Labor Report from Meiji Japan by Fusataro Takano (6)

Fusataro Takano

  Labor Problem in Japan

In a country where the working people have no political influence, and teachings of the Manchester School of Economics are the guiding principles of public policy, a rational treatment of the labor problem can hardly be expected, much less proper recognition of the social importance of the working people. Still, those who are closely observing industrial events of our past decade could not fail to perceive that the labor problem in Japan is destined to become a subject of serious consideration within the coming few years. The phenomenal development of the new industry, the attraction of a greater part of the rural population to the cities, the combined oppressions of the working men by the manufacturers, and the wholesome as well as injurious effects of the machine industries, are telling heavily upon the workers of Japan. Below the seeming peaceful aspect of the industrial world, a cloud is gathering, and it is but a question of time until the final outbreak must come. Indeed, we have already witnessed outward appearances of the approaching storm. The strike of the cotton spinners and the bricklayers; the demands of the shoemakers made at the gate of Parliament,...... these are some of the unmistakable signs of social unrest. Where the path of future events will finally lead us, we do not know; suffice it to say that we are already entering upon an era of social revolution.

While we are satisfied that the natural course of events must necessitate the social recognition of the labor problem, we are of the opinion that to leave the question to its own course is unwise and dangerous, in view of the erroneous economic thoughts prevailing among the social leaders and statesmen.

It is an indisputable fact that heretofore the welfare of the working people has never entered into the consideration of national affairs. They were deemed [an] insignificant factor of the social organism, existing only for the interest of the higher classes. Even in this era of enlightenment their proper relation to the national well-being is not recognized. How deep this idea is rooted can be seen from a fact that an argument for extending our foreign commerce based upon the cheapness of our wages has found great favor among the public leaders. Daily papers and magazines without a single exception have all concured[sic] in proclaiming that the cheap wage condition should give a great impetus for extending our foreign trade, as if the foreign trade is the only source of national prosperity. They have wholly ignored another potent factor for securing the same result. We refer to extension of home market which rests upon greater consumption of our greatest population......the working people. Besides the argument being a fair specimen of the total disregard for the interest of the laboring people on the part of our leading men, it is a declaration to the working class that their interests are in direct conflict with those of other classes, since the logical conclusion of the argument is that the working people should sacrifice themselves for the interest of foreign commerce, and the more they sacrifice the better it is. Any upward tendency of wages will be considered as detrimental to national prosperity and will be opposed as such. In a word, the argument is the natural result of the economic teachings of the Mercantile School which never recognized the true relation of capital and labor. As long as the workers remain in their dazed condition and diffusion of western civilization is limitted[sic] to the higher classes only, the argument will find no opposition, and will undoubtedly be adopted as a national policy. But how long will the workers remain in their semi-conscious conditions? Is not the wholesome influence of modern industries enlightening them? Is not the injurious effects of factory life awakening them? Once aroused, realization must follow. Then the strong opposition against the existing order and fallacious economic teachings will show itself. Class conflict, bitter and fierce, will be waged. Anarchism, Communism and Socialism will have their sway. It will be too late then to seek a rational solution of the labor problem. The history of labor movement of all western nations offers us ample warnings. Those who are dreaming only of the bright prospect of our industrial world would do well to turn to the pages of history, and learn what danger there is in neglecting a solution of the problem at the proper time. Another conspicuous instance of mistaken idea concerning the condition of labor on the part of our leading men has been recently recorded. At the general convention of delegates from the Chambers of Commerce throughout the country a month ago, a proposition to advise the government to enact a law for the protection of factory hands was unanimously rejected on the ground that such protection was not necessary at present and would be a hindrance to the greater growth of our industries. These same objections were raised against the factory laws in England and America, the utter fallacy of which had been conclusively shown by the actual results of their enactments.

While we have very little to say against the delegates concerning their economic thoughts, we have every reason to question whether they honestly believe that the present condition of our workers needs no protection. Nothing short of total blindness could fail to detect the existence of a deplorable condition, a condition that should never be allowed to exist under the present state of our civilization.

