The Japanese anti-war resistance during WWII

This article is based on a chapter from Fighting on all fronts: popular resistance in the Second World War, edited by Donny Gluckstein. The book will have its Australian launch on 21 August at the New International Bookshop, Trades Hall, Melbourne.


Histories of wartime Japan in English portray Japan as a monolithic entity, with the population united behind the militaristic goals of the state. The kamikaze pilots symbolise this perspective – young men eager to die for the emperor.

It is well documented that the Japanese state and military cast a heavy shadow over the whole society, imposing uniformity from above from the time they invaded Manchuria in 1931 until surrender in 1945. What is little known or reported in English is the resistance against the increasing militarism, exacerbated by the deprivation, misery and devastation of ordinary lives.

The resistance was both collective and individual as the state’s war of aggression was also waged against its own population. Left wing activists, workers, unionists and minorities such as Koreans and burakujumin (ethnically Japanese but considered outcasts) were particularly targeted. But the banning of left wing groups, the forced amalgamation of unions into an industrial association, Sanpo (Patriotic Industrial Association), and the gaoling and torturing of political and union activists, did not stop the resistance.

There are numerous examples of individual resistance from the military, including within the ranks of the kamikaze pilots, by peasants, Koreans forced into slave labour in the mines, workers and the intelligentsia. The resistance took the form of violent struggle, workplace sabotage and absenteeism and activists continuing their activism in the form of poetry, graffiti, jokes and publications.

Resistance in general society

Despite constant repression of left wing cultural activities, intellectuals and artists still found ways to protest. Dissident journals were published monthly until the war ended. One village performance included the anti-militarist commentary, “I don’t understand the guys that send you off to war with a cheer. No one comes back alive. Instead of cheering they would be better off saying the Buddhist death rites”.

Cultural circles in factories and villages allowed the illegal Communist Party and the left wing of the union movement to operate. This gave them an avenue for disseminating anti-war and revolutionary ideas.

The mood of the public was hostile to the government and the emperor. Police records from 1942 show that people were arrested for stating in conversation that the emperor should be tossed into the snow “like the Russian revolutionaries did with the tsar”. People also directed their rage at the military – residents whose homes had been burnt followed the car of a military officer shouting: “This damage is because of you military men!”

Workers’ resistance

As the war ground on, lack of food and poor wages and working conditions sparked resistance. Strikes were common. In 1939, there were 1,120 reported strikes. Although the number declined to 417 in 1943, the number of workers participating in strikes and other acts of resistance increased.

Sabotage was frequent. A general reported in July 1944 that an estimated 10 per cent of the aircraft manufactured in Japan were defective. Sabotage by workers at a Hitachi factory resulted in a 30 percent decline in production. Go slow measures were also common.

Absenteeism was high – around 10 per cent in 1943, rising to an average of 15 per cent in mid-1944. In April 1943, it was reported that 44 percent of women workers in the Kawasaki Aeroplane Factory had been absent from work. High school and university students conscripted to work in one Tokyo factory retaliated at being punished for stealing food by rotating work groups so that one group was always absent, ensuring that no finished products could be completed.

Dissolution of the union movement

Elements of the union movement had been active in opposing the war and militarism, but by 1937 many trade unions had limited their industrial actions and virtually stopped functioning as unions. By July 1940, the peak union federation had dissolved, as had most of the unaffiliated unions. The unions had been forced to become part of Sanpo, which was overseen by the police. Through this and other organisations, the authorities controlled 80 percent of the workforce.

Sanpo organised every workshop with the objective of compelling workers to submit unconditionally to forced labour, overwork and low wages. Through Sanpo, workers were indoctrinated with the ideology that the enterprise was an extension of Japan’s unique family system.

But not all unions disappeared. One of the unions that resisted dissolution was the Printers Union, which transformed itself into the Printers Club. The Printers Union stated that it wanted to “show the determination of Japan’s entire union movement”. The director of the club, Shibata Keiichiro, said: “Our members thought that no matter how much strain we were put under, we had to ensure the club survived.

“The right wing trade union officials dissolved the organisations and cooperated with the military. They sold the workers out to the enemy and because of that many other organisations were forcibly dissolved … If workers stood firm together and fought we would raise our class consciousness …”

The police ordered the club to dissolve in March 1940, and the members held a fake dissolution party in August. In October, the club had established a range of activity clubs, including travel clubs. The Printers Club continued to meet, print materials and conduct political education until most of the leading male members were arrested in 1942. The club was then run by women members.

Resistance inside the military

Unrest among soldiers was more significant than people realised. Soldiers developed tricks to escape fighting. In 1939, soldiers taken prisoner in China formed groups demanding improvements to the living standards of soldiers. They distributed propaganda to Chinese soldiers and peasants, which outlined the anti-war activities of Japanese people.

Diaries and letters show many tokkotai – conscripted young men, often university students, from elite families – loathed what they were doing and were critical of the war.

One pilot, Hayashi Tadao, begged his brother to lend him Lenin’s The State and Revolution, which had been banned. He read it secretly and concluded that Japan’s war was an imperialist war. He wrote in his diary in October 1941: “To die in the war, to die at the demand of the nation – I have no intention to praise it; it is a great tragedy”.

A sailor wrote in his diary: “This journey of ours is meaningless from the point of view of military strategy, and will cause no damage to the enemy. Our purpose is to prove the meaninglessness of such an action, and for this we are going to die”.

Other groups such as the Japanese People’s Anti-war League, formed in 1942, appealed to Japanese soldiers to surrender or refuse to fight and to participate in the anti-war movement.

These examples challenge the hegemonic vision of Japan’s wartime population as fully supporting the war effort. The Japanese elite feared the spreading of such resistance. Navy minister Yonai Mitusmasa commented: “The reason why I have advocated the end of the war is not that I was afraid of the enemy’s attack, nor was it because of the atomic bombs or the Soviet entry into the war. It was more than anything else because I was afraid of domestic conditions”.

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