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Society for Japanese Studies

Review
Author(s): Peter Duus
Review by: Peter Duus
Source: The Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Summer, 1992), pp. 539-543
Published by: Society for Japanese Studies
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/132836
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Review Section

539

Labor and Imperial Democracy in Prewar Japan. By Andrew Gordon.


Universityof CaliforniaPress, Berkeley, 1991. xiii, 364 pages. $34.95.
Reviewed by
PETERDuus

StanfordUniversity
Two narrativesunfold in this book. The first concerns the "political role
that working men and women have played in twentieth century Japan"
(p. 3); it deals with the politics of the workplace-the struggle of working
men and women to press their demandsto employers. The second attempts
to connect "the story of labor to a reinterpretationof the broaderdynamics
of Japanesepolitical history from 1905 to 1940" (p. 5); it deals with politics at the nationalcenter, where, accordingto the author, "social conflict
and workingclass action were centralcauses of change in modernJapanese
history" (p. 108). The first narrativeis successful, the second is not.
The firstnarrativeis a continuationof Gordon'simportantearlierwork,
The Evolution of Labor Relations in Japan: Heavy Industry, 1853-1955
(HarvardUniversity Press, 1985). Indeed, Gordonoften cites that work in
his footnotes-and in some places recapitulatesit. In both books Gordon
has demonstratedhimself a remarkablycapable, thorough, and dogged
researcher,relentless in his search for archival material. One hopes that
other young scholarswill be inspiredto delve deeperinto this new subfield,
exploring not only political history but also the social history of "the
workers themselves, their communities, and the day-to-day occurrences
that shaped their outlook."'
In the early sections of the book, Gordon uses the term "working
class" or "workingpersons" ratherbroadly to include everyone from geishas and rickshaw drivers to lathe operatorsand locomotive engineers. At
times, the category seems to overlap with "urban poor." The reason, I
think, is that Gordon seeks to find a close link between the "popularpolitical awakening" representedby the urbanriots of the late Meiji period
and the emergence of politicized working people in the post-1918 period.
Unfortunatelythis linkage is not very convincingly demonstrated.Gordon
provides little or no concrete evidence that those participatingin the working organizationsof the 1920s were directly influenced by the urbanriots
of the late Meiji period. A better case might be made for a link between
the rice riots of 1918 and subsequent labor unrest2but Gordon tends to
give this event short shrift.
1. See HerbertGutman, "Workers'Search for Power," in Ira Berlin, ed., Power and
Culture:Essays on the American WorkingClass (New York:PantheonBooks, 1987).
2. See Michael Lewis, Riots and Citizens: Mass Protest in Imperial Japan (Berkeley:
University of CaliforniaPress, 1990). Gordon makes no reference to this importantwork in
his footnotes.

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Journal of Japanese Studies

After this false start, Gordon'snarrativegathers steam as he focuses


more precisely on the industrialworkersin the Nankatsusection of Tokyo.
He shows how the boom of the WorldWarI era,3which broughta sudden
expansion of the wage-laborpopulationin Nankatsu, fed the growth of a
labor movement. In a rich and detailed narrative,punctuatedby excerpts
from worker publications and reminiscences of workers such as Uchida
Toshichi, HirasawaKeishichi, and Saito Tadatoshi,he shows how the Yuaikai began to organize workersin relativelylarge-scale factories, not only
helping to resolve disputes with employers but providing workers with a
"sense of self-importanceand belonging" that they lacked in the workplace (p. 100). Echoing the seminal essays of Thomas C. Smith,4Gordon
stresses that the issue of taigu kaizen was a central concern for many
workersand that they were fighting as much for status as for better wages
and working conditions. In an excellent chapteron "WorkingClass Political Culture" he also suggests that the workersdid not depend on middleclass intellectual political activists to develop a "dispute culture." Their
visions of social justice and of the future, he argues, were quite their own.
The book emphasizes the resilience and ingenuity of the workers in
organizing themselves. Gordon describes the careful planning that went
into the preparationsfor a dispute, the ingenuity of the pressure tactics
applied by workers, and the supportoffered to industrialworkersby their
non-industrialneighborsin the district. As knowledge aboutthe orchestration of strikes diffused-and was systematized in "how-to-do-it" manuals-the organizationof workers spreadfrom large-scale factories, where
relatively impersonal relationships predominated, to small-scale enterprises. And while Gordon does not explicitly say so, the developmentof
worker organizationsin the 1920s suggests that neighborhoodand community were as importantin shaping developments as a strong sense of
class solidarity.
One of Gordon's most interesting conclusions is that from the very
beginning the factory or the workshop ratherthan trade or craft was the
main focus of workerorganization.He suggests two reasons for this: first,
the workshop or factory provided a base for solidaritythat cut across tensions createdby workerresentmentof outsiderorganizersand by doctrinal
disputes between the main labor federations;and second, the workersfelt
the factory rather than the craft to be their naturalbase because it was
in the factory thatthey had learnedtheir skills (pp. 156-57). This suggests
a far earlier precedent for the "enterpriseunion" than the Sanpo organizations of WorldWarII.
3. UnaccountablyGordonattributesearly twentieth-centuryeconomic and urbangrowth
to "Japan'sposition as Asia's only imperial power" (p. 86). Does he really mean "Asia's
only industrialpower"?
4. See Thomas C. Smith, Native Sources of Japanese Industrialization, 1750-1920
(Berkeley:University of CaliforniaPress, 1989), Chapters9 and 10.

