Anarchist Opposition to Japanese Militarism, 1926-37

By John Crump


(The following is a paper which was read to the symposium on pre - war Japanese militarism at the annual conference of the British Association for Japanese Studies, meeting in Sheffield in April 1991. Although written for an academic audience, it might be of some interest to anarchists. Note that all Japanese names are given in the customary East Asian fashion. That is, family name followed by personal name.)
To judge from the conventional accounts, one could be forgiven for believing that opposition to pre-war Japanese militarism was confined to the Communist Party of Japan and a handful of liberal critics of military aggression. For example, the Communist Party of Japan's official history states that 'it was only the Communist Party of Japan that upheld the banner of opposition to the war of aggression in China', to which it adds that 'the Tenno-system Government' was not only concentrating its attacks on the destruction of the Communist Party of Japan but also extending its hand of persecution to conscientious liberalists'. [1 ]

This paper demonstrates that the anarchists in pre-war Japan constituted another core of opposition to militarism until the state destroyed their movement in 1935/6. Moreover, anarchist anti-militarism was in several respects more coherent than either the Communist Party's or the liberals opposition to military expansion. The Communist Party's anti-militarism was flawed because of its alignment with a militarised and expansionist USSR, while the liberals were in the anomalous position of accepting capitalism but opposing its inevitable consequence the military defence of economic interests. By way of contrast, the anarchists' opposition to militarism was never compromised by alignment with any nation-state and was underpinned by a consistent rejection of capitalism.

Of course, there were individual anarchists who succumbed to the nationalist fever and became apologists for Japan's military expansion, just as there were members of the Communist Party and liberals who ended up as turncoats. But the anarchist movement as a whole steadfastly opposed militarism, suffering unrelenting persecution and eventually being suppressed for doing so. This paper resurrects the largely forgotten history of anarchist opposition to militarism in prewar Japan.

Anarchist opposition to militarism has a long history in Japan. Kotoku Shusui, the father of Japanese anarchism, fearlessly campaigned against the Russo-Japanese War in the columns of the Heimin Shinbun throughout the life of that newspaper from 1903 to 1905 and Osugi Sakae was imprisoned in 1907 for having translated for the journal Hikari an anti-militarist article 'Aux Conscrits' which had first appeared in the French journal I'Anarchie. In this paper, however, I shall concentrate on the period extending from 1926 to 1937.

1926 was an important date in the history of Japanese anarchism for it was in that year that. for the first time, two nationwide federations were organised. One was the Black Youth League (Kokushoku Seinen Renmei) and the other the National Libertarian Federation of Labour Unions (Zenkoku Rodo Kumiai Jiyu Rengokai). 1937 marked not only the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War. By that year the anarchist movement had been all but destroyed, following the mass arrests which occurred from 1935 onwards and the prosecution and lengthy imprisonment of many activists.

The Black Youth League published the journal Black Youth (Kokushoku Seinen) between April 1926 and February 1931 and the National Libertarian Federation of Labour Unions published Libertarian Federation (Jiyu Rengo)/Libertarian Federation newspaper (Jiyu Rengo Shinbun) between June 1926 and February 1935. 1 shall illustrate my account of anarchist opposition to militarism principally by reference to these organisations and their journals, but this should not be taken as implying that anti- militarism was confined only to these sections of the anarchist movement. On the contrary, opposition to militarism flowed naturally from the anti-authoritarian principles of anarchism and therefore was a standpoint shared by all anarchists.

An article on "What To Do About War?", which was published in the Libertarian Federation Newspaper in November 1931 during the unfolding 'Manchurian Incident'. is sufficiently representative of anarchist opposition to Japan's military expansion to make it worth quoting at length. One significant feature of this article was that it was purposely written in Esperanto to make it more accessible to non-Japanese readers. This in itself reveals the consistently internationalist nature of the anarchists' anti- militarism and their ambition to link up with those abroad who shared their anti-war convictions. The article read as follows:

What to do about war

The Japanese militarists have mobilised their army to China on the pretext 'For the peace of the Orient' or 'To defend the Japanese people in China'. They always use, whenever a state crisis occurs, such beautiful expressions as 'For Our fatherland' or 'For justice' and try to stir up the people's patriotism. But what is the fatherland? For whom does it exist? Never forget that all states exist only for the wealthy. It is the same with war. War brings injury or death to the young men of the poor, and hunger and cold to their aged parents and young brothers and sisters. But to the wealthy it brings enormous riches and honour.

The true cause of the mobilisation to China is none other than the ambition of the Japanese capitalist class and military to conquer Manchuria. Japan has its own Monroe doctrine. Japanese capitalism cannot develop, or even survive, without Manchuria. That is why its government is inclined to risk anything so as not to lose its many privileges in China. Therefore it has approved the enormous expense of the mobilisation, despite the fact that it is experiencing a deficit in the current year's income of the state treasury. American capital has flowed into China in larger and larger amounts. This represents an enormous menace to the Japanese capitalist class. In other words. now Japan is forced to oppose American capital in China. In fact, this is the direct cause of the mobilisation.

