Labor and Imperial Democracy in Prewar Japan
Labor and Imperial Democracy in Prewar Japan

Labor and Imperial Democracy in Prewar Japan

by Andrew Gordon




Labor and Imperial Democracy in Prewar Japan examines 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520067837
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/20/1991
Series: Twentieth Century Japan: The Emergence of a World Power Series
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.91(w) x 10.83(h) x (d)

About the Author

Andrew Gordon is Associate Professor of History at Duke University and author of The Evolution of Labor Relations in Japan: Heavy Industry, 1853-1955 (1985).

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Labor and Imperial Democracy in Prewar Japan

By Andrew Gordon


Copyright © 1991 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-91330-1


The Movement for Imperial Democracy

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.

The imperial democratic movement had roots in an earlier challenge to these imperial bureaucrats, the Movement for Freedom and Popular Rights. The Popular Rights movement, however, dissolved by 1884 in the face of both government repression and conflict between its own dual strata of supporters, the ex-samurai and landed elite on one hand and poor farmers on the other. In the early twentieth century, the imperial democratic activists emerged with greater force and staying power to demand expanded suffrage, tax reduction, and respect for the electorate represented in the Diet. These causes of propertied, educated men represented the formal vanguard of the movement for imperial democracy, although as with the agitation for popular rights of the nineteenth century, they overlapped with lower-class protest.

The height of imperial democracy as a movement to gain access to political power came between 1905 and 1918. In this latter year, the formation of Hara Kei's Seiyukai Party cabinet marked both a major success of the movement and a watershed in its transformation into a structure of rule. As party rule subsequently became almost routine, many of its advocates, now found in key bureaucratic groups as well as the parties themselves, sought further democratic reforms as the best means to control ongoing demands for participation and the radical movements of workers, intellectuals, and poor farmers. But the imperial democratic ideology that justified party rule was not a uniform conception. The two major parties, Seiyukai and Minseito, differed greatly in their vision of how much popular involvement, in how liberal and democratic a form, was desirable. From 1924 to 1931 the decidedly more liberal vision of the Minseito Party and its bureaucratic allies, which would have granted significant autonomy to popular organizations, was dominant. But the critical difference of the parties over means should not obscure agreement on ends. They were united in a commitment to preserving a capitalist order in which their own position had been secured and an international order in which Japan's Asian hegemony was respected.

As a structure of rule, imperial democracy was centrally concerned to placate or control labor, for organized workers were among those who inherited and transformed the oppositional spirit of the earlier movement for change. During the depression the intense confrontation between imperial democrats in power and angry, but powerless, workers and farmers, fighting for both respect and their livelihoods, helped discredit imperial democracy as a system of rule and an ideology of control. The result, in the 1930s, was the eclipse of the parties, the repudiation of democratic ideas, and eventually the dissolution of the labor movement under a new regime.


Imperial democracy was the unanticipated product of Japan's dramatic nineteenth-century revolution. The adjective imperial signals the relevance of two central features of this revolution: the oligarchs who created the constitutional order of 1890 through 1945 located political sovereignty in the person of the Japanese emperor; and they built Japan into an Asian empire through victories in war in 1895 and 1905. Put simply, by establishing an emperor-centered constitutional order, promoting a capitalist, industrializing economy, and leading Japan to imperial power in Asia, the imperial bureaucrats of Meiji unwittingly provoked the movement for imperial democracy.


The Meiji leaders dismantled the socially stratified and politically fragmented Tokugawa order and drew upon Western models to build a unified state and society. At both elite and plebian levels of society, their initiatives stimulated the movement for imperial democracy. That is, as the imperial bureaucrats of the early Meiji decades legitimized and exercised authority, they offered a limited opportunity for popular participation; this provoked challenge by samurai, by landed local elites, and by poor commoners who joined the Popular Rights movement. Although the movement failed to win the liberal constitution it sought, the term failure is misleading. Its leaders survived and reemerged in the era of imperial democracy, in large part because the successful nation-building of the bureaucratic state created the conditions under which a challenge could be mounted.

