When Japanese print workers resisted war

Against the Storm: How Japanese Print-Workers Resisted the Military Regime, 1935-1945

By Masao Sugiura
Translated by Kaye Broadbent & Masa Sato
Interventions, Melbourne 2019, $24.95

“In doing what is normal for any trade union activist today —recruiting, arguing and organising — my comrades and I were made to suffer persecution, imprisonment and death,” writes Masao Sugiura.

When researching Japanese working-class resistance to World War II, Kaye Broadbent discovered in a Japanese university archive Sugiura’s 1964 memoirs detailing the formation and activities of the Shuppanako Kurabu (Print and Publishing Worker’s Club). It was written in tribute to the memory of club founder Shibata Ryuichiro.

Based upon Sugiura’s 1981 second edition, the English translation of Against the Storm provides an inspiring account of how Sugiura and his comrades were able to organise and sustain links between workers despite increasing wartime repression by the Japanese military regime.

In 1933, Sugiura started work as an apprentice printer at the Tokyo Printing company to supplement his family’s income. Workers in the printing industry suffered poor wages and conditions, as well as high unemployment. Union and political organising was very difficult due to repressive laws such as the Peace Preservation Law’s (PPL), which the Japanese state used to carry out repression against Japanese Communist Party (JCP) members and other progressive activists.

In 1934, Sugiura met Shibata, a member of the JCP, who had been active in the National Confederation of Trade Unions (NCTU). To avoid attracting attention of the special police, they started organising print workers into a literary circle Ayumi.

By March 1935, this group formed the core of the print workers strike committee for a strike that lasted for 100 days. Like other print workers strikes from that period, they were defeated and 150 members were left unemployed.

After the strike had ended, Shibata decided to organise a society for print workers as a way of avoiding the attentions of the authorities and to fight for the rights of print workers. By 1937, the society had evolved into the Print Worker’s Club.

Meanwhile Japan’s war against China escalated in 1937 and social democratic parties such as the Social Masses Party and their supportive trade union had fallen in behind the Japanese state in support of the war. Meanwhile, repression against progressive currents increased.

As a cover to avoid this repression and carry out union and anti-war activities, the club would organise their members and supporters in activity groups based on cultural and recreational activities such as Haiku poetry, movies and baseball. This method of organising was successful. By 1938, they had organised a sports day where 450 people attended and had members in more than 100 factories throughout Tokyo’s print industry.

However by 1940, with Japanese war time repression increasing, all trade unions were forced to dissolve themselves into the Patriotic Industrial Association (PIA), a body created to control and subordinate labour to Japan’s war effort. It was decided to pretend to dissolve the club, even going through a fake ceremony to convince the authorities. Meanwhile different cultural groups were formed, which were used as cover for the club’s anti-war activities while maintaining links with print workers.

By the middle of 1942, with Japan starting to lose the war, dissatisfaction with worsening conditions among workers grew. Harsh war-time conditions led to greater industrial sabotage, go-slow strikes and other methods of anti-war resistance.

Repression continued and by late 1942, Sugiura was among the many activists and club members who were arrested and endured torture at the hands of the police. They remained in prison until October 6, 1945, almost two months after Japans surrender on August 15 1945, on the orders of the occupying Allied authorities.

While in prison, Sugiura learned that Shibata had died of illness in prison in February 1945 and that his wife had died in the Tokyo fire-bombings in April. Upon their release, they learned that the club had survived that in-spite of state repression.

In the post-war period, Suguira and other surviving members were active in the JCP and were central to building the post-war Japanese labour movement. They played a crucial role in founding the foundation of the Council of Industrial Unions (CIU), of which the All Japan Printing and Publishing Industry Workers Union, was a central member.

After the formation of the new union, club members voted to disband in February 1948.

In 1977, a memorial stone commemorating the struggles and resistance of the club’s members in the face of severe repression, torture and even murder by the authorities to protect workers’ rights was unveiled at the Jogan temple in Tokyo. It ended with the words: “This memorial will exist forever”.

Sugiura continues to be politically active despite being over 100 years old. An interview that Broadbent conducted with him in 2016 in included in this book. Against the Storm is an inspiring account of how Sugiura and his comrade were able to maintain links amongst print workers in the face of the severest repression. It busts the myth that that there was no resistance to Japan’s militarist regime.

The English translation of Against the Storm is one of the first titles to be released by the newly formed left-wing publisher, Interventions. To find out more go to www.interventions.org.au.

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