Review: Class Struggles in Japan Since 1945

Against the Current No. 19, March/April 1989

James Rytting

Class Struggle and Technological Innovation in Japan Since 1945
by Muto Ichiyo
Amsterdam: International Institute for Research and Education, 1987, $4.

IN RESPONSE TO the burgeoning trade imbalance with Japan, U.S. business leaders have proclaimed Japan’s competitive advantage to be the more cooperative relationship between capital and labor found in that country. To hear it from management, this cooperativeness is a cultural product that promotes efficiency by permitting production to proceed uninterrupted either by strikes at worst or slowdowns. The number of work days lost through industrial disputes per 1,000 employees during 1975-80 was: U.S. = 369 days; Japan = 69 (but West Germany = 41).

Implicit in the appeal to culture is the notion that the Japanese model is reproducible in the United States if only U.S. labor would adopt an attitude toward management similar to that of the Japanese workers-supposedly a neofeudal allegiance to the master corporation. Muto Ichiyo in a series of articles first published in AMPO Japan-Asian Quarterly Review, an English-language periodical published by the Pacific Asia Resource Center, exposes the falsity of the cultural argument by revealing the historical and social roots of Japanese labor’s cooperation with management.

Harmony between labor and capital, he argues, reflects the relative weakness of labor and the power Japan’s bourgeoisie have acquired, with the aid of U.S. capital and U.S. military, since the end of the World War IL Labor’s resistance during the period from 1947, when in isolated enterprises workers took over production and distribution, to 1960, when mass movements against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty forced the cancellation of Dwight Eisenhower’s visit, implies that Japanese culture, certainly present throughout this period, is not responsible for labor’s present submission and that corporate control required the suppression of labor militancy.

Sensible liberal and conservative analysts have also recognized the implausibility of the cultural argument, yet they still maintain there is an identity of interests between labor and capital, grounded in the needs of both camps for the economic eminence of Japan. The supreme value of Ichiyo’s work is his demonstration that the economistic orientation of labor is itself the consequence of the overt repression of workers interested in self-management, not just better wages, and the planned substitution of right-wing unions for ones striving for worker empowerment.

Labor’s present status, on the other hand, is not simply the consequence of its historical conditions and the superior force commanded by the bourgeoisie and occupational authorities. To some extent the labor bureaucracy, sometimes the rank and file, and management acted from the start with a degree of complicity not necessitated by economic conditions. Japan’s Socialist Party, which came to power in 1947 in classical social-democratic fashion, became stridently anti-communist and pro-capitalist. Yet the working class at least had the strength to unseat this party by a wave of strikes the very next year.

But in my review, I concentrate on the broad historical framework Ichiyo uncovers, which made particular union and party policies, on the left and right, possible, if not necessary. The main theme running throughout Ichiyo’s articles is how the relationship between the United States and Japan after World War II explains the nature of the labor/management relationship today.

Details about the immediate causes of this relationship, the strategies and tactics of unions and political parties, the specific segmentations of the workforce and nature of the labor market, including its vital division along gender lines, and the particular structure of the “company world” are lucidly analyzed in Ichiyo’s work. In addition Ichiyo provides empirical evidence for his theses through brief studies of the important Miike coal miners’ strike and the experiences of women workers at Toyota and Sony.

The Japan-U.S. Post-War Alliance

The destruction of the Japanese military allowed the United States to assume external military functions of the state and permitted the Supreme Command of Allied Forces in the Pacific (SCAP) to rule politically through the Japanese bureaucracy until 1952. This is what Ichiyo calls the Japan-U.S. division of labor, a unique arrangement whereby Japanese capital worked to expand “through a borrowed imperialist superstructure”; it is the key to understanding the relationship of labor and capital from the end of the war to the present.

At the start of the period Ichiyo considers, U.S. military and political rule was a boon to labor. Before the war union membership peaked in 1936 at 420,000, a mere 7 percent of the workforce, partly because Japan’s Peace Preservation Law enacted in 1925, revised in 1929 and 1940, made it a crime to “join or lead any organization aimed at ending private ownership.”

