Chapter One: 1906-1911


Anarchist Communist Editions § ACE Pamphlet No. 8

Chapter One: 1906-1911

Anarchists in Japan! For many the very idea is surprising. Japan's popular image is of a hierarchical and regimented society, while the Japanese are widely regarded as unswervingly loyal servants of the company and the state. Even within Japan there are many Japanese who are unaware of the anarchist movement's existence, of the martyrs who have died for the cause, and of the sustained struggle that has been fought against the capitalist state and the inhumanity it has perpetrated over the years. Not so long ago a young Japanese who happened to be studying at an American university wrote to me for information on the anarchist movement in Japan after she had read one of my articles in the Bulletin of Anarchist Research. That she should have discovered the anarchist movement only after leaving Japan is a good illustration of the extent to which the existence of Japanese anarchism has been omitted from the officially sponsored historical record, filtered out of the education curriculum and ignored by the mass media.


Of course, there is an (albeit one-sided) element of truth in the popular image of Japan and the Japanese. This has much to do with the way Japan modernised in the years of major social upheaval following 1868. In 1868 power had fallen into the hands of a narrow circle of young samurai who were determined to make Japan a wealthy and militarily strong country. In order to achieve this, they were intent on creating a highly centralised state, an industrialised economy and an overseas empire which would compensate for Japan's lack of raw materials. These were ambitious goals for what was at that stage still a small, weak and backward country on the edge of world civilisation. To realise these ambitions the Japanese people had to be dragooned into conformity, partly persuaded and partly threatened into putting the state's interests before their own, and fed an ideology of national pride and service to the Emperor.

For many years after 1868 the bulk of the population remained peasants, toiling on the land. Agriculture was the basis of the economy, since industries could only be established by squeezing wealth out of the peasants and channelling it into the factories, shipyards and mines which were set up with the state's encouragement. To achieve this transfer of wealth from the agricultural sector of the economy to the developing industries a heavy land tax was imposed. One effect of this was that many peasants who could not pay their taxes were forced to sell their land and become tenant farmers. From a society composed mainly of peasant families engaged in the intensive farming of small parcels of land which they owned themselves, Japan was transformed into one where the bulk of the land was worked by tenants who surrendered typically half their crops in the form of rent to often absentee landlords. As the conditions of the agricultural population deteriorated in this way, some cut their links with the land, drifted into the towns and sought work in the mushrooming industrial and commercial enterprises.

It was among this emerging working class that the first attempts were made towards the end of the nineteenth century to organise unions, but the state reacted swiftly by introducing in 1900 a "public peace police law" which effectively outlawed all workers' organisations and, needless to say, strikes.

Not only were the peasants for many years the backbone of the economy; they were also the mainstay of the sizeable conscript army which the new state rapidly established. The formative years of the average peasant or working class lad were spent being moulded and disciplined, first in elementary school and later in the army. The Emperor's pronouncement of 30 October 1890, known as the Imperial Rescript on Education, well conveys the beliefs which the authorities attempted to implant in youngsters' minds. It read in part:

Always respect the Constitution and observe the laws; should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth. So shall ye not only be Our good and faithful subjects, but render illustrious the best traditions of your forefathers.


Peasant and working class girls escaped some of this organised brain-washing, partly because they were more likely than their brothers to be kept off school in order to help out around the home even during the few years of compulsory education. Nevertheless, the weight of convention burdened young women too, as they were urged to turn themselves into "a good wife and a wise mother" and were taught from an early age that a woman's fate is to obey the three men in her life - her father in her youth, her husband in her prime and her eldest son in old age.

Not surprisingly, even though the state leaders were successful in achieving most of their aims to turn Japan into a richer and more powerful country, and even though most Japanese men and women conformed to the roles prescribed for them, some brave individuals resisted the trend of the times. Moreover, just because Japan was such a highly conformist society, so the reaction against conformity was all the more intense when it occurred, since the state's demands for absolute obedience and loyalty left little room for compromise, liberal half-measures or the escape route of eccentricity. The principal structures of the modern Japanese state were established by the end of the nineteenth century and opponents of the regime were first inclined to embrace Western ideologies such as Christianity and social democracy, in the belief that these offered alternative and more humane models for modernisation. What exposed the inadequacies of Christianity and social democracy alike was Japan's first major war of the twentieth century, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Despite its unmistakably imperialist nature, many Japanese Christians were prepared to support this war as a means of ingratiating themselves with the state, while many social democrats throughout the world favoured a Japanese victory, on the grounds that this would precipitate revolution in Russia. Those who were determined to resist both the state and the war turned elsewhere for political inspiration - and, in so doing, lay the foundations of the Japanese anarchist movement.