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Review Section

541

Gordon also provides a close account of the "proletarianparty" movement in the Nankatsudistrict, suggesting that it took time for these organizations to learn electoral tactics. Ratherthan stressing the "failures" or
"weaknesses" of these parties, he places them in a cross-national comparativeperspective, pointing out thattheirelectoralgains were respectable
for a fledging movement. Indeed, his treatmentof both the worker organizations and proletarianparties during the 1930s is rathermore positive
than most other accounts in English. For example, he underlinesthe continuing growth of the working class organizations(in absolute numbers if
not relative size), the increasingscale and durationof strikes, and the continuing electoral gains of the Social Masses Party. And he also makes the
importantpoint that while working-classorganizations"no longer viewed
the bureaucracyor even the military with comparable suspicion," they
were still willing to confrontemployerswith their demandseven in the late
1930s (pp. 309-10).
Unfortunately,Gordon'ssecond narrative,which attemptsto "offer a
fresh perspectiveon the broadsweep of twentiethcenturyhistory" (p. xvi)
and to "place social contention, broadly conceived, at the center of twentieth century political history" (p. 331), keeps interruptinghis fine monograph on the working people of Nankatsu. The "new" periodization he
offers-"imperial bureaucracy"up to 1918, "imperial democracy" from
1918 to 1932 (or maybe 1936?), and "imperial fascism" after that-is
fairly conventional. The labels are new but the bottles are old, and so is
the wine. The stress on "turningpoints," moreover, runs counter to the
effort of some historiansto find more underlyingcontinuitythan discontinuity in post-1905 history.5No matter.Some things change, and others do
not; some change is rapid, and some change is slow; and historiansusually
choose to stress one alternativeor the other. Indeed, at the very end of the
book, Gordon hedges his earlier emphasis on discontinuity and suggests
that politics in the last two periods were "neither 'purely' democraticnor
'purely' fascist" (p. 333).
More of a problem is Gordon's failure to make very clear what
changed: at times he seems to suggest that it was the elites that changed,
at times the "state structure"or "structureof rule" (whatever that might
be), and at times ideology-or sometimes all of the above. The result is
often confusion. For example, Gordon initially makes a distinction between a "democraticmovement," which he seems to equate more or less
with the pre-1918 political parties in the Diet, and "imperialdemocracy,"
which emerged with the establishmentof party cabinets after 1918. "Imperial democracy," he says, involved "increasedprominenceof representative institutions," the "emergence of democratic intellectual voices,"
5. E.g., Kano Masanao, Taish6 demokurashiino teiryu: "dozoku"-tekiseishin e no
kaiki (Tokyo: Nihon Hoso Ky6kai, 1973).

