TAKANO,Fusataro, Typical Japanese Workers: Labor Report from 19th Century Japan(5)

Labor Report from Meiji Japan (6)

  Typical Japanese Workers

TAKANO, Fusataro.

Tokyo, the capital city of Japan, with its population of one million eight hundred thousands is not only cosmopolitan in its social make-up but also in its industrial composition. Here, where [people] flock from all parts of the country, manners and customs peculiar to each section of the country are to be observed, dialects of various different localities are freely resorted to, and, with this socially cosmopolitan aspect, industries as carried on in this city present the same cosmopolitan features. The most advanced forms of industry are carried on side by side with the most unprogressive trades. In one corner of the city, countless factory chimneys are to be seen shooting up high in to the sky; in another, workshops of a most primitive kind are to be found. Here, in an area of twenty-six square miles the modern and ancient Japan, both equally well represented, may be seen at a glance in amazing contrast with each other. Even to the Japanese themselves this heterogeneous assemblage of industries within the same narrow bounds is a source of much admiring wonder; effectually reminding them, as it does, of the grand achievements of this nation during the past generation in the direction of human progress.
While the industries carried on in the city are so diversified and the occupations of working people necessarily so varied, the condition of their life is monotonously uniform. The writer is well aware of the great difference existing in the style of living between the skilled and unskilled workers of Europe as well as of America. It cannot be expected that there will be so great a difference in this country, and whatever difference does exist is only a question of degree. In this country a man as a worker is socially a doomed being, whether he be a skilled mechanic or a waste paper picker. When we look at the life condition of the workers, the demarcation-line of their trades is completely blotted out; for they lead, one and all, a life of hopelessness. The conspicuous characteristics of the class, ignorance, vulgarity, and want of decency, are noticeable on all sides. In a word, their life condition, socially considered, is one of the most gloomy, and is remarkable for the absence of all genuine comfort and pleasure.
Leaving our readers, however, to judge for themselves of the relevancy of our general statement, we shall proceed to present the condition of life of three typical classes of working-men in Tokyo where it is considered that, in comparison with other parts of the country, a higher rate of wages and higher standard of living are prevalent.


It is estimated that over 3,000 factories, large and small, are in operation in Tokyo, among which are several large factories, cotton spinning, paper, printing, tobacco and others, equipped with modern machinery, employing in the aggregate over 20,00O[sic; 200,000] people. As representatives of this class of workers we will take cotton spinners.
There are three large cotton mills in Tokyo with an aggregate number of 70,000 spindles and a monthly capacity of turning out 240,000 pounds of yarn. According to the reports submitted by these companies to the Cotton Mill-Owners' Association for the month of November, 1896, the number of days of operation during the month, the hours of operation in a day, the number of operatives employed and their daily wages averaged as follows:

No. of
days of
Hours of
in a day
Av. daily
wages of
Av. daily
wages of
Kanagafuchi40,57828 1/2225691,763*sen
* 185 sen are about equal to a gold dollar.

As will be seen from the above, the mills run at least twenty-two hours per day, the operatives being thus compelled to work at least eleven hours, taking up the night work by weekly turns, and this at the same rate of compensation as the day work. The operatives working in these mills are generally under contract for a term of three or five years and are not allowed to leave the service unless under unavoidable circumstances. The ages of these operatives range from eleven to forty, those between seventeen to twenty-five forming the majority. The majority of the female operatives are brought from the interior of the country and are given board and shelter in the boarding houses conducted by the companies in connection with the mills, a charge being made of six sen per day for each. Considered from a sanitary point of view, the boarding houses are generally well managed, the meals furnished are not indeed very wholesome, yet they are fully up to the standard of the prevailing style of living among the working classes. Educational facilities, in some cases, are provided, but seem to be very little appreciated by the operatives, (what can be expected from operatives working eleven long hours ! ). Of those who are boarding in the mills, (and they are all unmarried) it is rare indeed for anyone to be able to clear three silver yen per month after paying for board, or to succeed in saving two yen per month after deducting necessary incidental expenses. Nevertheless, they are the best paid spinners of their class in the country ; for those in other parts especially in the west, only earn an average of eight cents each per day.
It is in this industry that child labour is most largely employed. In collecting the operatives in the interior, preference is given to those who have technical skill but as such persons are very scarce, female children of above ten years of age are taken as apprentices. The children so brought over are given free board and lodging, together with thirty or forty sen each per month as pocket-money and are required, irrespective of age,to work full time whether by day or by night. When they acquire skill after several months of patient working, they begin to earn eight or ten sen each per day and are not able to earn as much as twenty-five or thirty sen until after four or five years. Of married male or female operatives who board outside of the mills, theirs is a lot of hardship and misery. They have to maintain a ceaseless struggle to support themselves on their small earnings and often this struggle ends disastrously for them. Furthermore the rules of the mill companies require each operative to deposit a day's earning at the end of every month and this deposit is liable to confiscation in the event of failure to fulfill the contract. The rules also provide (and they are rigidly enforced) a punitive measure......generally a fine......for those who neglect their work, together with a provision for occasional rewards toattentive operatives.
The long hours of work, the rigid enforcement of the rules,the scanty wages,together with the limitation of their contracts, prevent the operatives in general from enjoying life; for they are always left devoid of comfort and pleasure. Such is the life of the factory operatives, in factories which are conducted in accordance with modern methods of industry and which are supposed to be the forerunners of civilization!