Kôtoku Shûsui played a major role in introducing anarchism to Japan.2 He was born in 1871 in the provincial town of Nakamura in Kôchi Prefecture, about 700 kilometres West of Tôkyô as the crow flies. Even today, if you visit Nakamura, you will find that his grave is well cared for and ample evidence that it is still a place which people visit in order to acknowledge their intellectual and political debts to Kôtoku. After moving to Tôkyô in his mid-teens, Kôtoku became a journalist in 1893 and from 1898 he was a popular columnist on the most radical daily paper of the period, the Every Morning News (Yorozu Chôhô). Politically, Kôtoku moved from the liberalism which initially attracted him to social democracy and he was one of a small group which attempted to organise a Social Democratic Party in Tôkyô in May 1901, only to see it immediately banned by the government.

Kôtoku was a man of considerable integrity and courage, who stuck to his principles, no matter how painful or dangerous the consequences. As war with Russia approached, the liberal and previously anti-war Every Morning News fell into line with government-orchestrated opinion and became increasingly belligerent. Kôtoku refused to toe the paper's new line and instead chose to resign from the job which up till now had provided him with both a steady income and a "voice" in respectable society. Together with another Every Morning News journalist, called Sakai Toshihiko, he now took the risky step of launching an outspokenly anti-war journal at a time of increasingly hysterical militarism. This was the weekly Common People's Newspaper (Heimin Shinbun), the first issue of which appeared in November 1903 and which battled on bravely against the war-mongering government until being forced out of existence in January 1905. Throughout its brief existence, the Common People's Newspaper's editors and journalists were repeatedly prosecuted, fined and imprisoned for infringements of the stifling press laws and in February 1905 Kôtoku started to serve a five months jail sentence for one such offence.

The Common People's Newspaper was not an anarchist journal. Its raison d'être was opposition to the war and, to the extent that its supporters had any other commonly held political views, these were largely social democratic. This, of course, was a period when far and away the most influential social democratic party in the world was the German SPD. To be a "Marxist" in this era before the Russian Revolution meant not to be a Leninist, but to share the political outlook of Kautsky, Bernstein and the other SPD leaders. When Kôtoku and others had attempted to found the Japanese Social Democratic Party (Shakai Minshutô) in 1901, they had opted for a programme of political reforms resembling the SPD's and similar influences were acting on Kôtoku and Sakai when they jointly translated Marx's and Engels' The Communist Manifesto and published it in the Common People's Newspaper in November 1904. This was the first ever translation into Japanese of The Communist Manifesto and not only was the issue of the Common People's Newspaper which carried it banned from sale, but Kôtoku and Sakai were heavily fined.

After Kôtoku emerged in July 1905 from the five months he had spent in prison, he claimed that he "had gone [to jail] as a Marxian Socialist and returned as a radical Anarchist".3 In fact, the change in his political views was less clear-cut than this suggests, but there can be no doubt that his ideas were moving in an anarchist direction. While in prison, Kôtoku had read Kropotkin's Fields, Factories and Workshops and he had also thought long and hard about the position of the Emperor in Japanese society. Like the German SPD, the Japanese social democrats largely kept silent on the imperial institution. At worst, this was because some of them regarded social democracy as purely a question of installing a new government, but otherwise leaving the bases of Japanese society (from the imperial household to the wages system) unchanged. At best, more radical social democrats though it wise simply to ignore the Emperor and leave the resolution of this problem to the future. However, Kôtoku was becoming increasingly aware of the extent to which the Emperor was the linchpin of both the ideology and the machinery of the state, which together kept capitalism in existence in Japan.

