Socialist thought in Imperial Japan

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First Labor Day Rally in Japan, 1920

Left Socialist thought in Imperial Japan appeared during the Meiji period, with the development of a large number of relatively short-lived political parties through the early Shōwa period. Left wing parties, whether advocating socialism, Marxism or agrarianism provoked hostility from the mainstream political parties, oligarchs and military alike, and many were either banned or went underground soon after formation. Although occasionally winning a seat in the lower house of the Diet of Japan, left-socialist parties played little role in the government of the Empire of Japan.

Early development of leftist politics[edit]

The ideology of Western socialism was introduced to Japan in the early Meiji period, largely via Christian missionaries with their concepts of universal fraternity, but had little attraction until the increased industrialization of Japan had created a disaffected urban labor force which became more receptive to calls for a more equitable distribution of wealth, increased public services and at least some nationalization of the means of production.

The early Freedom and People's Rights Movement founded in 1873 is also regarded as a forerunner to Japanese socialist development for its attraction to the labor movement and agrarian movement and increased representative democracy; however, it was more concerned with Constitutional development than social consciousness.

The Meirokusha think tank, also founded in 1873 is also regarded as a forerunner to Japanese socialist development, due to the support of many of its members for social change.

Socialism in the Empire of Japan[edit]

The Society for the Study of Socialism (社会主義研究会 Shakai Shugi Kenkyukai?), was founded in October 1896, with members included Isoo Abe, Kotoku Shusui and Sen Katayama. It was reorganized in 1901 into Japan’s first socialist political party, the Socialist Democratic Party (社会民主党 Shakai Minshuto?). The government outlawed the new party two days after its formation.

The Japan Socialist Party (日本社会党 Nippon Shakaitō?) was founded on 28 January 1906 as a coalition representing a wide spectrum of socialist beliefs. The radical element was led by Kotoku Shusui an anarcho-syndicalist, who favored “direct action” and violent overthrow of the government, while the moderates were led by Sen Katayama and Tatsuji Tazoe, who favored a mild program of social reform. The coalition was unstable, and collapsed only after a year, on 22 February 1908. The various factions went on to create small, short-lived political parties, many of which came under police scrutiny and were suppressed under the increasingly restrictive Peace Preservation Laws. The execution of Kotoku Shusui in the aftermath of the High Treason Incident in 1911 was also a severe blow to the early socialist movement.

In 1920, Toshihiko Sakai and Hitoshi Yamakawa attempted to reunite the various socialist splinter parties under the Japan Socialist League (日本社会主義同名 Nihon Sakai Shugi Dōmei?), and to join with various labor unions, intellectuals and anarchist groups. Although the new organization quickly swelled to over 3000 members, irreconcilable differences in ideology meant that it could agree on little more than some basic propaganda statements, and it was suppressed by the government in May 1921.

Other early socialist parties included:

Liberal and social democratic thought in the Empire of Japan[edit]

Moderates who favoured mild reforms followed thinkers like Minobe Tatsukichi and Sakuzo Yoshino, both professors at Tokyo Imperial University. Both felt that the Emperor system and other elements of Japan's traditional kokutai were compatible with democracy and socialism.

Yoshino went on to found his own political party with a mix of Christian socialism, Confucian public morality, and syndicalism. Along with Tokuzō Fukuda of Keio University, Yoshino joined with others to establish Reimeikai, which was a society "to propagate ideas of democracy among the people."[1] This group was formed in order to sponsor public lectures.[2] The movement initially attracted many students and worker leaders. The party collapsed in 1920.[3]

Communism in the Empire of Japan[edit]

Release of Communist Party Members from prison, 1945

The Japan Communist Party (日本共産党 Nippon Kyosantō?) (JCP) was founded on 15 July 1922, as an underground branch of Comintern by a group of socialist activists, including Hitoshi Yamakawa, Kanson Arahata, Toshihiko Sakai, Kyuichi Tokuda and Sanzo Nosaka. Outlawed at once under the Peace Preservation Law, the JCP was subjected to repression and persecution by the military and police.

The party was dominated by Hitoshi Yamakawa in its early years, but Yamakawa had the party formally dissolved in 1924 in an attempt to create a legal mass based political party to approach the Japanese working class. Also in 1924, Kazuo Fukumoto returned to Japan after studying Marxism in Germany and France, and scathingly attacked Yamakawa's approach, citing a need for the formation of a vanguard party along Leninist ideals. He presided over the re-establishment of the JCP in 1926. The basic difference between Yamakawa and Fukumoto was a difference of opinion on the historical stage of Japan's development per Marxist terminology. Yamakawa saw Japan as still primarily a feudal state, which had yet to reach the state of capitalism required for the proletariat revolution, whereas Fukumoto felt that the feudal stage had ended with the Meiji restoration and that Japan should now be viewed in the same light as other western, industrialized nations.

On 15 July 1927, Comintern issued a thesis attacking both Yamakawa and Fukumoto and demanding that the party strive for an immediate two-stage revolution to overthrow the Japanese government, and especially the Emperor system and Diet of Japan, redistribution of wealth and favorable policy with Soviet Russia.

In the March 15 Incident of 1928 and April 16 Incident of 1929, thousands of suspected communists were arrested nationwide. In a special open trial of the Tokyo District Court in 108 sessions from 25 June 1931 to 2 July 1932, some 300 members of the JCP were sentenced. The trial was carefully orchestrated by the Home Ministry (Japan) to expose the inner workings of the JCP and its strategy to undermine the existing political order. All defendants were found guilty and were given stiff sentences, but those who publicly recanted (tenko) their communist ideology and who agreed to “rehabilitation” were given much reduced sentences.

In 1931, the underground JCP issued a new thesis calling for an immediate socialist revolution. This radical approach led to a fracturing of the JCP leadership, attacks from social-democrats, and more repression from the government. Overseas aid from Comintern not forthcoming (the JCP suspected of being infected with Trotskyism by its Soviet counterparts), the Japanese communist movement virtually ceased to exist after 1935 with the arrest of its leadership and dissolution of supporting organizations.


  1. ^ Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric. (2005). "Reimeikai" in Japan Encyclopedia, p. 785, p. 785, at Google Books.
  2. ^ Marshall, Byron K. (1992). Academic Freedom and the Japanese Imperial University, 1868-1939, p. 96., p. 96, at Google Books
  3. ^ Smith, Henry DeWitt. (1972). Japan's First Student Radicals, p. 45., p. 45, at Google Books


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