A recent statistical report on daily wages prevalent among the Tokyo workers of this class gives us:

Furniture makers100
Matting makers70Blacksmiths65
Shoemakers12 silver yen per month
European dress)
10 to 15 silver yen per month
(In the trades connected with building, we have given the prices charged by contractors,
the actual sum paid to the workers being from five to eight sen less).

There are at least 10,000 skilled workers in Tokyo engaged in the building trades, the blacksmiths, tailors, printers and others constituting another 10,000. Fully one half of this class of workers are single and generally board and lodge with their foremen, who are invariably contractors, who pay them four or five yen each per month. Apprenticeship in the building trades is for a term of ten years, printers, six years, and shoemakers, five years. To cite a case connected with carpentry: a boy, at the age of ten, goes to a foreman as apprentice and there remains ten years, the first seven years being spent in gaining a practical knowledge of the trade and the remaining three years in working for the foreman, as an acknowledgment of the past favor, during which years he receives only two or three yen per month as pocket money. It should also be remembered, that the acquisition of even a common education is wholly out of the question. When it is finally over, he begins to earn for himself but his contributions to the foreman continue, under one form or another, for a long time to come.
As a rule, the mode of living prevalent among the unmarried workers of this class is irregular. Money is hardly earned, and often a great deal more than is carnet [sic; earned] is spent on drinking and debauchery. It is a rare thing to find an operative of this class possessing a holiday suit or any dress other than his working clothes. When it becomes necessary to get new clothes he will borrow money for the purpose and two or three days after the new clothes have been used, and the immediate occasion is past, they will be either sold or pawned, not to redeem the debt but to satisfy an unquenchable thirst for debauchery. The keeper of a popular restaurant in this city has furnished us with an interesting statement bearing upon this subject. During the month of November last, out of 9,000 customers who visited his shop 3,500 were artisans and mechanics, 2,300 small merchants and clerks, 1,300 wives and children of small merchants, clerks etc. Of the receipts of the month, artisans and mechanics contributed 40%, small merchants and clerks 20% etc. This goes to show where most of the money earned by the workers of this class disappears. It may be argued that it is very foolish of them to spend money so recklessly but we must also take into consideration that with their lack of education, the pleasures they are able to seek are necessarily limited and that drinking and debauchery being the most easily accessible pleasures, it is natural that they should go in that direction. Moreover, there is a custom prevalent among these classes, which has been handed down from generation to generation, to be liberal in their expenditure on food; and this custom has been so prevalent that it has finally given rise to the common saying that the eating-house is the place where a workingman empties his pocket. We must admit, however, that this is a fault of the workers for which they alone are to be blamed. Let us now see what life the other half of them, the married workers, are leading.
We often witness workingmen of this class, with wives and children, striving hard to keep away from evil friendships, and sometimes even braving the ostracism of their comrades. One of them came under our special observation, and after repeated entreaties we succeeded in drafting an annual budget of the current expenses of his family. The worker in question is thirty-two years of age, a painter by trade. His wife is twenty-five years old and they have two children, three and six respectively. The house in which he lives is located in a back alley with two rooms, 9 x 12 and 9 x 3, together with a kitchen. He pays a rent of one and a half silver yen per month. There are two small bureaus in the house ; one containing clothing, the other cooking and eating utensils, and there is no other furniture except a hibachi with a charcoal fire. The kitchen utensils are somewhat antiquated and in bad repair. By way of explanation, he informed us that all the furniture he now possesses together with the kitchen utensils and bedding was left to him by his deceased parents and that he spent nothing so far in obtaining new furniture, and has only occasionally been replacing vessels which were accidentally broken. The budget, which follows, fairly exhibits the standard of living of the family and, at the same time, substantially represents the expenses of other families similarly situated.

  Silver yen
Clothing for husband18.45
Clothing for wife12.00
Food for husband30.00
Food for wife30.00
Food for children10.00
Shoes (wooden clogs, straw slippers &c.)5.75
Fuel (fire wood and charcoal)8.00
Wine (sake)15.00
Replacing broken dishes &c.2.00
Miscellaneous expenses (candies for children, baths &c.) 12.0
Total expense of the family169.70
Husband's earnings for a year160.00

In the above budget no estimate is made for expenses incurred by the family for social intercourse nor is any provision made for sickness or occasional pleasures. Even so, it was found necessary for the head of the family to seek some other source of income in order to make both ends meet; hence, we were told that his wife occupies herself at home in rolling up cigarettes, at which she can earn on an average five sen per day. If he should ever be confronted with the necessity of meeting any additional expense, he told us that he had nothing for it but to send some of the family clothing to a pawn shop, though the consequence of this proceeding was to augment the current expenses by the amount of the interest on the loan.
Legitimate as his expenses are, gloomy and cheerless as his life is, still the joint earnings of himself and wife are not sufficient to secure the stability of the family; and this being a fair example of the families of this class of workingmen what conclusions are we to draw as to the rest?


