Writings of Kazuo Nimura

The Historical Characteristics of Labor Relations in Japan

1. Introduction

A variety of debates has taken place on the theme of the characteristics of labor relations in Japan. Among them, the conventional view has been to regard "Japanese-style labor relations" as a system that is peculiarly Japanese, characterized by the 'holy trinity' of the seniority system (nenkô joretsu), the lifetime employment system (shûshin koyôsei), and the enterprise union (kigyôbetsu rôdôkumiai).
On the other hand, there have been those who do not see these as especially Japanese features, such as Koike Kazuo, who has emphasized the system of skills acquisition and the 'white collarization of blue collar workers', or Kôshiro Kazuyoshi, who has put forward his 'scarcity of good employment opportunities' thesis, which, in a framework of economic analysis, seeks to explain the Japanese people's 'strong sense of belonging to a company' or their 'extraordinary dedication to work'.(1)

My own view of this debate is as follows. I do not deny that each of the so-called 'holy trinity' grasps something of the characteristics of labor relations in Japanese major corporations, but before World War II, the seniority system and the lifetime employment system were only recognized as operating in companies associated with major financial combines (zaibatsu) and at first only within the limits of managerial level staff. Gradually, the bounds of applicability broadened to include all office workers in the company and then spread further to key skilled blue collar workers, but they never applied to all workers, and it goes without saying that, since the war, they have not applied to small companies and businesses. Moreover, as is shown by the trends in major companies towards introducing voluntary redundancy schemes and the increase in the proportion of ability-related pay, the real meaning of the words 'lifetime employment' and 'seniority system' has become qualified in recent years. It will be difficult for these two systems to avoid still further changes in the future.

By contrast, the existence of the enterprise union down to the level of small and medium-sized companies is a conspicuous feature of Japanese labor relations. Even if the seniority system and the lifetime employment system were to disappear in future years, the enterprise union is unlikely to self-destruct.

According to the Koike thesis, the 'white collarization of blue collar workers' is an important feature of today's labor relations scene in Japan. However, it is not necessarily clear why that is so or since when it has been the case. 'Kigyo fukushi no kokusai hikaku' (International Comparisons of Company Welfare Provision) in "Nihon no Jukuren" (Skills in Japan) (Yûhikaku, 1981) points out that there is no gap in company welfare provision between shop floor workers and office staff and that this has been the case since World War II. In that case, the white collarization of blue collar workers can be thought of as a post-war characteristic. The same book holds up 'lifetime employment and labor relations within companies' (shûshin koyô no kigyônai rôshikankei) as having produced the difference between labor relations in Japan and those in Britain, and points to the establishment of major monopolistic enterprises and the differences in the pattern of technical training. However, Koike's work simply states the facts; it hardly discusses the question of why such features emerged.

Furthermore, there are some things in Koike's conventional assessment with which I cannot agree. For example, he emphasizes that there are organizations in America and Germany which are similar to Japanese enterprise unions. However, simply to say that in foreign countries organizations exist that have something in common with enterprise unions is one-sided. There are not only similar organizations in those countries but also industrial sector-wide unions that transcend single enterprises, and there are also general workers' unions, yet Japan lacks organizations that regulate working conditions beyond the unit of the single enterprise.

The Kôshiro thesis explains certain aspects of labor relations in modern large Japanese companies, but I have doubts about seeing the characteristics of Japanese labor relations in terms of 'the strength of the sense of belonging to the company' or of 'extraordinary dedication to work', or of limiting one's understanding of the issue from the outset to the bounds of economic theory. Are the characteristics of a country's labor relations to be understood only within the framework of economic theory? Also, Kôshiro does not ask when Japanese workers came to acquire this 'strong sense of belonging to the company' or their 'extraordinary dedication to work'.

Even if Kôshiro's thesis is taken account of, it is clearly not a total theory as it does not include those areas of work life in which 'good employment opportunities' are not to be found. Also, his theory cannot account for the growth of enterprise unions. However, Koike and Kôshiro do not see labor relations in Japan as being as peculiarly Japanese and they try to interpret them in a positivistic manner by means of ordinary logic. This I can agree with.

