Trade Union Formation and Suppression

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Trade Union Formation and Suppression

Japan 1890-1900


As Japan industrialized, many attempts were made to set up unions and a labor movement of one kind or another. In 1890 Takano Fusataro and his Japanese colleagues set up a study group in the United States known as the Japanese Knights of Labor. Once back in Japan in July 1897, they established the Society to Promote Trade Unions, which was a form of trade union school.

In December 1897 the Metalworkers' Union was formed, and in March 1898 the Japan Railway Company followed suit. Tokyo printers, ship carpenters, plasterers, furniture-makers, and doll-makers subsequently organized other unions. By 1899 problems were already appearing. The number of industrial workers had declined, some workers were losing interest, and the number of strikes was declining. Moreover, Takano was no longer coordinating matters at the society. The organizational and social barriers to worker unity were also quite strong and were exacerbated by worker ignorance and crucially by the strategic and tactical naivetéof the fledgling movement.

Government repression dealt the final blow. General harassment of unionists took its toll, and then in 1900 the government passed the Public Peace Police Law, which outlawed all labor agitation. This act of repression inaugurated the infamous "Dark Ages" of Japanese labor history.


  • 1881: U.S. President James A. Garfield is assassinated in a Washington, D.C. railway station by Charles J. Guiteau.
  • 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.
  • 1890: Alfred Thayer Mahan, a U.S. naval officer and historian, publishes The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, which demonstrates the decisive role that maritime forces have played in past conflicts. The book will have an enormous impact on world events by encouraging the major powers to develop powerful navies.
  • 1894: War breaks out between Japan and China. It will end with China's defeat the next year, marking yet another milestone in China's decline and Japan's rise.
  • 1898: Bayer introduces a cough suppressant, derived from opium. Its brand name: Heroin.
  • 1899: Polish-born German socialist Rosa Luxemburg rejects the argument that working conditions in Europe have improved, and that change must come by reforming the existing system. Rather, she calls for an overthrow of the existing power structure by means of violent international revolution.
  • 1901: U.S. President William McKinley is assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt becomes president.
  • 1904: Beginning of the Russo-Japanese War, which lasts into 1905 and results in a Japanese victory. In Russia, the war is followed by the Revolution of 1905, which marks the beginning of the end of czarist rule; meanwhile, Japan is poised to become the first major non-western power of modern times.
  • 1905: Russian Revolution of 1905. Following the "bloody Sunday" riots before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in January, revolution spreads throughout Russia, in some places spurred on by newly formed workers' councils, or soviets. Among the most memorable incidents of the revolt is the mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin. Suppressed by the czar, the revolution brings an end to liberal reforms, and thus sets the stage for the larger revolution of 1917.
  • 1908: The U.S. Supreme Court, in the Danbury Hatters' case, rules that secondary union boycotts (i.e., boycotts of nonunion manufacturers' products, organized by a union) are unlawful.
  • 1909: William Cadbury's Labour in Portuguese West Africa draws attention to conditions of slavery in Sã o Toméand Principe.
  • 1918: Upheaval sweeps Germany, which for a few weeks in late 1918 and early 1919 seems poised on the verge of communist revolution—or at least a Russian-style communist coup d'etat. But reactionary forces have regained their strength, and the newly organized Freikorps (composed of unemployed soldiers) suppresses the revolts. Even stronger than reaction or revolution, however, is republican sentiment, which opens the way for the creation of a democratic government based at Weimar.

Event and Its Context

Historical Background of the Japanese Labor Movement

The origins of the labor movement in Japan could be said to lie in the "social reform" that was awakened by two interrelated processes in Japan just before and during the Meiji era (1868-1912).

First, in 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry arrived with gunboats from the United States to force Japan to open its ports to Western products. The presence of industrial and military power—so starkly combined as they were in the image of Perry's black ships—first shocked, then galvanized Japan. The subsequent Meiji Restoration, the Civilization and Enlightenment Movement of the 1870s, and the Freedom and Popular Rights Movement of social reform in the 1880s all reflected specific Japanese responses to changes needed in its social and political structures. These were intended to keep Japan from buckling under the strain of Western imperial pressure. The culmination of this complex process was the establishment of the first parliament and constitutional monarchy in Asia proper: the Imperial (Meiji) Constitution promulgated in 1889 and the Diet (parliament), which began in 1890.