From another point of view, we can see that this incident is a drama written by the Japanese military as a militaristic demonstration to all pacifists, cosmopolitans and socialists within Japan, and to other countries in general, and China in particular. Even we Japanese have been surprised at the rapid mobilisation. How were they able to make preparations so rapidly? It is clear that the mobilisation was totally prepared for long ago. That is the drama. Did we say drama?! In this way the military have engineered the opportunity to demonstrate and establish their strength, which has been weakened of late by disarmament and pacifist public opinion. Of course, a secret agreement had been reached between the military and the capitalists, because they both belong to the ruling class.

In this situation, what must we do? The Communists say 'Defend and come to the aid of the Chinese revolution!' But who will benefit in China when Japanese power is totally eliminated from that country? It will be none other than the newly rising Chinese bourgeoisie and the capitalists of other countries. We must keenly observe and criticise all that takes place. In the face of war, we must not make the mistake which our comrade Kropotkin and others made during the World War. Of course, we opposed the mobilisation. But we found that merely one-sided opposition is a very feeble response. The sole method to eradicate war from our world is for us. acting as the popular masses, to reject it in all countries simultaneously. We must cease military production, refuse military service and disobey the officers. Complete international unity of the anarchists would signal our victory, not only economically but in the war against war.



Analysis of this article reveals several distinctively anarchist features of the opposition to militarism which it expresses. First, the National Libertarian Federation of Labour Unions was not merely a critic of Japanese militarism. It recognised that all states are militaristic and used the opportunity provided by the specific instance of Japan's military aggression in China to denounce militarism as a general phenomenon. Second, the link between militarism and capitalism was established unambiguously. The 'Manchurian Incident' was not simply the action of military hot-heads. At root, their military ambitions expressed the imperative need of Japanese capitalism to secure dependable sources of raw materials and guaranteed markets for its industries.

Third. the principal antagonism in China was shown to be the clash between American and Japanese capitalist interests. Democratic political structures did not prevent the USA from being every bit as aggressive in its defence of economic interests as was Japan with its Emperor system and unruly military. Fourth, the National Libertarian Federation of Labour Unions denounced the Communist Party's opportunistic support for the forces of national liberation in China. It was not the function of genuine anti-militarists to assist the Chinese bourgeoisie to come to power or to replace foreign military forces by home-grown warlords. Finally, effective opposition to militarism had to be based on action and not mere words. Anarchists were not interested either in parliamentary resolutions or campaigns in the bourgeois press against militarism. In the eyes of the National Libertarian Federation of Labour Unions the only force capable of defeating militarism was the peasants and workers acting internationally.

The ideas expressed in this article were in line with the stand against militarism taken by the National Libertarian Federation of Labour Unions and the Black Youth League throughout their existence. The importance the National Libertarian Federation of Labour Unions attached to opposing imperialist expansion was demonstrated in the programme adopted at its founding conference on 24 May 1926. The final clause of this programme read: 'We are opposed to imperialist aggression and we advocate the international solidarity of the working class ' [4] The following year Tanaka Giichi became Prime Minister and, in pursuit of a belligerent foreign policy, Ordered a force of 2000 Japanese soldiers to advance from Manchuria into Shantung Province so as to block Chiang Kaishek's northern expedition, which aimed to unify China under the latter's control. In a prophetic article, which strongly denounced the dispatch of Japanese troops and called for solidarity between Chinese and Japanese workers, Black Youth argued that what was under way in the Far East was 'preparation for the Second World War'. The Black Youth League and the National Libertarian Federation of Labour Unions co-operated in jointly organising a movement against Japan's intervention in China.

It was concern about the danger of war in the Far East which caused the National Libertarian Federation of Labour Unions to make a serious error of judgment when it sent delegates to the Pan-Pacific Labour Union Conference held in Hankow in May 1927. One of the declared themes of this conference was 'Preventing a Pacific War' but, when the delegates of the National Libertarian Federation of Labour Unions arrived in Canton. the local anarchists made it clear that the Moscow-based Profintern (the union equivalent of the Comintern) was behind the conference. Nevertheless, the delegates pressed on to Hankow and took part in the conference, only to find themselves on the receiving end of the machinations of its Profintern organisers. After the return of its delegates to Japan, the National Libertarian Federation of Labour Unions engaged in self-criticism over its participation in the Hankow conference and the Black Youth League denounced the affair as 'a congress of Bolshevik intriguers'.

If the Pan-Pacific Labour Union Conference was 'a congress of Bolshevik intriguers', the various arms limitation conferences which occurred throughout the period under examination here were dismissed by the anarchists as conferences of capitalist intriguers. The naval arms limitation conference between the USA, Britain and Japan, which was held in Geneva during the summer of 1927 and ended in failure, was rejected as a fraud:

'Even without any expert knowledge, there can't be anybody stupid enough to believe that this arms limitation conference is a true arms limitation conference. Nothing reveals as clearly as this conference the ambition in the hearts of all the imperialists without exception'.'