What is needed now is an explanation of why enterprise unions became the norm in Japan and the presentation of a historical thesis to back this up. In the field of labor research, this issue has not been directly addressed since Ôkôchi Kazuo's 'migrant labor' thesis. In managerial and sociological studies, there has been much discussion of Japanese style management, and a number of explanations have been put forward such as the thesis that seeks answers in the ideology of managers who operate a family-style management, or interpretations that emphasize the psychological characteristics of the Japanese. There is something to be learned from these, but I agree with the judgment of many labor history scholars that such approaches cannot explain the historical changes in Japanese labor relations. (2)

2. Doubts about the Labor Market Determinacy Thesis

It is a little exaggerated to say that after the 'migrant labor' theory, labor issues researchers have not studied the roots of the growth of the enterprise union. Many researchers have analyzed the division of the labor market in terms of lifetime employment and seniority systems on an enterprise basis and have looked into the roots of the problem. In other words, they explain that sometime before World War II, lifetime employment and seniority wages came into being in major companies, the labor market was divided on a company basis, and on top of this company-based division of the labor market, the enterprise union was formed (Ôkôchi Kazuo, Shirai Taishirô). This thesis is still upheld by many people today; at least, one does not see criticisms of it. Mostly probably, after the thesis garnered general support, thorough studies of the question were no longer done. However, I regard this thesis, which claims that the enterprise union emerged from the division of the labor market, to be mistaken, because it is unable to explain the following facts:

1)  Enterprise unions also existed before World War II, for example, there was the well-known Japan Railway Society to Correct Abuses, Nittetsu Kyôseikai, founded in 1898. Again, immediately after World War I, numerous enterprise unions were founded one after another e.g. the Tokyo Arsenal Workers' Union Koishikawa Rôdôkai, the Osaka Arsenal Workers' Union Kôjôkai, the Dôshikai union at the Yahata Ironworks, the Giyûkai union at the Shibaura Engineering works, and the Shinshinkai union at Sumitomo Copper Rolling Mills. Also, although there were many unions that in formal terms were not enterprise unions, such as Nihon Rôyûkai at the Yahata Ironworks, and Nihon Kôtsû Rôdô Kumiai of the Tokyo City Tram Systems, they were in practice such and ought to be so regarded. However, it is commonly recognized that at this time the labor market in industries such as engineering, where such unions had organized, was not divided according to enterprise. Ôkôchi Kazuo says that the division and rigidification of the labor market along enterprise lines came with the fearfull years of the "post-Taishô early Shôwa period" [c.1926-1933 - trans.]
2) Of course, the point at issue here is the labor union after World War II. Consequently, the above argument alone will be insufficient to refute the claim that the division of the labor market along enterprise lines was what brought the enterprise union into being. Decisive in the end is the question of whether the Japanese labor market was divided and rigid in 1946 and 1947, when numerous post-war labor unions were organized. It goes without saying that immediately after World War II, the collapse of industries involved in military supplies and the return of demobbed military personnel, evacuees and repatriates led to a huge increase in the number of unemployed. In this situation, the division of the labor market according to enterprises is not likely to have been an issue. Also, whatever may be said about seniority wage systems, they had not the power to keep workers tied to one company under the prevailing harsh inflation. Even today, the labor market for smaller companies shows no signs of enterprise-based rigidity, and workers move flexibly within it. Yet despite this, enterprise-based unions are in the majority in this sector too.
3) Furthermore, post-war Japanese labor unions are characterized not only as enterprise based organizations, they are also mixed-occupation unions. There is the logic that argues that, since their members belong to a single labor market and share the same economic interests, it is only natural that they would organize themselves in the same union, but this does not explain the situation. It goes without saying that the labor market for shop floor workers and white collar workers is clearly divided according to educational achievement, and that even in the same company, workers' interests are not always uniform. Also, in many companies, opportunities for male and female staff differ in terms of criteria for employment, pay and promotion prospects. Despite all this, workers belong to the same union - why? If the logic that says that the pattern of organization is determined by the uniformity of economic interests in the labor market were taken as correct, then unions based on educational achievement or gender would have appeared.

To make my point clearer, I would like to add that I am not claiming that the internalization of the labor market has nothing to do with the existence of enterprise-based unions. There were calls to 'leave behind the enterprise-based system' (kigyôbetsu dappi) and to 'overcome company-ism' (kigyôshugi), but one reason why these goals were not easily attained was due to the existence of the so-called 'lifetime employment system' and the 'seniority pay system' - I do not deny this. However, rather than these being causes of the emergence of enterprise unions, I see them much more as effects, 'results' gained by enterprise unions. I shall touch on this again later, but I consider that in enterprise unions, where workers and staff belonging to the same union collaborate in union activity, the lifetime employment and seniority pay systems, which before the war were limited to office staff, were extended to blue collar workers after the war.