With this increased awareness that capitalism and the state could only be brought to an end in Japan if the Emperor institution were abolished too, Kôtoku decided after his release from prison to get away from Japan for a while so that he could "criticize freely the position of `His Majesty` and the political and economic institutions from a foreign land where the pernicious hand of `His Majesty` cannot reach."4 It was in this frame of mind that Kôtoku left Japan in November 1905 to spend six months in the USA. As reading material for the long sea voyage, he took with him Kropotkin's Memoirs of a Revolutionist.


Kôtoku remained in the USA (mainly California) until June 1906 and absorbed many influences which proved to be crucial not only for him but for Japanese anarchism as a whole. In the first place, there was the anarchist communism advocated by Kropotkin and others. Kôtoku started to correspond with Kropotkin during his time in the USA, but was also exposed to anarchist communist ideas from many other quarters as he interacted with the numerous political activists in California who held such views in the early years of this century. The anarchist communist influence acting on Kôtoku (and through him on the movement in Japan) is best symbolised by what many regard as Kropotkin's greatest work, The Conquest of Bread. Kôtoku acquired a copy of this book in English translation while he was in the USA and started to translate it when he returned to Japan. Eventually a clandestine edition of one thousand copies was published in March 1909 and was widely distributed among students and workers.

The second important influence was syndicalism, partly in the shape of the newly formed Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which had been organised in Chicago in June 1905, and partly as pamphlets and articles on the European syndicalist movement, which were readily available in California. We know that shortly after Kôtoku arrived in San Francisco, three members of the IWW called on him and invited him to speak at one of their meetings.5 As for European syndicalism, the German anarchist Siegfried Nacht's pamphlet The Social General Strike had been published in English over the pseudonym "Arnold Roller" in Chicago in June 1905 to coincide with the IWW's founding conference. Again, Kôtoku obtained a copy of this pamphlet and translated it into Japanese after returning from the USA. In 1907 it was published clandestinely, using the ploy of giving it the innocuous title The Future of Economic Organisation so as to throw the authorities off the scent. Once again, it achieved a nationwide distribution among political militants.

The third major influence was political terrorism, which impinged on Kôtoku and others less from anarchist sources than by means of the example set by the Russian Social Revolutionary Party (the SRs), whose "fighting organisation" had carried out numerous assassinations of tsarist officials. The SRs' exploits were widely known about even in the USA and were much admired by the political activists with whom Kôtoku came into contact in California. Shortly before Kôtoku returned to Japan, more than 50 Japanese immigrants (out of the more than 70,000 who had settled on the West coast) gathered in Oakland in California on 1 June 1906 to found a Social Revolutionary Party (Shakai Kakumeitô in Japanese).

This Social Revolutionary Party lacked the resources to sustain organised activity for long, but during 1906-7 it did publish several issues of a journal called Revolution (Kakumei), the contents of which were revealing. Revolution declared that "reformism and the parliamentary policy" were "like trying to fight a raging fire with a child's water pistol". As an alternative, it believed that the only effective means of revolution was armed violence:

The sole means is the bomb. The means whereby the revolution can be funded too is the bomb. The means to destroy the bourgeois class is the bomb.


Revolution also described the Japanese Emperor as "a tool controlled by the present ruling class for the purpose of enslaving the masses".7 On the Emperor's birthday, on 3 November 1907, some of those associated with the Social Revolutionary Party issued in the USA a leaflet headed "Terrorism" (Ansatsushugi) which threatened an armed assault on the Emperor. Addressing the Emperor by his personal name of Mutsuhito, the leaflet ended with the words:

Mutsuhito, poor Mutsuhito! Your life is almost at an end. The bombs are all around you and are on the point of exploding. It is goodbye for you.


News of the distribution of this leaflet in the USA was relayed back to Japan and created a sensation in ruling circles. Outraged officials could scarcely believe that any Japanese would dare to address the supposedly sacred Emperor in such a fashion and vowed to exact revenge whenever the opportunity presented. Some three years later they were to have their chance.



