Labor Report from Meiji Japan (1)

Fusataro Takano

  Labor Movement in Japan

      A labor movement, as I understand it, is a systematic effort put forth by the workingmen themselves to protect and advance their interest.   A labor movement in that sense, I am sorry to say, does not exist in Japan.   During the last few years the discussion of the labor question has been going on among the thinkers of the country.   Doubtless this discussion is chiefly confined to the theoretical merit of the problem, yet little has been said of its practical bearing upon the Japanese workingmen.
      There are, also, a few admirers of Socialism who are enunciating the propositions simply for the grandeur of the principle; but so far they, too, have failed to offer a solution of the practical application of the theory.
      During several years past three or four times there were occurrences which may be termed strikes.   But they were only results of sudden outbursts of the feeling among the workingmen, but nothing which can be called systematic or matured movements.   But is it because the condition of the working people do not need any betterment, or is it because the surrounding circumstances do not necessitate such a movement?
      To everyone who understands the true nature of the labor movement a moment's reflection is enough to be convinced of the necessity of a movement in Japan.   Every germ, within as well as without, that makes the labor movement necessary, is in its fullest development.
      In the first place, let us consider the condition of the working people.   I do not attempt to picture their actual condition in this paper, nor do I mean to describe at length their wages, but it is sufficient for the present purpose to suggest a question. "Why do the large majority of the Japanese working people perform those works which are performed by animals in the United States or Europe.   What necessity has driven a man to pull a cart on which some human being is seated?"
      To answer this question is to reveal the real condition of the working people of the country.   The answer is simple. Because the human power is cheaper than animal power. Why is the human power cheaper than animal power?   It is because the mode of living of the class being so low, their cost of living so small, that they cannot command higher wages to substitute animal power into the realm of labor.   In accompaniment with such prevailing cheap wages necessarily evils are in existence--long working hours, child and female labor.
      Secondly, the most important element amongst the surrounding circumstances is the adoption of machinery as productive power becoming general, and the relation of employers and employees becoming antagonistic more and more.   As the natural result of that mighty influence of civilization which penetrated into the very heart of the Japanese people, the use of machinery, the very essence of civilization, becomes general, and as its inevitable consequence the laborers, cheap as they are, are losing their importance day by day; nor will it take a very long time for them to become a mere dependent upon machinery.   True, machinery could not be used successfully in a society under cheap labor conditions.   But, though small and limited its extent may be, it could do much greater injury to the cheap labor than under high wage conditions. Its adoption certainly will be felt more severely by the cheap laborers, since, under such a condition, there is no possible escape from and utilization of its effect.
      With introduction of machinery comes factory system of production and with the system the relation of employers and employees must undergo, and has already undergone some changes--an absolute radical change.   It is the natural consequence that they could not keep up that amicable relationship of master and hands which once existed prior to the introduction of machinery, and that is still existing in some trades.   With the factory system labor is not the necessary part of productive factor but a mere assistant to machinery, and with this change of position the sentiment of employers toward laborers will certainly be modified, thus forcing laborers to stand by themselves to retain their power.
      Although such a condition fully warrants an existence of an active labor movement in the country, not only a labor movement but also at least, an idea on the practical steps to be taken is not known.   Nor is it an exaggeration to say that the importance of a labor movement in Japan is not, as yet, recognized.
      It is often argued by some of our Japanese economic writers, that the wages in Japan, comparing those prevailing in the United States, are several times less, but this does not necessarily mean cheaper wages.   If we compare their cost of living, they say, we will find that real wages in both countries are about the same.
      Grant that we could not measure wages by their nominal value but by their real value, or consuming power.   But, in comparing wages of different countries we must not forget to ascertain their respective mode of living; in other words, we must know the difference of quality and quantity of necessaries of life in the countries.  Suppose on the one hand an American working man receives $3 per day for his wages and spends $2.7O for his daily necessaries of life.   On the other hand a Japanese laborer receives 50 cents per day and spends 45 cents, for his living, then the cost of their living is in equal percentage.   It is true that both spend ninety per cent. of their earnings and save the same percentage.   But we must notice the difference of their living, namely the one wears woolen cloths, the other, cotton; the one eats meat, the other rice; the one lives in a house, the other in a shanty.   Herein lies the real difference of wages by which cheapness or dearness is determined. In this sense, and it is the only rational sense, I say Japanese wages are cheap.
      Some one says that cheap wages are necessary for development of industry, hence all efforts to raise wages are inimical to social order. Nothing could be more erroneous.   One might just as well kill the root of a plant for flourishing its branches.   For cheap wages means small consumption, small consumption means small production, small production means small industry and small industry means small wealth, hence no prosperity, no development.