As a matter of fact, the actual conditions of the laborers, especially in those industries which are working under the modern system of equipment, have already assumed a phase serious enough to necessitate immediate attention and ample protection of law and law-makers. Take, for instance, cotton spinning, the industry whose marvelous development has drawn the attention of the whole world to industrial Japan.

There were, in 1882, only 1,500 spindles running in the whole country, including those controlled by the government, and the total production of the cotton yarn for the year was 70,000 pounds. Ten years later the production has been increased to over eighty millions. It has effectively driven out the English goods from our own market, and it is now competiting[sic] successfully with the same goods in the Eastern waters.

The stage of the development and its relation to the wage condition of the spinners is shown in the 14th Annual Statistics published by the government, viz:

Days of
during a
Hours of
in a day
No. of
18892830223215,190lbs. 27,983,683

YearNo.of spinners Average wages per day
18892,5395,391sen 17.1sen 8.1

While the production has increased ten fold and the demand of labor five fold, the wage condition of the spinners presents no trace of improvement. On the other hand, those necessaries of life such as rice, sugar, tea and fuels all show an advancement from 10 to 20% during that period. This indicates that the condition of the spinners is exactly following the diametrical line with the production and it is worse than before. The worst feature of the industry does not end there. According to a statement prepared by the committee of the Board of Health in the city of Osaka, the city which holds the foremost position in the cotton spinning industry of the country, with its fifteen mills, one third of the total number of mills in the country, the working hours and age conditions of the spinners in the City as follows:

Age groupsexNumberAverage
working hours
over 60 yearsmale1211.17
over 20 yearsmale2,66611
over 15 yearsmale74911
over 12 yearsmale22511
over 10 yearsmale9311.10
under 10 yearsmale3611.15

Ten per cent of the male spinners and twenty three per cent of the female spinners are children under fifteen years with an average of eleven working hours a day. A partial evidence of the evil consequence of this child labor and long working hours has been demonstrated by the fact that 94 out of 100 applicants in the city for enlistment in the army were rejected on the ground of physical disabilities, a shocking revelation to the enthusiastic followers of militarism of the country.

The ill effects of this deplorable condition are further intensified by an inhumane arrangement of the working method of the mills. As the table A shows every spinning mill of the country runs day and night, and each spinner, with no age exception, works by turn day and night. Thus, a spinner who works during the day this week must work at night during the next week for the same compensation, a thing wholly beyond the conception of the Westerners.

As long as these conditions of work are exacted from the well-grown workers only, they may be passed over as the necessary evils of cheap labor condition, but to impose the same conditions upon the children of tender years, they can not be excused under any circumstance.

To declare, in the face of such existing condition, the existence of which is a mockery to our national integrity and a blot upon our civilization, that the Japanese workers need no protection of law is as farcical as to assert black is white and by so declaring the convention has shown its utter incapability of dealing with public questions upon grounds of fairness, as it claims to do.

Viewing it from the spinners standpoint, the appalling condition is further aggravated by the existence of an agreement made by the mill-owners throughout the country that the wages of spinners will not be raised unless so agreed unanimously, and furthermore that any spinner who may be "dishonorably" discharged from one of the owners will not be employed by others within one year of such discharge. Added to this is a fact that the spinners are all [under] police supervision[sic] by which the employers are amply protected from any possible attempt on the part of the spinners to right their grievances.

Low wages, long working hours, child labor, black-list......such are the conditions existing in the cotton spinning industry, and similar conditions are confronting the workers of other trades which are run under the modern system of industry.

To the students of the labor question the existing conditions present most serious aspects imperatively demanding immediate solution of the problem. A crisis is at hand, and it remains with the public leaders and statesmen to avert the impending disaster.

Tokio, Japan, June, 1866.

Taiyo, II , No.4 (July 5,1896),73-78.
English translations, with minor changes, also published in: Gunton's Magazine, XI, No.2 (August,1896),106-112; and in American Federationist,III,No.7 (September,1896),133-135.

Edited by NIMURA, Kazuo