For most Anglophone historians of WWII, Japanese society is monolithic, its people uniformly loyal to the Empire or at least too submissive to challenge it. In Japan’s Modern Century, for instance, Hugh Borton claims ‘unanimity among all groups for an aggressive policy toward China,’ listing ‘the politicians, the intellectuals, the conservative financial interests, labor, and the farmer’.
Certainly, in an Australian library it’s hard to find mention of dissent or resistance to militarism in Japan. Historians are instead fascinated by the kamikaze, seen as the ultimate representation of nationalist fervour.
This is a prejudiced historiography, a hangover from the ideology of the Pacific War’s victors. It was important for the west that all Japanese be seen as murderous and irrational – how else to justify the dropping of an atom bomb or two? US Democratic Congressman John Rankin put it starkly: ‘This is a race war … The white man’s civilization has come into conflict with Japanese barbarism … Damn them; let’s get rid of them now.’
Faced with this legacy, we have cause to celebrate the first English-language publication of Masao Sugiura’s Against the Storm: How Japanese printworkers resisted the military regime, 1935-45.
Born in 1914, Sugiura was a Tokyo printworker and union activist through one of the most tumultuous periods of Japanese history. Against the Storm, first published in the 1960s, is his intimate account of the organising efforts of his group of comrades.
Early in the memoir, Sugiura tells of a major Tokyo printworkers’ strike in 1935, during which he was a leading figure on the strike committee. This alone makes the work a precious resource for labour historians. As the editor and translator Kaye Broadbent notes, ‘histories of the socialist and communist parties are available; however, the antiwar activities, strikes and other forms of resistance in factories central to the war effort are not as well documented.’ Indeed, a strike that produced over one hundred days of open rebellion and confrontation with the police suggests a radically different picture to that painted by some historians of the same period. Writing about the 1936 coup, Borton asserts that ‘the entire Tokyo populace was completely docile … they left it up to the ruling cliques to settle their future.’
Nor were the leading activists of such strikes apolitical unionists or moderates. They were instilled with anti-militarism. Sugiura describes the influence of his communist mentor, Shibata Ryūichirō: ‘the young people who were to form the centre of the struggle gathered around the two [Shibata and Shiraishi] straight away.’ In a context of strengthening militarism, Shibata ‘educated us on the true nature of Japan’s war of aggression, its recklessness, and that defeat was inevitable. This kind of analysis broadened the views of the activists.’
Faced with resistance like this, it is no wonder the imperialist elite felt the need to unleash such extraordinary state repression on the home front.
Strikes, however, only take up a small part of Sugiura’s attention here. Most of the text is devoted to the efforts of leftists to recruit and educate underground networks of workers, in preparation for future struggles.
The most striking aspect of the book is the modesty of much of the action it describes. The activists of the Print and Publishing Workers’ Club spend most of their time doing work that might appear mundane: fundraising, writing and selling publications, organising picnics and reading groups, building links wherever possible. But for those on the left seeking to build towards a radical transformation of society, such tasks are vital, political and often highly complex. Against the Storm is unique in the passion with which it treats these routines.
Sugiura describes his typical day during the war:
My mother would wake me at 5.30 am. I would hurriedly wash my face and gobble down breakfast. With my lunchbox in one hand I would dash out of the house. If I walked I would not make it, so I ran to the train stop and got to work narrowly escaping being late. I changed into my work clothes, picked up my tools and got to work. Five minutes before lunch time I would secretly eat my lunch and, in the 30 minutes we had for lunch, I would visit two or three workplaces close by and complete my tasks. Then I would rush back to my workplace and work until 5 pm. In the thirty minute break I had before starting overtime I would visit a few more nearby workplaces. I worked overtime from 5.30 pm until 8 pm. As soon as work was over I would head off to the Club’s office. A lot of young people would be gathered there, printing out materials for various gatherings. We would do this together or have a meeting and before we knew it, it was midnight. I would rush to catch the last train, and when I arrived home and got to bed it was about 1.30 am. I would then be woken up again at 5.30 the next morning. I continued this life for several years. But it was not only me, numerous young people lived this life with a passion, and did so happily.
For leftists, most of the time, there are no barricades. In ‘normal’ times, resistance doesn’t appear in mass forms. Organisers of the left must be prepared to deal with political isolation, often counting recruits not in hundreds and thousands but in tens, or even ones and twos. Against the Storm reflects these realities, familiar in periods of working class retreat anywhere. But its protagonists also show particular courage: much of the book is haunted by the threat of the prison cell.
In the final chapters, the anxieties about repression become fully realised as a number of activists are arrested. Sugiura relates his experience of gaol conditions and his own torture, providing a powerful window into the coercive heart of the state. Some, such as the influential mentor Shibata, face death in prison. Further tragedy strikes when Sugiura’s wife Nishida is killed by the US firebombing of Tokyo.
While Against the Storm can be devastating, a reader would be wrong to treat it as a hopeless tragedy. Organising in hard times proves vital, and sown seeds bear fruit. Sugiura argues that the Club’s efforts to maintain and build networks placed the labour movement well for the post-war period: ‘While all of Japan’s trade unions were destroyed under repression of war time fascism, the Club defended its organisation, saving from eradication the thread that would later bring about the print and publishing union.’
Against the Storm was unearthed and translated by Kaye Broadbent, who provides a useful introduction to the new edition, situating the printworkers’ efforts in Japan’s broader working class history. Another treat is the appendix, a 2016 interview conducted by Broadbent with Sugiura himself, then one hundred and two years old.
For anyone involved in the difficult business of trying to change the world, Against the Storm will be a special and touching read. Let’s hope to find more documents like this, examples of practical organising against all odds, against the powerful, against their storm.
Against the Storm is available at New International Bookshop in Melbourne, and New Morning Books in Adelaide. It can also be ordered through your local bookshop or online.
Image: Left-wing gathering, Tokyo 1934.