Must there be nations, states, governments? What if the anarchists had won?

It’s an unlikely notion, so completely have they faded from the scene. But 100 years ago, in Japan as elsewhere, the anarchists numbered in their ranks philosophers, visionaries, conspirators and passionately committed fellow-travelers who saw anarchism — not anarchy, which they denied would ensue — as the inevitable and much preferable successor to the repressive, oppressive, retrograde piece of machinery known as the state.

Their day would come, they thought. If it had, World War II might never have happened; human evolution could have run its course; today we’d be living ungoverned, free as birds, looking back on the age of governments with the same bemused disgust we accord human sacrifice, or the burning of heretics, or any other absurdity of the benighted, unenlightened past.

The hero of our drama is a larger-than-life character named Sakae Osugi: born 1885, murdered 1923. A personality as vast as his acknowledges no limits. A passionate reader from earliest childhood, with a knack for languages, he came of age steeped in 19th-century European philosophical anarchism. Two of its seminal thinkers, both Russian, were Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76) and Pyotr Kropotkin (1842-1921).

Bakunin said, “Freedom, morality, and the human dignity of the individual consists precisely in this: that he does good not because he is forced to do so, but because he freely conceives it, wants it, and loves it.” And Kropotkin: “It is not difficult, indeed, to see the absurdity of naming a few men and saying to them, ‘Make laws regulating all our spheres of activity, although not one of you knows anything about them!”

Not in being a good citizen does one fulfill oneself, but in being an unfettered ego. The ego demands freedom. Fettered, the ego must commit crimes to free itself. Unfettered, it taps powers and potentials otherwise unknowable. It’s a line of thinking anathema to the state — to the authoritarian state in particular, and Japan’s early 20th-century rulers, driving the nation from pre-industrial backwardness to great-power status in a mere generation, were unabashedly authoritarian. The hanging in 1911 of 12 anarchists, convicted in closed court on circumstantial evidence of conspiring to assassinate the emperor, was above all a warning: “Dangerous thoughts” — a watchword of the day — would be more dangerous to the thinkers than to the state; the state would see to it.

Would unfettered egos be at each other’s throats, tearing each other apart? Kropotkin thought not. “Competition is the law of the jungle,” he said, “cooperation is the law of civilization.”

“For Kropotkin one feels respect,” said Osugi, “but not attraction.” He was more drawn to Bakunin: “a born anarchist … who lived a life which was bohemian and unruly” — as Osugi himself did.

Bohemian? Anarchic. Married to one woman, he had very public affairs with two others, declaring he loved all three equally. One of his lovers, consumed with jealousy, stabbed him in the throat. Perhaps Kropotkin’s benign “cooperation” is wishful thinking after all.

That was in 1916. Japan’s economy boomed, its factories filling orders from Europe in the throes of World War I. Boom brought inflation; the poor starved. In 1918 they rioted. Peasant revolts there had always been, but these postwar Rice Riots were unprecedented in scale. From remote Toyama Prefecture they spread nationwide — Osugi fanning the flames.

Passing through Osaka, hearing that the price of rice had lately soared from 25 to 50 sen (0.25-0.5 yen) per shō (1.8 liters), he promptly (according to libcom.org) hailed a rickshaw. “Stick close to me,” he said to a companion. “There’s going to be some fun soon.”

Making the rounds of Osaka newspaper offices, Osugi blandly informed editors that rice in the working-class district of Kamagasaki was selling for 25 sen per shō. He was believed — proof of his charisma. Soon crowds tens of thousands strong were converging on Kamagasaki, demanding rice at 25 sen. The dealers protested — in vain. “It was not long before people began helping themselves,” says Libcom. “There was little the dealers could do about it.”

It was a tense time. In Russia, Bolsheviks had overthrown the government. Would Japan go Bolshevik? Armed suppression of the rioters could backfire. Force was used, but softened with concessions. The insurgency waned — but did that mean peace? In February 1920, the journalist and historian Tokutomi Soho (1863-1957), in a letter to former Prime Minister Aritomo Yamagata, wrote, “The rise in prices and the importation of anarchism fan each other and will give rise to a major social revolution. … You cannot imagine how much the thinking and the ideals of the young today are confused.”

Taisho Democracy was at its height. The Taisho Era (1912-26) was the most liberal time in Japan’s prewar history, but its spirited experiment in party politics soon broke down, spawning the militarism of the 1930s. Suffrage was limited, freedom stifled by a series of Peace Preservations Laws. Opposition newspapers were strangled at birth, their writers jailed — but “dangerous thoughts” persisted. Labor unions were banned, but flourished anyway, more or less underground. How could they not, with mass industrialization mass-producing a restive working class? Dominating the unions were anarcho-syndicalists, anarcho-collectivists, Marxists and Bolshevik sympathizers, contentious allies soon to split. The Japanese Communist Party was founded in 1922. It, too, was banned. It, too, went underground.

For the beleaguered authorities, the Great Kanto Earthquake of Sept. 1, 1923, was something of a godsend. It killed 150,000, destroyed much of Tokyo and Yokohama and triggered hysterical massacres, notably of ethnic Koreans. Chaos lent police its cloak. They moved swiftly, arresting Osugi on Sept. 16 and beating him to death along with his lover and fellow activist Noe Ito and his nephew, age 6.

It was the beginning of the end of anarchism in Japan. Could it have flourished? Might it yet, in a distant future? Or is humankind simply not sufficiently evolved to live ungoverned?

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is the essay collection “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”

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