3. The Lack of a Craft Union Tradition

In a sense, my answer to the question about the emergence of enterprise unions is a simple one. It is that, in the immediate post-war circumstances, in a situation where there was almost no organization on which workers could rely when they made urgent demands for wage rises and/or against lay-offs against their common employer, it was only natural that they should organize themselves around the unit of the eworkplace where, every day, they met the people with whom they were familiar. Given these circumstances, I see no special need to ask why such unions appeared. Japanese labor unions which were established immediately after World War II were not typical enterprise unions; in the case of companies that had a number of different workplaces, the unions were workplace organizations set up in those various workplaces. In large companies, many unions started as smaller workplace organizations rather than at factory level. Such beginnings illustrate the fact that unions were first organized by workers who worked together on a daily basis.

Normally, this issue has been explained by factors from the workers' side only. On the management side, their experience before the war - the experience of results gained from employing company unions or and shop floor committees in opposing an autonomous labor union movement - led managers to harbor the strong wish that labor unions should be ensconced within the company, and they came up with various means to that end. Management's aversion to mediation from outside bodies continued both before and after the war. This was another reason why Japanese labor unions tended to become organizations within companies. At any rate, this management attitude was not something peculiar to Japan nor can it be described as anything particularly unusual. In that sense, when workers first organized themselves, it was a very 'natural pattern' - in all countries - for them to do so together with those fellow-workers with whom they worked every day; the existence of such organizations cannot be called peculiar.

I am of the opinion that what actually needs explaining, rather, is the tradition of the western labor union movement - how did that tradition come about in which it was regarded as natural to affirm solidarity, not so much with one's daily workmates at the workplace but with workers in the same trade outside the framework of one's own company, no matter how little actual daily contact one had with them? Why was it not only the workers who thought in this way and called for such organization but also the managers, who recognized these organizations that went beyond the single company and accepted them as counterparts in negotiations? There are no clear-cut answers to these questions, but behind the establishment of craft union-type organizations that went beyond the bounds of single companies lay the tradition of the guild, especially that of the craft guild. What the two had in common was the banding together of workers from the same trade outside a single enterprise, who then maintained their own working conditions by enforcing rules for joining the trade and by limiting mutual competition. In other words, in response to the question : why did the enterprise union become the mainstream pattern of union organization in Japan, my answer is : because the tradition of craft unionism in this country was either non-existent or else extremely weak.

It may be objected to this that there were examples of unions in Japan that transcended the single enterprise, such as Tekkô Kumiai (the Ironworkers' Union) in the 1890s. However, historical studies of the labor movement in Japan over the past few decades have clearly shown that Japanese labor unions did not function in such a way as to control the labor market by regulating admission to trades in the manner of western craft unions.

Why then did the Ironworkers' Union not regulate admission to the trade through a system of apprenticeship? One explanation is that heavy industry, which provided the organizational base for the Ironworkers' Union, had not arisen spontaneously, stimulated by the development of light industries, but had grown under the direction of the state and its military and economic needs for arsenals, shipyards and the like. Such workplaces had introduced the latest advanced technology from the west, and traditional technical skills had no role to play. There was therefore little technical, personal, or organizational continuity between traditional craftsmen on the one hand and workers in the new heavy industries on the other. Further, the technologies imported were those of mass production, in which 'trades' were already being divided up into 'jobs'. Workers with either particular manual craft skills or those with all-round abilities and experience were therefore unable to form a stable cohesive group. Moreover, the rapid growth of heavy industry drove up the demand for labor dramatically, so controlling the labor force by regulating admission to employment did not become an issue. (Ikeda Makoto, Nihon kikaikô kumiai seiritsu shiron (Nihon Hyôronsha, 1970, pp.10-13)

Such answers to the question why craft unions did not emerge in Japanese heavy industry persuade up to a point, but as a reason for why craft unions did not develop in Japan, they do not suffice. For in fact, traditional craft skills continued to play a key role after the Meiji Restoration (1868), and there was both technical and personal continuity in various occupations; for example, carpenters, stonemasons, plasterers, roofers, cabinetmakers and other craftsmen associated with the building trade, and metal mineworkers. New technologies were also introduced into these trades after the opening of Japan to the world. Basically, however, what counted were the traditional skills. Furthermore, carpenters and mineworkers had their own autonomous organizations - the taishikô and the tomokodômei respectively. Nevertheless, they did not attempt to control the labor market by means of regulating admission to the trade. Neither was there any sign whatsoever among them of opposition to the introduction of new technologies, which was very common in western labor unions.

