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Labor and Imperial Democracy in Prewar Japan

Andrew Gordon
Copyright Date: 1991
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Labor and Imperial Democracy in Prewar Japan
    Book Description:

    Labor and Imperial Democracy in Prewar Japanexamines the political role played by working men and women in prewar Tokyo and offers a reinterpretation of the broader dynamics of Japan's prewar political history. Gordon argues that such phenomena as riots, labor disputes, and union organizing can best be understood as part of an early twentieth-century movement for "imperial democracy" shaped by the nineteenth-century drive to promote capitalism and build a modern nation and empire. When the propertied, educated leaders of this movement gained a share of power in the 1920s, they disagreed on how far to go toward incorporating working men and women into an expanded body politic. For their part, workers became ambivalent toward working within the imperial democratic system. In this context, the intense polarization of laborers and owners during the Depression helped ultimately to destroy the legitimacy of imperial democracy.Gordon suggests that the thought and behavior of Japanese workers both reflected and furthered the intense concern with popular participation and national power that has marked Japan's modern history. He points to a post-World War II legacy for imperial democracy in both the organization of the working class movement and the popular willingness to see GNP growth as an index of national glory. Importantly, Gordon shows how historians might reconsider the roles of tenant farmers, students, and female activists, for example, in the rise and transformation of imperial democracy.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91330-1
    Subjects: History, Economics

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Tables, Graphs, and Maps
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Preface
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    In the first two decades of the twentieth century, crowds of city-dwellers took to the streets of Tokyo and launched the most vigorous urban protests yet seen in Japan. At least nine times from the Hibiya riot of 1905 to the rice riots of 1918, angry Tokyoites attacked policemen, police stations, and national government offices, smashed streetcar windows and beat the drivers, marched on the Diet, and stormed the offices of major newspapers. They destroyed public and private property, launching both symbolic and substantive attacks on the institutions of the established order of imperial Japan.

    In the same years, wage...


    • ONE The Movement for Imperial Democracy
      (pp. 13-25)

      Imperial democracy had two incarnations. It began as a political movement. Later it became a system of rule.

      When imperial democracy emerged as a movement for change in the early twentieth century, its leaders contested for power with the Meiji oligarchs. They raised a challenge to the ruling structure erected between the 1870s and 1890s, which we may call imperial bureaucracy. In this prior system, civilian bureaucrats and the military ruled the nation on behalf of the sovereign emperor, and they bore no direct responsibility to the people, who were expected to support their policies obediently.¹

      The imperial democratic movement...

    • TWO The Urban Crowd and Politics, 1905–18
      (pp. 26-62)

      The period bounded by the massive Hibiya riot of 1905 and the nationwide rice riots of 1918 is aptly dubbed Japan’s “era of popular violence.”¹ Tens of thousands of Tokyoites participated in nine instances of riot during these years (table 2.1). These outbursts were serious affairs; in the six major Tokyo riots, hundreds were injured and arrested, and at least twenty died. On four occasions cabinet changes took place largely or in part because of the riots.²

      The 1905 Hibiya riot, in particular, had insurrectionary qualities. The peace settlement to the Russo-Japanese War had brought Japan neither reparations nor the...

    • THREE Labor Disputes and the Working Class in Tokyo
      (pp. 63-79)

      Factory workers not only attended rallies and joined in riots from 1905 to 1918. Between 1897 and 1917 they elaborated two additional forms of collective action: the labor dispute and labor unions. The early evolution of labor disputes in Tokyo is the concern of this chapter; the emergence of unions is addressed in chapter 4, as our focus narrows to the workers of Nankatsu.

      Riots, disputes, and union-organizing together constituted the working-class dimension to the movement for imperial democracy. The rise of industrial capitalism helped provoke and shape the riots, and of course it stimulated and shaped the way laborers...

    • FOUR Building a Labor Movement: Nankatsu Workers and the Yūaikai
      (pp. 80-109)

      As they set up temporary headquarters in local bars or restaurants, drew up demands, and met in public halls to elect representatives, the men and women who joined nonunion disputes proved able to organize themselves to increasingly good effect by World War I. But the absence of formal, permanent organizations—that is, labor unions—certainly limited their impact and potential gains.

      Men in a few trades with preindustrial roots, such as the ship carpenters in the 1890s, had organized effective unions.¹ In addition, some heavy industrial workers in the 1880s and 1890s sporadically sought to create labor unions. In Tokyo...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. 110-122)

    • FIVE Imperial Democracy as a Structure of Rule
      (pp. 125-143)

      The social turbulence and the political challenge to oligarchic authority raised by the movement for imperial democracy was dramatic. The oligarchs of Meiji, still active in the early twentieth century, viewed representative institutions and popular participation in politics with suspicious acceptance in some cases and clear hostility in others, yet their policies had set in motion forces they could neither ignore nor repress. A new bourgeoisie of capitalists and “free professionals” (lawyers, educators, journalists) in the cities, closely allied to a rural elite of men mixing roles as landowners, political leaders, investors, or entrepreneurs, led the imperial democratic movement for...

