Has striking in Japan become extinct?

by Hifumi Okunuki

Special To The Japan Times

“Strike.” Dear reader, what do you think when you hear this word? What impression do you get? Do you see the blood, sweat and tears? Do you see an angry, vicious mob disturbing our civil society? I bet a majority of Japanese people under the age of 40 have neither a positive nor negative impression of strikes. They have no impression at all and no idea about what a strike is because strikes have become rarer in modern Japanese society. This, however, hasn’t always been the case.

In 1974, Japan saw 9,581 strikes lasting more than half a day, involving 3,620,283 workers. This postwar peak strike activity occurred when I was 3 years old. As a child, I remember seeing quite often work stoppages involving train conductors or bus drivers. The latest data is from 2013, when there were a total of just 71 strikes. I teach labor law to teenagers and 20-somethings at university, but the most challenging lectures focus on strikes. The questions I field: “What is a strike?”, “Why would anyone do something like that?” and “What is the point?”

Young students come to my class having never seen or heard of strikes. In that sense they have no prejudice or preconceived notions either; their minds are blank slates. I tell them, “Article 28 of the Constitution of Japan guarantees workers’ right to solidarity, and that includes the right to strike.” I see perplexed looks on the faces of many of my students. If you’ve never seen or even heard of a strike before, it’s hard to really get what it is.

Last year, while I was teaching a post-semester course, something happened that ended up serving as a spectacular textbook for learning about the meaning of strikes. On March 20, 2014, the labor union at Sotetsu Holdings Inc., which handles rail and buses in Kanagawa Prefecture, went on strike. Students at my college, Sagami Women’s University, often use that group’s buses and trains. Several of my students seemed pleased to report that a strike was happening.

Some of my students showed me “strike vouchers” that were distributed at the station to certify to their workplaces or schools that they were late due to a strike. Photos of the vouchers went viral on the Internet and social networks, and comments indicated that the vouchers were seen as collectible treasures.

Sotetsu Holdings claimed they received many complaints due to the ruined schedules, but there was also an excitement in the air among many students and Internet observers who were experiencing slightly out-of-the-ordinary circumstances. Is there something similar in times of disaster or tragedy? Incidentally, the trains stopped for just two hours from the first train until 7 a.m., so schedules were not dramatically affected. While I’m happy the students reacted positively to the strike, I’m sad it illustrates how rare strikes have become in today’s society.

Why have strikes declined dramatically in Japan? The reasons are as follows:

Our work is being chopped up into little pieces involving part-time contingent and dispatch workers, making it harder and harder for workers to build solidarity at a workplace.

Large unions have failed to recruit part-time workers, so the chance for unions to resolve disputes has declined.

Workers are increasingly isolated and, subsequently, turn to lawyers and courts to resolve disputes.

Workers have come to see unions as institutions external to themselves that will aid them when they have labor problems.

In Japan, “the customer is god” and has been ever since singer Haruo Minami made this expression famous:

Whatever a customer does, we cannot cause the customer any trouble.

We cannot displease the customer who is paying money.

Minami was, in fact, misunderstood and lamented that this was taken as an endorsement. He said: “As a singer, if I don’t always think of those in the audience as gods, then I cannot perform my best.” Yet for the past half century, it is become the mantra of Japanese business.

Add all this together and you get some people saying that “workers are inconveniencing customers over their own selfish desires. They should not involve customers in their own attempt to maintain and improve working conditions.”

One writer who embraces such a view of strikes is Emi Kawaguchi-Mahn. She lives in Stuttgart, Germany, and last year published a book titled “Lived in Europe and the Results are in: Japan 9, Europe 1” (“Sundemita Yoroppa Kyu-sho Ippai-de Nihon no Kachi,” published by Kodansha in 2014). In 2014, she had written a book titled “Lived in Germany and the Results are in: Japan 8, Europe 2” (“Sundemita Yoroppa Hassho Nihai-de Nihon no Kachi”). These ridiculous titles are part of a wave of recent Japan-worshipping books, in her case lauding superiority over not just Germany but all of Europe.

She has quite a different perspective on strikes, which happen far too often in her new home. “In my eyes, this (Lufthansa strike) is nothing but blackmail,” she has been quoted as saying. “It’s fine for workers to pressure management. However, involving people who have nothing to do with it as much as possible is a cowardly way to pressure management.

“It is somewhat akin to terrorists who try to force through their demands by taking people hostage. Every time I see news about strikes, all my Japanese friends living here in Germany with me become furious. I can’t believe the nerve of people who can do such a thing with such nonchalance!

“In Japan, a country that worships the customer, strikes draw the fiercest ire among all union activities. In my opinion, although perhaps workers’ rights are a tad weaker, Japan is a far more pleasant country to live in with its dearth of nerve-wracking strikes and irritating disputes.”