The promulgation of a constitution and the convening of an elected Diet meant that Japan was a nation of subjects with both obligations to the state and political rights. Obligations included military service, school attendance, and the individual payment of taxes. Rights included suffrage and a voice in deciding the fate of the national budget. The fact that these rights were limited to men of substantial property is well recognized and, of course, important. Clearly the constitution was expected by its authors to contain the opposition. Nonetheless, to stress only the limitations placed on popular rights by the Meiji constitution is to miss its historical significance as a cause of future change: the mere existence of a constitutionally mandated, elected national assembly with more than advisory powers implied the existence of a politically active and potentially expandable body of subjects or citizens. Indeed, the decision of the oligarchs for a constitution was made in acute awareness that such a citizenry was in the process of forming itself and developing its own ideas about the political order. In 1881 Ito Hirobumi, the Meiji oligarch and architect of the constitution, received a letter from his trusted aide Inoue Kowashi: "If we lose this opportunity [to adopt a Prussian-style constitution] and vacillate, within two or three years the people will become confident that they can succeed and no matter how much oratory we use ... public opinion will cast aside the draft of a constitution presented by the government, and the private drafts of the constitution will win out in the end."

The creation of a constitutional polity also meant that Japan's political future could, indeed should, be conceived with reference to the so-called advanced nation-states of Europe and North America. As these nations generally offered a greater range of political rights to their citizens than did Japan, their role as models helped sanction the expansion of the electorate and other changes. The argument for democratic reforms gained force to the extent that the more democratic Western constitutional states appeared prosperous and successful in international competition.

The inauguration of electoral politics under the new constitution encouraged several new institutions and types of political activity, which played a major role in the history of imperial democracy. These included a vigorous partisan press, political parties, and other tools found in electoral political systems: rallies and speech-meetings (enzetsu kai), speaking tours (yuzetsu), and, later, demonstrations. Most of these preceded the constitution and helped the oligarchs see a need for it, for their first flowering came during the era of the Popular Rights movement. Even if new laws regulating the press, political parties, and political meetings restricted such activities, the constitution gave them an important new legitimacy.

By the late nineteenth century, hundreds of legal, open political rallies were convened each year in Tokyo alone. This was something new in Japanese history. Both leaders and most participants in the 1880s and 1890s were men of means and education, in the main landlords, capitalists, and an emerging class of urban professionals, in particular journalists and lawyers. Such men were to be the leaders of the formal movements for imperial democracy of the early twentieth century as well. But the simple emergence of such practices as assembly and speechmaking left open the prospect that other, less privileged individuals or groups would eventually seek to make use of them, and even in the 1880s the process of nation-building was beginning to transform Japan's popular political culture.

In 1860 the Dutch engineer Willem Kattendyke had lamented the parochialism of the Nagasaki merchant, concerned only with profit and willing to have his samurai betters take sole responsibility, credit, or blame for events in the political realm. According to his diary, Kattendyke had occasion to ask one merchant how the townspeople would defend themselves from outside attack. The merchant replied, "That's nothing for us to concern ourselves with. That's the bakufu's business." In the 1870s and 1880s a patriotic German, Ernest Baelz, had described the lack of popular patriotism in Japan with distaste. As the Satsuma rebellion began late in 1876, he confided in his diary that "people in general have seemed to me extraordinarily indifferent, quite unconcerned about politics and such matters." On the occasion of the emperor's birthday in 1880, he wrote, "It distresses me to see how little interest the populace take in their ruler. Only when the police insist on it are houses decorated with flags. In default of this, house-owners do the minimum." And in 1873 Fukuzawa Yukichi had observed that the Japanese people had no sense of themselves as kokumin, which he defined to mean "a nation" in a marginal notation. This critical word, a compound that literally means "the people of the country," required such a gloss in the 1870s, for the Japanese political vocabulary did not yet include a widely accepted term for "the people" that connoted popular involvement with, or responsibility for, the affairs of the nation.

By the early twentieth century, these formerly parochial, apolitical people, or their children, had a firm sense of themselves as members of the nation and were anxious to voice their political opinions on matters of foreign and domestic policy and insistent that they be respected. The Meiji observers just quoted, with an idealized view of the citizenry of Western nations as the base of comparison, probably exaggerated the apathy or passivity of the Japanese commoners of the nineteenth century. Peasant rebellions and urban riots were traditions to which these commoners had access, and the twentieth-century crowd and working class drew on them. Yet even the most radical or violent peasant uprisings of the 1860s maintained a local political perspective; angry groups of peasants seldom went beyond attacks on the rich to attack the political order. By contrast, the new political language of popular protest of the early twentieth century reveals a fundamentally national orientation. By 1905 the word kokumin had become as ubiquitous as the term for empire; both were watchwords of the movement for imperial democracy.