The second impetus was the onset of Japan's state-led industrialization and its route to economic modernity. Because the Japanese state needed to catch up with the West, it employed a distinctive pattern of development in the modern era, called the "developmental state model."

Japan's situation was not entirely unique. As the Japanese socialist Karl Kiyoshi Kawakami once wrote in regard to social democracy (echoing the Fabian socialists), so could it be said of the modern Japanese labor movement, namely that social democracy is the product of the Industrial Revolution. "Wherever the Industrial Revolution has been set on foot, we find the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and with it we hear the cry of social democracy. It is only natural that in Japan, where the Industrial Revolution is fairly on its way, Socialism has found disciples." As this suggests, the early stages of industrialization had specific social consequences. Conflict of interest between owners and workers began to appear in the form of workers' protests and eventually the adoption of tactics such as the strike.

All the processes set in motion from the Meiji Restoration onward eventually led to an awareness of social problems in the modern sense and to the consequent striving for change by different social groups employing different tactics, strategies, and ideologies. The Japanese labor movement in this period made diverse attempts to provide its own solutions to the problems at hand.

Early Beginnings of the Labor Movement

The main underlying cause of the development of the labor movement lies in the modernization and industrialization fostered by the Meiji oligarchs who ruled Japan after the Restoration of 1868. Acutely aware of the link between military power and the level of industrialization of a nation, they embarked upon an ambitious policy of fukoku kyohei (developing a rich country and a strong military). Crucial to its success was the nurturing of a sound economic, financial, and institutional foundation, including accumulation of capital, managerial and technical skills, and the right kinds of businesses for the modern industrial age. As private initiative was not always strong in the early Meiji era, the state was often involved and helped shape the transformation of the economy. In tune with its own interests, it concentrated on heavy industry and communication facilities, thus strengthening the recently founded forces of the military and navy. Slowly but surely, industrialization and capitalism took hold of various sectors of the Japanese economy leading up to and beyond the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. During the war with China, the number of factories grew, the volume of corporately subscribed capital expanded, and the total of industrial workers rose significantly. Despite these massive changes from the Tokugawa era, Japan's industrialization was meager compared with that of the advanced Western nations. This was the perhaps unpropitious context in which Takano Fusataro and his colleagues were to begin their tentative steps toward building a labor movement in Japan.

The First Steps in the Development of the Labor Movement

The labor movement in Japan can be traced back to the left wing of the Freedom and Popular Rights Movement. Oi Kentaro, one of the left-wing leaders of the movement, was one of the first in Japan to plead on behalf of the laboring classes, which meant mainly the peasantry, tenant farmers, and groups such as miners. Oi discussed policies for popular welfare and the like in his publications and founded such organizations as the Laborers' Union and the Popular Suffrage Advocating League to try to kick start a labor movement.

As had been the case during industrialization in the West, there were benign capitalists in Japan who sympathized with the predicament of labor. Sakuma Teiichi was one of them. He was even dubbed by Takano Fusataro "the Robert Owen of Japan" because of his pro-working-class sympathies. Sakuma owned the Shueisha Printing House and tried to help the newly founded Printers' Union in 1884. Despite failure in this, he went on to help with the formation of the Laborers' Union.

In 1889 a league of ironworkers was organized under the guiding hand of Ozawa Benzo and others. The intention was to found a cooperative-style iron factory, but the factory only lasted for a few years.

All the previous examples are entirely preparatory in comparison with what happened in 1890 in America. While Samuel Gompers was laying the foundations for the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886, Takano arrived in San Francisco. Four years later, Takano and his colleagues Jo Tsunetaro, Sawada Hannosuke, and other Japanese workers organized a study group, the Japanese Knights of Labor, in the United States. The group's aim was to return to Japan and prepare their countrymen for the social problems that were bound to arise from the country's ever-advancing shift toward an industrial economy. Takano returned to Japan in 1896. Once Jo and Sawada had returned in late 1896, they re-formed their study group. One of the first things that the group undertook was the writing and distribution of a pamphlet titled A Summons to the Workers to factory employees in Tokyo.

