The Pre-War Japanese Left: A Survey and Critique

Derek Ide I Social Movement Studies I History I May 18th, 2013

The 2009 upheaval in Japanese politics, manifested in the ouster of the Liberal Democratic Party and their decades-long rule, signaled a significant shift to the left on the part of Japanese masses. Despite the caricature of Japanese society as one dominated by traditionally conservative and reactionary currents, Japanese leftists from the nineteenth century onward have articulated and maintained a diverse line of political thought that has played a vital role in challenging, both theoretically and materially, the dominant ideology and the capitalist economic structure which maintains it. Early leftist thought was originally rooted in Christian Humanism, only later developing an emphasis on socialist currents represented by reformism, anarchism, and Marxism. Popular forms of organization that struggled against the oppressive economic, political, and social institutions which constitute Japanese society have historically aligned themselves with a variety of leftist political thought.

Ultimately, however, two primary variables have existed in a dynamic interrelationship which has assured the dominance of the Japanese ruling class and excluded popular leftists elements from restructuring Japanese society along lines of social justice, equality, and democratic control over the economic sphere: intense state repression and the failures of the Japanese left to articulate a consistent praxis to achieve fundamental change. These two variables, important to varying degrees in different periods of recent Japanese history, provide a framework in which the weaknesses of the Japanese left can be critically assessed and allow for the synthesis of a new revolutionary praxis to emerge.

Modern leftist political thought has only been a material possibility within the last century and a half in Japan. Japanese society, from the mid-seventh to the mid-nineteenth century, was dominated by a conservative feudal system of extreme hierarchy. This top-down administration consisted of a ruling Shogun who presided over nearly 250 regional Daimyo Lords and maintained a semblance of ideological legitimacy through a mandate from the relatively powerless monarch, referred to as the Heavenly Sovereign, and a unique borrowing of Chinese Confucianism which strictly defined social roles and was utilized to legitimate strict political, social, and economic stratification.

Changing Social Relations in the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868)

An urban revolution under the rule of the House of Tokugawa was facilitated by the development of new agricultural techniques which, from 1550 to 1650, nearly doubled the amount of land under cultivation. This allowed for the rapid influx of ex-farmers into urban areas that were clustered primarily around castles used in the past by the Daimyo as military centers. This demographic shift from an agrarian to urban society fostered the growth of new markets, especially around luxury items associated with the nobility such as silk, which augmented the size of the urban proletariat.

The transformation under the Tokugawa period from a largely agricultural, semi-feudal society to an early industrial society brought with it the burgeoning of new social classes. Namely, the bourgeoisie, both large and small, which bought up labor to extract surplus from the relatively nascent modern working class, a class which sold its labor and produced valuable commodities for the market. The development of these new social classes, demarcated by their relation to the means of production, were a result of a complex array of factors including centralization of political power, agricultural improvements driven by military competition, technological advancements spurred by the fact that fewer farmers were needed, and the rapid urbanization resulting from these processes. Yet, despite all this economic development Japan remained within the ossified class structure of a feudal society.

The rigid social hierarchy of Neo-Confucian ideology was maintained as official dogma and a multitude of social, political, and economic benefits were assigned to the nobility. Merchants and artisans often lived precariously, some enjoying exponential success and others failing miserably under the heel of the emerging capitalist machine. For laborers and the poor, dangerous, onerous work earned them paltry wages, forced consumption restrictions, hereditary occupational status, and atrocious housing. It was, however, these economic conditions which foresaw the emergence in Japan of an entirely new economic order, one dominated not so much by military generals but by capitalists and bureaucrats in a rapidly urbanizing economy.

Combined with these new social forces emerging on the economic scene, peasant uprisings threatened the stability of the Tokugawa regime which lived off their exploitation. These uprisings, regardless of what particular historians [1] may presume, were not entirely apolitical, even if demands were largely relegated to economic issues. Within the midst of this complex transition in Japanese society came the controversial gunboat diplomacy of Western powers, manifested in the arrival of the Americans under the leadership of Matthew Perry in 1853, which triggered a national debate over the role of foreigners and how Japan should interact with them. A political formation of conservative Japanese nationalists and monarchists, forerunners of the ultranationalist tendencies in Japan, rallied around the banner of "revering the emperor and repelling the barbarians (Westerners)."[2] This group, the sonnō jōi, utilized the social force of the peasantry to overturn the dominance of the Shogun, who they saw as capitulating to foreigners. It was during this tumultuous period that a complex series of events led to the eventual downfall of the feudal power of the Shogun and the transfer of power to the emperor in what was called the Meiji Restoration.