As soon as Kôtoku returned from the USA, a large public meeting was organised in Tôkyô to welcome him back and to give him the opportunity to report on how his ideas had developed while in America. At this meeting, held on 28 June 1906, Kôtoku spoke on "The Tide of the World Revolutionary Movement", which he asserted was flowing against parliamentarism and towards the general strike as "the means for the future revolution".9 He followed up his speech with numerous articles in the revolutionary press, all of which repudiated social democratic parliamentarism and argued for direct action. The best-known of these articles was "The Change in My Thought (On Universal Suffrage)", which was published on 5 February 1907. A few extracts from this lengthy article will convey the extent to which Kôtoku's political outlook had altered:

I want to make an honest confession. My views on the methods and policy to be adopted by the socialist movement started to change a little from the time that I went into prison a couple of years ago. Then, during my travels last year, they changed dramatically. If I recall how I was a few years back, I get the feeling that I am now almost like a different person.

...If I were to put in a nutshell the way I think now, it would be along the following lines: "A real social revolution cannot possibly be achieved by means of universal suffrage and a parliamentary policy. There is no way to reach our goal of socialism other than by the direct action of the workers, united as one."

...Formerly I listened only to the theories of the German socialists and those in the same current and laid far too much emphasis on the effectiveness of votes and of parliament. I used to think: "If universal suffrage is achieved, then surely a majority of our comrades will be elected. And if a majority of the seats in parliament are occupied by our comrades, then socialism can be put into effect by means of a parliamentary resolution." It is true, of course, that I recognised at the same time the urgent need for workers' solidarity, but still I believed that at least the first priority for the social movement in Japan was universal suffrage. My speeches and articles were full of this, but I now think of it as an extremely childish and naive idea.

...What the working class needs is not the conquest of political power - it is the "conquest of bread". It is not laws - but food and clothing. Hence it follows that parliament has almost no use for the working class. Suppose we were to go as far as putting our faith and trust simply in such things as introducing a paragraph into a parliamentary law here or revising several clauses in some bill or other there. In that case we could get our aims carried out merely by putting our trust in the advocates of social reform and the state socialists. But if instead of this what we want is to carry out a genuine social revolution and to improve and maintain the real living standards of the working class, we must concentrate all our efforts not on parliamentary power but on developing the workers' solidarity. And the workers themselves too must be ready not to rely on such creatures as bourgeois MPs and politicians but to achieve their aims by means of their own power and their own direct action. To repeat: the last thing the workers should do is to put their trust in votes and MPs.

...I hope that from now on our socialist movement in Japan will abandon its commitment to a parliamentary policy and will adopt as its method and policy the direct action of the workers united as one.


Kôtoku's new ideas astounded his comrades. Most were accustomed to accept the SPD's assurance that its doctrine represented the forces of reason, progress and good order within society, whereas they had been taught by the same source that anarchism was a primitive and chaotic reaction to political repression, which had nothing in common with "scientific socialism". Yet here was the best known and intellectually most accomplished socialist of his day challenging the SPD's teachings and arguing coherently and persuasively for anarchism. Some of the Japanese social democrats were resistant to the new train of thought. For example, in September 1907 Katayama Sen, who pioneered social democratic and labourist ideas in Japan and who in later years went on to become one of Stalin's yes-men in the Comintern (there is a plaque commemorating him on the Kremlin wall in Moscow), scornfully rejected Kôtoku's anarchism as follows:

The Socialist movement of Japan is somewhat crippled and hindered on account of anarchistic views held by some who profess to be...socialists and hold some influence among their Comrades. Those who have gone over to Anarchism oppose legislative and parliamentary tactics and political movement, and preached so-called direct action or a revolutionary or destructive general strike. We are sorry that some of our best Comrades have changed to the above views and no longer go with us...11

Katayama was right in one respect - that it was often the most able social democrats who responded positively to Kôtoku's challenge to their previously held views. For many younger socialists, Kôtoku's call to anarchism came like a breath of fresh air and he soon gathered round him an impressive body of support. Ôsugi Sakae, Arahata Kanson, Yamakawa Hitoshi and many others played important roles at this time in popularising ideas of self-liberation and direct action, although in later years some like Arahata and Yamakawa were to succumb to the illusory promise of Bolshevism.