The group organized public meetings at which Sakuma Teiichi, Takano, and others spoke on labor issues. Funding problems hampered their success. Japan had entered a recession and strikes continued, but the group decided to persevere despite the difficulties of the economic situation. Around this time, the group invited Katayama Sen, the settlement house director, to get involved. Shimada Saburo, Matsumura Kaiseki, Suzuki Junichiro (a professor of economics), and Sakuma Teiichi (the progressive capitalist owner of a large printing house in Tokyo) also backed the project.

The Establishment of the Society to Promote Trade Unions

In June 1897, at a public meeting in Kanda, 47 people responded to the call to establish an association to promote the formation of trade unions. The Society to Promote Trade Unions was founded in early July 1897. It concentrated on educating workers about labor problems; the workers in turn would pass on this knowledge to other workers. The society coordinated the activities of various existing trade unions. It focused mainly on skilled workers, which limited the membership. Takano had learned this lesson in America from the failure of the Knights of Labor and its policy of centralization and industrial unionism. Takano's perception of the situation was that it would be difficult to develop a mass labor movement even in the United States. Thus, he believed that the federation and craft unionism of the AFL were better suited to Japanese conditions, especially in light of the powerful sense of hierarchy that dominated the Japanese social context of the time. Artisans and mechanics, for example, were very conscious of their social status and were thus loath to cross feudal class lines (a holdover from Tokugawa times) or to identify themselves with what was in terms of status the virgin territory of the category of the modern industrial worker.

Formation of the Metalworkers' Union

Given the orientation of the society and the nature of the skilled trades, it came as no surprise when the Metalworkers' Union was formed on 1 December 1897. With over 1,000 members, this was the first significant modern trade union in Japan. Katayama was heavily involved in the formation process and became both one of the secretaries of the union as well as the editor of Labor World, the union journal, the first issue of which appeared on the same day the union was founded.

The Great Railway Strike

In 1898 a strike broke out at the largest railway company in Japan as a result of worker dissatisfaction with working conditions. Firemen and engineers began to organize secretly, were betrayed, and then finally were dismissed by the company. The dismissal signaled the workers, who had prepared ahead of time, to strike, and they did so starting on 24 February 1898. The strike lasted only a few days before the company caved in and met worker demands. This victory encouraged the railroad men to form a union; they forced the company to recognize it and founded a closed shop.

In 1898 Labor World reported 15 strikes involving about 7,000 workers on the Japan Railway. In addition, two old guilds were revived and reorganized into modern unions: the Ship Carpenters' Union and the Wood Sawyers' Union. After four years, the Metalworkers' Union had 5,400 members. If the revived unions were included, according to Katayama, the unions could boast at one stage almost 20,000 members.

Reasons for the Decline of the Movement

Accounts differ as to why the labor movement did not continue to grow after its initial successes. Although some commentators place most of the blame for the collapse of the movement on external reasons such as the heavy repression and interference by the police and the state, others emphasize the internal stresses and strains of the movement and the tactical, strategic, and ideological failings of particular leaders. Clearly a combination of these factors is the most plausible.

The suppression of the labor movement gained force when the Public Peace Police Law was passed in February 1900 during the spring session of the Imperial Diet. This measure prevented the working class from establishing any kind of union. Any agitation against employers and landowners became illegal and subversive from that time forth. The implications of this law were profound. Employees could not ask for higher wages or shorter hours without violating the law. Workingmen could not organize, because the law forbade it, with a threat of fines or hard labor. The focus solely on skilled workers doomed the movement to very small numbers and created a split in the ranks of a weak working class. Some have further argued that workers lost interest in the movement as repression mounted and the hopes of the leaders did not seem to be coming to fruition. The number of strikes fell sharply in 1899, dropping from 43 in 1898 to only 15 the following year. Strategic faults were also noticeable, one of which was the tendency of AFL-style decentralization to produce fractures in the overall solidarity of the labor movement. Minimal coordination by the Society to Promote Trade Unions, attributable to Takano's absence from late 1898 until the summer of 1899, worsened this lack of solidarity. The historical legacy of worker timidity, servility, and ignorance meant that workers were resistant to change. The newness of the union phenomenon meant that union promoters were frequently mistaken for just another brand of extortion, the latest form of worker exploitation by labor racketeers.