Early Socialist Thought and Christian Humanism (1870-1911)

Until the late nineteenth century modern strains of leftist political thought were not only an impracticality, they were nearly impossible to articulate given the feudal social relations. On conjunction with these feudal restraints, traditional Buddhist, Shinto, and Confucian thought, which dominated the ideology of the masses, did not provide a framework in which working class oppositional politics could be easily developed.[3] Therefore, as Japanese philosophical historians Piovesana and Yamawaki point out, it is "difficult to associate materialism with Socialism during the period 1870-1911, primarily because early socialist thought in Japan was connected with a humanistic and Christian view of social problems."[4] The bond between early socialism and Christian humanism was strengthened during the Russo-Japanese war, which brought together members of both groups to participate in anti-war meetings.[5] It was not until the Russian Revolution of 1917 that Japanese socialists en masse would orientate themselves towards a scientific, rather than purely moralistic, critique of the existing social relations.

Elites in Japan during the late nineteenth century were driven primarily by two goals: national independence and "civilization and enlightenment." The first was to be achieved by cultivating a national identity and articulating strong economic goals while the second required industrialization, the removal of past pre-capitalist traditions, and the fostering of beneficial relationships with technologically advanced Western states. Both policies were intended to galvanize the rapid industrialization that would augment Japan's economic power. Subsequently, a brutal process of primitive accumulation occurred that brought with it a stripping of the power from the old nobility, a fundamentally new and more efficient tax structure, and the establishment of a primitive parliamentary system. The new constitution developed in 1889 was largely anti-democratic in its nature and highly exclusionary; it served primarily to enhance the political power of the "sacred and inviolable" emperor.

The pursuance of these goals lead to a rapid modernization process and the growth of nascent social forces. The number of factory workers grew from "a few thousand in the 1870s…to somewhat more than 400,000 in the late 1890s."[6] The number of female textile workers jumped from 26,800 in 1886 to 184,000 in 1909.[7] During this time, Japanese urban centers grew enormously and, for the first time in Japanese history, currents of modern leftist political thought based upon a technologically advanced industrial society could be cultivated. The very foundations of these ideas, such as democratically controlling the means of production and equal distribution of society's material wealth, were the result of the new economic forces that were developing a reality of class conflict.

The intense industrialization process that Japan underwent during the last part of the nineteenth century was spearheaded by the new Japanese government. Communications, transportation, and heavy industry were put forth as key components for economic development. The vast majority of the Japanese people were poor and those who already maintained the resources to invest in new industries quickly gained the upper-hand. Capital accumulation by certain economic titans only accelerated the concentration of economic power away from ordinary people and into the hands of a new capitalist class, the zaibatsu. Four giant conglomerates, Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, and Yasuda, grew to rival the robber barons of the West. Japan's trading capabilities with the West were prodigiously increased as industrial output skyrocketed.

This economic development did not ameliorate the miserable conditions of the new laboring class or the peasantry. Women in particular faced the brunt of the newly emerging industrial madness; they were often forced to work in conditions akin to slave labor at a fraction of the price of men who were often involved in more skilled trades.[8] The vast majority of Japanese people were excluded from the democratic process, subjected to a centralized government authority of which they did not choose, and forced to sell their labor to powerful economic titans who dominated vital Japanese industries as agriculture became increasingly mechanized and less reliant upon labor-intensive practices. Thus, the seeds of class strife were sewn.

The product of these developments did not materialize into practical organization just yet, however. Prior to the establishment of the Japan Socialist Party in 1906, early socialist groups were primarily theoretical in nature and acted more as intellectual study groups than practical organizational structures. One of the earliest of these was the Society for the Study of Socialism (Shakaishugi Kenkyukai) established in 1898 by a circle of Christian intellectuals in Tokyo.[9] The Social Democratic Party was formed in 1901, established on the tenants of Christian humanism, social democracy, and pacifism, things they believed achievable through electoral means. The state saw such a development towards leftist politics, even of such a mild variety, as a threat and forced the group to disband. [10] As long as the movement remained theoretical, academic, and abstract, the state tolerated it. The breaking point was when the party desired, even through reformist and parliamentary means, to alter the structures of society that worried government officials.

