Menu Close

Hitoshi Yamakawa and the Case of Socialism in Japan

February 03, 2015

Japan is a very capitalist country, Marxism, socialism, let alone anarchism, are not the first things that pop to the mind of most people when the country is mentioned. However, Japan has had its fair share of socialists like any other country. Their origin dates back to 1901, when a handful of social reformers founded a social democratic party, which was banned only a few days later by the authorities. Important work was done in the next few decades; although, socialism did not become a real political force until after the World War II. During the early years of the post-war period it even seemed as socialist parties would become a major force in Japanese politics; there was some talk of unified left wing, the conservatives responded by joining forces and forming the Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power more or less since 1955.

The story after that was not terribly uplifting for the left wing; most of the post war period the left wing was split into the Japanese Communist Party, which was Marxist-Leninist until the 1980s and the Japanese Socialist Party which was closer to social democracy although it never seemed to be able to decide if it wanted to be a large mass based party or a small class based party. This debate, on how socialism should be in Japan can be traced back to the 1920s when a debate raged on in Japanese leftist circles on how Marxist theory should be applied in Japan. The participants of this debate split into mostly two camps. The first one was called the Koza-ha, or the lecture faction.[1] The Koza-ha, followed the Comintern interpretation of Japanese Capitalism which stated that the many “feudal” remains in Japanese Society (most clearly exemplified by the Emperor System) meant that Japan was still not a fully fledged Capitalist society and would have to finish its bourgeois revolution before proceeding to a proletarian revolution. The Koza-ha furthermore advocated a Leninist style Vanguard party to lead the masses towards a revolution. The other faction, the Rono-ha or labor-farmer faction[2] maintained that although there were some feudal elements left in Japan, those elements were not of any major importance; it would be possible to proceed directly to a proletarian revolution. The Rono-ha theorists rejected a Leninist style Vanguard and argued that the masses themselves would overthrow Capitalism. The name Rono comes from a journal founded in 1927 by Yamakawa Hitoshi and his supporters. Yamakawa was one of the first Japanese socialists and Marxists, he started out as a young troublemaker, became a Christian, rejected Christianity and became an anarchist, eventually, after the Russian revolution he moved closer to Bolshevism although never becoming a full fledged Leninist. He was the theoretical founder of the first communist party in Japan. A leading member of the Rono-ha group of intellectuals, and became an advisor to the Japanese socialist party after the war. This essay will trace his career and intellectual formation in order to give readers some insights in the history of socialism in Japan.


Yamakawa´s career as a writer stretches back to 1906, when he had met the charismatic writer Kotoku Shusui, an anarchist, pacifist and revolutionary who offered him a position at the radical newspaper the Heimin Shinbun. The paper was at the time the only newspaper in Japan of some note that opposed the Russo-Japanese war. Under the influence of Kotoku, Yamakawa became an anarchist himself[3].

Evident in his early writings is his rejection of Capitalism, acceptance of socialism and his belief that only a revolution can bring about a just society. In one of his earliest articles which was titled The Real Meaning of Concessions Yamakawa strongly implied that a revolution was needed. All of societal ills have their roots in the class with political power. The basis of their power is in their hold on the means of production, all social anguish, strife, and misery can be traced to this structure. Those who maintain that there is a harmony between labor and capital are those who already own the means of production. The problem is that no matter how often they maintain that this social organization provides equal opportunity for all, a small minority continues to monopolize the means of production. This monopolization is then disguised as free competition. Putting it simply, the obvious results of this system are misery. The harmony of capital and labor can only be achieved with the socialization of the means of production. Yamakawa does not explicitly spell out that revolution will be needed, but he obviously has little faith in other alternatives. This is the first instance where Yamakawa maintains that the bourgeois and the proletariat have irreconcilable differences, which cannot be solved by other means than revolution. His strategy, possibly even his concept of revolution would change with time but his belief in overthrowing capitalist society in one way or another is consistent.