I’m impressed that someone with such views had endured spending so many stress-filled years in Germany.

I would like to know what my readers think. Before answering, however, it’s first necessary to define a strike. Put simply, it is the refusal to work by organized workers. The purpose of this collective action is to pressure employers to concede on union demands.

If workers simply walk off a job or put down their tools during a nonstrike, it is dereliction of duty that could incur legitimate disciplinary action under the law. However, as long as certain legal conditions are met, a strike is a legal right of workers not to work. This right is guaranteed in law. Thus employers may not discipline, sue for damages or otherwise disadvantage workers for participating in a legitimate strike (Article 7 and Article 9 of the Trade Union Act). They also cannot press criminal obstruction of business charges against the workers even when the company’s operations come to a halt due to the strike (Article 1.2).

So what are the conditions that make a strike legitimate and thus protected? First, strikes are prohibited in certain types of jobs. In Japan, this includes government officials. Police officers, firefighters and Self-Defense Force members also don’t even have the right of solidarity, although some claim that these prohibitions violate the Constitution.

Strikes must also be directly related to working conditions (or union-recognition demands such as requiring prior consultation for changes in working conditions, etc.). Workers can strike for higher pay or fewer hours at work but not for political goals, social movements or religious activities. (Although it should be noted that scholars such as the late Inejiro Numata to the currently active Satoshi Nishitani believe strikers should have the legal right to engage in political strikes on issues that have enormous economic impact on workers, such as consumer prices, taxes and social security.

The motive for a strike must be in accordance with social norms. This means a union cannot suddenly strike over demands that have not even been negotiated. Workers also cannot strike for exorbitant demands impossible for the company to comply with or with the sole purpose to damage the company or interfere with its operations. It must relate to workers’ conditions or the union’s relationship with the company.

Tokyo High Court ruled on Sept. 8, 2004, that a strike by a baseball players union was legal even though it concerned the sale of a Pacific League team to a new owner. The court said the sale would impact players’ working conditions.

I believe strikes are a fundamental and universal right for all workers regardless of race, nationality, gender, age, type of work or contract. Kawaguchi-Mahn compares strikers to terrorists and takes great pleasure in condemning unions. I believe it is her that is using customers/consumers to take away this fundamental right of workers and forcing them into a position of complete subservience. Remember that customers/consumers have contracts with the business enterprise — not the workers — so it is the company that is responsible for providing the product or service. If a company’s labor problems cause it to be unable to serve its customer, the responsibility lies with the company — not its workers or the union.

Kawaguchi writes as if workers are in a position of strength vis-a-vis the company. Looking back at why labor laws and unions were created, we see that the purpose was to address the glaring power imbalance. Workers fought to win labor laws and unions, to close the gap, and strikes are their most powerful means of bolstering their negotiating position. Without strikes, workers have no way to stand up to corporate goliaths. Workers give up their wages and risk their livelihoods each time they strike. By striking, they convey to the employer that the company operates only thanks to their labor. Germany’s Federal Labor Court has ruled that “signing a collective labor-management (agreement) without the right to strike hovering over management’s head is nothing more than collective begging.”

Strikes have impact well beyond the walls of the strikers’ workplace. History teaches us many instances of successful strikes boosting working conditions at other workplaces, even in different industries. Today, the shunto spring offensive has become little more than a formality, but we should not forget that it once represented a struggle of extraordinary solidarity across industries and workplaces.

Professor Kazuhisa Nakayama inspired me to become a labor law researcher. “Strikes have been around since the first time humans ever rebelled and continue today,” he writes in his 1977 book on the subject, “Sutoraiki-ken” (“Iwanami Shoten”). “A strike is eminently human. Since it is such basic human behavior, strikes have not become extinct even though strikers have faced severe sanction.”

Words as true today in 2015 as ever.

Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union. She can be reached at tozen.okunuki@gmail.com. Labor Pains appears in print on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month.Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • zer0_0zor0

    Divide and conquer!!!
    The work force, that is…

  • Paul Martin

    In the West strikes where successful when a few FAT CAT owned corporations like the Rockefellers,etc bullied workers and forced them to barely exist !

    The Rockefeller family American industrial, political, and banking family that made one of the world’s largest fortunes in the oil business during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with John D. Rockefeller and his brother William Rockefeller primarily through Standard Oil. The family is also known for its long association with and control of Chase Manhattan Bank. They are considered to be one of the most powerful families, if not the most powerful family in the history of the United States.

    Teamsters were the most powerful union in the US and Jimmy Hoffa their leader was extremely powerful until the mob made him disappear. After that it was the cosa nostra who controlled the union and the members funds.