      If we look at the condition of Japanese workers in the economic aspect, we would tremble with anxiety for the future welfare of the country.   It is not too much to say that the rise or fall of the country depends upon the solution of the problem.   Really, I do not argue for the necessity of a labor movement because the condition of laborers is pitiful and their environment is intensely inimical to their interests, nor because of humane sentiment.   But I do argue for it because the future prosperity of the nation does demand it and future achievement of civilization does necessitate it.   For, a labor movement is a step to better their condition; to better their condition is to raise their mode of living; to raise their mode of living is to increase consumption; to increase consumption is to increase production, and production is the basis of national prosperity.   Thus, every effort to better the condition of laborers is of vital importance for the nation.
      Again, what is the requirement of being a civilized country?   It is, inductively speaking, nothing more than to develop its machine using capacity.   It is the fact where machinery is most extensively used, there the highest civilization can be seen.   There is not a single instance that in a barbarous country machinery has been used.   Whether machinery is the cause or effect of civilization, in reality, makes no difference; but one thing is certain--no civilization demands no machinery, or vice versa.   Thus to civilize a country it is necessary to make conditions possible for the use of machinery.   The condition that makes use of machinery possible is the large consumption.   Under no other condition is the use of machinery possible, since it is successfully used only under large production and its use is unknown in a barbarous country where as a rule the consumption power is limited to a small extent.   As the laboring class of the country constitute the largest portion of the population, without development of their consuming power, our civilization must be stagnant.
      But what is the cause of the non-existence of a labor movement in the country where every germ that insures the origination of the movement in its full growth and where such a movement is of national importance?
      In seeking the cause one need not trouble himself to examine the actual condition that exists, but if he, taking up the history of the labor movement in the United States and Europe, thinks of the cause of all troubles and hardships they have been enduring, he will be, certainly, rewarded with a discovery of the cause applicable to Japan.   For whatever the racial difference may be, human nature is the same everywhere; hence if a certain result will be produced in one country under certain conditions, the like conditions will produce the like effect elsewhere.   Thus if we find a similar condition, that is now existing in Japan, in the history of foreign labor movements, it will necessarily furnish us the cause which we are seeking.
   In reading the history of the labor movement, if we taken an instance where there was no movement in a certain trade or calling and follow this up to the point where the movement has started we will notice very plainly a powerful agent in the bottom when there was no movement, and as the influence of this agent weakens the movement gains its strength finally, overcoming the shadows of the influence.   As the present stage of the movement the agent is still influencing, so the labor organization of today is aiming its mighty strength for the exclusion of this evil agent--Ignorance.
      The cause of the non-existence of a labor movement in Japan is none other than the ignorance among the Japanese working people.   This is the cause that left the wage workers in their position without advancement, while in social and industrial affairs, the progress of which even the most active social and intellectual leaders have stood amazed, have been advancing with gigantic steps during the last thirty years.   It is the only cause that brought the working people into the lower rank below the merchant.   A quarter of a century ago it was the common expression to arrange the ranks of the people, as; 1. Militant; 2, Farmer; 3. Mechanics; 4. Merchant; but now the orders of the ranks are somewhat changed; namely, militant, farmers, merchant, and mechanics.
      Every human action has its motive.   Human desire causes some want, the want causes effort, and the effort causes satisfaction.   But where does the motive of human desire come from?   The very essence of motive is intelligence; with intelligence there comes desire; with the lack of intelligence there is a lack of every motive or desire.   The betterment of the laborer's condition is another form of human desire on the part of the workingmen, but such desire cannot exist without motive.   Without motive there is no desire, ard without desire no effort.   Hence no labor movement.
      Against that well known cause of the non-existence of a labor movement in Japan, the remedy to be suggested is of an equally well known character, namely agitation, orgaxiization and education.   It is a most effective method, that will bring the amelioration of labor thoroughly and permanently.   It has been tried under all circumstances, but every test has added the element of indisputable character to it.   What it has done to the labor movement in foreign countries will produce a similar result in the Japanese labor problem.   I do not hesitate to endorse agitation, organization and education as the only plan that will inaugurate a labor movement in Japan.   There is, however, another side, the practical side, of this method that necessitates serious consideration.