Yamakawa spent most of his short time at the Heimin Shinbun arguing for the Anarcho-Syndicalist approach and complaining of the uselessness of Parliamentarism. The paper however did not last long as the government began active suppression of socialism in 1908. All “subversive” literature was now to be destroyed by the police, anyone propagating socialist view was to be arrested. Authorities did not distinguish between radicals and moderates; social reformers were arrested and thrown into prison. Kotoku himself was arrested for plotting to assassinate the emperor;[4] he was executed (along with 12 others) only three days after being tried. Yamakawa too was thrown into prison, (not for the first time, he had been sentenced to two years in prison in 1900 for lése-majesté). He dropped all his political activities for a few years after being released and did not resume writing until 1916 when he continued to propagate anarchist views.

This would change with the Russian revolution. At first details were sketchy, most Japanese intellectuals had no idea what the Bolsheviks stood for but assumed that they were anarchists who would dismantle the state. The first Japanese intellectual to show some understanding of Leninism was Takabatake Motoyuki, who could be described as a Japanese Mussolini (without the political power). Originally an anarchist in the mold of Kotoku and a translator of Das Kapital, he gradually drifted to what he called “State Socialism.” He pointed out in August 1917 that Lenin was no anarchist but a left wing member of the Social-Democrats. He predicted that the incompetence of the Kerensky government would lead to its collapse and a subsequent takeover by the Bolsheviks. The Bolshevik coup in November the same year confirmed in his mind that Marxism was statist in practice. He put emphasizes on the state character of the new Bolshevist regime, something that did not go well with a movement overly dominated by Anarchists. Yamakawa started a debate with him, their differences essentially boiled down to a different conception of state, for Yamakawa who had had his share of state oppression throughout his life, a new socialist society should be stateless. As an Anarchist he saw the state as a tool of oppression, Takabatake on the other hand saw the Bolshevik revolution as leading to a strong, centralized, militarized state. And this he welcomed. These differences made Takabatake break with his comrades in the Socialist movement, which would last throughout their lives. Takabatake became a leading theoretician of State Socialists in Japan, in a way his theories were in fact closer to nationalists like Kita Ikki or European Fascist theorists than left-wing Communists. Yamakawa would not go into that direction, but he was gradually changing his position on Bolshevism and reconciling himself with the notion that a Socialist society would have a temporal state.

In July 1922 Yamakawa and his comrades founded an underground Communist Party. Younger socialists, who had been radicalized by the Russian revolution, impatiently began pushing Yamakawa and the older ones for founding a party. Yamakawa was cautious though, not wanting to risk police harassment, eventually he gave in and wrote the landmark document he is chiefly remembered for; A Change of Course for the Proletarian Movement. In it, he condemns how ineffective the movement had been so far and completely rejects the anarcho-syndicalism that had characterized the movement since the days of Kotoku. For Yamakawa, the Socialist Movement had isolated itself and become a club of intellectuals, obsessed with mere theory. Practical aims were neglected. Its revolutionary action in practice consisted of a dozen intellectuals getting into trouble with the police and being arrested for a night. If the movement aimed to become a real movement, it had to base itself on the “demands of the people.” For example if the people demanded increase in wages, the movement should fight for it; revolution would come later. The movement should also participate in parliamentary politics. He, in short, advocated a mass based movement open to everyone, not just the “proletariat.” He did not want to limit the movement to “professional revolutionaries” as Lenin would have. There was a room for a vanguard in his plan, however this vanguard was not supposed to be anything like the Bolsheviks; a small group of professional revolutionaries ready to seize power, the task of the vanguard in Yamakawa´s view was to educate the people who still have very low “revolutionary consciousness.” It was a group of intellectuals who would talk, not resort to action.

Why did he reject a group of professional revolutionaries? The first answer can be seen already in his early writings, he believed, or at least professed to believe that “something” will happen which will topple capitalism, much like Karl Marx earlier, he seemed to think that capitalism would destroy itself; if he was right, there would be no need for a Leninist style vanguard. Things would take care of themselves once class-consciousness had been instilled in the masses. Another issue was of course his experience with authorities, radicals were continuously harassed by the authorities and had very limited support among the population at large, founding a Leninist style vanguard and openly declaring itself to be actively working for revolution would be dangerous.