During the formative period of trade unionism in the West, those at the centre of the movement had not been factory workers but artisans.(3) By contrast, in Japan, traditional artisans such as carpenters never played any leading role in the labor union movement. This fact deserves greater attention in my opinion. All this relates indirectly to the fact that in Japan before the Meiji Restoration, there were no organizations of autonomous, self-governing merchants or artisans that paralleled the European guilds, and further, it relates to the fact that urban life itself in Japan had a different character from that of the West. At this point I would like to cite some examples at this point of how this question is seen by scholars of early-modern Japanese history.

"A characteristic of the early-modern town was that the basic unit of town life was the machi (block or street). In other words, the leaders of the urban community were not representatives of occupational groups as in the guilds [of Europe]; the central focus of town life was the territorial bond of the machi."
(Wakita Osamu, 'Kinsei toshi no kensetsu to gôshô' in Iwanami Kôza, Nihon Rekishi 9, p.181)
"Horizontal combinations between merchants and artisans were forbidden, so there was no possibility for 'guild' representatives to participate in municipal administration or to become a unit within it."
(Wakita Osamu, op. cit., p.183)
"The Japanese town was seen as something that existed to serve the needs of the local feudal lord; it was established from 'on high' and constituted no cooperative, autonomous organization that served the individual members of the machi."
(Matsumoto Shirô, Nihon kinsei toshiron, University of Tokyo Press, p.33)

The characteristics of urban life indicated above could not but have limited the nature of craftsmen's organizations. In the Tokugawa period (1603-1867) the organization of artisans was a means of controlling from above men who belonged to particular trades and of levying 'forced labor' from them. It is therefore believed that strict regulation of admission to trades in the manner of western guilds did not exist in Japan at that time. (4) There are cases known of Japanese artisans' organizations that regulated wages and working hours, but the controls were certainly not tough. The fact that there is no Japanese language equivalent of the English word 'stint', which refers to an individual worker's self-determined limit on the amount of work he does, clearly shows that in Japan, there was no guild-like habit of regulating the amount of work done.(5)

Following on from this, differences in Japan and the West about the way workers regard competition amongst themselves have drawn attention. This too has to do with the question of whether or not guild-like behaviour was acknowledged in society. In other words, at the very basis of western guild practices was regulation of working hours, of the amount of work done, of wages and of competition. In Japan on the other hand, there was a strong inclination towards meritocracy, which saw competition as justified. In the history of the Japanese labor movement there are very few examples of opposition to a piece work system, and in Japan there was very little or nothing resembling the behaviour of western workers who sought to restrict competition. For craft guilds and craft unions, a general acknowledgment of the concept of occupational groups had a significant meaning, but a sense for this in Japan was also weak. It is clear that this was due both to the ease of introduction of new technology and to the ease of movement of workers between occupations.

4. That Nature of Workers' Solidarity in Japan

What then was the nature of workers' solidarity in Japan? As I have already indicated, Japanese labor unions were unable to control the labor market through the apprentice system and were therefore weak organizations in terms of selling labor. Nevertheless, they did still maintain their organizational function as sellers of labor. The instrument of the strike was frequently resorted to in their dealings with management, but the fact that working conditions could only be maintained and improved by means of strikes meant that workers' solidarity tended to be locked within the framework of the company. This was because strikes were normally aimed at individual managements, and because those managements were not well-disposed towards intervention by outsiders.