One example of this is the Socialist Society which held around 180 meetings from 1902 to 1903. Once the group decided to shift from a purely academic pursuit to become, even if only slightly, an activist-oriented organization by attempting to inculcate the idea of socialism in the popular consciousness, it was no longer permissible. Almost immediately government harassment became routine as police disrupted distribution of socialist newspapers, confiscated printing materials, and fined or imprisoned members. Subsequently, the Socialist Society was forced to disband in 1904. The long history of government repression of Japanese leftists had begun.

A range of debate concerning strategy, tactics, and the role of the state resulted from the intense government repression. This debate split socialists into two overarching camps: reformists and revolutionaries. Although not every leftist theoretician can be pigeonholed into each group perfectly, the two categories best reflect the two primary currents of leftist thought during this period. Reformists such as Abe Isoo, Kinoshita Naoe, and Katayama Sen were the equivalents, more or less, of European social democrats who advocated change through parliamentary means and promulgated their ideas through a monthly periodical called New Era (Shin Kigen). The revolutionaries, whose ranks included Kōtoku Shūsui, Sakai Toshihiko, and Yamaguchi Koken among others, were inspired primarily by German and French materialists and anarcho-syndicalists. Subsequently, they viewed a mix of class struggle and direct action as the primary tactics to be utilized in the transformation of society. They organized around two primary publications called The Light (Hikari) and the more theoretical Studies in Socialism (Shakaishugi Kenkyu). [11] The range of ideas and debate within the left at this time were enormous.

Kōtoku began as a liberal involved in the Popular Rights movement and quickly developed a blend of anti-war pacifism and social democratic sympathies. He did not become, in his own words, a "radical anarchist" until his experience anti-war organizing forced him to clash with the state apparatus where he met severe repression and imprisonment. After this period he adopted a sort of ultra-leftism and argued that fighting for universal suffrage was a waste and the Diet, or Japanese parliament, was only a tool of propertied class. His focus rested upon utilizing the general strike as the primary weapon of the working class, a position reinforced after the apparently spontaneous labor agitation that occurred in 1906 and 1907. [12] One position, articulated by a reformist named Yamakawa, upheld that political action for reforms, such as struggling for universal suffrage, were essential to bolster the class consciousness of the proletariat. A third position, closest perhaps to reality, was advocated by socialists such as Sakai who argued a synthesis of both political and direct action was essential. Even some, such as Katayama from the reformist camp, advocated a similar position when he stated that:

Although I advocate Universal Suffrage as the best means of educating the working classes and as a peaceful method for the development of the socialist movement in Japan, I have also belief in the direct action of workers and in general strikes as the best means of strengthening the position of the workers against the capitalist classes.[13]

At this point in time it was apparent that socialists found Marxism useful for analyzing and critiquing the structures of class society but could not articulate where or how it was useful in developing socialist strategy or tactics in how to transcend class society. A crucial weakness that enervated the left during this period was the inability to adopt a comprehensive strategy that utilized tactics both legal and illegal, political and direct, to develop a framework under which effective socialist organization could be established and allowed to grow. Given the restrictive external conditions it is unclear that even if a majority of the left had adopted this position, articulated best by socialists like Sakai, that they would have been able to overturn the state. Regardless, the potential for developing the socialist organization necessary for mobilizing the masses and capitalize on the struggles to come in the future would have been much greater.

The epitome of this failure is shown in the brief history of the Japan Socialist Party (Nihon Shakaito) formed in 1906. Around 200 activists from both camps came together in an attempt to unify around common principles. The schism between reform and revolution, however, did not allow this union to remain intact long. Factionalism was rife and although a strong plurality of members held predilections towards Kōtoku's anarcho-syndicalism and direct action, he did not have enough to form a solid majority. Despite the internal power struggles inherent in groups attempting to reconcile two contradictory forms of praxis for social change, the JSP was ultimately crushed by external forces. [14] General Katsura, a rabid conservative, took power for a second time in 1908 and was bent on crushing any forms of socialist organization. The government quickly forced the party to disband because, according to them, it agitated labor unrest. The party was forced to cease print of their paper, the Commoners' News. Many prominent socialist voices were arrested. Twelve, including Kōtoku, were arrested on grounds they were attempting to assassinate the emperor and were swiftly executed three days after sentencing without any form of appeal. It is not clear to this day whether or not Kōtoku was involved at all. [15] Regardless, the trial and conviction was a government attempt to discredit the socialist movement and create a climate of fear that would incriminate leftist thought.