Under the occupation, however, membership rose dramatically; the Communist-led Confederation of Industrial Unions (Sanbetsu) had 1.6 million members by 1946). The trade-union movement was legitimated by appeal to the liberal rights in the constitution that Gen. Douglas MacArthur had dictated to the Japanese bourgeoisie. Its development was abetted by the U.S. State Department’s fear that the monopolizing tendencies of Japan’s Zaibatsu (financial-industrial groups-the big four antedating the war were Mitsubishi, Misui, Sumitomo and Yasuda) might once again lead to totalitarianism.

SCAP freed political prisoners, some of whom were communists, hoping to create countervailing forces to big business, and the State Department planned for an economy of small producers to prevent the concentration of capital in totalitarian hands.

Waves of strikes carried out across the country from 1947 to 1949 put an end to the liberal fantasies of Zaibatsu dissolution. These plans were ineffective anyway because of opposition to them by U.S. corporations with holdings in large Japanese firms and the diplomatic skills of Yasuda representatives, who blamed the militarist state for totalitarianism. SCAP, scrapping its initial ideology, clamped down on Japanese labor and explicitly forbade the general strike planned for Feb. 1, 1947.

Still workers, motivated by the desperate economic situation, continued their struggle but were hindered, Ichiyo says, by a dearth of communist and socialist leadership. Their efforts did result in the election of socialist Prime Minister Tetsu Katayama but left him with a coalition government he did not effectively move to implement socialist programs. A government headed by a socialist then plundered the masses through inflation, attempted to curb strikes and facilitated capital accumulation by floating bonds to raise funds that were then funneled into monopoly enterprises.

The Socialists collapsed in the face of a massive labor offensive. Unionism was still on the rise: it would reach 6.7 million members or 50 percent of the workforce by 1949. In response SCAP began the “red purge” of tens of thousands of communists and their sympathizers from factories and newspapers. Special legislation that forbade strikes by public workers was also passed.

Economic onslaughts on the masses proceeded under the Dodge plan in 1949, its immediate aim being the accumulation of capital by large Japanese concerns; its broader goal, the establishment of a capitalist front to prevent the spread of revolutionary movements on the Asian mainland, a pressing concern in light of the third Chinese revolution.

The Dodge plan entailed fiscal austerity for the masses but easy private financing for selected monopolies through liberal loans from private banks to which the Bank of Japan had extended generous credits. Labor was frontally attacked when 100,0CX) railway workers were discharged and their struggles against dismissal sabotaged by two successive derailments and the mysterious death of the president of Japan National Railways.

But, Ichiyo stresses, despite the political and economic offensive against the working class, the fate of Japanese capital might have remained in the balance if not for the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru, who replaced Katayama, pronounced it a stroke of “divine help,” but it was the United States that “lavished military spending on Japan, amounting eventually to $23 billion.”

MacArthur, with the war as pretext, proved the “Peace” constitution a mere formality by ordering, in violation of Article 9, the creation of a new Japanese army of 75,000 men (called at first the National Police Reserve Force). Prosecution of militarist business men, a lame effort from the start, came to a halt, and Japanese war criminals, like their German scientist counterparts, were recruited by the U.S. military.

Propelled by destitution, labor remained a force with revolutionary potential. But with big business safe from dissolution, large numbers of the royal army reinstated in the Reserve Force, and SCAP’s repression of labor militants, Japan’s bourgeoisie sought to retrieve “the right to manage.” They were assisted in their cause by the substitution of right-wing unions engendered in 1950 with the help of SCAP.

Sohyo (General Council of Trade Un&ions) was the first attempt to siphon labor activism from the radical Sanbetsu unions. Prodded by occupation authorities, anti-communists in Sanbetsu fought against Japan’s Communist Party’s monopoly and bureaucratic control of Sanbetsu and formed Mindo, a “democratization League.” At the inception of the Korean War Mindo and Sodomei (which was to survive the radicalization of Sohyo to form an independent federation of unions of the right called Domei) fanned Sohyo, which supported the Korean War and ascribed to the ICFTU’s analysis of the world situation.

Sohyo, however, under the leadership of Communists and the Marxist General Secretary Takano Minoru, turned on its creators and spurred the resistance to the terms of the peace treaty and U.S. Security Treaty under which Japan regained independence.

