Experience of a Labor Agitator in Japan
HONGO, TOKYO, JAPAN, January 17, 1898.
The unprofitable and hapless lots of labor agitators is a condition observable in all parts of the world where there exists a labor movement. Public treatment accorded to labor agitators in any country, under whatever state of civilization, varies but little.
In an enlightened country, they are called and treated as anarchists or alarmists. In a semi-civilized country, they are looked upon as revolutionists or disturbers of public peace.
Sacrificing the life of happiness and pleasure, waging ceaseless battles against injustice and espousing the noble cause of humanity, still he is slandered and persecuted. Such is the common lot of a labor agitator. Add to that the pecuniary loss one must bear to sustain the agitation, there you have the lot of a Japanese labor agitator before you.
Indeed, to be a labor agitator in Japan, one must be easy in his means, besides being fully equipped with the common requirements of a labor agitator. Having had the honor to hold the general organizership of the A. F. of L., the writer had a full share of the bitter life of a labor agitator, during the past several months. The story I have to tell is the same tale of woe with which my American readers are familiar, but as it came from the Far East, it may prove interesting reading matter.
Chroniclers of the past twenty-five hundred years of our existence have failed to record a single instance when the right of the down-trodden class of people was publicly championed until several months ago. It was in the evening of June 25, 1897, when a public meeting was held with the sole purpose of essaying that grand cause of labor and took the ever sensitive police authorities of this capital city with surprise. Habituated as the police authorities were to slight workingmen, they never dreamed that workers of this country are capable of inaugurating and carrying on any systematic effort as represented by the labor movement. Nor did they ever suppose that the cause of labor is able to command hearty support of such well-known public men as Messrs. Saburo Shimada, vice-president of the Lower House of the Diet, and Teiichi Sakuma, the well-known capitalist.
Amid their innocent slumbering, as it were, there suddenly came the public announcement of a mass meeting with many well-known public men as the speakers of the evening. Truly, it was a complete surprise to those who took the meeting as the first sign of approaching violence on the part of the working people. Uncalled-for gravity was thus given to the meeting, and unnecessary precautions were taken by them. Scores of secret service men were dispatched to the meeting room. But, contrary to their expectations, there never assembled such an orderly crowd of working people as the audience of that meeting.
Furthermore, no inflammatory remarks were uttered by the speakers. Far from that, every speaker counseled the audience as well as workingmen in general to restrain from any violent action but go ahead with the formation of trade unions. And, strange to the police, these moderate counselings met with an enthusiastic reception from the audience. Disappointed and puzzled as they were, they were not yet ready to give up their suspicion and straightway they instituted a close watch on those who were instrumental in bringing the meeting into consummation. Private residences of the leaders were made objects of frequent calls of detectives. Their past records were secretly investigated. Their daily movements were closely followed as if they were suspected criminals. The peaceful home life of the leaders was ruthlessly disturbed and their woeful tales thus commenced. However, the authorities have again failed to find in this direction any pretext to crush the movement. Their next move was toward obstructive tactics for the successful consummation of meetings and covert threats against those who joined the movement.
At one time, uniformed police were stationed in our meeting, under the cover of preserving order in the meeting room, but in reality, to overawe attending workingmen, and at the same time to watch the utterances of speakers. At another time they covertly forbade the renting of a hall for our meeting. On another occasion they demanded all the names of those who joined the movement, which was meant to scare the enrolled members away from the movement.
Despite all these, no disturbing elements of public peace were discovered in our movement, and their only reward was making the lives of the leaders more miserable.
It now remains to be seen what their next move will be and how far they are willing to go against the movement. It depends on what further misfortune is awaiting us Japanese labor agitators.
That much of police authorities. In regard to the capitalists' side, we find them still unable to grasp the true nature of our movement, hence, no determined opposition is apparent at present against it. True, one of them went so far as to discharge his employe on the ground that he was too active in organization affairs, and another prohibited his foreman from joining the movement, but the majority of them are still assuming an indifferent air. We are, however, well aware that the time is fast approaching when violent opposition will be manifested by them against the movement, and are apprehensive of the weary life that we must go through.
Concerning the treatment accorded to us by working people for whose interest we are sacrificing our life's comforts and pleasures, we have a bitter story to tell. Accustomed as they were to servile life for a long period, material and mental advancement offered by the labor movement proves to them to be an unattractive program. To contribute one cent toward the maintenance of the movement is, they take it, a mere waste. To them, demanding of their employers their rightful share of production, is something unholy to attempt. Evils of child labor and long working hours are uncomprehensible[sic] to them. It is quite natural for these people to assume an indifferent attitude toward our movement. But they constituting as it does a large majority of our workers, it is our natural duty as labor agitators to bring them into the sphere of our influence, and therein lies our hardship. It is with personal contacts, persistent preaching and self-sacrifice on our part that will alone win them over to our movement. There are long, long years to come that we must spend in converting these people, and when we happen to think of it, our hearts lose considerable enthusiasm.
Aside from this indifferent class of workers there is a class whose intelligence enables them to sufficiently discern the necessity of the movement, yet their precedent experience makes them adverse toward it.
Previous to the commencement of our movement there were several instances in which many workers were made victims of their designing comrades under pretense of forming a guild or mutual savings association. Considerable sums of money were thus collected and squandered. In the hands of these once victimized workers we have had the pleasure to be denounced as impostors. It came to our knowledge that we were made subjects of a caricature[sic] in which we were depicted as pocketing the hard-earned money of the workers and skipping away from the country. It is too harsh to blame these workers of their wrong-headedness; still, for us, it is a source of grief that we are so suspected, while, on our part, our private resources are cut down to the lowest rim, and, at the same time, forced to abandon the means to gain a livelihood by our own profession, owing to the demand made on our time by the movement.
In order to win this class of workers, however, it is necessary for us to silently bear their slanders, and to show the earnestness of our movement by our own conduct and achievements. It needs considerable patience on our part, but that is the reward of being labor agitators!
There is still another class of workers who have already come under our influence, yet they are unable to shuffle off the trait of their former characters. Personal jealousy and individual rivalry are rampant among them and our lives are worried out by the petty personal grievances that they are pleased to bring before us.
We often wonder ourselves what a mess of the labor movement they would make should we happen to suddenly withdraw our active co-operation from the movement!
When we come to think of all the worry and troubles to which we have been subjected, and are being subjected, being conscious of the long journey yet to be made, we thoroughly appreciate the pleasure of being labor agitators.
American Federationist, V, No.1(March,1998), 3-4.
Reprinted in Railroad Trainmen's Journal, XV,No.4(April, 1898), 294-298.