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How a Young Communist Won and Lost Power in Postwar Japan

Today marks a decade since the death of Japanese communist Toshiko Karasawa. Her courageous life is a testament to the revolutionary potential of anti-imperialism, but also the difficult choices faced by the Left in US client states.

Japanese communist leader Kyuichi Tokuda places his ballot in an election box, April 16, 1946. Several of his supporters stand behind him.,Bettmann / Getty Images

In 1946, the New York Times reported that Toshiko Karasawa, a thirty-six-year-old typist, was leading miners into battle against bosses in the coal pits of Hokkaido, a prefecture on the northernmost tip of Japan’s main island chain. Erroneously, the paper framed the movement behind Karasawa as a product of democratic reforms mandated by the US military occupation. But this confusion was not without some basis in reality. Japan’s Communists, of which Karasawa was one, were motivated by their opposition to their country’s imperialism, which they believed kept in place a reactionary elite whose grip on power was weakened by America’s military might.

Despite her brief renown in the early postwar days, Karasawa, who died ten years ago today, has now been almost completely forgotten. Remarkable for her courageous confrontation with fascism and big business, Karasawa became a symbol of the tragic role of the Japanese Communist Party, which was unable to reconcile its attempts to increase worker power with its opposition to the reactionary elements of its society and US imperialism.

The Meiji Road to Militarism

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Japan’s ruling class became worried about the threat of colonization by the west. China’s humiliation at the hands of Great Britain during the opium wars and the American naval officer Mathew Perry’s demand that Japan should open itself up to trade to the West in 1853 pressed home the need to exert influence within the region.

Japan’s elites saw the Tokugawa shogunate, which had been in place since 1603, as incapable of responding to the threats the country faced. However, unlike its counterpart in France, the Japanese ancien régime, which had for over two centuries enshrined a feudal hierarchy in which a samurai class (approximately 6 percent of the population) extracted a surplus from a peasantry, was pushed to reform not by mass popular resistance, but by internal challenges.

Industrialization soon entailed and enabled a series of military victories, against China’s Qing Dynasty in 1895 and Tsarist Russia in 1905, which impressed and appalled the European imperial powers in equal measure. But the modernization that transformed Japan into a regional power also provoked a backlash at home from former samurai unable to profit from the new system, as well as a wider layer of society, including the peasantry and military.

Obsessed with the threat of Westernization-by-stealth, they were resentful of zaibatsu monopolism and the relatively liberal ideas of the new intelligentsia, who mainly came from zaibatsu families. Draped in Tokugawa period costumes, but espousing a mess of twentieth-century ideas foreign to that era, this elite-peasant alliance built an ultranationalist movement that challenged big business for dominance of domestic politics. By the 1930s, even if it wasn’t in their original business plans, the zaibatsu had pragmatically fallen behind their expansionist military project.

A Capitalist Cataclysm

Outflanked by an elite that rallied behind the flag, the Japanese labor movement subsequently came under severe attack. In the 1930s, Toshiko Karasawa was a Communist Party (JCP) member in her early twenties, working as a typist at a Hokkaido office. There she simultaneously organized workers and their families at the Mitsubishi zaibatsu’s Bibai coal mine. Through her union work she was elected to a trade union council in Sapporo, the prefecture’s capital.

The 1931 Manchurian incident — a false flag operation Japan used as a pretext to invade northern China — deeply divided left leaders. As in Europe, imperialism created divisions within the Left. Thirty years before the Manchurian incident, the German Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein had offered up a defense of colonialism, arguing that “the higher culture always has the greater right on its side over the lower.” Japanese social democrats were of this mindset — they felt imperial expansion could alleviate the domestic effects of the Great Depression. Imperialism was opposed much more vehemently by Japan’s radical left, who were internationalists as well as socialists.