Capital and Labor Strategies

Taken together the terms of the treaties are the framework for Japanese capital in the modern era. They provided for the end of occupation, free use of military bases by U.S. troops and the separation from Japan of Okinawa, which was placed under U.S. rule. The Japanese bourgeoisie, bereft of an imperialist superstructure of its own and facing U.S. determination not to allow Japan to emerge as a military rival, made “the strategic choice … to conclude a military and political alliance with the United States” in the form of the treaties.

Prime Minister Yoshida signed the treaties over the objections of workers and students, 100,000 of whom clashed with riot police in Tokyo three days later on May Day, 1952.

The treaties insured Japan’s economistic focus until the 1970s when Japan’s rivalry led to U.S. insistence that Japan assume more responsibility-that is, devote more resources–for Cold War defense. For two decades, though, Japanese capital had been absolved of the need to provide an imperialist military complex and “largely relieved of the dangerous domestic tensions that would have arisen if it had Vietnam.” Japan’s ruling class could claim instead “that Japan was a ‘peaceful country’ and a ‘constitutional democracy’ in a region of the world where revolutions and counterrevolutions were wrestling in full force.”

The economistic focus of the state necessitated by the arrogation of superstructural functions by the United States and the repressive actions of the occupational forces resulted in the rapid growth of capital after 1955 and its real explosion in the 1960s. Purged of militants and faced with competing conservative unions, the progressive Sohyo concentrated on obtaining better working conditions in the form of wage increases, a possibility given the booming economy. As a result, demands for shop-floor control fell by the wayside. Sohyo allied with the newly formed Japanese Socialist Party GSP), a merger of left and right socialist parties, and converted labor’s struggle into its annual spring campaign for higher wages, known as shunto.

However, abandoning shop-floor struggles would prove detrimental to labor. Japanese unions had organized at the enterprise level. They could wage limited struggles for control of the shop floor independently of union brass or alliances with political parties. Increases in wages, however, especially in times of economic well-being, may be obtained by the upper echelon of the union hierarchy through negotiations with the state and business. Sohyo was sufficient for pressing demands for higher wages within the time-table of the Shunto, but its industrial federations remained “nothing more than coordinating bodies” for this scheduled event, and were unable to sustain class struggle over an entire industry.

The JSP also proved ineffective at promoting worker struggles. It could marshal only a degree of support in society for campaigns for higher wages. Embattled as it was for electoral success against the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, the JSP continued to accept the basic premises of capitalist development.” As a historical formation [it] could react to the political situation only defensively when and where it felt the value of peace and democracy were threatened.”

Erosion of Workers’ Power

Labor’s abnegation of the shop-floor left capital at liberty to alter the work process in order to implement new technology. Here the steel industry played the leading role, its mission made easier by “one of the worst right-wing unions inside Sohyo, “the Federation of Iron & Steel Workers’ Union. Through four gorika or rationalization plans, steel drove to increase production, which leapt from a war-time peak of 7.5million tons a year to 120 million in 1970, double the ambitious expectations for output announced in 1960.

The first of these plans went into effect at the onset of the Korean War; it involved the modernization of the rolling section. The second plan renovated all areas of steel and called for investment of 625 billion yen, five times that of the first plan. The third plan doubled investment once again, and commissioned new mills. The fourth invested a staggering 4,258 trillion yen in new equipment.

Each successive plan significantly changed the work place. Labor’s organization did not keep pace with the evolution, and management was thus enabled to destroy the basis of workers’ power on the shop floor.

During the second gorika plan in the new Yawata Iron and Steel Mill at Tobata, line and staff were separated; production would occur in one place, planning and technical services in another. Skill and expertise on the shop floor, up to now embodied in the shop foreman, were removed from the point of production, and a new type of foreman or work leader took overseas the workshop-level agent of management-his duty merely being to increase production and lower costs by keeping the workers under him always “cost-conscious” and loyal to management-made production plans.

