Stars & strikes: a revolution from above

by Rob Gilhooly

Just 18 months after surrendering in the Pacific War, more than 3 million people throughout Japan were preparing to bring the shattered, hungry nation to a standstill.

On the morning of Feb. 1, 1947, telecommunications would be cut and rail routes disrupted. Public offices and many key industries would be closed. Posters in country towns announced Japan’s biggest-ever general strike. Participants, who included the elderly and mothers, waited in nervous anticipation, yet confident they would achieve their demands for a leftist coalition government and higher wages to counter spiraling inflation, among others.

They didn’t. Embittered and disillusioned, Yashiro Ii, head of the strike organization committee, was finally forced to call off the action on the cold evening of January 31. Later, Ii returned to the strike headquarters alone. As many other strike supporters would that night, he wept.

Waiting in the same room was Kanji Murakami, a reporter with the daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun, who had been following the strike. “All he could say was: ‘The sons of bitches screwed us,’ ” recalls Murakami. “I believe he was referring to the United States [Occupation] forces . . . [which] had been truly revealed as a scam.”

Such a reaction was not difficult to understand. From the outset of the Occupation in August 1945, a fundamental objective of the General Headquarters bureaucracy headed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was to dismantle the prewar militarist system and democratize Japan.

This meant that, while officials of the old school were “purged,” hundreds of political figures, mostly communists jailed for opposing the prewar regime, were released. The Japanese Communist Party, banned in 1922, was legalized and subsequently revived, as was the Japanese Socialist Party, which had been forced to dissolve in 1940.

Meanwhile, the Trade Union Law, passed through the Diet in December 1945 (after pressure from the Supreme Command for the Allied Forces) gave workers the right to form unions, negotiate pay, and strike — something they quite frequently did.

However, the abortive 1947 strike — a moment Murakami refers to as the apex of the labor unions’ and leftists’ activities — had tried MacArthur’s patience, and he embarked on a policy reversal. In mid-1948 he banned the right to strike by public employees. A year later, with the Chinese turning to communism and Cold War tensions brewing, GHQ began a purge of radical unionists, JCP members and communist sympathizers in the media, public offices, schools and private businesses.

From the outset, MacArthur’s remaking of Japan was widely known as a “democratic revolution from above,” even among his staff. However, the political left did not dwell on this incongruity.

Indeed, liberated members of the JCP, including its leader Kyuichi Tokuda, referred to the Occupation forces as the “Liberation Army,” according to Rinjiro Sodei, an Occupation historian and author of the first Japanese biography of MacArthur. “After their release they visited GHQ to say ‘thank you’ and ‘banzai!’ ” he said, adding that the JCP members — some of whom had been incarcerated for up to 18 years — “mistakenly believed the Occupation forces were just supporting the party.”

Yet the fact that, throughout the war, the communists had stuck to their principles and paid for it with imprisonment, attracted many followers.

The JCP promoted itself as the “lovable Communist Party” committed to “a peaceful revolution,” slogans credited to Sanzo Nosaka, one of the party’s most influential and able leaders who returned to Japan in 1946 after 16 years’ exile in Moscow and China.

In Japan’s first postwar elections in 1946, Nosaka and four other JCP members were elected to the Diet. What’s more, the party controlled roughly two-thirds of the unions. In 1948, it won the support of some 3 million voters, 10 percent of the electorate.

Yet the leftists were certainly not for everyone. Postwar Japan favored the conservative Liberal Party, and even when the 1947 elections saw the installment of Japan’s sole postwar Socialist Party leader, Tetsu Katayama, his elevation was only secured by his party joining forces with the moderate-right Democratic Party.

Kazuo Chiba, a former diplomat who spent his early life in Europe before returning to Japan in the 1930s, admitted to being a “patriotic and nationalistic” youth, who “despised the leftists.”

Walking through the grounds of the University of Tokyo one day, he was confronted by a group soliciting funds for the 30th anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution. “They hounded me, shouting ‘Contribute! Contribute!’,” Chiba said. “I told them I’m not in the habit of contributing to foreign festivals, at which point they beat me up. You can imagine that hardly leaves a positive impression.”

Chiba believes that, “The leftists managed to organize mass movements and huge strikes while the established parties were still trying to get their bearings and cope with purges. The leftists filled the void.”

The unions also drew Chiba’s criticism. Strikes, he claims, were seen by many Japanese as simply an attempt to “disrupt progress.” “Everyone . . . wanted order to enable the rebuilding of the economy, except the communists, who just wanted to disrupt it.”

This, ultimately, was how MacArthur saw it when he finally ordered the government to undertake its “Red Purge.” Party member Sadao Matsuda, then a teacher in Tokyo, recalls the purging of his wife, also a teacher. “Although she was told to leave the school, she continued teaching,” said Matsuda, 83. “So a U.S. officer came to the school . . . marched in, not even bothering to remove his boots, and dragged her out of the building.”

The SCAP purges were helped by a series of criminal incidents in the summer of 1949 that were linked to leftists and communists. However, the left counterclaimed they were the dirty work of the Occupation forces.

One, known as the Matsukawa Incident, involved the derailing of a train in Fukushima Prefecture on Aug. 17, which killed three engineers. The incident was attributed to 20 unionist employees of Toshiba and the national railways, who were sentenced to death — a verdict fought in the courts for 14 years, after which all were acquitted.

With the Occupation forces controlling the railroads at this time, it was inevitably suspected that the incident was the work of the U.S., an early effort to turn public opinion against the unions and the left, Sodei said.

By the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 — which led to the purging of top JCP officials — the tide of opinion had indeed turned. The party also accelerated its own doom. Soviet disapproval of Nosaka’s “lovable” approach had caused internal party fights that led to its fragmentation.

While leftists largely came away from the Occupation empty handed, some party members still believe their activities helped shape a more vitalized, less subservient society.

JCP member Takeshi Hama, 81, an Osaka official of the postal workers’ union, Zentei, and an organizer of the failed 1947 strike, commented: “In 1 1/2 years after the start of the Occupation, 3.5 million people had been transformed from Imperial soldiers incapable of voicing a single complaint into a united group of workers shouting with one voice for more money and more jobs. It was an important shift in mentality.”