Finally, leaders such as Takano himself as well as Katayama have been criticized for different kinds of tactical, strategic, and ideological flaws. Takano's ideological and tactical proximity to the Association for the Study of Social Policy (not least via his brother, Iwasaburo) as well as to the AFL (via contact with Gompers) made him very wary of any labor involvement in politics. He was very much a moderate politically, as he thought it unwise to antagonize Japanese employers and the state, whether for ideological or more pragmatic reasons. Even the pamphlet A Summons to the Workers provides a good sense of his use of chauvinistic motifs to woo nationalistic workers, employers, and the Japanese state. The downside to this orientation was that workers who saw their interests ignored by employers and the state clearly had no time for proemployer unions. There were no concrete benefits. Moreover, the leadership often counseled them not to strike, but rather to use, in Takano's words, "peaceful and conservative methods as represented in pure and simple trade unionism." On the other hand, Katayama Sen has been criticized for using the trade union to hasten the millennium and draw the wrath of the police and the state.

The Reaction to Repression

The reaction of the movement to the devastating blow of the new legislation is revealing. Rather than contesting the questionable legality of this move and radicalizing, it largely and very respectably moved on to what it saw as the next task within the bounds of the legal status quo. This meant that workers were limited to founding associations for universal suffrage. Although this was a worthy goal as well, it was inadequate in light of the fact that the labor problem had broadened. It was rapidly turning into the old question of how best to combat an authoritarian state and the Japanese employers, both of whose interests were entirely opposed to those of the ordinary working masses. The labor movement could not run away from this issue but sooner or later had to face it or merely succumb with a whimper. The shifting of this conflict to the political realm simply transferred the same problem elsewhere. It did not constitute a resolution of it.

Key Players

Jo, Tsunetaro (1863-1904): One of the founders of the Knights of Labor in the U.S. He distributed Takano's pamphlet to workers in Tokyo. He was a shoemaker, who on returning to Japan in 1893 set up a shoemakers' association. Later he moved to Tokyo to help Takano in his union activities.

Kanai, Noburu (1865-1933): A founding member of the Association for the Study of Social Policy and a professor at Tokyo Imperial University.

Katayama, Sen (1859-1933): Born in what later became Okayama Prefecture, Katayama went to America and graduated from Grinnell College in 1892. From 1892 to 1894 he attended Andover Theological Seminary, and in 1895 he studied at Yale Divinity School. He became a Christian and later a socialist. He returned to Japan in 1896 and became a director of Kingsley Hall, the settlement house, involving himself in countless social causes. Takano convinced him to help in the labor movement, and in December 1897 he became very influential in the movement as editor of Labor World, the journal of the Metalworkers' Union. Later he helped organize the Japanese Communist Party.

Kuwata, Kumazo (1868-1932): Like Kanai, a founding member of the Association for the Study of Social Policy and a professor at Tokyo Imperial University. He was an aristocratic Diet member.

Sawada, Hannosuke (1868-?): One of the founders of the Japanese Knights of Labor and a distributor of Takano's pamphlet to workers in Tokyo. He was a tailor. In 1895 he tried to organize tailors in Tokyo. He also assisted Takano in his efforts at union organization.

Takano, Fusataro (1868-1904): Born in Nagasaki, Takano went to the United States in 1886, as Samuel Gompers was laying the foundations for the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Although not a founder of the Japanese Knights of Labor in San Francisco in 1890 (reconstituted in Japan in 1897), Takano became its most important member. A journalist by profession, he wrote a pamphlet, A Summons to the Workers, which was distributed to factory workers in Tokyo in 1897. Takano was also the key organizer in the establishment in July 1897 of the Society to Promote Trade Unions, which was essentially a school to assist the formation and growth of unions and to educate workers about them.

Takano, Iwasaburo (1871-1949): The younger brother of Fusataro and a founding member of the Association for the Study of Social Policy, he later became a professor at Tokyo Imperial University. He supported his brother's union drive. Later he became a famous social scientist and founded the Ohara Social Sciences Research Institute.

See also: American Federation of Labor.



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—Nik Howard

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Trade Union Formation and Suppression

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