However, when individual disputes are examined in detail, it is clear what Japanese workers were looking for and expecting from labor unions. As I have indicated elsewhere, labor disputes in pre-war Japan were not just about economic issues; many disputes had a strongly ethical and emotional nature. In large-scale violent disputes especially, workers' daily frustrations often erupted, revealing only too well the real nature of their feelings. Above all, these real feelings reflected their "anger at unjust discrimination". Technicians' and foremen's arrogant attitudes towards workers, and owners' and managers' lack of sincerity and consideration were the main reasons why disputes escalated into major incidents. The labor union movement also emphasized improvements in social status and the need for personal freedom more than economic issues such as the amelioration of working conditions, and workers responded strongly to such calls. (6)

Of course, Japanese workers were not uninterested in better wages! It was just that economic hardship was not itself the spring of the labor movement. There was the social value according to which the amount of one's wages reflected one's status and besides this, the tendency to regard people with higher status as morally superior. In other words, one's value as an individual was seen as depending on the amount of one's wage. The double meaning of the Japanese word taigû [treatment or rank] reflects this feeling. Taigû can mean, as in taigûkaizen [better treatment], working conditions in general including wages, but at the same time, as in the phrase kachô taigû [proper treatment of the department chief], it can also mean consideration of status.

How this situation came about has been attributed to the nature of the social reforms following the Meiji Restoration (1868). With the Restoration, the feudalistic order of social status collapsed. The equality of the four classes of the pre-modern period (samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants) was nothing superficial; it meant the actual break-up of the status relationships of the former feudal class system. This had a critical significance for lower-ranking samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants brought up under the restrictive status provisions of the feudal social system.

However, the post-Restoration society did not manage to bring about real social equality; status differences based on occupation were plainly evident. The structure of social control, with the Emperor at the top, permeated both society and enterprises. High status depended as before on the degree of one's closeness to authority. Since factory workers, who constituted a new occupation, were employees faced with constant economic difficulties, society in general tended to look down on them as 'lower class'. Such workers disliked the term shokkô ('factory hand'), and as is shown by the fact that they often referred to themselves as shokunin (artisan) , they were regarded as lower in status than farmers under the old system. Workers were discriminated against both in society at large and by management at work. The production process in factories requires a division of labor and a work hierarchy. It was only natural that people who had lived their lives entirely within a feudal society should see such a work hierarchy in terms of social status. Neither did workers object to status relationships in themselves. However, they did not regard themselves as 'lower class people' nor did they consider it natural or inevitable that they should be categorized as lower class at work. British workers thought it natural that the child of a worker should also be a worker, but apart from a section of the Japanese working class who were for a time influenced by Marxist ideas, most of Japan's workers did not feel a sense of pride in belonging to the working class. What was important for them was improvements in status in various ways and the betterment of their position in society. To put it bluntly, Japan's blue collar workers were people who wanted to stop being workers. They were people who felt that if they themselves had to remain workers, then at least they would educate their children so that they would not have to be workers.

They were not opposed to all forms of discrimination. They had nothing against 'higher status' for those above them if it was warranted by real ability. What they strongly resented was higher status for those whose abilities did not qualify them for it. Within the company, what determined occupational rank i.e. status was academic achievement, which served as a reflection of a certain level of ability. Workers greatly resented the fact that when it came to academic achievement, it was all too often the economic status of parents that counted rather than individual ability. In Japan, although there were exceptions such as the Gakushûin school (for the children of the Imperial family and the nobility), elementary schools did not pay attention to differences in parental status. The landlord's child would sit at the same desk and study alongside the peasant's son, and what counted was results and ability. This was no longer the case once pupils graduated from elementary school; determinative from then on was parental income. If the family was poor, the child was soon put out to work, and in such cases, however able the child, opportunities for advancement were inevitably restricted. Resentment against such a situation was to be a significant factor in bringing people into the labor movement from before the war right up to the 1950s.

As is well-known, a particular feature of the pre-war Japanese labor movement was the fact that the leading ideas and philosophy of the movement changed over a short period. It was not so much these ideological differences but the resentment already referred to that drew people into the labor movement. The actual rapid changes in the ideology of the labor movement were indirectly related to the resentment of unfair treatment.