Taishō Period (1910-30)

Not until the Taishō period, lasting roughly from 1910 to 1930, was the zenith of democratic participation by masses reached in the prewar era. Social movements that had burgeoned during the Meiji era blossomed into life during the early part of the twentieth century. Class conflict and participatory, democratic movements on behalf of the masses reached their apex during this period and were, at least partly, reflected in the evolving political institutions in Japan. Ironically, all of this internal development occurred within the context of the imperial ambitions of Japan's leaders. The Japanese empire consolidated its power after World War I and increased its control over China, Manchuria, Karafuto, Korea, Taiwan, and other areas of the South Pacific. By 1922, Japan had secured its hegemony in the region.

It was within this imperial advancement that the internal division sown during the early Meiji years of industrialization began to sprout. Class conflict became more concrete, a serious reflection of the material conditions in Japanese society. Factory workers grew in numbers while wages and workplace rights remained stagnant or declined. In 1914, only fifty strikes occurred in Japan while in 1919, only five years later, nearly 500 instances of labor disputes were recorded and tens of thousands of workers took action against unfair conditions. By 1930, this number has risen above 900 recorded disputes with over 80,000 participants. [16] The number of unions rose significantly from 187 in 1919 to 818 by 1931. Likewise, union membership increased dramatically from around 100,000 members in 1921 to over 350,000 in 1931. [17] A hailstorm of calls for the implementation of universal suffrage, democratization of the educational system, and abolition of draconian anti-labor laws were put forth. By 1921, a landmark labor battle occurred at shipyards in Kobe where the army was called in to break a massive strike, a crucial turning point. Afterwards, moderates advocating gradualism and labor-capital harmony were marginalized and more radical elements became active in the movement.

Subsequently, an avenue was opened for radical activists to win support for their ideas. The foundations for a revolutionary socialist alternative had already been laid by four principle socialists during this period: Sakae Ōsugi, Toshihiko Sakai, Kanson Arahata, and Hitoshi Yamakawa. Each had felt the wrath of the state and, after serving prison terms for their political activism, advanced their own theoretical positions in which posited methods of organization that would best serve radicals within the context of Japanese society. All four became heavily involved in labor organizing during World War I and all but Ōsugi converted to Marxism-Leninism after the Russian Revolution. [18] Ōsugi maintained his commitment to anarcho-syndicalism until being murdered by police in 1923. [19] The other three were founding members of the Japanese Communist Party (Nihon Kyōsan-tō) in 1922. The Russian Revolution had marked the end of anarcho-syndicalism being the primary force in socialist theory. However, the contributions that Lenin had put forth were not clearly understood immediately within Japanese arena of struggle. The first article on Leninism did not appear until 1918 and vital critiques of capitalism such as Marx's Capital were not fully available in Japan until 1924.

Labor was not the only area where social change and democratic organization was occurring. Many who participated in the Popular Rights movement, a reform movement for political democracy, turned towards more radical, left-wing thought as it became apparent that political demands, let alone social and economic concerns, could not be addressed through the extremely exclusionary democratic forms available in Japan. A multitude of examples symbolize this transformation. The editors of Democracy, a journal from the New Men Society, articulated the theoretical shifts of those previously involved in the Popular Rights movement. As one participant, Akamatsu Katsumaro, describes, "Our groups fell away from democratic theory and we lost our calmness. We now focused our attention on discussion of how to lead the class struggle in Japan… Socialism and anarchism became topics of interest." [20] Similarly, the Friendly Society (Yuaikai), a welfare labor organization that promoted harmony between classes, started off very moderate but quickly developed kernels of radicalism within it. Radicals had pushed through demands within the Yuaikai, arming with a left critique that denounced the evils of capitalism, called for an end to wage slavery, and demanded workers' control over their work, culture, and society at large. There were not simply vague abstractions, however, as the organization called for material demands to be met: eight hour work day, a 48 hour work week, a minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, social insurance, accident compensation, and arbitration of labor disputes among other things. Politically, they demanded universal suffrage, a repeal of oppressive laws against labor organizations and the democratization of Japan's political system. [21] These lucid examples lead one to believe that it was through struggle for democratic, parliamentary reforms that people were opened up to more radical, leftist critiques of society. Essentially, this points to the idea that peoples' consciousness change through struggle, even if that struggle is one for reform. This concept is a fundamental tenant in the theory of "socialism-from-below" that rejects elitist methods of revolutionary organization.