An often-held charge against Yamakawa was that his plan wasn’t really revolutionary, it was in fact reformism, a deviation towards social democracy. Yamakawa always denied this, maintaining that revolution was still his goal, but practical considerations had to be taken into account. His only answer against the charge that the party would evolve into a social democratic party was that the leadership would have to be “on its guard” against this. This, of course, was not terribly convincing for revolutionaries, as the parties that have taken this approach have inevitably evolved into social democratic parties. In practice the Japanese socialist party, which regards Yamakawa as one of its intellectual founders, did evolve into something akin to a social democratic party.[5] If we assume that he wanted a revolution, then his approach was ultimately unrealistic, Yamakawa, like Marx a few decades earlier, seems to think that “something” will happen which will simply topple capitalism; he does not, like Lenin did, want to proceed to a direct action. His vanguard is a group of intellectuals that induce people to fight; they do not actually fight themselves. One reason was certainly his experience; Yamakawa had already been imprisoned twice by authorities, and his idol, Kotoku Shusui had been executed; all this had taught Yamakawa to be cautious.

In autumn that same year, the Japanese labor union alliance (the Sodomei) held its annual convention in Osaka. There, Yamakawa, Sakai, and other Communists got into a heated dispute with the Anarchists lead by Osugi Sakae. Anarcho-Syndicalism with its emphasis on decentralization was still influential within the Unions but it became clear that its influence was waning. Labor leaders were frustrated with the failure of direct action tactics, every strike in the past few years had ended in a failure. Against this, Yamakawa and the Communists advocated a much more centralized union which used economical as well as political action. A resolution was passed on this meeting favoring such an organization. The anarchist movement which had achieved little was now in a retreat, A year later Osugi, the main leader and spokesman for the Anarcho-Syndicalists was murdered by a raged policeman who apparently thought that people as decadent as anarchists had no right to life on this earth. After that the history of Syndicalism as a political force was effectively over in Japan.

The document A Change of Course was therefore important because it signaled an end to anarchism in Japan and the beginning of Marxist socialism in many forms. This communist party however was short lived and achieved little else than to prepare for the next one, it was after all an illegal underground party. In 1924 Yamakawa led a faction to dissolve the party and supported his view by stating that an illegal party invited government suppression, it would alienate itself from masses and thus be unable to function properly. He did however continue to involve himself in politics. His deviation from Leninism, his insistence on building a mass base meant that he was soon challenged by other Marxists. The first thinker to do so was Fukumoto Kazuo, a Leninist with formidable knowledge of the newest trends in Marxist theory. For Fukumoto, Yamakawa´s idea of a mass based party was unacceptable, his attack on A Change of Course started a debate between the two on the nature of capitalist development in Japan, and thus on what sort of course a Japanese Proletarian Movement should take to achieve revolution. This debate eventually developed into the Rono-ha Koza-ha debates, which raged on through the 1920s and the 1930s. Yamakawa took active part in all this. In 1930, after the Manchurian invasion,[6] he dropped his political activities, the police had already begun cracking down on Communists. However those like Yamakawa who did not challenge the Emperor system and did not openly advocate for a revolution were not persecuted at first. But by the late 1930s the situation in Japan had reached a level that even people like Yamakawa were harassed. He was thrown into prison and spent the war years there.

After the war, communists and socialists initially got a huge popular support, being the only ones who had consistently spoken against the war. Socialist and communist parties got a reasonable following in elections, this alarmed conservative parties so they united under the banner of the Liberal Democratic Party which has been the de facto ruling party in Japan more or less since 1955. Left wing parties were still important in Japan, especially among intellectuals. Yamakawa himself became an advisor to the Japan Socialist Party. He died of cancer in 1958.