    • SIX Nuclei of the Workers’ Movement
      (pp. 144-175)

      In the years after World War I, three previously separate streams of action, which had begun to overlap during the war, converged in the workers’ movement. Radical intellectuals inspired by the revolution in Russia, moderate Yūaikai reformers of both working-class and intellectual background, and impatient workplace activists began to work together. The lines between these groups were sometimes blurred, and their alliance was sometimes tense. But their efforts produced one of the three most turbulent periods of working-class conflict in Japanese history.¹

      The postwar era was a heady time for union activists. Experimenting with a variety of ideological stances and...

    • SEVEN The Labor Offensive in Nankatsu, 1924–29
      (pp. 176-203)

      Between 1924 and 1929, organized workers in Tokyo achieved unprecedented breadth and depth of support. At the peak of labor strength in the late 1920s, roughly one-third of all factory workers in Nankatsu belonged to unions, and their dispute activity far exceeded that of the early postwar years. The labor movement moved beyond its centers of strength in large factories in heavy industry to win substantial support in medium-sized and smaller factories. Also, with the advent of universal male suffrage, new “proletarian” political parties contested for electoral support for the first time. Through this “labor offensive,” the dispute culture had...

    • EIGHT Working-Class Political Culture under Imperial Democracy
      (pp. 204-234)

      Beginning in the early days of the Yūaikai, factory workers in Nankatsu had responded to their perceived low status, poor wages, insecure jobs, and degrading treatment in the workplace with a new and growing assertiveness. By the late 1920s they had devised a repertoire of collective actions—organizing unions, carrying out disputes, calling demonstrations, supporting candidates for national and local office—that together constituted their “dispute culture.” To conclude the examination of this culture, we must reconstruct its ideological dimension: the Nankatsu workers’ critique of the social and political order and their visions of the future. This analysis should clarify...


    • NINE The Depression and the Workers’ Movement
      (pp. 237-269)

      In just three years, the multiple shocks of the depression, military expansion, assassination, and intense social conflict foreclosed Japan’s liberal and democratic options. An imperial democratic structure and ideology of rule that had tolerated and even sanctioned independent labor or farmer organization gradually crumbled. In its wake emerged a system and ideology of rule with greatest contemporary kinship to the fascist systems of Germany and Italy. Between 1936 and 1940, independent political parties, business associations, producer cooperatives, labor unions, and tenant unions were replaced by a series of state-controlled mass bodies intended to mobilize the nation for its “holy war”...

    • TEN The Social Movement Transformed, 1932–35
      (pp. 270-292)

      The polarization of working-class neighborhoods such as Nankatsu was a major internal element in the depression-era crisis that brought down imperial democracy, but over the next few years, the labor movement foundered. Proletarian candidates fared worse at the polls between 1932 and 1935 than they had in the first universal manhood suffrage elections of the late 1920s. Union membership did not keep pace with the expanding work force after 1932, and disputes declined in number and intensity. Union leaders in the Sōdōmei renounced disputes and embraced a program of “industrial cooperation.” Unions of all stripes stopped criticizing imperialism and began...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. 293-301)
    • ELEVEN Imperial Fascism, 1935–40
      (pp. 302-330)

      After several years in which unions grew slowly and job actions decreased, the labor movement revived in the mid 1930s. Unions began to expand once more in the major urban centers of the Keihin and Kansai regions in 1935; in Tokyo the number of organized workers rose 25 percent from a 1934 low to a peak of 81,500 in 1936, and after three years of decline even the national proportion of organized workers increased ever so slightly from 1934 to 1935.¹ For a time labor disputes lagged, and unions played a diminished role in them, but in the first six...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 331-342)

    A principal objective of this book has been to place social contention, broadly conceived, and the working-class movement specifically, at the center of twentieth-century political history. By the 1920s workers who called for social respect and belonging, for equity, or for the radical transformation of society, secured a small portion of their demands in changed treatment at work and broader political participation. Their actions, together with those of poor farmers and others not treated here, also provoked an intense search among bureaucratic, party, and military elites for effective means to protect their interests in the existing social order. This search...

  12. Appendix A. Public Assemblies in Tokyo, 1883–1938
    (pp. 343-344)
  13. Appendix B. Victims of the Kameido Incident, September 4, 1923
    (pp. 345-348)
  14. Bibliographic Essay
    (pp. 349-352)
  15. Index
    (pp. 353-364)