Agrarian reform was also a major issue during this period. Tenant farmers began to organize themselves to fight for rent reduction and better wages. From 1920 to 1929 over 18,000 tenant disputes were recorded; some ended in outright victory for the tenants while the majority ended in some form of compromise. [22] Regardless of outcome, such a dramatic rise in tenants articulating their own demands against landlords signaled that peasants were increasingly prepared to challenge fundamentally undemocratic social relations. Similarly, minority groups such as the burakumin began to affiliate themselves with radical social movements, especially Marxists who advocated revolutionary change and control over society by working people. Even more significant was the advance of Women's rights and early feminists who articulated demands for equality, both politically and economically. Some organizations were headed primarily by bourgeois, middle-class sectors while the more militant, radical women's rights activists agitated along socialist lines.

All of this activity, in conjunction with the changing social conditions, opened up the possibility for a large sector of the population to break away from the ideological stranglehold of traditional Japanese culture and the class collaborationism of the bourgeois academics and labor reformists. Many saw this opportunity to augment the strength of radical ideas and disseminate radical critiques of the capitalist system. Kawakami Hajime, professor of economics at Kyoto University, was one of the most famous Marxist academics who popularized socialist ideas on university campuses among students. [23]

Ideas were not just for academics, however. After a successful May Day rally in 1920 where protestors violently clashed with police forces, an attempt was made to unite a variety of different tendencies under an umbrella group called the Labor Union League. Despite being an important step in bridging the gap between leftists and forming a unified force, this effort was marred by ideological clashes that did not permit the organization to last long. [24] In the same year the Socialist League was formed and the group postulated a rigorous denunciation of capitalism:

We will destroy the present capitalist system. We will destroy systems, organizations, customs, thoughts, arts, and other bourgeois culture that go with the capitalist system. In order to create a truly human life, we are resolved to realize a society without wealth and poverty, a society in which all people work and all people receive security of food, clothing, and housing… We believe that our main power in this class conflict lies in…the worker class, and we will struggle for their awakening, unifications, and training. [25]

They also made calls for the "salaried class, the small entrepreneurs" who were "basically workers" to come join in their movement. By October of 1920 the SL boasted one-thousand members, a significant advance for radical politics. However, police continually harassed the group by breaking up meetings and conventions, as well as arresting leaders and activists. They were forced to disband in May of 1921. Regardless of the SL's short-lived existence, it was vitally important for the role it played in popularizing radical thought. It did this in three ways: first, even after the forced dispersion of the group members continued work in small groups and clarified theoretical differences in various schools of thought. Second, the SL bridged the gap between older Bolshevists and a new generation of radicals from the universities. Lastly, they greatly increased contact and strengthened the bond between left-wing intellectuals and labor organizers, opening more avenues for working people to take up radical left wing thought. [26]

It was, however, the reccurring weakness of the Japanese Left that ultimately ended in the demise of the SL. According to Beckmann and Ōkubo, authors of The Japanese Communist Party, the Japanese left suffered primarily from their lack of unity:

Even if the attitude of the authorities had been different, the league was probably doomed to failure because of the disparity of the ideological and personality groupings within it. None of these groups could properly be called an organization, and except for the anarcho-syndicalists, none had worked out action programs. [27]

The social democrats advocated legal reform but lacked the political capital to make any serious inroads, even in terms of piecemeal reformism. Marxists spoke abstractly of socialist revolution but their theory was severed from action as they had no strategic methods to accomplish this goal; they lacked a concrete praxis that could synthesize reflection and action or fuse theory and practice. No lucid, comprehensive conception of Leninism, something that could have potentially given Japanese radicals a blueprint for how to operate under extremely oppressive conditions, had been articulated in Japan at this point. The anarcho-syndicalists, of course, suffered from their ultra-leftist orientation that isolated them from any form of reformist struggle and, subsequently, from those who were not already radicalized. While their romanticism attracted some followers, their strategy of relying purely upon direct action and rejecting political demands was extremely detrimental.

