôsugi himself placed greatest emphasis upon building links with other Asian anarchists and creating an organization which would allow them to cooperate better. He had already visited Shanghai two years earlier, during the anarchists' abortive attempt at collaboration with the Comintern; on this second trip he was resolved to renew the contacts he had first made a dozen years earlier when he enrolled Chinese students in Tokyo into his Esperanto School. Fear of being discovered by the secret police, however, now that his absence from Tokyo had surely been detected, made it too risky, and all he could do was wait for the others to contact him in a flea-bitten foreigners' hostel.

Ôsugi, for obvious reasons, was not likely to get a passport in Japan. Korea having been since 1919 part of the Japanese empire, he had no difficulty in getting as far as the Chinese border, which he presumably crossed by posing as a (dumb) Chinese coolie. The plan from Shanghai onwards was to use the even-closer Chinese anarchist contacts of Yamaga Taiji, another Japanese anarchist and esperantist who had agreed to precede Ôsugi to China in order to help forge him a set of Chinese identity papers. After Yamaga had wasted several days in Paking waiting for the anarchists there to secure the papers, they were finally put together in Shanghai with the help of a doctor, formerly head of the Sino-French Institute in Lyon, Cheng Meng-hsien. Dr Chang also supplied Ôsugi, alias "Chin Chen", alias !'Tong Chin Tangle (both names applied to him by the Paris press after his arrest in May), with a place to settle in France: the address of young Chinese anarchists then studying at the Institute, who then numbered only about ten.1

With this passport Ôsugi, ostensibly a Chinese student going to study in Lyon, left Shanghai on January 5 1923 and arrived in Marseilles on February 13. The next morning, after bidding farewell to one "Madame N" whom he had met on board ship, he left for Lyon bearing a letter of introduction from comrades in China. After a week in Lyon he went on to Paris, where, at the HQ of the French Anarchist League's organ 'Le Libertaire' in the Boulevard de Belleville (shared with 'La Revue Anarchiste' and 'La Librairie Socials'), he was able to meet Coromel, from whom the original invitation had come.

It was a time when reactionary forces all over Europe were flexing their muscles, and the post-1917 euphoria was dying away in the cold light of recognition. 1922 had seen Mussolini's March on Rome at the head of his fascists, while 1923 brought Hitler's "Beer Hall Putsch" in Bavaria. The latter had been sparked off by France's occupation of the Ruhr just a few weeks before Ôsugi's arrival, and the confrontation between the French Left and the increasingly-powerful Right brought about as a result of the occupation remained at its height.

The atmosphere, therefore, was hardly auspicious for the success of Ôsugi's trip, particularly his plan to cross from France into Germany. He arrived, moreover, to find that government persecution in Germany had forced the postponement of the Berlin conference to April. The general conclusion was that it would not open at all, and., sure enough, it was finally put back to an indefinite date. Ôsugi was disappointed, but took advantage of the opportunity to meet the many anarchists then living in exile in Paris. Most Important of all, from the multitudes who had fled or been expelled from post"revolutionary" Russia he was able to get a clearer picture of the state of things there than he could have got in Japan. What he heard confirmed the rumours which had been trickling through, already borne out by the behaviour of the Japanese communists, which had caused the Anarchist - Bolshevik split mentioned earlier.

Ôsugi also seized the opportunity to meet with the twenty or so Chinese anarchists then living, on a half-work, half-study basis, in Paris. Meeting every day, they laid plans for a conference, to be held after the Berlin meeting, which would lay the groundwork for an organization of Chinese anarchist students in Paris. What the fate of this organization was is unknown, but the importance which Ôsugi attached to China's role in the international anarchist movement is clear.