      How can the agitation be started when the prevailing condition makes it impossible to look for agitation among the working people?   Amidst the lack of motive the agitation could not be powerful enough to convert a large majority of the working people to take up the work of amelioration among themselves.   As a matter of fact, we must look somewhere else to find a source of this motive--a source that will furnish the motive and impetus to the people.   In other words, we must find a few men who will take up the work of agitation and become a source of information, encouragement, energy and action--men who will be strong enough to overcome all the obstructions and arouse the working people to feel the necessity of organization.   No one can deny the necessity of having a party as a primary step of the Japanese labor movement, and the desirability of taking immediate action, in face of the existing deplorable conditions and national importance of the movement.   There is nothing more absurd than that my countrymen generally being convinced of the national importance of the movement, yet are waiting vainly for a time when the laborers themselves will stand up.   Such time will never come unless power other than the workingmen themselves will encourage them.   The work of agitation, to bring it to its final outcome, is such a tremendous undertaking that it will cost the patient work of many years.   But the sooner we start the earlier the work will be done and the smaller the loss of the national wealth.
      For whom shall we, then, look for the supply of the motive?   For whom shall we look for the party that will be a source of action?   None other than the thinkers of the country.   They have been the chief instruments of bringing the country into the present stage of civilization and the important factors that brought the representative system of government without shedding a drop of blood.   As such examples of their ability are recorded in the past history, it is natural to look for them as a source of the labor movement and a generator of the motive of the agitation.   Indeed, they are the only source for leaders, guiding spirits and sympathizers of the movement.   From them only a labor movement can originate and receive impetus for its life.   With their intelligence and past experience they are admirably fitted for the work, and their social position makes it their imperative duty.   So we looked for them, but we were disappointed--yea, greater still!   For their ignorance of the labor movement is far worse than the lack of the general intelligence of the laborers.   Indeed, they know something about the theoretical merit of the labor question, but how many of them know its practical value?   It is surprising to us if we consider how little is known about the very essence of a practical labor question.   As for labor organizations among them, I know a prominent scholar who is arguing the necessity of enacting factory laws, but even to him the great benefit of the labor organization is a revelation.
      The only source of a Japanese labor movement under such a condition, is rather hopeless to attempt to originate the movement in the country.   But it appears to me that to arouse them for the necessity of their action is not such hard undertaking as to arouse the workingmen for the necessity of the organized effort. Really it is a hard task, if not impossible, for a few pioneers to undertake to educate the working people to the point. But we-shall yet succeed.
      There is still another important reason that makes the cooperation of the thinkers an imperative necessity.   In the course of amelioration of the labor, there are many works which should be done in this field of politics, such as compulsory education, the enactment of factory laws, legal prohibition of child labor under certain ages and so on.   As the suffrage is limited by property qualification and the working people are not the tax-payers for the eligible amount, they have actually no vote, and consequently no political influence.   So they cannot expect to gain any favorable legislation for them, unless some other class of people who has the right to vote would assist them to secure it.
      It is a pride of the government to say that common education has been well diffused in the country as the numerous school houses indicate.   But indeed it is the fact that with their zeal of universal education, they left out the most needy class of people from the share of the benefit establishing the tuitionary system which most effectually bars out the children of the working people from attending the schools.
      A recent letter from Japan has brought a remarkable piece of news according to which, the government, being desirous to enact a factory law, have addressed a manufacturers' association requesting it to give the information of the established customs, and their opinion on the proposed law.   The praise, the eagerness of the government for enacting a factory law, but have they made any effort to hear from the working people on the subject?   Not in the least.   They are contented solely to hear from the employers, and thus to enact the law by their assistance.   What kind of law shall we then expect?
      A few years ago the government enacted a law to regulate associations of manufacturers for their mutual interests, and as the result of this encouragement, almost all manufacturers have organized.   But has the government enacted the same kind of law for the working people encouraging them to organize?
      I do not see any sign of it, nor have I heard of their making any efforts for it.   Such being the tendency of the present government, if it is not checked, it will be certain to see unjust laws passed against the working people.
      As such is the importance of political action coupled with hardship of educating the laborers sufficiently to protect their own interest, the first effort toward amelioration of the working class must be directed to arouse the thinkers of the country for the necessity of their action.   Thus agitation among the thinkers of the country is the first step to be taken in a labor movement in Japan, to be followed, as a result of such an agitation, with an organization of the thinkers to discuss a practical plan to be pursued in the work of educating the working people to act politically or otherwise, in order to protect the interest of the working people, and lastly, but most important, to organize the working people.
      With such step a labor movement in Japan, I think, will gain its strength in a few years, and if it is properly conducted, the era of emancipation of labor would be near at hand.

American Federationist vol.I no.8, October, 1894.

List of Reports List of Reports
Edited by NIMURA, Kazuo @