The Japanese Communist Party (1922)

It was at this juncture, after the repressive apparatus of the state had enervated and debilitated any autonomous forms of radical organization, that the need for an underground party of revolutionaries became apparent. Thus, in 1922 a few radicals, including Sakai, Arahata, and Yamakawa, formed the Japanese Communist Party. By this time, Lenin had already warned that unless the "young working class of Japan rapidly becomes sufficiently strong to seize the Japanese bourgeoisie by the throat" than "as sure as morning follows night, so will the first imperialist war, which ended in 1918, be followed by a second war that will center around the Far East and the problem of the Pacific." [28]

Despite this, Lenin's advice to the Japanese Communists remained abstract and primarily rhetorical. It was Georgy Safaro, the Comintern's leading expert on East Asia, who first developed a coherent plan for revolution in Japan. He argued that the working class could not create a workers' revolution immediately but must first strategically align themselves with the peasantry and call for a "democratic republic, land nationalization, and the nationalization of large industry" which would be placed under workers' control. [29] When Katayama Sen was sent as a representative of the JCP to the Comintern he eagerly expressed his optimism about the prospects for revolution as he laid out the changing social conditions:

I think that the Japanese worker has made as much progress in the last half century as the worker of Europe has made during the last two or three centuries...the Japanese proletariat will soon learn how to fight against the capitalist oppressors more successfully than the workers of America or Europe, where the capitalist system is fully developed and established. [30]

Despite this enthusiasm, it was not Katayama's projection that rang true for Japan but Lenin's warning of impending imperialist war. Due to serious restrictions and a lack of resources, Japanese Communists did not maintain steady contact with leaders in the Soviet Union. This was, perhaps, a veiled gift given the soon-to-come Stalinist reaction that would grip the post-1924 Soviet sphere.

Eventually, most of the JCP came to accept that universal suffrage was a real goal with material and subjective consequences that ought to be struggled for. They did not, however, concede in the early years of the party that political democracy, even if it could be achieved, could light the pathway to true democracy where working people maintained control over the organization and distribution of the wealth of society. Furthermore, Yamakawa argued that Japan would not reach any sort of political democratic state for three primary reasons: first, the Japanese bourgeoisie had established its power by combining with the remnants of medieval autocracy and had lost its revolutionary spirit of a new class, second, Japan had no basis for the development of political liberalism and democracy since it had already reached the stage of imperialism, and third, the Japanese bourgeoisie had no loyal supporters and was threatened by an ever-advancing class-conscious proletariat. [31] The position commonly accepted at this time in the party was as follows:

A certain degree of political liberalism and democracy is necessary for the maturity of the proletariat as a class. To that extent-to that extent only-the proletariat has a common interest with the petty bourgeoisie and can make use of a petty bourgeois party. But the proletarian movement must act as an independent political force. [32]

The leaders of the JCP struggled over the question of how to utilize universal suffrage. For instance, the development of a broad electoral party was potentially a double-edged sword. Any sort of parliamentary party that hoped to achieve electoral results could not, especially given Japanese conditions, articulate the need for a socialist revolution. Similarly, the more the party became inclusive of all workers and all people, regardless of what sort of reactionary ideas they brought with them, the more the party would become bogged down in petty reformism that channeled struggle purely into the Diet. Without such a broad platform, however, the party would remain isolated and separated from the working class and would struggle to reach the broad audiences they hoped for.

The party was not challenged with this conundrum long. Under intense pressure from the state and forced to operate under the watchful guise of highly repressive government institutions, the JCP decided to dissolve itself in 1924. Instead, they would attempt to create a broad parliamentary party that would no longer be "alienated from the masses" and "reduced to factionalism." [33] It is apparent that:

The state destroyed its organization…But the party itself suffered from certain basic weaknesses. It was not a unified body with a concrete platform, but was instead an amalgam of personal factions whose members could not agree on the strategy and tactics of revolution…the party had not developed to the point where it was based on mass organizations of workers and peasants. [34]

Yamakawa argued that these fatal weaknesses were the result of maintaining a small, elite, illegal party. [35] Instead, the hope was that universal suffrage would allow the communist movement to grow by organizing a broad workers party which would allow communists to work inside of, or "burrow from within," and by doing so reach a wider layer of people. His ideas arose from a rigid conception of Marxism that maintained Japan was still in the feudal stage of economic development and, therefore, the stage of capitalism had not been reached where the proletariat would be able to take power.