Karasawa and her comrades saw in expansionism only disaster for the region. A United States intelligence file on the Japanese left reported that

unlike the social democrats, the Japanese communists [have] responded to the Manchurian incident with immediate and unqualified denunciation. In their propaganda, the workers were exhorted to refuse to produce weapons or transport soldiers to the front; the soldiers, to turn their weapons against their rulers and leaders and to fraternize with the Chinese soldiers; and the people in general, to fight for the immediate evacuation of Mukden, as well as all other occupied areas, and for the immediate recall of Japanese troops.

As a prominent union leader, Karasawa was vulnerable. Government repression — in the form of arrests, torture, assassinations and executions — escalated after the invasion of Manchuria. Karasawa was repeatedly arrested, but escaped each time with her life. Unlike many of her comrades, she did not participate in the mass conversion of Marxists “to the national cause.”

When imperial Japan finally surrendered in 1945, the Communists’ predictions of catastrophe were validated. Close to a million civilians had died in the Allied bombing campaigns, and millions more made homeless. The damage to infrastructure was immense, and the entire population — particularly in the major cities — was at near-starvation levels. Many zaibatsu, having lost their lucrative military contracts, sabotaged the economy by shutting down production. Unemployment and inflation wreaked havoc.

Adding to the pressure on resources, millions of Japanese abroad — both soldiers, and civilians who had nothing to do with the war — were being repatriated. A 1946 news report shows Toshiko Karasawa urging the newly repatriated to become politically active to improve their conditions. The destitution and the shellshock on the refugees’ faces is visible in images from the era.

Exploiters Eat Well

After defeating Japan and preventing it from wresting control over the Pacific, the United States embarked on an effort to transform the island nation into a crucial bulwark against communism. General Douglas MacArthur — Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) — sought to cement this status through the simultaneous maintenance of the emperor system alongside semi-democratization.

But liberalization also produced challenges to the government American aimed to establish. Communists poured out of prisons, and millions joined now-legal unions. The working class began to flex its muscle on the economic and political fronts. Working people engaged in widespread strikes, slowdowns, and production takeovers to deal with zaibatsu sabotage. In April 1946, they elected Toshiko Karasawa to the National Diet as a member of the Communist Party.

SCAP had engineered a strange kind of democratic stage for Karasawa to appear on. Many of her opponents in the Diet were members of the same networks that had dragged the country into catastrophe. The prime minister, Baron Kijūrō Shidehara, for example, belonged to the Mitsubishi zaibatsu family that had ordered Karasawa’s arrest during the war. These forces aimed to prevent any socialization of industry, and felt they had the support of the US occupying forces behind them. Just three days before Karasawa was elected, for example, US troops had used jeeps armed with machine guns to break up a crowd of fifty thousand workers besieging Shidehara’s residence demanding food and jobs.

Karasawa’s first words in the Diet startled those present. In a hearing on the “Resolution to promote the repatriation of overseas compatriots and demobilized personnel,” she attacked the zaibatsu, linking them to her country’s embrace of imperialism:

In the years since the Manchurian incident, Japan has engaged in wars of imperialism and aggression, sent many of our compatriots to the front lines, and killed millions of our own people . . . the militarists might be superficially out of sight, but we cannot trust the zaibatsu and bureaucrats that colluded with them and profited from these wars. . . . Unless the entire political system is democratized, and this system placed in the hands of our people, these problems cannot be solved.

As Karasawa’s speech continued, the jeers grew louder. One enraged conservative politician rushed the podium and attempted to drag her away. The incident propelled her to nationwide fame, a position from which she attacked the influence of big business in the Diet. In a later session on the welfare budget, Karasawa targeted zaibatsu hypocrisy, pointing out the injustice of their wealth amid a Japan still plagued by poverty. “Those who don’t work and still eat well today made huge profits exploiting the people, while the workers they conscripted into the war effort starve to death.”

This was not hyperbole. Sitting across from Karasawa was Yoshinari Kawai, minister of health and welfare by imperial elect, and soon-to-be president of Komatsu Ltd., which had made tremendous profits during the war through military contracts. Kawai purred evasive answers at Karasawa, blaming the looming shadow of reparations for the people’s poor living standards.