In the early period of the Japanese labor union movement, workers were attracted to the Ironworkers' Union (Tekkô Kumiai ) at the end of the 19th century and to the Friendly Society (Yûaikai) at the beginning of the 20th century by the two unions' calls for 'improvements in social standing' (shakaiteki chi-i kôjô). Workers were encouraged to cultivate their skills and build up a record of training achievements so as to be accepted by society at large. In the promotion of 'Taishô Democracy' after the First World War, the objective of the labor movement was expressed in the slogan 'first, let's recognise our character', which was oriented towards society rather than the cultivation of the individual self. The labor movement did not claim simply to be a movement for higher wages but also for liberation and social reform. As methods to bring these about, it embraced a series of new ideologies such as guild socialism, syndicalism, and Bolshevism. When it was founded, the Friendly Society (Yûaikai) compared the relation between capital and labor to that between husband and wife, but within 10 years it was declaring its program to be that "we affirm that the working class and the capitalist class cannot coexist. With the strength of the union we look forward to the complete liberation of the working class and to the construction of a new society of freedom and equality". What produced this drastic change was the fact that Yûaikai was a weak organization when it came to the marketing of labor; its members were bound together by their resentment of society's unjust discrimination against workers. It would be something of an oversimplification, however, to see this factor as the only one that awoke workers to class consciousness; that would make it impossible to understand subsequent changes in the workers who came afterwards.

From the early 1920s onwards major companies began to lock out autonomous labor unions. Many of the leading activists at the centre of disputes were sacked, and those who remained were for the most part workers loyal to the company. Nevertheless, there were still not a few who had campaigned hard against the company during the period when the movement was its peak. They remained loyal to the company not merely because they were afraid of losing their jobs, but because management realized that the workers were not frustrated simply by low pay but above all by the lack of "fair and decent treatment". Employers moved to put more emphasis on 'mutual understanding' and some began to recognize workers as integral members of the company. Concrete indicators of this new approach were the creation of 'kaisha kumiai' (company union) or the setting up of 'kojô iinkai' (factory council). However, as one of the main aims in organizing company unions was to keep the autonomous labor union movement out of the company, it was forbidden for employees to have contact with external organizations. The tendency thus arose for workers to pay attention only to what went on within their own companies.

On the other hand, management, through the company union and factory committees, did begin to respond to workers' wishes, albeit only partially. For example, the bonus system, which had formerly benefited only staff workers, was gradually applied to shop floor workers. The number of companies paying monthly salaries to shop floor workers also increased, albeit monthly payment on a daily wage basis. During the war, the slogan"rôshi ittai" (labor and capital - one body) was emphasized under the aegis of the Industrial Patriotic Movement (sangyô hôkoku undô), and the appearance was given of equality between blue collar workers and office staff, including company bosses. This reflected the fact that the workers' demands could not be ignored. It was not only of significance in raising the status of blue collar workers within the company, it also raised the status of workers in society as a whole, as they were seen as 'industrial soldiers'. Moreover, it was at this time that the derogatory term shokkô (factory hand) was dropped in favor of terms such as kôin or kôjin (factory man), ginôsha (skilled person), gengyôin (shop floor person) and gijutsushoku (technical worker).  

Resentment against discrimination is not of course restricted to the Japanese. There have been innumerable cases in all periods around the world where anger at discrimination has been the stimulus for social movements. Japanese workers, however, have been extremely sensitive to discrimination and have certainly held strong feelings about the need to be treated equally.

5. The Characteristics of Post-war Enterprise Unions

I have not prepared enough here to account fully for the particular characteristics of post-war Japanese labor unions and the historical changes they have been through. On this occasion, I shall restrict myself to indicating the special features of post-war unions by focusing on the differences between them and pre-war unions and I shall finish by looking at later changes in the post-war period. 

1) As I've already indicated, the particular characteristic of unions immediately after the war is that they were not so much enterprise unions as organisations based on the workplace or factory. Owing to the needs of campaigns for wage negotiations and for the democratization of management, workplace unions combined quite quickly with factory-based organizations. However, in the 1960s, major companies with many factories moved from negotiating changes in working conditions with factory-based organizations to negotiating with 'federations of enterprise unions' (kigyôren), which were literally, as the Japanese term implies, enterprise unions. (7)  

2) Another important characteristic of post-war unions was the fact that blue collar and white collar workers joined the same unions. The All Japan Seamen's Union (Zen Nippon Kai-in Kumiai) is often cited as an exception to the rule of enterprise unions, but it differed from similar unions abroad in that ships' officers and ordinary crew members belonged to the same organization. The fact that elite university graduates, whose sights were set on becoming executives and company presidents, belonged to the same union as office workers and factory workers is a feature of Japanese labor unions that deserves more attention. (8) 