    It was the mafia who helped the unions fight the strike breakers who worked for the Rockeffelers,etc and this opened the door for the mob to infiltrate and take over union control.

    All unions belonged to the AFLCIO I worked as a British radio DJ for their station WCFL Chicago, Chicago federation of labor, their only radio station in 1965.
    Their were armed mafia guys all over the place, they used to play cards in a back room in case the union boss needed them.
    They got rid of Hoffa when he was released from prison, he just disappeared and has never been found, even the FBI hasn’t a clue what happened to him.

    The British unions were so powerful and led by FAT CATS like Arthur Skargill Yorkshire coal miners union that they could bring Britain to a standstill at any time and the Australian, NZ, Canadian counterparts were the same. That’s why Bob Hawk the former head of Australia’s biggest union became prime minister, he was at the time the most powerful person in the country !

    Union leaders today in the West live like millionaires, often at the expense of their members. The British union chiefs are among the worst offenders and try to dictate to the government. Unions have become strong political weapons and usually back and finance the labor parties in return for political favors when they get into power.
    In fact the whole union affair has become BIG business and is as corrupt and bent as a dog’s hind leg. The media knows this but once agaion they and government bureaucrats also the police belong to unions, so unions possess dictatorial powers today !

    • Paul Johnny Lynn

      I think you need to qualify that line about union leaders living like millionaires. No doubt some do, but certainly not all. Oh, and it:s Hawke, not Hawk.

      • Paul Martin

        The internet confirms and vindicates what I have illustrated about unions, if anything I just SCRATCHED the surface the only part I omitted to emphasize is the communist infiltration also !

      • Paul Johnny Lynn

        And we all know everything on the internet is always true. Presumably you’ve never had to do any kind of dirty, dull, dangerous work where unions have made real differences to working people’s lives.

  • Paul Johnny Lynn

    A strike is almost the only weapon in an employees arsenal. In Japan however, employees don’t really even have that. With vertical unions, a toothless Labour Standards Bureau and a government that defers to industry every time where is the hope for the drones?

  • WilliamCToliver


  • Paul Martin

    Actually I worked as a jackaroo australian cowboy, apprentice bricklayer, trainee jockey and yes I did a lot of hard laboring work when younger.
    I also also attend marshall arts dojo at 75. But my opinions about union still stand.

    • Paul Johnny Lynn

      Ah, but that’s the key word isn’t it, “opinion”. A lot of what you claim to be fact, you yourself admitted can’t be proven one way or another. Therefor it is just your opinion. Mine is that unions have done far more good than bad for working people. Only just over 100 years ago American workers were working 7 days a week, with Sunday morning off to go to church. They lived in company housing (which they paid for), bought their necessities from the company store, and sent their children to the company school. If they protested strike-breakers would wade in cracking skulls. As recently as 1928 George Patton led soldiers, cavalry and tanks against unemployed veterans. People died so that we could have the merest taste of the life our wealthy, fat-cat employers have. I, for one, am firmly against a return to that kind of world. Sadly though it seems to be returning.

      • Paul Martin

        It never changed the rich got MUCH richer and own the World but the lives of the workers have improved. However the corruption in the unions hierachy is OUTRAGEOUS and the bosses live the GOOD life !

      • zer0_0zor0

        The American Dream is deadz.
        What workers’ lives have improved?
        Ever heard of “income inequality”?

      • Paul Martin

        The American dream is still alive !

        America shares more wealth and opportunity for the ordinary folk than any country on earth !
        I went there in the 60’s with very little $ and completely unknown. Within 7 months I was a top radio DJ in Chicago.
        I met uneducated Mexicans who came to the US illegally and owned successful businesses.
        Big stores like home depot had assistant managers who had done hard time in prison but were given second chances, married, settled down and started over, something that could NEVER happen in other countries where stigma is for life !
        My Son and I painted car showrooms signs coast to coast, teaching ourself the sign skills and also xmas windows, we save over $100,000 in 2 years and bought a beautiful Corvette Stingray.
        America is a beautiful country with a lot of good people, it has a proud history of helping the World in the name of freedom and democracy.
        Her enemies despise freedom and are run by despots and repressed.
        Millions of folk all over the World still regard America as the promised land were opportunity for those with little or nothing still abounds and where justice still prevails which in all other countries fails. The American dream still exists, but not for those who are complacent, spoiled by affluential parents, drink use drugs, get everything for nothing and are totally dependent on others.Or for those who go to America to join gangs or commit crimes and chase the easy buck.
        Yes the American dream is alive and well in spite of the ME generation who expect and demand everything be done for them and who contribute nothing !

      • zer0_0zor0

        What century was that?

  • notironic

    Interesting cross-cultural comparison. Thanks Ms. Okunuki.