Anarchism in the Land of the Rising Sun
eastern asia |
history of anarchism |
Friday March 11, 2005 23:58 by Aileen O'Carroll - WSM
TODAY JAPAN BRINGS to mind high tech corporations, stressed out primary school students and a gruelling work ethic that demands loyalty to the company. One hundred and thirty years ago it was a very different place,
TODAY JAPAN BRINGS to mind high tech corporations, stressed out primary school students and a gruelling work ethic that demands loyalty to the company. One hundred and thirty years ago it was a very different place, predominantly agricultural and ruled over by a fuedal elite. In 1868, these rulers decided to industrialise the country and create a highly centralised state. For this reason, the Japanese experience of capitalism is different from that in many European countries.
Anarchism in the Land of the Rising Sun (and falling Yen)
TODAY JAPAN BRINGS to mind high tech corporations, stressed out
primary school students and a gruelling work ethic that demands
loyalty to the company. One hundred and thirty years ago it was a
very different place, predominantly agricultural and ruled over by a
fuedal elite. In 1868, these rulers decided to industrialise the
country and create a highly centralised state. For this reason, the
Japanese experience of capitalism is different from that in many
Here, aristocrats were replaced (either gradually or by
revolution) by a rising class of businessmen. There, the aristocrats
became the new businessmen. The culture of feudalism wasn't rejected
and replaced, rather it was remained and provided the background to
the new society. This meant that Japan at the turn of the century was
a country that was becoming more industrial and yet remained
extremely conformist. It was in these difficult conditions that
anarchism ideas first took hold in Japan.
The movement was to be dramatically influenced by the world wars
in which Japan played a leading part. Three phases are evident: from
1906-1911, from 1911-1936, from 1944-present day.
Ideas have to come from somewhere. In Japan anarchist ideas were
first popularised by Kotoku Shusui. Born in a provincial town in
1871, he moved to Tokyo in his teens. His political ideas developed
on the pages of a number of papers he wrote and edited. Though these
early newspapers weren't anarchist, they were liberal enough to bring
him to the notice of the authorities. He was imprisoned in 1904 for
breaking one of the many draconian press laws. As it is for many,
prison was to be his school.
There he read Kropotkin's 'Fields, Factories and Workshops'. In
prison he also began to consider the role of the Emperor in Japanese
society. Many socialists at the time, avoided criticising the
Emperor, in contrast Kotoku began to see how the Emperor was at the
centre of both capitalism and the power of the state in Japan.
Following his release from prison he emigrated to the USA. There
he joined the newly formed Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW,
also known as the Wobblies), a syndicalist trade union, strongly
influenced by anarchist ideas. In the US he had access to more
anarchist literature, reading Kropotkin's 'The Conquest of Bread'.
On his returned to Japan in 1906 he spoke to a large public
meeting on the ideas he had developed while in the US. A number of
articles then followed. "I hope" he wrote "that from now on the
socialist movement will abandon its commitment to a parliamentary
party and will adapt its method and policy to the direct action of
the workers united as one".
In the following years the anarchist-communists concentrated on
spreading information about anarchism, through the production of oral
and written propaganda. Although the work they did was similar to
work Irish anarchists do today, the conditions they had to operate in
were very much more difficult. Faced with continuous police
harassment, some anarchists considered turning to more violent
methods. In 1910 four of these were arrested following the discovery
of bomb making equipment.
This was the opportunity the authorities were waiting for to
comprehensively clamp down on dissent. Hundreds were taken into
custody. Finally 26 were brought to trial. Though they were charged
with plotting to kill the emperor, in reality they were being tried
for having anarchist beliefs. All but two were sentenced to death. 12
had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment, and 12, including
Kotoku, were executed. Following his death, many activists fled into
exile. Those that stayed faced repeated imprisonment.
Yet despite these exceptionally harsh conditions, the movement did
not die. The end of the First World War brought a period of
spiralling inflation, which led to rice riots in many towns and
cities. The new industrial workers began to organise and labour
disputes increased. The Russian Revolution caused intense debate in
Japan, as elsewhere; how can we create a better society? What should
that society look like? This flourishing of opinion was temporarily
dimmed, following the tragic murders of two anarchists, Osugi Sakae
and his partner Ito Noe.
In 1923, a major earthquake hit Japan. More than 90,000 people
died. The state took advantage of the turmoil and hysteria that
followed. The two anarchists, along with Osugi's six-year-old nephew
were seized by a squad of military police and beaten to death. The
brutality of the murder compelled some anarchists to seek revenge.
Once again, anarchist attempts at retribution were met by state
repression that struck indiscriminately.
However, all was not lost. Indeed anarchist organisations were
growing as never before. In 1926 two nationwide federations of
anarchists were formed. The following years were characterised by
intense debate between anarchist- communists and anarchist
syndicalists. At issue was the central question as of what was the
best method with which to build towards a revolution. Hand in hand
with their theoretical discussions, these anarchists were active in
struggles over wages and working conditions.
War however once more loomed on the horizon. As the state began to
move towards external confrontation with Manchuria, it also began to
silence internal opposition. A new wave of repression ensued.
Although the anarchist movement adopted many strategies to survive,
the state was determined to succeed. With the beginning of the Second
World War, all anarchist organisations were forced to shut down. The
anarchists themselves had to maintain a low profile, hiding their
political ideals from public view.
Post-war, Japan was under the effective rule of the United States.
Their political policy for the country see-sawed between trying to
artificially create a 'right' and a 'left' political party, to trying
to remove all left wing influences from politics. Heavy investment
and a rapidly growing economy were accompanied by a clamp down on
trade union autonomy. Although the anarchists re-grouped and
re-organised, they found it difficult to flourish in these
The movement today is much smaller than before, and from Ireland
it is difficult to find much English language information about them.
No doubt they face many of the same problems that we do; how to show
people that they don't have to just make do, how to convince people
that an alternative is possible and that they have power to create
Perhaps the economic turmoil that Japan is now experiencing will
lead people to criticise and reject the current system. If that
happens, hopefully Japanese anarchists will be able provide a vision
of society based on freedom and equality, begin to rebuild the
movement, so once more anarchist ideas have mass influence.