Labor Report from Meiji Japan (10)

  Female Labor in Japan

TAKANO, Fusataro.

  HONGO, TOKYO, JAPAN, October 20, 1897. ...... Although we are accustomed to boast that we are a highly civilized nation, and pride ourselves upon the gigantic stride our country made toward material and intellectual advancement during the past thirty years, yet candor compels the admission that in its special bearing to our female workers, our civilization is a complete failure.
    True, we have 2,500 miles of railroad, 745 steamers of 180,000 aggregate tonnage, 2,758 factories with modern machinery, 25,640 school houses and 30,530 miles of telegraph line; but what have all these brilliant achievements done for our female workers? Intellectually they may have served as a blessing, but socially and materially they have done absolutely nothing.
    Indeed, while these unfortunate women have enjoyed but little for their mental enlightenment, materially and socially, their shares of civilization are misery and degradation. President Gompers, of the American Federation of Labor, describing the condition of English workers at the early period of the factory system in that country, writes: "Wretchedness, misery, squalor, poverty and hunger were the laborer's share in the great advance made in the field of industry. Premature decay, bent and dwarfed forms, pinched cheeks, sunken eyes and early death were the worker's reward for their labor." No more fitting words are to be found to depict the condition of our female workers under our present industrial civilization as represented by the factory system in vogue in this country. Wretchedness, misery, squalor, poverty and hunger! Premature decay, bent and dwarfed forms, pinched cheeks, sunken eyes and early death ! Why, they are the very conditions of our working women and this their share of our industrial advancement. The industrial system that made these conditions possible deserves the strongest condemnation, and so long as our industrial civilization is represented by this pernicious system the verdict of "dead failure" must stand against the civilization itself.
    Now, coming down to a cold fact, we need but to depict the condition of female workers engaging in the cotton spinning industry. For whatever industrial progress we made, the largest share of such progress was and is contributed to this industry. Really the history of the development of the cotton spinning industry is the history of our industrial progress. Furthermore, it is in this industry that comparatively the greatest percentage of steam and water power is used and the largest number of female wage-earners is employed.
    It is estimated that there are, in aggregate, 49,733 horse-power, derived by steam and water, employed in all of our factories, 2,758 in number. Of this total horse-power employed, 64 cotton spinning mills contribute about 20,000, or nearly two-fifths. The number of female employes in the cotton spinning mills far exceeds that of all other factories combined, the percentage being about 30 to 1. Hence the condition of female operatives engaging in this representative industry is safe to be taken as the condition of Japanese female wage-earners under our present day civilization, and it furnishes a good ground either for approval or condemnation of our industrial civilization.
    According to the latest report issued by the Cotton Mill Owners Association the number of operatives employed in this industry is 54,330, of which 41,432 are females of from nine to forty years of age, (Note......The mills are also the slaughterers of the innocents,) those of between eighteen to twenty-seven being in the largest majority. Nearly all of these female operatives are brought from interior parts of the country under contract for a term of five or three years, and lodged in houses owned by mill companies, at the companies own expense. The houses are generally divided into between twelve and thirty rooms and twenty females are assigned to each room, giving a space of 3 x 6 to every operative. Wages paid to these operatives vary according to the location of mills, lowest in southwestern districts and highest in this city. In the former places it averages 5.6 sen (Two sen equal to one American cent) and in the latter place 15.2 sen per day. The average for the whole country is 9.9 sen. Now, out of this trifling sum, 6 sen (average for the whole country) per day must be paid for price of meals and the remaining for incidental expenses for which the most thrifty girls spend 3 sen per day, as well as for clothings. Even in this country where the standard of living and the cost of life's necessaries are abnormally low, it is next to an impossibility to live decently with the sum left over after paying for meals.
    Coupled with these extremely low wages, working conditions exacted from them are most obnoxious. In all the cotton spinning mills throughout the country, excepting two establishments, machinery is running day and night without any cessation, and operatives (including children) are required to work 12 hours daily, either in night or day with no extra compensation for night work. Moreover, only twice during a month the operatives are allowed to have Sundays, but even these are not given for the sole purpose of giving to them their much-needed rest, but to give the machinery a general cleaning. It is fortunate that machinery needs cleaning some times.
    It is these long hours, insufficient food, want of sound rest, together with imperfect means of furnishing fresh air into work-rooms that are sapping the life blood of the female operatives, and pinched cheeks and deathly countenances are in evidence on all operatives. No wonder then that they are always the first to succumb to the attack of infectuous[sic] diseases prevailing at times. Nor is it surprising to know that at the last period of the prevalence of dysentery in this country, it found a great number of victims among the factory operatives.
    But the virulent feature of the system does not end there. There are regulations established by the Mill Owners Association and enforced by each mill owner in his mill that are enslaving the operatives. Among the regulations are found clauses which provide that the operatives employed in the mills are not allowed, under any circumstances, to leave the service within the period contracted for, and if any operative violates this clause, her unpaid wages, as well as money deposited by her with the company, shall be confiscated, and if she be found working in another mill she will be brought back to her former employer, forcibly, if need be ; and that every operative is required to deposit monthly with the mill company a sum equal to her day's earning and this deposit is liable to confiscation one [sic; on event] of any infringement, however slight, of the contract as well as regulations enforced.
    Excessive long hours, unhealthy atmosphere, low wages, scanty food and obnoxious regulations......these are the conditions under which our female wage-earners, as represented by our modern factory girls, are suffering; and, in the face of these, what shall we say of our industrial civilization? Complete failure, indeed. Truly, we need trade unions to bring victory and order out of this industrial chaos and crime.

American Federationist, 1V, No.10
(December, 1897),231-232; Reprinted
in Railroad Trainmen's Journal, XV,

index: List of Reports
Edited by NIMURA, Kazuo @