The great irony, of course, is that both terms achieved popularity as a result of nation-building programs dating from the 1880s, promoted by bureaucrats and private ideologues who feared that the "people" were insufficiently supportive of national goals. They concluded that a new body politic, the kokumin, was needed in a new age.

At the heart of this elite program for nation-building was the promotion of universal education. The spread of literacy prepared the ground for the rise of imperial democracy; it resulted from the conscious decision of the "nation-builders" of the late nineteenth century that a powerful modern polity and economy required a literate populace. By the time of the Hibiya riots in 1905, over 95 percent of school-age boys and girls, in Tokyo and nationwide, were indeed going to school. This was a recent and dramatic change, for in 1892 just over half of the nation's school-age boys and girls actually attended classes.

Some have argued that such education, by promoting an emperor-centered ideology, produced nationalistic subjects respectful of the hierarchy of local and national leaders, from village heads to factory owners to bureaucrats, who derived authority from their identification with the imperial father-figure at the apex of the status hierarchy. This view, however, is far too simplistic. Meiji education surely promoted nationalism and support for the emperor, but the record of urbanites and workers in opposing their putative superiors shows that the success of the schools in also creating docile workers or subservient subjects was limited. Universal education provided the tool of literacy, and this could produce citizens who supported both the emperor and democratic reforms.

As these newly educated youths reached adulthood, during the first two decades of the twentieth century, the revolution in basic literacy created a population of avid newspaper readers, which included the working poor in the cities. The images of the rickshaw puller and the prostitute waiting for their customers with newspaper in hand became a sort of literary conceit and a symbol of a new era. A May 1900 article in the Chuo koron remarked that Japan had entered a new stage in the history of newspaper readership when the locus of readers "moved further downward into lower-class society, and one sees petty merchants, young students, rickshaw pullers waiting for customers, and the women of the brothels all with newspapers in hand." This appears to be more than a titillating account for the middle-class readers of the respectable Chuo koron. One early survey, in the socialist Heimin shinbun in 1904, described a slum tenement in Tokyo's Honjo ward with 150 residents in twenty-seven apartment units; they reportedly held twenty-eight newspaper subscriptions among them. The first larger, more systematic, surveys cover the tail end of the "movement" stage of imperial democracy. Four-fifths of 659 worker households on the working-class island of Tsukishima in the heart of Tokyo subscribed to newspapers in 1919. Eighteen percent of the subscribers took two or more papers. And three-fifths (61 percent) of the household heads in a perhaps more representative survey of 2,591 glass-factory workers in late 1920 were regular newspaper readers.

The inexpensive antigovernment papers that took the lead in promoting the various causes associated with imperial democracy were particularly popular among the urban poor and the lower middle classes. The Yorozu choho was the best-selling and cheapest paper in Tokyo around the turn of the century, and its pages were filled with both jingoism and calls for a greater popular role in politics. In a sample of sixty-seven letters to the Yorozu in 1900, the newspaper historian Yamamoto Taketoshi found that workers, artisans, rickshaw pullers, or delivery boys sent almost one-third (twenty) of them. Such evidence suggests that a newspaper-reading public, including many among the urban poor and workers, emerged in Tokyo and other major centers during this era of the urban riot and the rise of imperial democracy.


Excerpted from Labor and Imperial Democracy in Prewar Japan by Andrew Gordon. Copyright © 1991 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations, ix,
List of Tables, Graphs, and Maps, xi,
Abbreviations, xiii,
Preface, xv,
Introduction, 1,
1. The Movement for Imperial Democracy, 13,
2. The Urban Crowd and Politics, 1905–18, 26,
3. Labor Disputes and the Working Class in Tokyo, 63,
4. Building a Labor Movement: Nankatsu Workers and the Yuaikai, 80,
5. Imperial Democracy as a Structure of Rule, 125,
6. Nuclei of the Workers' Movement, 144,
7. The Labor Offensive in Nankatsu, 1924–29, 176,
8. Working-Class Political Culture under Imperial Democracy, 204,
9. The Depression and the Workers' Movement, 237,
10. The Social Movement Transformed, 1932–35, 270,
11. Imperial Fascism, 1935–40, 302,
Conclusion, 331,
Appendix A. Public Assemblies in Tokyo, 1883–1938, 343,
Appendix B. Victims of the Kameido Incident, September 4, 1923, 345,
Bibliographical Essay, 349,
Index, 353,

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