The Yasata Workers’ Union, according to Ichiyo, welcomed this modern system, unaware that the prototype of a new labor practice usurping workers’ power was in the making. Completion of the practice came with the third plan in 1965, which saw “the application of Taylorism by the workers themselves.” Workers once again took over managerial functions, primarily quality control, but this time for management.

By 1966, 76 percent of the employees of twenty-nine steel firms had “voluntarily” organized themselves into small groups called quality control circles. They studied the work process, invented new work methods, improved the old, and then proposed their findings to management. Workers thus engineered means for the intensification of their own work. Auto, then electric and petrochemical industries, adopted steers program, modified to fit their industries.

Economism and class collaboration between union bureaucracy and management, however, does not entirely explain the readiness with which Japanese labor accepted the restructuring of the work place. During the 1960s, capitalism flourished throughout the western industrial world. U.S. unions had also mitigated their class-struggle lines.

While the violent oppression of labor after the war by Occupation authorities and the Japanese government must not be overlooked, attention is also due to the specific composition and organization of the Japanese work force. In the last section of his articles, Ichiyo therefore details the creation of the “company world … an institutional-cum-ideological device used to translate inter-enterprise com­ petition (which was always sharp) into inter-worker competition.”

The Company World

The company world had its origins, in the 1950s, in the worker collectivism once forcefully deployed against capital. Violent repression of labor turned the solidarity of that era inward, so that loyalty stopped at the worker’s enterprise. Capital in the ’60s then moved to make worker fealty a structural feature of labor-management relationships.

In Ichiyo’s depiction of the company world we see management striving to contain the workforce by creating an identity of interests between workers and the enterprise at which they are employed. The company, he says, constructs “a wall” designed to limit the mobility of skilled labor in large industries. Seniority wage systems and company benefits, although lauded by western liberals, financially tie workers to their enterprise (some company home loans require repayment at retirement with severance pay).

Enterprises, therefore, no longer need vie for skilled labor except at its initial entrance into the job market. Instead of moving to flourishing companies, workers, to preserve themselves, must make concessions to their firm for it to keep abreast or surpass the competition. This means out-producing other groups of workers, who appear now as rivals; while the well-being of a worker’s firm appears as his or her ticket to economic security.

Assured of a captive pool of skilled labor, Japanese management can specifically tailor technology, work processes and job hierarchies to the enterprise. This fortifies the “wall” since inter-enterprise transfer requires retraining and stepping onto an unfamiliar job ladder. But since competition compels each enterprise to adopt the most efficient methods, in the end lasting differences in tasks and technology between firms do not depend on their objective productive advantages such as new and higher skills.

Making workers fit a particular factory system is mainly to insure fealty, as work, which the new technologies regularly de-skill, intensifies and routines expand. At Nippon Steel Corporation, the questions corporate examiners most frequently ask of applicants for a higher job status, such as, “What do you think of strikes?” or “What do you think of trade unions?” demonstrates that loyalty, not excellent performance, is management’s primary concern.

Although the company wall effectively constrains workers by inducing competition within an enterprise for higher rungs on the job ladder and by inhibiting cross-enterprise solidarity that can issue from shared conditions and experience, it is not the only constraint Low welfare spending, the structure of Japanese industry, and the segmentation of the workforce into permanent and outside or temporary laborers, and along gender lines, provides a foundation for the wall.

Only in the 1970s did state welfare reach 20 percent of the gross national product, half the rate of France and Germany’s expenditures. The company in Japan assumes welfare functions to the workers’ detriment, since company benefits form part of their wage and, as we have seen, lock them into the company world.

Outsourced companies, a relatively early and prominent feature of industrial organization, provide a means for disciplining workers without firing. Demotion to these smaller concerns keeps the worker within the aegis of the corporation, but bereft of benefits and job security that only large companies provide.

Finally, outside and temporary labor (the categories are distinct) often rural in origin and, in the case of the outside work force, comprised largely of housewives, forms a laboring underclass that limits the size of the permanent work force. These workers make approximately 60 percent of what permanent workers make, sometimes much less, and perform more degrading work. In many cases they experience the disdain of privileged labor, who see themselves as an elite.