Soon after his arrival in France Ôsugi had contacted an old comrade from the Syndicalism Research Group formed in Tokyo in 1913, an artist named Hayashi. Though Ôsugi had decided upon a policy of avoiding all Japanese while in Europe in order to maintain secrecy, Hayashi was to be the means by which he could keep in contact with the Rôdô Undô group and with Itô Noë, the feminist with whom he had been living for the past seven years, Unknown to him, however, the Japanese government, having lost track of him in China, had instructed its French embassy to watch Nayashi since, as they rightly guessed, he was the first personÔsugi would visit if he happened to arrive in Paris. Consequently, Ôsugi was under constant surveillance from the day of his arrival.

One of the more curious aspects of Ôsugi's stay in Paris was his apparent ignorance of the anarcho-syndicalist Association Internationale des Travailleurs (AIT), whose founding conference had been 'held there the previous December 25 to January 2. As an anarcho-syndicalist him- self, Ôsugi should have been concerned, and ought to have sought to meet members of the organization, but he did not. The only imaginable explanation is that factional squabbles among the French anarchists kept him in ignorance, for otherwise it is difficult to understand his total failure to mention the AIT in his memoir of his French trip.

2. May Day, 1923

Ôsugi and Hayashi, after taking a room together in a cheap Paris hotel, spent their days and nights in the cafes of Montmartre while Ôsugi quietly continued his efforts to acquire a visa to enter Germany. On March 17, after getting wind of the Japanese embassy surveillance, the two moved to Lyon, where also the prospects of getting the German visa seemed more promising. For the next six weeks Ôsugi was confined to Lyon, paying daily visits to the local police HQ, the passports section and the security office. As March turned into April and his frustrat ion became unire irable, he wrote to Ito Nod telling her of his intention to cross the border illegally.

Dissuaded of this plan by his friends in Lyon, who feared the backlash, Ôsugi remained where he was, but his funds were dwindling away and the trip, even had the visa come through, was fast becoming impossible. On April 29, finally despairing of the visa, he left secretly for Paris where he had been invited to take part in a rally to be held in a hall in the suburb of St Denis.

On the morning of May 1 Ôsugi got up to sniff the atmosphere of the city. He was shocked. It was as quiet as the grave. The only distinguishing sight was that of streams of French workers taking advantage of the holiday to depart with their families for the countryside. This set the tone for the rest of the day. Ôsugi has recorded some of his feelings about the state of affairs in Paris in his book 'Diary of an Escape From Japan' (Nippon Dasshutsu Ki):

"... Outdoor meetings had been banned, and no-one seemed inclined to ignore the order, Communist politicians, as well as the bureaucrats of the CGT [Confederacion Generale du Travail] , were terrified of a clash with the police, and did everything they could to keep a damper on things. Consequently, only the CGT's main rally was to be hold in the city centre, while the others, including the St Denis meeting, were confined to the suburbs. Even the protest demonstration against the US government's plan to murder the Italian-Americans Sacco and Vanzetti was forcibly re-routed by its communist stewards into the suburbs."

Ôsugi, when he arrived at the meeting, was not impressed at all. This is his account of it:

"The slogans of the day were explained at interminable length by some horribly self-satisfied orator, while the applause from the audience grew weaker and weaker... 'It's too much! Let's go out and leave him to it!' called someone - a comrade from either 'Le Libertaire' or 'La Revue Anarchists#. But no-one echoed his call, and meanwhile the speaker on the rostrum was urging him to behave himself... I was supposed to meet Coromel after the meeting, but by this time I didn't 'give a damn. I wanted to get up and shout from the platform, 'Let's get outside, where we should be...!'"

Unable to stand it any longer, Ôsugi finally demanded the microphone. The gist of his speech (the original printed version, when it appeared, was so heavily-blue-pencilled by the Japanese censor that it is impossible to restore it) was as follows:

"The history of May Day in Japan is still very short the first demonstration was held in 1920 , and the number of workers who take part still very small. But those Japanese workers are quite clear about what May Day is! Japan's May Day rallies do not take place in the suburbs. They take place in the city centres. Neither are they held in halls for the benefit of would-be orators. They take place in the parks and streets and public squares, and their objective is to demonstrate. Japanese May Day is no mere carnival!"