While Kôtoku had been away in the USA, a second attempt had been made to form a social democratic party. Known this time as the Socialist Party of Japan (Nippon Shakaitô), it was founded in February 1906 and was initially tolerated by the authorities, principally because it courted respectability and undertook to "advocate socialism within the limits of the law of the land".12 A related development which occurred was that in January 1907 the Common People's Newspaper (Heimin Shinbun) was relaunched, this time as a daily. Although the Socialist Party of Japan was a small organisation, with only about 200 members, Kôtoku correctly described it in December 1906 as an amalgam of many different elements:

Social-Democrats, Social Revolutionists, and even Christian Socialists...Most of our comrades are inclined to take the tactics of Parliamentarism rather than Syndicalism or Anarchism. But it is not because they are assuredly convinced which is true, but because of their ignorance of Anarchist Communism. Therefore our most important work at present is the translation and publication of Anarchist and Free-thought literature.


The issues raised by Kôtoku's new stance were thoroughly debated at a conference of the Socialist Party of Japan which was held in Tôkyô on 17 February 1907. Many of the views advanced there represented a clean break with social democracy and the delegates supported a call to strike out from the party rules the commitment to operate "within the limits of the law of the land". Not only did this lead to the government banning the Socialist Party of Japan on 22 February 1907, but the tense relations between social democrats and anarchists swiftly reached the point of an outright split. When the daily Common People's Newspaper folded in April 1907, due to the combined effects of financial difficulties and government persecution, it was replaced in June 1907 by two separate journals - the weekly Social News (Shakai Shinbun), which was under the control of the social democrats, and the bi-monthly Ôsaka Common People's Newspaper (Ôsaka Heimin Shinbun), which argued strongly for direct action. This development represented the definitive split between social democrats and anarchists in Japan. From this time on, anarchism has remained a separately organised, distinctive current, which is as much opposed to social democracy (and later Bolshevism) as it is to conventional capitalism.14


It was mentioned earlier that the anarchist ideas which Kôtoku brought back from the USA were a mixture of anarchist communism, syndicalism and terrorism. Kôtoku himself was first and foremost an anarchist communist (a "Kropotkinist", if one wishes to use the term). Conditions in Japan made anarchist communism seem highly relevant and attractive. Like the Russia which had inspired Kropotkin's vision of a society based on common ownership, libertarian federation and mutual aid, Japan too was a largely agrarian society. Its agricultural villages seemed ready made for conversion into anarchist communes, especially since the practices associated with rice production had given rise to deeply ingrained cooperation and solidarity among the farmers. Many anarchists besides Kôtoku were enthused by the anarchist communist vision and threw themselves into the effort to popularise this view of how society could be organised. One example among many was Akaba Hajime, who in 1910 wrote the pamphlet The Farmers' Gospel (Nômin no Fukuin). Here Akaba skilfully bridged the gap between the village community of the past, which the corrosive effects of the market were undermining, and the revolutionary commune of the anticipated future. He wrote:

We must send the land robbers [i.e. the landlords] to the revolutionary guillotine and return to the "village community" of long ago, which our remote ancestors enjoyed. We must construct the free paradise of "anarchist communism", which will flesh out the bones of the village community with the most advanced scientific understanding and with the lofty morality of mutual aid.


The political methods employed by anarchist communists were, by and large, the spreading of their ideas by means of written and oral propaganda. In attempting to spread the word, however, they came up against the intense repression enforced by the state. After the forced dissolution of the Socialist Party of Japan in 1907, public meetings were routinely disrupted, distribution of publications was prohibited and anarchists were subjected to many types of everyday persecution, ranging from police violence to dismissal from work to tailing by detectives. What happened to Akaba is a case in point. After the publication of The Farmers' Gospel, he was forced to go underground because of the same pamphlet's criticism of the Emperor, was eventually arrested by the police and died in Chiba Prison on 1 March 1912 after a period of hunger strike.