A further undemocratic element Karasawa faced was the strict ban on criticizing the occupation. SCAP troops were terrorizing the Japanese civilian population daily through beatings, sexual assault, and murder. One practice involved rounding up women and forcing them to undergo invasive venereal disease examinations. Karasawa used her high profile to help build a women-led mass movement against these depredations, carefully targeting the Japanese government as a proxy for MacArthur’s forces. SCAP got the message, but dismissed the mobilizations, declaring “it is up to us how to decide how to treat the women rounded up. You have no right to say anything about it.”

A Contest for Power

Parliamentary tactics alone were clearly ineffective in the face of SCAP’s dictatorial powers and big business domination of the Diet. In reality the specter of a socialist reconstruction failed to materialize.

For months, workers had been increasing their control over production in strategic industries. Having seized control of their worksites, mining, transport, and other workers were functionally in charge of much Japan’s economy. The practices of these myriad worksites differed, but from bread-and-butter economic demands they had begun progressing to think about societal transformation. So widespread was this practice, that a national Struggle Committee against the Suppression of Production Control was formed. By some estimates, a total nationwide seizure of coal mines by workers was possible by the spring of 1946.

Karasawa’s voter base — the coal mining families of Hokkaido — led the most radical of these production control fights. But while she rhetorically supported the production control struggle, Karasawa and her comrades made no attempt to develop this national base for a revolutionary seizure of power. Instead, they focused on leveraging workers’ growing power to cajole other left parties into forming a left-of-center coalition government. In hindsight, their choice to take the conciliatory path might seem motivated by a justified fear of US retaliation. However, the more immediate motivation for the reformist outlook of the JCP was that its leadership maintained a misguided but genuine hope in the United States’ openness to a progressive reconstruction. As historian Joe Moore argues,

It was one of the ironies of the time that even while workers at the enterprise level were moving toward a contest for power at the point of production, the leadership of the left was moving in the opposite direction.

By the time of a proposed general strike in February 1947, it was clear the left leadership had made a fatal miscalculation. Firstly, conditions were not as ripe as they had been months earlier. And in any case, the question now seemed less about the possibility of a socialist reconstruction, and more the nature of the inevitable capitalist one. But even on this less contentious point, SCAP was prepared to crush union attempts to destabilize the right-wing government. Holding key union leaders hostage on the eve of the general strike, SCAP forced them to call it off.

Despite the strength of workers’ power in the immediate postwar years, the cost of wielding it was too high for the Japanese left to countenance. Instead, the JCP clung dogmatically to the notion that the US occupation would complete the “progressive” bourgeois revolution begun during the Meiji Restoration. This provided an ideological justification for not taking advantage of the moment. Rather than a socialist reconstruction, Japan commenced its role as a client state of the United States, and a crucial pillar in the latter’s long-standing Asia-Pacific dominance.

A Mixed Legacy

The chaos on the Left in the subsequent years reflects the resulting despair. Scolded by the Cominform first for a lack of adventurism in 1950, then for too much of it five years later, the JCP veered left and right over the next decades. It purged, then readmitted, members like Karasawa, depending on which faction was in charge, what commands had been issued from Moscow, or what theoretical turn dominated at the time.

By the 1970s, the prospects of an internationalist socialist revolution seemed further away than ever. Karasawa, like many disillusioned but unapologetic communists of her generation, gravitated toward the teikei, cooperative movement, and grassroots antinuclear campaigning.

Despite the JCP’s reputation for internal harshness, Karasawa and many of her comrades were driven by a humanism that seems almost sentimental by today’s standards. Memoirs from their contemporaries are filled with stories not just of ferocious confrontation with the police and big business, but with touching acts of kindness. More than one recounts how Communist union leaders broke down in tears while ordering their members to retreat during the production control struggles. Whatever Karasawa and her comrades’ exact motivation to back down, their decision helped cement Japan’s role in assuring the United States’ regional hegemony. As the Biden administration looks to push forward with a pivot to Asia in response to the rise of China, the consequences of this decision are especially relevant.

Chris Dite is a teacher and union member.

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