Formation of Right-Wing Unionism

There can be little doubt that from management’s perspective Japan’s business environment is internally solid. However, the oil crunches of the ’70s pointed out its vulnerability to crises in the world’s political economy. Hence, Japan looks with partial favor on the United States’ insistence that it take a more active role in defense, for this will allow the reconstruction of an imperialist force to guard its foreign investments and energy sources.

The trade-off is that the state will be harder pressed in times of crisis to quell worker unrest by economic means if revenues have to flow in greater proportions to Japanese armed forces, already the seventh largest in the world. It is unlikely that the Japanese government, as it did in the 1970s, can dole out short-term unemployment benefits or provide industry with the cash flow to put workers on “furlough” when a recession hits.

Japan has eschewed the policy of making welfare a structural element of the state instead of an ad hoc response to crises, for fear that the dole may burgeon to the point where it permanently conflicts with the interests of capital. Also, the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled for forty years, retains the allegiance of rural workers and temporary laborers by providing revenues for specific projects, such as the construction of roads. Making welfare programs permanent fixtures of the state would ensure a cushion regardless of the party in power. Hence, the LDP’s electoral block might disintegrate.

Limits on the state’s ability to provide for social security have resulted in the dual program of integrated security and right-wing unionism, carried out largely by the private sector. Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira, during the 1970s, voiced the first program, developing themes of economic security and social stability stemming from the immediate post-war era and adding the theme of Japan’s military security.

The corporations and the present union structure, however, cannot provide the broad social basis for stability in the coming decade, especially if Japan must weather repercussions from the national bases of foreign capital when future trade wars intensify. Developing a universal right-wing union, the forefront of which is the National Private Sector Unions Council (Zenmin Rokyo), is seen as the answer. The new labor federation, dominated by unions in the strategic export industries, will be expected “to conduct its own ‘labor diplomacy’ with big Western unions to mitigate friction.” Right-wing unions, eager to collaborate with their respective industries, are only too glad to shoulder this burden.

The first step in creating the structure fora universal union is the consolidation of private-sector unions, which are more conservative than their public counterparts. For Domei unions, the new formation presages little or no change in policy. Only Sohyo stands to lose its character. Already its strength in the private sector has begun to be sapped, as Zenmin Rokyo’s 5 million members derive from Sohyo’s organizations in the private sector. The second step has been to undermine the progressive public-sector unions aligned by Sohyo. Hence, as Ichiyo anticipated, Japan National Railways and Nippon Telephone and Telegraph have been privatized.

Once formed, the new pan-union is to collaborate in the promotion of the right-wing social program, the skeleton of which has been outlined by the chairman of the Federation of Iron and Steel Workers’ Unions. He proposed the elimination of Marxist influence and the concept of class struggle from the )SP, the promotion of nuclear-power generation to stave off future energy crises and the acceptance of rationalization in industry. And to this list the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Workers’ Unions has added increased domestic production of weapons, especially warships and aircraft.

Ichiyo has demonstrated that if Japanese culture, “the soul of Japan,” has anything to do with the Japanese economic “miracle,” it’s because it is owed to the company store. The question he leaves us with is how the complicity of capital and labor, which is developing under right-wing unionism, can be broken. Two factors are at work against state and corporate planners. First, it is they who will have to break the structure of isolated enterprise unions that has heretofore served the interests of capital. Second, they will be promoting the unification of labor, albeit in a form they hope to control.

But unifying labor has co sequences, regardless of the form. Quality circles contain the seeds for workers’ control of the work process. Zernmin Rokyo may rise up against its creators, as Sohyo did in the ’50s. The realization of these last hopes, however, requires support of the progressive unions in Sohyo from the international labor community.


The two articles contained in the notebook were first published elsewhere:

“Japan in the U.S. Dominion, State, Labor and Politics in the 1980s,” was originally prepared in April 1982 for the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economics, Historical Systems and Civilization based at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

It was published with slight changes in Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, vol. 8, no. 3 (Fall 1984).

“Class Struggle in Postwar Japan, Its Past, Present and Future,” was originally published in AMPO/Japan-Asia Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 4 (1981) and vol.14,nos. 1 and 3, Pacific-Asia Resources Center. P.O. Box 5250, Tokyo Int.

March-April 1989, ATC 19

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