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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Japanese Communist Party turns 100

Flag of the Japanese Communist Party

The Japanese Communist turns 100 today. It was formed on July 15, 1922 in Tokyo.

One of its early leaders was the famed Japanese leftist and communist Sen Katayama (1859-1933). Katayama remarkably played a role in the formation of the Communist parties in the USA, Canada and Japan in the wake of the Russian Revolution and was a revolutionary activist prior to it. He was also active in the Communist International in its early days and was directly involved in the planning that led to the July 15 meeting.

Here is an account of Katayama in the lead up to the formation of the JCP written in 1975 for the CPUSA by American labor militant and communist Karl Yoneda.

News of the 1917 Russian revolution was to bring inspiration and encouragement to millions throughout the world and Katayama was no exception. The impact of the October Revolution was so great that the word "Bolshevik" became popular among vast numbers of working people and hated by the ruling class.

In 1918, as Japan prepared to send her interventionist army to Siberia, dealers and profiteers began buying up rice, which resulted in a price increase of 100 to 150 per cent. Longshorewomen (yes, women!) of Uozu, a fishing village facing the Japan Sea, raised the cry "Give Us Rice" and attempted to stop rice from being transported out of the village. The rice riot spread to major villages and cities throughout Japan and lasted 52 days, with nearly ten million participants and more than 8,000 arrests. This was the largest spontaneous revolutionary uprising yet of workers, poor farmers and housewives.

Katayama pointed out that "this rice riot made a deep impression upon every stratum of the people. Poor people have discovered a powerful weapon in mass action." (The Class Struggle, December 1918.)

When the U.S., Japan and their allies sent troops into Siberia for counter-revolutionary intervention against the first workers' and peasants' government, Katayama took an active part in protest meetings, strongly condemning the piratical action of the imperialist powers. He wrote "Japan and Siberian Intervention" (December 1918) and "The Hara Ministry and the Bolsheviks" (August 1919) for Revolutionary Age.

It is significant to note that while many labor historians recall that a Japanese Labor Association (JLA) donated $50 to the 1919 Seattle General Strike, none realize that the JLA was an outgrowth of Katayama's agitation there and the subsequent formation of the Seattle Japanese Socialist Party in 1904. Two years later the JLA helped organize large numbers of sawmill, cannery and railroad workers into the Association and start its monthly Doho (Brotherhood), which exposed Japanese labor contractors' outright cheating and other methods of exploitation.

At every opportunity, Katayama wrote and spoke out in support of the peoples' struggles in the colonial and semi-colonial countries under the yoke of Japanese as well as U.S. imperialism, taking special interest in the Korean independence and Chinese revolutionary movements:

Deeply we sympathize with Koreans in their brave and heroic struggle for their national independence. Present is an age of national independence everywhere . . . Now, if the assertion of mine is right, then I ask you, the Koreans in America and in other countries, to consider whether your nationalistic aspirations and narrow agitation are advisable or not. Is there a sure hope for attaining it soon? Is it not wise to make a common cause for freedom with the Japanese working people and the working masses of the world? In that case you may not readily get help from American capitalists and Christians, but then you will get sure support from fifteen million Russian Bolsheviks and their Soviet government and the entire new International. (Heimin, New York, May 1919.)

The inevitable split within the American Socialist Party culminated in September 1919, resulting in the formation of two Communist parties -- the Communist Party of America (CPA) and the Communist Labor Party (CLP). Although their programs were essentially parallel, Katayama sided with the CPA because it had a large number of foreign born workers in its ranks. The Japanese Socialist Study Circle members joined en masse and became part of CPA's Oriental Bureau.

When the U.S. government sponsored an International Labor Conference in Washington, D.C., October 1919, trade unions of Japan refused to participate, but the Japanese government sent a hand-picked "labor delegation." Katayama and two others issued a signed statement which exposed the "Japanese delegation" as a fraud. Copies were distributed to conference delegates, causing the resignation of two Japanese "labor advisors." Much to the chagrin of the Japanese government, these two later became friendly with Katayama.