As representatives of this class of workers we will take the jinrikisha men, a name undoubtedly familiar to our readers. There are over 60,000 men who are subsisting upon incomes derived from pulling these two wheeled carriages in the city. The occupation, though really modern, may be almost called a remnant of ancient Japan ; and, strange to say, the jinrikisha is in full swing by the side of the locomotive and the tramcar. A very few of the men own their "rikisha" (which cost from ten to fifteen silver yen a piece), the others hire the vehicles by the day at a cost of three or five sen per diem. Three distinct classes are noticeable among the men; Class I, comprising the able bodied men, ranging from eighteen to thirty-five years of age and earning on an average forty sen a day ; Class II, able bodied but not so strong and robust as their younger comrades, ranging from thirty to forty-five years of age, with an average daily earning of thirty sen each; and class III, old and feeble, none of whom are able to earn an average of more than ten sen per day. Class I comprises 1/5 of the whole number of jinrikisha men, the second 1/2 and the third 3/10. The majority of the first class men are single, and board and lodge with their bosses, every one of whom generally keeps several vehicles for hire. These men pay about five silver yen per month for board and lodging besides daily charges for their vehicles. The men of this class spend most of their daily earnings on food and drinks; seldom are they satisfied with the meals furnished by their bosses. It is the general rule with them that, as soon as they have conveyed their passengers to their destinations and have been paid the fares previously agreed to, they hasten to a restaurant near by, there to satisfy their thirst for refreshment. Here they will spend ten or fifteen sen each, for which sum they can procure three bowls of boiled rice, a dish of fish (boiled, baked, broiled or raw), and pickled vegetables, together with a pint or two of sake (a spirit manufactured of rice). The recklessness prevailing among the unmarried mechanics and artisans is also characteristic of the men of this class, and the same means of raising funds are freely resorted to. The second-rate men are really typical of this class of workers......common labourers. The great majority of them are married, some of them having four or five children, and keeping houses, if they can be so termed. The houses are generally located in an alley or in a street mostly inhabited by poor people and are built in a row 10 ft. x 50 ft., this long row being partitioned off into four houses, thus giving each abode a space of 10 x 12. There are certainly no parlors, dining or bed rooms in these houses ; the front room of each mansion, about 10 x 10 is used for all purposes and a little space in the rear constitutes the kitchen. The rent of one of these houses ranges from sixty sen to one yen per month according to the location and condition of the house. The daily living expense, excepting house rent, foot up to something like twenty-five sen on an average for each family of five, generally absorbing all that the head of the family is able to earn, and leaving the house rent to be paid from what can be earned by wife and children at home by the pasting of match boxes. The food taken by these families generally consists of rice, bean soup and pickled vegetables for breakfast; rice, pickled vegetables and fish or some other dish for lunch and dinner. When the head of the family takes his meal out of the house it will cost him three or four sen if he is not particular as to what he gets. The clothes worn by the members of the family are only fit to be called rags and they have no change of clothing. These families are great customers of pawn shops and money lenders, and some of them frequent pawn shops twice or thrice a day, each transaction costing them heavily. The readers may wonder how they procure things to pawn. Indeed, the economy practiced among this class is of a most instructive nature. For instance, if early in the morning they find that there is not sufficient money to procure their morning meal, their bedding will fly into a pawn shop there to remain until night time, when the heads of the families return with their day's earnings. For purposes of raising money, even a tiny article of kitchen ware is utilized to its full value. Not only do the pawn brokers reap a great profit from these people but also the money lenders whose custom it is to loan one yen to be redeemed by daily instalments of three sen for forty consecutive days, or to loan eight sen to be redeemed by daily instalments of two sen for fifty consecutive days. These highly rated moneys are in great demand among the jinrikisha men class and are most urgently sought for in cases of accidents to the heads of houses or of sickness in the families; and the recurrence of such misfortunes finally ends in reducing the families to beggary.
The men of the third class, the majority of whom are single, more properly belong to the class of paupers. Some of them keep houses jointly but the greater number live in cheap lodging houses, each paying three or four sen per day. Of those who keep houses, it is but seldom that a man owns his bedding which is generally borrowed at a rate of one sen to one sen and half per night. Meals they seldom take with regularity. When any of them is fortunate enough to earn some money before a meal-time so as to allow him to enter one of those low restaurants, where a bowl of rice with a little raw or cooked fish or vegetables are served for the sum of two or three sen, he will avail himself of the opportunity; if not he will satisfy his hunger by eating a sen's worth of rice cakes. Often during summer time they will go without lodging, taking shelter under roofs or in untenanted houses. Generally speaking, the men of this class constitute a reserve army of paupers and are destined, sooner or later, to become inmates of charitable institutions.

Far East, II, No.4 (April 20,1897).
A substantial portion of this piece was published as "Conditions of Labor in Japan", Gunton's Magazine, XII(April, 1897).

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