In the year the West knows as 604 A.D., one of Japan’s most revered statesmen, Shotoku Taishi, issued a “constitution,” and the first line of 17 states: “Harmony is to be valued.”
So it was; so it is to this day — valued so highly that it is apt to be seen whether it exists or not. Japan’s industrialization was a government-led forced march to a national goal expressed in a government slogan: “Rich country, strong army.” Individual suffering counted for little. There was a good deal of it, inevitably. Peasants pouring into cities were herded into factories. Hours were long, wages low, supervision harsh, machines implacable. It’s galley slavery in modern dress.
“Steam was pumped into the factory … making the air inside so bad it was a miracle if you didn’t get sick. … I ended up in the hospital. Malnutrition was partly to blame. … I wanted to quit and go home (to the country), but (the boss) wouldn’t let us leave until our contracts were up.” — girl, 14, of an Osaka textile mill she was toiling at in 1910.
“Many girls came down with severe (sometimes fatal) beriberi. … We held wakes in (the factory dormitory) the nights before the bodies were cremated. Seeing their corpses when it was my turn to offer incense was a terrible shock for me at age 15.” — another female textile mill worker, recalling the year 1919 in a memoir written years later.
“Government arsenal has been treating its employees in the most cruel manner. They cannot go to the WC without a permission ticket during recess. The number of the tickets is only 4 for a hundred workers, consequently some must wait five hours… Every and all little mistakes are fined at least five hours’ earnings.” — Labor organizer Sen Katayama, writing (in English) in the newspaper Shakai Shimbun, 1908.
Harmony? “Since ancient times,” wrote Heigoro Shoda, director of the Mitsubishi Shipyard in Nagasaki in 1910, “Japan has possessed the beautiful custom of master-servant relations based firmly on a spirit of sacrifice and compassion, a custom not seen in many other countries in the world. … Because of this relationship, the employer loves the employee and the employee respects his master.”
This was Shoda’s argument against a proposed factory law to protect workers from some of the worst abuses of unregulated industrial growth. “Today,” he continued, “there exists no evils and we feel no necessity (for a factory law).”
Bureaucrats begged to differ — not out of concern for the workers’ welfare but out of fear of an outbreak of “the British disease” — strikes and agitation. A factory law, rather toothless, was passed in 1911, the same year in which Katayama issued his memorable challenge: “I will be the bleeding mouth from which the gag has been snatched. I will say everything.”
Not even he could do that — there was simply too much going on. History knows no more dramatic change than that from pre-industrialized to industrialized society. It’s tectonic, a human and social makeover. Tillers of soil abruptly become tenders of machines. Illiterates become literate. Cities swell, slums proliferate, factories inspire a new, ghastly poetry: “Today I leave for the factory / Take care of yourselves, everyone / Make sure you don’t get hurt by those machines from hell” — as you could, all too easily. “An instant later,” we read in a short story written in 1935, “her hair was being pulled into the machine with a fearful swishing sound. … Nothing was left but a bleeding scalp.”
The city, the factory, the school — yes, the school, too, for education was now compulsory; by 1906, 95 percent of children were attending elementary school, as against 50 percent in 1892. The new proletariat could read, which fostered a sense — something very new indeed — of inviolable human dignity. “Friends! Look at this arm! It is the arm of a worker in 1915,” proudly declared labor organizer and playwright Keishichi Hirasawa. His boast would have been incomprehensible to a peasant of his parents’ generation.
Hirasawa was a leading force behind the pioneering union federation Yuaikai (Friendly Society), inaugurated in 1912. “Society treats (workers) as diseased, pitiful slaves of money, lacking in self-respect, learning, or common sense,” a Yuaikai member wrote in the federation newsletter Yuai Shimpo in 1914. Another member issued a warning: “If Japanese industry does not respect the character of its workers, it will not progress. Treated as beasts, we will become beasts.” He was hopeful, however. “Treated as gentlemen,” he added, “we will become gentlemen.”
Was Shoda, the Mitsubishi Shipyard director, talking nonsense, with his “beautiful custom of master-servant relations”? It’s easy today to think so. Hirasawa, interestingly enough, did not. “Because of the nature of the Japanese polity,” he wrote, “the capitalists will awaken before the blood flows; considering the nature of our national polity, there is no need for struggle, and our future is not dark.”
But it was ominous. Shoda may not have seen it, but others did, among them Aritomo Yamagata (1838-1922), twice prime minister and longtime elder statesman who in 1910 wrote, “The people begin by claiming political rights, and, once they are allotted these, they demand food and clothing and wish for the wealth of society to be equally apportioned. Realizing that such demands are incompatible with current national and social institutions, they first turn their efforts to the destruction of the foundations of the state and society. Herein lies the genesis of what is called socialism.”
Seven years later, there occurred the cataclysm — had Yamagata foreseen it? — that put “the British disease” in the shade. Japan’s proletarian literacy has already been referred to. An estimated four-fifths of Tokyo workers in 1919 were newspaper subscribers. They knew of the Russian Revolution. Would they launch the Japanese Revolution?
In 1918, “rice riots” convulsed the country. Wartime inflation had sent rice prices soaring. Nationwide rioting brought down a Cabinet. Was this the beginning of the Bolshevization of Japan? Communism, too — in theory, at least — is a kind of harmony. Not, of course, the kind Shotoku Taishi had in mind.
Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.