No study of industrial disputes, especially of the causes of those disputes, would be credible without an inquiry into the state of working conditions. Most Japanese labor histories have merely indicated the low wages of the workers involved in the disputes or have gone no further than to emphasize workers' economic difficulties, and many researchers have sought to demonstrate a direct link between such low wages and the structure of Japanese capitalism. However, closer analysis of labor disputes and riots reveals that this structural linkage does not sufficiently explain the facts. Ashio is a case in point.
Economic privation was certainly one of the causes of the Ashio riot. The main feature of the petition presented by the hanba bosses immediately before the riot, and also of the demands drawn up by the tomokodômei, was a call for a 60% pay increase (1). Why did the miners and their bosses seek such a substantial rise? Obviously because wages were low. The point, however, is that those making the claim and those who led the riot were those workers, namely the miners, who were not only more highly-paid than other mineworkers, but were also earning higher wages than workers in other mines and industries.
A survey of working conditions in the nation's mines was carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce in the year before the riot, 1906. Data from the survey relating to the average wages of each category of worker are shown in Table 1.
[Source] Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce, Department of Mines "The Treatment of Mineworkers" 1908.
Wages of all workers below shorers were around 60% of those of miners'. The series of nationwide industrial disputes in 1907 took place against a background of sharply rising prices in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War, notably of staple food items such as rice, miso, salt, and soy sauce. The workers who would most naturally be expected to have suffered most from such price rises were the lowest-paid, such as laborers, yet the ones who led the campaign for a wage rise were the high-earning miners. Why was this?
The second point of interest is that the 72 sen 5 rin average daily rate of Ashio miners was by no means low in comparison with that of miners at other mines. Table 2 shows average daily rates for miners in metal mines employing over 1000 workers in 1906; it is noteworthy that rates were highest in the two mines where riots broke out in 1907 - Ashio and Besshi. In passing, it should be mentioned that in the Yûbari and Horonai coalmines, where there were also disputes and violence, miners' daily rates were even higher than in the metal mines, ranging from 1 yen to 1 yen 34 sen.
1) Wages: "The Treatment of Mineworkers" reprint pp. 48-51
2) For the total numbers of mineworkers, see pp. 13-14, and of miners, pp. 1-4
Thirdly, Ashio miners' wages were also not inferior to those of male workers employed in the largest industrial enterprises of the time, which are shown in table 3 (1906 figures). Since miners had to pay for some of their equipment themselves, there was not such a great difference between them and factory workers in terms of the actual wages received, but in a comparison of nominal wages Ashio miners were more highly-paid than arsenal or shipbuilding workers.
[Notes] Hyôdô Tsutomu "The Development of Labor Relations in Japan" p.312 ff.
Ashio miners were also better-paid than various types of skilled craftsman. Table 4 shows the top twenty 'national average wgaes' of 'craftsmen's wages' in 1906. The term 'craftsmen's wages' applies only to workers in the prime of life, and the figures are those of nominal rather than real wages. Craftsmen's wages were divided in three categories of high, ordinary, and low according to criteria laid down by local chambers of commerce throughout the country, and as the figures shown represent pure averages, strictly speaking, they do not allow for a genuine comparison with the wages of Ashio miners. They do, however, enable one to infer that Ashio miners' wages were in no way inferior to those of skilled craftsmen.
[Notes] "Historical Documents of the Japanese Labor Movement" Vol. 10 pp. 276-277
To make such points about the relatively high standard of Ashio miners' wages is not to conclude that their livelihoods were without difficulty; they clearly were not. However, whereas other scholars have preferred to dwell on those difficulties and on the 'poverty' of the miners, and indeed, are still doing so(2), the 'privation and poverty' to which they refer was in fact qualitatively different from the assertions they make about it. To discover why this was the case, it will be necessary to analyze the changes in the wage levels of the various categories of worker at Ashio.
(1) Labor History Resource Committee ed. "Historical Documents of the Japanese Labor Movement" Vol. 2, pp. 208-210.
(2) See the English version of "The Ashio Riot of 1907"(Duke University Press, 1997), Chapter 2 pp. 159-161