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Journal of Japanese Studies

and "a Japanesespecies of bourgeois parliamentaryrule" (p. 125). By the


end of the book, however, things become more complicated. The political
parties have become "allies" of the "imperial democrats [sic]," and the
"movement," we discover, "never unambiguouslyaffirmedparliamentary
institutionsas the mechanismto create and defend an imperialdemocratic
polity" (p. 315). To be sure, this is nitpicking-what else are reviewers
good for?-but it does suggest that Gordon has not thought out his conceptual categories as carefully as he has done his research.
The argumentthat social contentionwas a decisive element in political
change is not persuasive. Certainlythe rice riots, as Michael Lewis and
othershave shown, influencedthe decision of Yamagataandthe othergenro
to give Hara a crack at forming a cabinet, but it is plausible that might
have happenedanyway since the genro had few alternativesat the time.
The relation between political change and workerunrest in the 192932 period is similarly ambiguous. No doubt apprehensionover the wave of
strikes contributedto a sense of crisis, and even more to doubtsaboutfreemarket mechanisms, as many historians have argued, but had the ruling
elites been confrontedsimply with laborunrestalone one wonderswhether
the hegemonic balance among them would have been realigned. As the
defeat of the Minseito's labor bill demonstrated,it was perfectly possible
to block the rise of labor within the existing structure,ideology, and elites
of "imperial democracy." As for the shrillness of business concern over
the laborproblem, and its call for more active state interventionin the early
1930s, this was not exactly new. Business leaders had been rathervirulent
in their attackson labor since the early 1920s, and they had been willing
to countenancethe use of the police and the militaryto put down strikes. If
there was an escalation in business rhetoricin the early 1930s, it may have
had as much to do with theirdesire to defeat the Minseito-backedunion bill
as with their fear that strikes were underminingthe whole social structure.6
If anything, Gordonbuilds a much better case for the propositionthat
what the political elite did had a profoundeffect on how social contention
manifested itself. As he very interestinglypoints out, the passage of the
LaborDisputes ConciliationLaw in 1926 prompteda change in tactics by
union leaders (p. 224). Given a new legal instrument, worker leaders
seized on it immediately.Clearlythe relationbetween political change and
"social contention," broadlyor narrowlyconceived, was a two-way street.
As Gordon suggests, what was involved was a "dialectic" between the
working-class organizationsand the political elites. That being the case,
one wonderswhy "workingmen and women" were any more "central"to
political change than the "party politicians" and "the bureaucrats."Or,
for that matter, why either was more "central" than generals, newspaper
6. See Sheldon Garon, State and Labor in ModernJapan (Berkeley:University of California Press, 1987).

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Review Section

543

editors, bank presidents, or tenant farmers. Without an explicit and well


developed theory, the search for a "central cause of change" in history
seems a futile one.
The basic problem with Gordon'sattempt at reinterpretationof early
twentieth-centurypolitical change is that it is only thinly tied to his research on the workers of Nankatsu. Exploring other interpretiveavenues
out of that researchmight have been more fruitful. For example, he might
have pursuedmore fully the linkages between the prewarand postwarlabor
movements, as he has done in his other work. At the end of the book,
almost as an afterthought,Gordon nearly does this. "The dispute culture
of the 1920s," he writes, "also resurfaced,alive and vigorous, in the early
days of the occupation, to puzzle even the most informed Western observers" (p. 341). How much more interestinghis conclusion would have
been had he developed this theme, perhaps linking it to the argumentof
his incisive essay on the postwar labor movement.7 Equally interesting
would have been more systematic cross-nationalcomparisonsbetween the
Japaneselabor movement in the 1920s and the labor movements of other
societies in the early stages of industrialization.OccasionallyGordontantalizes us with such comparisons, often quite provocatively(cf. pp. 67-68),
but in the end he abandonsthem in his efforts to rehash old chronologies
and old categories. One regretsthe lost opportunity.
In sum, Gordonhas given us a vivid accountof the emergence of organized labor in Tokyo duringthe 1920s and 1930s but he has not put "working men and women" at the center of political history;he has simply added
them to the picture. Nor has he offered a "major reinterpretation"of the
early twentiethcentury;he has merely repackagedsome old paradigms.

Industrial Harmony in Modern Japan: The Invention of a Tradition. By


W. Dean Kinzley. Nissan Institute/RoutledgeJapaneseStudies Series,
London, 1991. xvii, 190 pages. $49.95.
Reviewed by
ANDREWE. BARSHAY

University of California, Berkeley


The subject of this compact monographis the genesis, role, and to some
extent the legacy of the Ky6chokai-the "Cooperationand HarmonySociety" founded as a semi-official body late in 1919 to promote "healthy"
7. "Cultureof the Workplacein Postwar Japan," manuscriptpreparedfor the Conference on PostwarJapanas History, April 14-16, 1988.

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