In 1925 Fukumoto Kazuo emerged as the foremost Japanese Marxist theorist attacking Yamakawa's interpretation, arguing instead that Japan should be considered an economically developed capitalist state. He criticized Yamakawa's reliance upon universal suffrage and the dissolution of the vanguard party. Disliked by Moscow, Fukumoto was greatly influenced by the Hungarian Marxist George Lukács and, subsequently, was concerned with postulating a workable praxis. He "developed the dialectical aspects of historical materialism, as well as the practical aspects in the line of Lenin's What Is To Be Done?" [36] His position signified a definite break with the directives from Moscow and his ideas became quite popular on the left with something of a personality cult evolving around him. By 1926 the need for the reestablishment of the JCP became apparent as the small bureau that was maintained after the dissolution of the party could do very little by itself. The plan for the JCP was to function within the framework of the broader Labor-Farmer Party and form strong blocs with other groups that would attempt to gain hegemony. A new draft for the party was established that asserted the need for rejecting the "100 per cent" conception of membership in order to be more inclusive. Abstract discussions were to be replaced with more concrete issues. [37] The Party was rejecting both its former sectarianism and its desperate self-destruction. Unfortunately, these developments came too late to beat back the reactionary forces that were too be unleashed upon the left by the Japanese state.

The Dismantling of the Left in the Pre-War Era (1928-1935)

Despite the developments within the JCP, the party had very little time to effectively implement any of them. In 1928 and 1929 thousands of left-wing activists, accused of being communists, were arrested up in a national offensive led by General Tanaka Giichi to root out leftists. On one day alone, March 15, 1928, over 1,600 people were arrested. [38] By the early 1930's the majority of the JCP leadership and membership had been arrested, killed, tortured, or forced into renouncing their radicalism. In a one year span from 1931 to 1932 over 300 members of the party were sentenced. The trials were intended to show that the JCP had violated the Peace Preservation Law, passed in 1923, which "made it illegal to advocate either change in the national polity or the abolition of private property." [39] Any defendant who refused to publicly recant communism with written statements were punished harshly. This sort of intimidation and coercion literally decimated the party. After the forced coercion of two leaders in 1933 over 500 over members followed suit and renounced the JCP under state coercion. [40]

By 1931 conditions had become so unbearable that the JCP, now forced to operate underground, articulated the call for an immediate socialist revolution. They received no help from Russia which, by this time, lacked any vestige of the workers' revolution of 1917 and had already felt the degeneration from socialist revolution to state-capitalism manifested in Stalin's ascension. The Comintern was in the midst of an ideological struggle against Trotsky and other "Left Opposition" members who attempted to uphold an opposition to Stalin. Accordingly, the JCP was suspected of harboring Trotskyist currents and ostracized. This was not without its truth, as members such as famed Kyoto University professor and Labor-Farmer candidate Kawakami Hajime had insinuated their affiliation with Trotsky by translating articles which Stalin had labeled Trotskyist. [41] Kawakami himself was sent to prison in 1933 as the "red hunt" hit the university campuses. The last ditch effort of openly calling for immediate revolution without a mass base to follow through on such demands led to the isolation and defeat of the JCP as the government augmented their repressive activities. By 1935 the JCP and all its all organizational structures ceased to operate; the Japanese communist movement had been crushed by the state apparatus.

Conclusion (1928-1935)

The history of the pre-war Japanese left, then, is a history of vibrant resistance but ultimate defeat. All of this vital democratic activity and popular participation coalesced under, and was enormously influenced by, the emergence of left-wing political thought. While pre-war Japanese leftist thought offered an impressive display of diversity and the possibility for united action, the potential for revolutionary transformation was viciously stamped out. National minorities, women, and others began to organize themselves into groups and parties that struggled for fundamental change in Japanese society, articulating another important critique of Japan's material base and ideological components. Economic equality, workplace democracy, agrarian reform, minority recognition, and women's rights were all issues debated and discussed within leftist currents and struggled for during the pre-war era. Working people began to harbor subversive thoughts and radical ideas became more popular as class struggle and liberation movements became a reality. Subsequently, a prodigious wave of repression hit Japanese society as officials attempted to stamp out radical thought in Japan. New laws were passed that facilitated the imprisonment and murder of left-wing activists and it became illegal to challenge the supremacy of private property or to advocate change in the structure of government.