Another article which appeared in Libertarian Federation in December 1929 denounced the forthcoming London Naval Conference in similar terms. Far from being a conference which genuinely aimed to achieve its ostensible purpose of controlling naval armed forces, the newspaper characterised it as "a bargaining session between militarists." As for the League of Nations, which increasingly was drawn into the diplomatic controversies which accompanied Japan's expansionist moves in China, the National Libertarian Federation of Labour Unions had no illusions about its true nature. Known in Japanese as the 'International League' the anarchists dubbed the League of Nations the 'International Capitalist League' and considered it to be a mere 'mask for the ruling class' from which the workers and peasants could expect nothing. The so called 'peace' about which the League of Nations endlessly pontificated was merely what passed for peace under capitalism, and this was nothing more than 'waiting for a chance to make war'. [9]

The anarchists did not mince their words in criticising Japan's armed forces and ran very considerable risks when they ridiculed the military's strutting pride and delusions of grandeur. The army was regularly described as a collection of 'idiots playing at war'. Or 'useless warmongers longing for war in the Far East'. 4 Where possible, the anarchists attempted to infiltrate the armed forces and promote disaffection.

When the Japanese army occupied Jehol Province in Inner Mongolia in 1933, the Libertarian Federation Newspaper responded to the war crisis which this move precipitated by calling for an anti war struggle not only within the farming villages, factories and streets but within the military itself. " That the armed forces took such threats seriously is revealed by the frequency with which anarchists were arrested when military maneuvers were held. For example, the Libertarian Federation Newspaper announced in October 1930 that many anarchists in Kobe had been imprisoned for the duration of naval maneuvers held in the presence of the Emperor 11 and the following month there was a similar report from Okayama." Less frequently, there were reports of anarchists within the armed forces being court-martialled for refusing to obey orders. [11] A further form of direct action against the military was the attempt to disrupt their supplies. The anarchists encouraged strikes in strategic locations such as Japan's munitions factories and tried to promote such strikes internationally as a practical means of stopping war."

If one were to identify the single most important principle which underlay the anarchists' struggle against militarism, it would have to be their conviction that .war will not die out as long as the existing system continues', This was the headline to a lead article which appeared in the Libertarian Federation Newspaper in June 1929 and, as its subtitle added, 'the need for armaments is so as to defend the capitalists'. [11] From this conviction that capitalism was the cause of militarism flowed the anarchists' equally firm belief that only anarchism represented a real alternative to militarism. The anarchists did not doubt that there were others besides themselves who were disturbed by the power of the military. But, in the eyes of the anarchists, all other opponents of militarism, be they members of the Communist Party or liberal critics of military aggression, still adhered to capitalist patterns of social organisation, involving the state, authority and, indeed, the armed forces. Hence, from the standpoint of anarchism, such opponents of militarism bemoaned its consequences but remained wedded to its causes. Perhaps it is this uncompromising criticism, not merely of militarism, but equally of its conventional opponents, which accounts for the failure of most historiographical studies to mention the pre-war anarchist movement's anti-militarist struggle. After all, such historiographical studies have mainly been written by scholars whose own political sensibilities would be offended by the anarchists' forthright criticism of conventional, statist politics. Nevertheless, although the reasons for overlooking anarchist opposition to militarism might be understandable, it has to be said that any study of anti-militarism which fails to pay adequate attention to the anarchist movement does damage to historical truth. It is in an effort to redress the balance of truth that this short paper has been written.


1. Central Committee of CPJ, The Fifty Years of the Communist Party of Japan (Tokyo, 1973) pp. 54, 67.
2. John Crump. The Origins of Socialist Thought in Japan (London, 1983) p 284.
3. 'Kion Fari al Milito?' Jiyu Rengo Shinbun no. 64 (10 November 1931) p 4.
4. Jiyu Rengo no. 1 (5 June 1926) p. 7.
5. Kokushoku Seinen no. 10 (5 July 1927) p.4.
6. See Jiyu Rengo nos. 16 & 17 (September/October 1927) and Kokushoku Seinen nos 12 & 13 (September/October 1927).
7. Jiyu Rengo no. 15 (5 August 1927) p. 1
8. Ibid. no 42 (1 Decenber 1929) p. 1
9. lbid. no 67 (17 Februivy 1932) p. 1
10. Ibid. no 37 (1 July 1929) p. 1.
11. Ibid. no.78 (10 March 1933) p.1
12. lbid. no 52 (10 Ocober 1930) p. 3.
13. lbid. no 53 (10 Novenber 1930) p. 3.
14. See, for example, ibid. no. 52 (10 October 1930) p. 4.
15. See ibid no. 91 (5 June 1934) p. 1, no 92 (5 July 1934) p. 1 & no 93 (5 August 1934) p 3.
16. Ibid. no. 36 (1 June 1929) p. 1.


Translations and Summaries by Charlatan Stew

CHARLATAN STEW, Seattle, U.S.A., 1995

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