After speaking for twenty or thirty minutes, Ôsugi stepped down from the rostrum amid thunderous applause and walked outside - straight into the arms of several plainclothesmen waiting there to arrest him. He was then carried off bodily to the nearest police station. When the crowd inside heard what had happened they at once marched to the police station to free him, led by a score or so of women workers. Few knew anything about him beyond the fact that he was a Japanese, or perhapsa Chinese comrade; most knew not even his name. He was just a comrade in need of help. In the scuffle that took place in the street in front of the police station, 100 or so were arrested and many more injured by police nightsticks. Ôsugi himself wrote later of hearing from his cell the sound of the Internationale, followed by that of beating, mixed with that of thuds and screams as the crowd was forcibly dispersed by the police.

While the French newspapers continued to refer to him as a Chinese, the police were already on the scent of Ôsugi's real identity. Ôsugi, who on the advice of Coromel and others had originally insisted that his Chinese papers were genuine, admitted his real identity when he found that the police knew all about him already. As soon as the fact that he was Ôsugi Sakae, Japanese anarchist without a passport, was confirmed, he was sent to the notorious detention centre at La Santa', temnorary home for so many political prisoners. On May 3, following the visit if a man from the Japanese embassy, he was arraigned on charges as familiar today as they were then: insulting a policeman, resisting arrest, disturbing the peace, and being without identity papers. Mean-, while the right-wing press, notably 'Le Figaro', began to use the inci dent to whip up an anti-anarchist scare. The only thing new about it was the variation upon A Ôsugi's Chinese alias, which changed with every issue.

Ôsugi found conditions in La Santa luxurious compared with the insanitary dungeons where he had spent his previous sentences. In a letter, to Itô Noë he wrote, "It's an easy-going place for a gaol. I spend all day lying down on my bed blowing smoke-rings; there're bottles of wine and beer on the table, and I can swig away at them all day if I feel like it."2 Even so, gaol is gaol, and his thoughts went immediately to his family particularly his favourite daughter, four-year old Mako. In order to reassure Mako of his safety he wrote her a poem, 'Mako yo, Mako!', and sent it to her. In it he describes his life of luxury, picturing himself eating Western food, nibbling chocolate and smoking cigars while lying on a sofa.

When his case came up for -trial on May 23, all charges save that of breaking the passport regulations had been dropped, and he was sentenced to three weeks' detention. Since he had already been held since May 1 he was released the next day. Before finally quitting his La Santa cell , Ôsugi inscribed on the wall the following message to posterity:


LE 1 MAI 1923.3

As soon as he stepped through the gates of the gaol he was hustled off to Police HQ and issued with a deportation order. The French government had originally intended merely to dump him over the Spanish border but, at the insistence of the Japanese embassy, agreed to allow him to be sent back to Japan via Marseilles.

With a week to kill before his boat left, and finding that police surveillance had been called off, Ôsugi made up his mind to travel around Europe illegally. Before he could leave Paris, however, a letter arrived from Itô Noë asking him to return as quickly as possible. Apart from complications arising from Noe's fifth pregnancy, it appears that there was friction within the Rôdô Undô group. At the end of the week he gave himself up to the police and, on June 3, 101 days after his arrival, Ôsugi was escorted to Marseilles and forced to board a Japanese passenger ship bound for Kobe.

When he arrived, on July 11 , he was bundled into a small police launch which took him to the local harbour police HQ, thus avoiding the hordes of reporters waiting for him on the quay side. After a five-hour grilling conducted on orders from the Interior Ministry, which was furious at his being able to get as far as Paris without their knowing, Ôsugi was released. He was greeted like a conquering hero, newspapers clamoured for the rights to the story of his secret trip, and amid all the fanfare he and Itô Noë and Mako were able to return to Tokyo next morning by first-class carriage, paid for by the papers, of course.