Undoubtedly the legitimacy of the Japanese ruling class was challenged by democratic forces during the prewar era. Despite significant repression, radical thought became popular in Japan as leftists attempted, but ultimately failed, in applying a revolutionary theory to pragmatic, material goals. Socialists and leftists became vital proponents of the various radical causes in Japan, including the abolition of wage labor, the implementation of workplace democracy, and the liberation of oppressed minorities. Political and economic elites recognized the precarious situation that would occur for their power if such an excess of democratic force was unleashed by the masses. Therefore, harsh repression had to be woven into superficial political reform and small concessions granted to popular movements. Simultaneously, this mix of conciliation and dismantling of radical thought facilitated the imperial project by limiting dissent and critique of Japan's militarist ventures. Subsequently, the most reactionary and nationalistic currents would take power and set Japan's political, economic, and social trajectory on a militaristic course that would succeed in stamping out leftist dissent and any challenges to the system.

Ultimately, the demise of the prewar left in Japan was the result of two irrevocably interconnected phenomena. State repression and the internal weaknesses of the left enervated the only potential force capable of stemming the tide towards xenophobic ultranationalism and quasi-fascist militarism. It is possible that a united front, one in which the revolutionary left could unify with progressive elements of Japanese society to combat the rise of the reactionary sectors that took state power in Japan, could have shifted the course of history and averted the country's disastrous entrance into World War II. Such a policy that could work strategically outside the system by maintaining autonomy and revolutionary independence, but tactically inside the system through whatever legal means accessible, could have provided the left the potential to avoid severe isolation. It is apparent that, given the nature of the Japanese state and the state apparatus in general, government repression would have resulted against radical elements regardless of their strategy. Still, a coalescing, unified strategy, incorporating a wide array of flexible and diverse tactics, could have reduced the efficiency of state persecution. Instead, rampant factionalism ate away from the left within and devoured its potential for transformative action while the ever-strengthening forms of semi-fascist state repression dealt the deathblow. Had the left been able to combat the augmentation of militaristic and ultra-nationalist sentiments in Japan, an objective requiring a much deeper understanding of not only theoretical Marxism but practical, applicable praxis, it is possible to conceive that a culture of resistance may have been cultivated that would have changed the course of history, averted Japanese entrance into World War II, and saved the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Japanese who became victims of brutal American firebombing and atomic devastation.


[1] Mikiso Hane, Modern Japan: A Historical Survey, Third Edition (Colorado: Westview Press, 2001), 87. For instance, Hane maintains that the "end of more than 260 years of Tokugawa rule…was primarily a political event, although it has been interpreted by many Japanese historians as the product of the new social and economic forces…"

[2] Hane, Modern Japan, 76.

[3] Gino Piovesana, Naoshi Yamawaki, Recent Japanese Philosophical Thought, 1862-1996 (Great Britain: Japan Library, 1997), 55.

[4] Piovesana, Recent Japanese Philosophical Thought, 52.

[5] Ibid.

[6] James McClain, A Modern History: Japan, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002), 248.

[7] McClain, A Modern History: Japan, 249.

[8] Ibid.

[9] George M. Beckmann, Genji Ōkubo, The Japanese Communist Party 1922-1945 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969), 1.

[10] Beckmann, The Japanese Communist Party, 2.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Katayama Sen, The Labor Movement in Japan, "Chapter 5: The Socialist Party and Its Activities," accessed 7 December 2009; available from; Internet.

[14] Beckmann, The Japanese Communist Party, 6.

[15] Ibid.

[16] McClain, 372.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Beckmann, 7-8.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] McClain, 368.

[23] Piovesana, Recent Japanese Philosophical Thought, 170.

[24] Beckmann, 23.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Piovesana, 175.

[37] Beckmann, 106.

[38] Hane, 232.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Piovesana, 173.