Why did this form of organization become the norm? The first academic study to draw attention to the enterprise union was a study by the Institute of Social Science, Tokyo University - "An Investigation of Post-War Labor Unions" (Sengo rôdô kumiai no jittai) - in which Ujihara Shôjirô analyzed a number of interviews that posed the question: why mixed occupation unions? He found that white collar staff had shared the same privations as factory workers during and immediately after the war and that in the chaotic circumstances of the immediate post-war years, the structure of management had become confused and broken down. These two factors had combined to remove the practical discrimination of former times, and consequently, the union organizations that resulted from this had as their goals the abolition of status indicators, the democratization of enterprises and workers' participation in management. The ideal of such campaigning organizations, quite naturally, was the mixed occupation union. 

The first point above is that since wage differentials between shop floor workers and office workers had lost any meaning due to fierce inflation, office workers were facing difficulties no less than shop floor workers and were therefore placed in a situation where they had little recourse but to take part in the labor movement. This is a reason that possibly accounts for why even office workers who before the war had kept away from the labor movement now joined it, but it is not enough to explain why office workers joined the same unions as shop floor workers. Rather, it would have been understandable for them to have formed their own union, separate from shop floor workers, and to have pressed for office staff to receive larger wage rises than shop floor workers. Despite this, mixed occupation unions became the norm, and this can surely be attributed to the dominant value of democracy in the immediate post-war climate in Japan. As I have already indicated, Japanese workers were opposed to discrimination and continued to demand to be treated in a fair and humane manner. This historical tendency now took on a special meaning in the post-war situation, where, within companies, democracy was taken to mean, more than anything, the removal of status differences between shop floor workers and office staff. The labor union was seen as an organization to bring this about. It can thus be said that it was quite natural that unions would become organizations encompassing both factory workers and office staff. 

3) Another difference between pre-war and post-war labor unions was that whereas pre-war unions were very weak organizations when it came to 'selling labor', post-war unions became 'mass organizations for the marketing of labor', and that trend duly strengthened with time, although there were quite a few unions immediately after the war that did not fall into this category. There were even some unions that made democratization of management a central demand and argued that unions had the right to speak in all aspects of company operations, including company strategy and personnel management. Such a situation changed when the employers struck back, aided by the Occupation authorities' change of policy as symbolized by the prohibition of the Feburary 1st strike in 1947(2.1 suto) and the 'Red Purge' in the early 1950s. Then, with the long-running period of economic growth and the 'Spring Offensive' annual wage hike campaigns that developed together with it, the labor union's role as 'an organization for the marketing of labor' gradually became greater. The fact that the union was an organization that united factory and office workers was now of no small significance. The process in which blue collar and white collar workers collaborated to draw up and agree on demands worked in the direction of reducing wage differentials. Nor was it only a matter of wages; it also served to normalize equal treatment for both factory workers and office staff. Specifically, shop floor workers now moved from a monthly payment on a daily basis to a complete monthly salary system, limits on promotion prospects were removed, and their wage rise curves now resembled those of white collar staff. At this time, the fact that Japanese workers showed low resistance to job relocation or reassignment made possible the so-called 'flexible assignment structure' which easily opened up to blue collar employees the same possibilities for advancement as enjoyed by white collar workers. One cannot but imagine that this was not unrelated to the absence of a craft union tradition. 

Also, having experienced fierce disputes over layoffs in the 1950s, many companies began to give all their employees long-term employment contracts. Before the war, these had only been provided to office staff and a number of skilled workers, not as a 'right' but only as a 'favor' granted by the company in accordance with its needs. So-called 'lifetime employment' gradually became an employee's 'right' during the high growth era. However, at this time, a new class of workers was emerging - temporary staff and casual laborers, who worked at the same company but were not recognized as being part of it. Thus, it can be said that the tendency to 'the white collarization of blue collar workers', whereby blue collar workers were given almost the same prospects for promotion and wage increases as white collar staff, was basically the achievement of post-war unions. The mixed occupation union played a large role in the process in which blue collar workers became entitled to the company welfare 'rights' that before the war had mainly been available only to white collar staff. Of course, this system did not only result from union activity. Management too recognized that such measures had an effect in facilitating smooth labor-management relations and in raising workers' morale, and they pushed ahead with them positively and deliberately. As this process continued, the 'results' of the post-war labor union movement's activity were a weakening of the egalitarian character that had been evident in the immediate post-war years and a strengthening of the meritocratic element that emphasized competition between employees within the company. The strength of Japanese workers' demand for equal treatment based on merit thus made it easier for such a system to be introduced. 