Syndicalism was attractive to many anarchists because it seemed to be in tune both with the rapid expansion of industry, which was under way in Japan at the time, and with the marked combativity of sections of the working class, such as the miners. There was a belief among syndicalist-inclined anarchists that, however many trump cards were in the hands of the state and the bosses, they still had their Achilles' heel. The line of reasoning at work here was that the capitalist state needed to industrialise in order to realise its economic and military ambitions but that, since industry depended on the working class, the stronger Japan became industrially the more it became vulnerable to a general strike carried out by determined and well organised workers. This train of thought was given added plausibility by the frequency with which exploited workers were answering the bosses' arrogance with strikes, some of which reached insurrectionary proportions. The most famous case in this period of a strike which escalated into violence against the company and armed confrontation with the military was the dispute at the Ashio copper mine in February 1907. After the Ashio miners went on strike, they cut the electricity supply, blew up and set fire to company buildings, gave the head manager a severe beating with their pickaxe handles, attacked a nearby police station and ultimately did battle with three companies of infantry which were sent into action against them. Although the Ashio dispute was the best known instance of an insurrectionary strike at this time, it was far from being the only one. In the months that followed, a series of conflicts in other mines boiled over into violence, and attacks on company officials and destruction of company property were by no means unknown in other industries.16

Although anarchists obviously welcomed signs that workers were prepared to struggle to improve their conditions, the situation never showed any signs at this stage of getting beyond the point where the state could control it. As long as labour disputes occurred one by one, the state could concentrate its resources first here and then there in order to break the resistance of isolated bodies of workers. What the situation demanded, as syndicalist theory taught, was a federation of industrial unions which could coordinate disjointed actions, overcome the weakness brought about by isolation, and raise the struggle to the level of a general strike. This proved impossible to achieve in this period, however, because of the provisions of the already mentioned "public peace police law".

Perhaps because the capitalist state was aware of the fact that it was more vulnerable on the economic than the political front, it was even more Draconian in its handling of labour organisations than it was of socialist groups and journals. Even the mildest of trade unions were not tolerated, so that any which attempted to form were immediately hounded out of existence.

With the anarchist communist and anarchist syndicalist routes thus effectively blocked, it was hardly surprising that some anarchists should have turned to terrorism, the third of the major influences acting on the Japanese anarchist movement. Yet even when, from about 1908, a few anarchists did start to toy with the idea of meeting state violence with their own violence, hoping thereby to spark off a wider popular uprising, their plans never got beyond the stage of experimenting with explosives. As a fraction of the anarchist movement as a whole, the merest handful was involved. Furthermore, in a highly repressive society such as Japan, where all known dissidents were kept under close watch, it took considerable time to acquire the necessary information and materials. When four anarchists were arrested on 25 May 1910 following the police discovering a stash of bomb-making equipment, not a single attack had yet been carried out on any target whatsoever. The most that had been achieved was the successful detonation of a trial bomb in the mountains. Nevertheless, here was the opportunity the authorities had been waiting for ever since the "Terrorism" leaflet of 1907. Hundreds of suspects were taken into custody and a case was fabricated that 26 of these had been involved in a plot to assassinate the Emperor.17

When the trial was held in December 1910, it was closed to the public and the state's handling of the entire investigation indicated that it was not going to let legal niceties interfere with its determination to cripple the anarchist movement. The only thing that prevented the authorities from involving even larger numbers in the affair was that various prominent anarchists, such as Ôsugi Sakae, were already serving prison sentences for other offences and could hardly be implicated in plotting which was supposed to have taken place while they were behind bars. Predictably, all 26 defendants were found guilty and all except two were sentenced to death Although twelve of those awaiting execution subsequently had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment, the remaining twelve whom the state was determined to hang included Kôtoku Shûsui. By the time of Kôtoku's execution on 24 January 1911 the Japanese anarchist movement was already reduced to a state of near hibernation in what became known as its "winter period". The state was determined to close down all journals, ban all meetings and generally make life intolerable for anarchists who attempted to sustain any form of activity. For many there was no alternative but to withdraw to the countryside, eke out some kind of living off the land and bide their time as they waited over the next few years for a change of circumstances. Others went into exile. Ishikawa Sanshirô, who had repeatedly been imprisoned for offences under the press laws, left Japan for Europe in 1913 and did not return until 1920. However, the important thing was that the ideas did not die. Nor was the flame extinguished. The movement somehow survived the long years of almost total obliteration which now ensued, so that when a change in conditions following the First World War forced the state to relax slightly its stranglehold, anarchism resurfaced stronger than ever.