Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Osugi Sakae: Anarchist in Taisho Japan by Thomas Stanley

(Book Review)

Back in the spring of 2001, when I knew I had been accepted for the JET program but hadn't shipped out to Japan just yet, I tried to do a little bit of reading up on Japan based on what was located in the Calvin library.

Calvin had a copy of the autobiography of Osugi Sakae, the Japanese anarchist. (It was in their political theory section, not in their Japan section, but as I often frequented the political theory section I stumbled upon it by accident).

Now 7 years later I don't remember much of Osugi Sakae's autobiography to be honest, but the name at least has stuck with me. In fact it's been about the only name from Japanese history that I've managed to remember over the years. So for the 6 years I've been in Japan, whenever I get in any sort of discussion about history with a Japanese person, this is the only name that I'm able to contribute to the discussion.
(I've noticed Japanese people my own age or younger have no idea who Osugi Sakae is, but the name usually gets a reaction from slightly older Japanese people . Since Osugi Sakae died way back in 1923, I think this generational shibboleth represents the difference between the politically educated generations, and the politically apathetic one, rather than some people being actually old enough to remember the events).

Because I've recently decided to make an effort to explore areas of Japanese history I'm interested in, I ordered this book off of amazon.
Thomas Stanley, the author, is also the translator of Osugi Sakae's autobiography, and probably translated the version I read 7 years ago (although there's no way I can remember). He makes the comment that, because Osugi did not want to betray his fellow comrades to the police, he wrote very little in his autobiography about his activist career and focuses instead on childhood incidents.
...And as much as I can remember, that was more or less my impression of the autobiography. I learned very little about the Japanese anarchist/socialist movement by reading it. (Although the translator's introduction did provide some of the background.)

This book gives a much more thorough picture of Osugi Sakae's life and through it a glimpse into early the early 20th Century socialist movement in Japan.

The book begins with Osugi's strict upbringing in a military family, and traces his anti-authoritarian tendencies from childhood. The narrative then follows Osugi through his flirtations with socialism, and his first arrest, which confirmed him into the socialist movement.

In prison Osugi became exposed to a number of socialist and anarchist literature, and emerged from prison as a committed anarchist. Although Thomas Stanley contends that even though Osugi Sakae was well versed in anarchist theory, and borrowed heavily from Kropotkin, Osugi was at heart an individualist first, and a syndicalist second.

In the days before the Bolshevik revolution, the distinction between socialists and anarchists was sometimes blurred, and they often worked together within the same organization. After the Russian revolution, Thomas Stanley devotes a whole chapter in his book to the anarchist-Bolshevik split in Japan. Many former anarchists ended up siding with the Bolsheviks, and Osugi himself initially supported the Bolshevik revolution. He later became disillusioned with the Bolsheviks after experiencing the authoritarian style of Comintern, and reading the reports from about the Russian revolution by Russo-American anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.

Roughly half of this book is devoted to trying to follow the political evolution of Osugi Sakae and to explain his unique ideas. The other half is narrating the events of his life. Similarly to my experience with Marx- biographies, I found the historical narrative parts fascinating, the philosophical parts really hard to get through. It must be just the way my brain is wired.
That being said, the author's style didn't help. The theoretical parts of this book were dryer and denser than they needed to be. But I guess that's what I get for buying an obscure academic book.

Leaving aside the chapters on theory, there were several interesting events in Osugi Sakae's life, including his experiments with free love, which lead to a soap-opera like love affair with three different woman, culminating in one of them stabbing him in a highly publicized scandal. As a result Osugi Sakae was largely ostracized by the Japanese socialist movement for the rest of his life. It appeals to the tabloid reader in us all.

Osugi Sakae was murdered by the police in the chaos following the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, along with a handful of other socialist and labor leaders. Thomas Stanley argues that this was an isolated incident by some overzealous policemen, and did not represent government policy at the time, but that through the lens of history we can now recognize it as an ominous foreshadow of the crackdown on dissent which was to follow in Japan from 1925.

A cleaned up and less bloggy version of this review has been posted on Media Mouse here.

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Dozer said...

Always, a very interesting blog. Hope all is well with you and Shoko across the world

Joel Swagman said...

Thanks for the kind words. Indeed, all is going well at the moment. Best wishes to you and Jess as well.