As can be seen from this short overview, Japanese Marxism and socialism was very different from Marxist-Socialism in the most of other East-Asian countries. Most Asian countries, being predominantly rural with a very small industrial base, turned Marxism into some type of agrarian socialism. Maoism is perhaps the most notable example of this. Japan was far more industrialized and as such its intellectuals followed the European examples. While it can be discerned that they ultimately failed, the very same could be said for the most of other industrialized nations.

Today the only socialist parties of some note in Japan are the Social Democratic Party and the Japan Communist Party. The Social Democratic Party is a successor of formerly important the Japan Socialist Party, which was, as already mentioned, the most important opposition party during the cold war. Founded in 1995, it has only 5 seats (of 717) in the diet; its policies are in most cases similar to policies of most European Social Democratic Parties. The Japanese Communist Party on the other hand has been more fortunate, although not a revolutionary party anymore, it survived the end of the cold war relatively unscratched. The party currently fights against “imperialism its subordinate ally, monopoly capital”, it advocates full restoration of Japanese sovereignty (the end of the US-Japanese alliance) and a peaceful, democratic “change in politics and the economy” without elaborating very clearly on what that means. Structurally speaking the party is still organized on the traditional Leninist model, its electoral results have tended to be somewhere from 6-12%.

Socialism in Japan can therefore be said to have a history, which is only slightly shorter than the history of Socialism in most Western countries. With brief exceptions it has however never had serious following among the population at large, socialist parties have also never been in power in Japan. Whatever happens in the future Japan, it is unlikely that socialist parties will play much role in politics.


Beckmann, George M. Okubo, Genji. The Japanese Communist Party 1922-1945, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1969.

Hoston, Germaine A. “Marxism and National Socialism in Taisho Japan: The Thought of Takabatake Motoyuki” in The Journal of Asian Studies Vol 44. No 1 (Nov 1984) Pages 43-64.

Swift, Thomas Duane. Yamakawa Hitoshi and the dawn of Japanese Socialism. University of California, Berkely. 1970. (Unpublished doctorial dissertation.)

“The real meaning of concession” (koujou no shinigi), in Yamakawa Hitoshi Zenshuu Keisoshobo. Tokyo. 2003. 1:11-13.

“A change of course for the proletarian movement” (Musankaykyuuundou no Houkoutenkan) in Yamakawa Hitoshi Zenshuu. Keisoshobo. Tokyo 1967. 4:336-345.

“A petit bourgeois interpretation of a change of course” (Houkoutenkan no shouburujyouateki kaishaku) in Yamakawa Hitoshi Zenshuu. Keisoshobo. Tokyo1967. 5: 46-62.

[1] The faction drew its name from a series of lectures which kick started the movement.

[2] Labor-Framer because it wanted to draw support from the large population of farmers in Japan at the time, while pure Marxist theory held that farmers lacked revolutionary “consciousness.”

[3] The anarchists in Japan at the time tended to follow the example of French anarcho syndicalists.

[4] There was some basis for this, however it is unknown how serious Kotoku actually was about it.

[5] Although, as already mentioned, it was characterized throughout most of the cold war by continuous factional fighting between those who wanted it to be something like a social democratic party and something like a communist party.

[6] The Japanese invasion of Northern China in 1930 (Manchuria) and the establishment of the Manchuko puppet state with the last Emperor of China as head of state.


  1. glq

    I like the helpful info you provide in your articles. I’ll bookmark your weblog and check again here regularly. I’m quite sure I will learn plenty of new stuff right here! Good luck for the next!|

  2. Andrew Stergiou

    Nice acrylic painting (I presume as my eye says acrylic), but painful emotional story on Japanese history where I reference Phillip Foner’s authoritative History of the Fur Workers Union detailing: How where in 1926-1929 the gangster connected US Socialist Party factions of the Fur Workers Unions shamefully extended their anti-progressive anti-communist and anti-worker activities in advising the lawless criminal authorities in japan, so as to how to undermine the growing left and workers movement in Japan in militarism that eventually lead to World War II much like the US government does today worldwide through the CIA.

Leave a Reply