The last word, however, belonged to the state and the police. Two months Ôsugi was dead, along-with 6000 Korean and Chinese forced-immigrants and hundreds of revolutionary militants, caught in the government-engineered bloodbath which followed the Great Kantô Earthquake that September. His body, along with that of Itô Noë and their sevenyear old nephew Sôichi who had been beaten and strangled to death with his in their Kempeitai cells, was thrown into a well to decompose. In the trial which followed the discovery of the putrefying corpses, themurderer, a secret policeman on orders from Emperor Hirohito, was given ,just tan years' gaol. Released by personal order of Hirohito himself four years later and assigned to "special duties" in Manchuria, he finally committed suicide in 1945 before his crimes could be avenged by the many anarchists after his blood.

For Ôsugi, though rendered a lifeless corpse, there was yet one more vindictive twist of the state's knife to come. On December 16 comrades of the three victims gathered to say one last farewell to their ashes be fore seeing them formally interred (according to Buddhist ritual this ceremony must take place three months after the death occurred). On that day right-wing thugs slipped into the room before the ceremony began, posing as mourners. When no-one was looking they picked up the casket containing the ashes of Ôsugi and fled, and the ashes have never been seen since (needless to say, the police made only a half-hearted search). The farewell ceremony took place, in unprecedented fashion, without the ashes of Ôsugi, while the state laughed up its sleeve,

3. Trying to Reach Makhno

Ôsugil's recollections of his three months in, France give the impression that he was just having a lot of fun, going backwards and forwards between Paris and Lyon, meeting with the Chinese comrades, occasionally staying with 'Madame NO, etc. To some extent this was true. Trying to keep a low profile to avoid being arrested and prevented from attending the Berlin conference, Ôsugi and Hayashi had held aloof from all political activities and become regular customers in the cafes and dance-halls of Montmartre. Ôsugi also struck up a relationship with a young danseuse named Doré.

At the same time, however, Ôsugi relates in his memoirs that he took the opportunity of being in Paris to make an intense investigation of an episode which had been a great inspiration to him: the Makhno Movement in the Ukraine, 1918-1921. Ôsugi regarded the Makhno movement as the most important aspect of the Russian revolution - indeed the only real revolution to have taken place and also one embodying the most important lessons for the Japanese anarchists. On this point he was highly critical of the Russian anarchists for ignoring the movement. His view of Makhno may be paraphrased as follows:

"In their excess of fervour for the $revolution' the Russian anarchists allowed themselves to be used by the Bolsheviks and, dazzled by their revolutionary battle-cries, lost the opportunity for organizing and marshalling the people's strength. Meanwhile the Makhno movement in the Ukraine was aiding and encouraging the creative activities of the peasants and so carrying out the real social revolution. The Makhno movement was not a movement based on anarchist theory, but a spontaneous rising of the peasants themselves which in broadening its bass turned naturally in an anarchistic direction. The role of the anarchists there was not that of leaders, but of supporters, not commanders but catalysts."

Ôsugi's efforts to enter Germany despite the cancellation of the anarchist conference stemmed from his desire to get more information about the movement. "My greatest regret of all concerning my European trip". he wrote later, "was that I had no chance, since I could not enter Germany, to meet the many ex-Makhnovists then living in exile in Berlin, particularly the so-called 'Head of General Staff' Voline." Ôsugi satisfied himself by gathering all the newspaper end magazine articles he could find in Paris, and by talking with whomever he could, and when he returned to Japan put the information thus pained together in his last written work, 'An Anarchist General: Nestor Makhno' (Museifu Shugi Shôgun: Nesutoru Mafuno).

  • 1For more information on Chinese anarchists in France see Robert A.Scalapino and George T. Yu: The Chinese Anarchist Movement, pp. 44-53.
  • 2Standard requirements in Japanese prisons even today require the prisoner to sit all day cross-legged inside a ring drawn in the centre of the cell, facing the door. If they want anything, even to take a piss, they must first ask permission from the warder, who they are obliged to call "teacher" if they do not want a beating.
  • 3Ôsugi's given name "Sakae" can also be read "Ei", and he apparently sometimes used this version to avoid confusion with another socialist militant of the time, Sakai Toshihiko.