Anarcho-syndicalism in Japan: 1911 to 1934 – Philippe Pelletier

( An essay on the rise and fall of organized anarchism in Japan in the early 20th century, with special emphasis on its anarcho-syndicalist dimension, with interesting details concerning the disputes, splits and controversies that plagued the Japanese movement and which were surprisingly similar in their basic contours to those that affected the anarchist movement in the West during the same period.

Anarcho-syndicalism in Japan: 1911 to 1934 – Philippe Pelletier

The history of anarcho-syndicalism, anarchism, and more generally the workers and peasants movement in Japan between the two world wars, is of unprecedented richness. It also contributes powerful lessons in all domains: tactical, strategic, ideological and philosophical. If a conclusion can be drawn from this experience, it is this: on the other side of the world hundreds, if not thousands, of people fought for an ideal of libertarian emancipation expressed in values that, of course, while depending on the local context—Japanese and more broadly Asian—were nonetheless, and still are, of universal significance.

The Japanese anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists, however, did not evolve in a closed environment. They were always informed, sometimes after a certain delay, of the theoretical trends and strategic debates of the movement in the rest of the world. They were always making contacts, traveling and translating. Kotoku Shusui (1871-1911) went to the United States; Osugi Sakae (1885-1923) to France and China; Ishikawa Sanshiro (1876-1956) to Belgium and France (where he was the guest of Paul Reclus) and to China in 1927; Iwasa Sakutaro (1879-1967) to California and China; Yamaga Taiji (1892-1970) to China, Taiwan and the Philippines. Besides learning to speak western languages, many of them also spoke Esperanto (Osugi Sakae, Yamaga Taiji, etc.). They were thus participants in numerous international initiatives. Anarchists were also more numerous than communists in the Japanese delegations that attended the preliminary conference for the “Far Eastern Peoples’ Congress” held in Irkutsk in November 1921. The anarcho-syndicalist Yoshida Hajime was even a member of the delegation that attended the plenary conference in Moscow in 1921.1

This history, however, presents difficulties to the would-be investigator. Besides the problems posed by the linguistic barriers to understanding the texts, we must call attention to at least two factors that have long constituted obstacles to this project: the predominance, among the historians of the post-war period, of not only the viewpoints of liberal democracy, but also of the Marxist left, in the interpretation of the pre-war period, which has resulted in the concealment or marginalization of the role played by the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists; the extreme weakness of the Japanese anarcho-syndicalist and anarchist movement during this same pre-war period, linked in part to the factor mentioned immediately above [Marxist and liberal predominance] and also to the dramatic changes undergone by a country that over the course of thirty years was transformed from a developing country (as it was categorized by the geographer Yves Lacoste in the fifties) to one of the major industrial powers.

Fortunately, the Japanese, whose culture places such a high value on the written word and memory, have preserved multiple traces of this history. Some of its militants have attempted to translate it into English. Furthermore, after about fifty years, a new generation of western researchers and historians has been able to take a fresh look at the works of their predecessors (George Beckmann, Fred Notehelfer, Thomas Stanley, Stephen Large) who were, to say the least, “commissioned” by the American authorities, in the framework of the cold war, with the job of knowing the global communist enemy; this new generation produced works of high quality, on Japan as well as China (Korea was, at the time, the big missing piece in this picture).

In this connection we must emphasize above all the contribution made by historians like John Crump, Byron Marshall, Phil Billingsley, Arif Dirlik, Edward Krebs and Peter Zarrow (the last two have written about China). The other original contribution of these investigations, although one does not necessarily have to share their perspectives, lies in the fact that, apart from a few exceptions, they offer the invaluable advantage of not distorting the principles or the history of anarchism or anarcho-syndicalism. We must also mention in this regard the work of the Biographical Dictionary of the International Workers Movement, edited by Jean Maitron (the volume on Japan was written by Shiota Shobei, a pro-communist author) [Le Japon. Shiota Shobei, Dictionnaire biographique du mouvement ouvrier international, collection Jean Maitron, Editions ouvrières/Editions de l’Atelier,1978, 2 tomes].

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