Shusui Kotoku’s name may be known to the reader. Gudo Uchiyama’s probably isn’t. They represent a disgraced ideal: anarchy.

Kotoku, born in 1871 in a small city in Shikoku, was a journalist. Uchiyama, born in 1874 in a village in Niigata Prefecture, was a Zen Buddhist priest.

An industrial revolution is a dreadful thing to live through. Japan’s early 20th century, so rich in hope for a brighter future, was dismal enough for the toiling masses who would never see that future. Four decades into the modernizing drive of the 1868 Meiji Restoration, Japan bristled with new factories humming with new machines churning out new goods in unheard-of profusion. Who manned the machines? Those with the least share in the wealth they generated — peasants turned workers, herded into cities to shed rural poverty for urban poverty, soon to learn how much worse the latter can be.

Few images convey it more starkly than the “terrible accident” described by novelist Shusei Tokuda (1870-1943), in his 1935 short story “Order of the White Paulownia.” As a factory girl “stood near one of the machines a few strands (of her hair) were caught in the cogwheel. An instant later her hair was being pulled into the machine with a fearful swishing sound. … Just like a piece of lawn that has been torn out of the earth, her hair had been dragged out by its roots and nothing was left but a bleeding scalp.”

A song popular around 1910 warns, “Make sure you don’t get hurt by those machines from hell.”

Kotoku and Uchiyama both wrote for the Heimin Shimbun (Commoners’ Newspaper) in 1904. In 1908 they met to discuss setting up a secret printing press at Uchiyama’s temple. They were hanged together in 1911.

Was there really, as police said, a plot to assassinate Emperor Meiji? Or was the famous “high treason incident” merely a trumped-up excuse to round up leftist thinkers of “dangerous thoughts”? The 26 defendants were tried in closed court. Twenty-four were sentenced to death. Twelve were executed; 12 had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment. The remaining two received lengthy prison sentences. Due process, as understood today, received short shrift.

The Public Order and Police Law of 1900 criminalized two activities in particular: independent journalism and labor unionism. Founded in 1903, the Heimin Shimbun was shut down in January 1905. Two months earlier it had it published a translation — Kotoku’s, in part — of “The Communist Manifesto.” Ten months before that Uchiyama had written (as quoted by Brian Victoria in “Zen at War”): “As a propagator of Buddhism I teach that ‘all sentient beings have the Buddha nature’ and that ‘within the Dharma there is equality, with neither superior nor inferior.’ Furthermore, I teach that ‘all sentient beings are my children.’ Having taken these golden words as the basis of my faith, I discovered that they are in complete agreement with the principles of socialism.”

The five months Kotoku spent in prison after the newspaper’s suppression changed him. “I had gone (to jail) as a Marxian Socialist,” he later wrote, “and returned as a radical Anarchist.” An unaccountable thing about early 20th-century police-state prisons, Meiji Japan’s no less than tsarist Russia’s, is the astonishingly unlikely literature a prisoner was liable to encounter. Kotoku’s transformation was courtesy of Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, whose 1899 classic “Fields, Factories and Workshops” Kotoku studied, apparently, under his clueless jailers’ eyes.

His term served, he traveled to California to further his education. Among his teachers, explains John Crump in “The Anarchist Movement in Japan,” were Japanese anarchists settled in Oakland. A mere handful numerically, they spoke boldly, loudly and clearly. Parliamentary democracy, proclaimed their newspaper Kakumei (Revolution), was “like trying to fight a raging fire with a child’s water pistol.” The worker-exploiting capitalists would not yield to gentle parliamentary persuasion. “The means to destroy the bourgeois class is the bomb.”

In a leaflet titled Ansatsushugi (terrorism; more literally, “assassinationism”) they wrote, “Mutsuhito, poor Mutsuhito! Your life is almost at an end. The bombs are all around you and are on the point of exploding. It is goodbye for you.”

“Mutsuhito” was the given name, its use a sacrilege, of Emperor Meiji.

Back in Japan in 1907, Kotoku set forth his views in an article titled “The Change in My Thought.” “A real social revolution,” he wrote, “cannot possibly be achieved by means of universal suffrage and a parliamentary policy. There is no way to reach our goal of socialism other than by the direct action of the workers, united as one.”

Uchiyama, too, was busy writing. From his secret press at his temple in Hakone came his pamphlet “In Commemoration of Imprisonment: Anarcho-Communism-Revolution.” Addressing impoverished tenant farmers, he wrote, “Is (your poverty) the result, as Buddhists maintain, of the retribution due you because of your evil deeds in the past? Listen, friends, if, having now entered the 20th century, you were to be deceived by superstitions like this, you would still be oxen or horses.”

Moreover — and perhaps worse, in the eyes of the authorities — “It should be readily obvious that the emperor is not a god if you but think about it for a moment.”

He was arrested in May 1909, first for his writing, then for a cache of explosives found — possibly planted — on the grounds of his temple. In May 1910 Kotoku and numerous other leftists were arrested on suspicion of plotting the emperor’s assassination. How could Uchiyama, safely in prison for a year then, have had a hand in anything they may have been up to?

It was a tense time. Japan under its ruling oligarchy was hurtling pell-mell into the future. No nation had ever industrialized faster — or militarized faster: Had it not, to the world’s nonplussed astonishment, defeated Russia in 1905? Clearly, the nation had a destiny. Did individuals suffer? Naturally. Could they be permitted to organize, agitate, derail the national agenda?

The trial, begun in December, ended in January. The 12 were hanged before the month was out.

This is the first of two parts on early 20th-century revolutionary thinking. Part two will appear on Sept. 15. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is the essay collection “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.