We have looked at the large extent to which the lack of a craft union or craft guild tradition has influenced and still influences Japanese labor relations. I would like to add finally, however, that I do not believe that this historical characteristic alone accounts for the way that Japan's labor relations and labor movement have developed. Origins do not determine everything. Above all, simply by reflecting on the extremely significant role in the formation of Japan's labor relations that was played by the political factors of the Meiji Restoration and the defeat in World War II, the need for an historical approach to the problem can easily be understood.


1 )  Page space is limited so references to sources well-known to readers of this article have been reduced. If you find something unclear, please see "Nihon no rôshikankei no tokushitsu ni kansuru bunken mokuroku" ( Catalog of Materials relating to the Characteristics of Japanese Labor Relations) in Ôhara Shakaimondai Kenkyujo zasshi (Journal of the Ohara Institute for Social Research), no. 330 (May 1986).

2)   For the history of research into this problem (including management studies and social studies) see Ishikawa Akihiro's paper ' "Nihonteki-keiei wo do toraeruka" ( What is Japanese-style management?) in Andô Kikuo and Ishikawa Akihiro eds., Nihonteki-keiei no Tenki (Turning Point for Japanese-style Management)", Yûhikaku, 1980.

3)   This has been unanimously emphasized for over 20 years by western labor history scholars. This is clear, for example with, in England, E.P.Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Pelican Books, 1968); in America, Herbert Gutman, Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America: Essays in American Working Class and Social History, ( Basil Blackwell, 1977). For France, see William H. Sewell Jr., Work & Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848 (Cambridge University Press, 1980) 

4 )  Wakabayashi Yukio, who has done detailed research into carpenters' organizations in Osaka at the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, has indicated that the members of such organizations moved very frequently, and that there is no evidence of entrance regulations. See "Bakumatsu taisei makki no shokunin shakai to rôdôkan" (The World of Artisans and the Idea of Labor at the End of the Tokugawa Shogunate) in Bulletin of Meiji University School of Postgraduate Studies no. 23 Vol. (2), Feb. 1986. Further, and also with regard to the Osaka carpenters' organization, a case is known where, rather than limiting the number of members but actually to increase them, men who were employed as carpenters without a proper licence were given one so that they would appear to be proper bona fide members. Nishi Kazuo, "Kinsei kô ki no daiku to sono soshiki" (Carpenters and their Organizations in the Late Tokugawa Period) in Kôza - Nihon gijutsu no shakaishi, kenchiku (A Social History of Technology in Japan - Architecture), p.140 

5)  I first realised this during a conversation with Prof. Thomas Smith of UC Berkeley. For the 'stint', see David Montgomery, "Workers' control of machine production in the nineteenth century" in Workers' Control in America (Cambridge University Press, 1979)

6)  For details, see K. Nimura, "Kigyôbetsu kumiai no rekishiteki haikei" (Enterprise Unionism - The Historical Background) in Ohara Institute for Social Research, Hôsei University Kenkyu Shiryo Geppô (Research and Documents Monthly) no. 305, (March 1984)

7)  Takagi Ikurô, "Nihon no kigyôbetsu kumiai to rôdô seisaku" (Enterprise Unions and Labor Policy in Japan) in Kôza - Nihon no shihonshugi (Japanese Capitalism)" vol.7, (Ôtsuki Shoten, 1982).

8)  There are some sites in the mining industry where blue collar and white collar workers remained in their own organizations and did not combine. Moreover, in finance and education there were white collar-only organizations, and in the public service sector, there was a strong tendency from the beginning for career professionals not to join a union, so post-war unions cannot simply all be termed 'mixed occupation unions'. More research is needed into how the formative circumstances of these unions influenced their character. For example, the so-called 'workers' spirit' of the National Railway Workers' Union is doubtless not unconnected to the fact that there were no career professionals in the union.

Translated by Terry Boardman

This article first appeared in Japanese Nihon no rôshi kankei no rekishiteki tokushitsu (The Characteristics of Labor Relations in Japan)
in 'Shakai seisaku gakkai nenpô' Vol. 31,Ochanomizu Shobô, 1987

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