Miraculously escaping the infamous 1920 Palmer raid dragnet, he stayed in seclusion for four months at the Atlantic City home of K. Naito, where he started to write his autobiography.

Returning to New York despite difficult underground conditions, he remained active and helped in the unification of the various U.S. Communist groupings into a single Communist Party. During the course of the unity movement, Katayama was appointed to serve on the American Section of the Communist International (CI or Comintern ).

In March of 1921 he went to Mexico to help strengthen its Communist Party and establish closer ties with the CI and in July was instrumental in the unification of Canada's two Communist groups.

Another task performed by him was to select and send a U.S. resident Japanese delegation to an upcoming Far East Peoples Congress (FEPC) scheduled to be held in Irkutsk, Siberia. In October 1921 S. Nonaka, U. Nikaido, H. Watanabe, S. Maniwa and M. Suzuki departed via Moscow for the FEPC.

Toward the middle of November Katayama bid what turned out to be his last goodby to the shores of the U.S., going to Moscow on his CI assignment.

The Moscow welcome accorded Katayama was described:

On December 14, 1921, Sen Katayama arrived in Moscow. The name of the old man is well known internationally, not only as the pioneer of the Japanese labor movement, but as a great figure in the world Communist movement. Furthermore, he is well remembered among the Russians as the man who shook hands with Plekhanov during the Russo-Japanese War. News of this distinguished guest's arrival in Moscow made headlines in the Soviet and world press.
On that day, we (five Japanese delegates attending the FEPC) went to the station to greet the old man. At the depot, practically all the dignitaries of the Soviet government and the CI -- headed by Premier Kalinin, Trotsky of the Red Army, Stalin of the CI Nationality Commission and other leaders -- were on the reception line, as was a Red Army Honor Guard. Lenin, due to ill health, was out of the city. . . . The old man, who had undergone all sorts of hardships, never dreamed of such welcome, and was overwhelmed with emotion. It must have been one of the proudest moments in his life -- as it was with us. ( H. Watanabe, Memoirs About Revolutionaries, Tokyo, 1968, pp. 114-115.)

Watanabe also pointed out other great honors bestowed on this son of a Japanese farmer, who had gradually developed from a Christian socialist leader into a mature Marxist-Leninist revolutionary. He was made an honorary citizen of the Soviet Union, given membership in the Red Army Academy and had a factory named for him. Picture postcards and pin emblems of Katayama were popular among the Russians, second only to those of Lenin.

During January and February 1922, attending sessions of the FEPC in Moscow and Leningrad (the site having been changed from Siberia), he was elected honorary chairman and participated in its deliberations. There was a full exchange of opinions on actions to take against the imperialist intervention forces, and of the possibilities of organizing the unorganized and building Communist parties in the countries represented at the gathering.

Katayama went to Siberia in May to guide the anti-intervention campaign among the Japanese Imperial Army forces. Three leaflets were drawn up by him which appealed to the Japanese soldiers not to be tools of Japan's militarists, not to kill Russian workers and peas-ants who were building a socialist state in which neither big capitalists nor big landlords existed, and which pointed out that the great number of unemployed and the extreme poverty in Japan were directly caused by its enormous military expenditures. He personally went into battlefield areas, directing the distribution of the handbills which concluded with these slogans:

Down with Japanese Militarism! Down with Japanese Capitalistsl Long Live the Socialist Revolution! Long Live the Unity of Workers, Peasants and Soldiers. For a Soviet Japan! (Imprecor, No. 45, 1922.)

A few other Japanese comrades also carried on frontline activities, while others who had attended the FEPC, after consultation with Katayama and other CI leaders, returned to Japan and secretly helped organize the Communist Party of Japan (CPJ) in Tokyo on July 15, 1922.


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