Sen Katayama: Pioneer, Internationalist, and Revolutionary

The story of Sen Katayama, his vision, and the scale of his impact on the labour movements of Japan, America, and the USSR.

In December of 1859, in the Hadecki District of Japan, Sen Katayama was born as Sugataro Yabuki. He kept that name until he was eighteen years old when, in order to avoid conscription into the Imperial Japanese Army, he was adopted into the peasant household of Ikutaro Katayama. It was here that he gained the permanent name of Sen Katayama, and became the first son of the Katayama family. Katayama later moved to what was the new capital city of Tokyo to serve as a printer’s apprentice and study at Oka Juku, a small preparatory school. He arrived in Tokyo at the height of the Freedom and People’s Rights movement, which called on the emperor to increase citizens’ rights, establish an elected legislature, and reduce taxes and this period no doubt had a foundational influence on his early political views. Katayama also developed deep friendships during his time in the capital, most notably with Iwasaki Seikichi, the wealthy nephew of one of Mitsubishi’s founders. Seikichi was not much of a radical, but his impact of Katayama’s life was profound: he convinced his friend to move to the United States and later rescued him from crippling debt. When Seikichi left Tokyo to study at Yale University, Katayama followed. He studied at Hopkins Academy and Marville College before moving to Grinnell College, where he graduated in 1892. From there, he went to the Andover Theological Seminary and eventually to the Yale Divinity School. It was during this time that Katayama became both a Christian and a socialist.

In 1896, roused by socialism and the labour movement, Katayama returned to Japan and began working at the Congregationalist Kingsley Hall, Japan’s first settlement house. There, he became involved in the immature, but growing, Japanese labor movement and founded Rodo Sekai (Labour World), the country’s first labour newspaper. The publication was directly linked to the Trade Unions’ Federation, the Iron Workers’ Union, and also the first Socialist Party of Japan. In 1901, alongside Naoe Kinoshita, Kojiro Nishikawa, Kiyoshi Kawakami, Isoo Abe, and Denjiro Kotoku, Sen founded the Social Democratic Party. The party’s platform was relatively moderate and founded on pacifistic ideals. The Japanese authorities, however, saw the party as a threat, moving rapidly — and successfully — to destroy it. Two years later, in the wake of the Social Democratic Party’s dissolution, Seikichi once again convinced Katayama to move to the United States, encouraging him to start a rice farm. Sen took the advice, but soon had problems with his crop. While a loan from Seikichi and a partnership with a former employer, Tsunekichi Okasaki, helped keep the venture alive, it was short lived. The business disbanded soon after its founding, ostensibly due to Katayama’s socialist views.

Meanwhile, Katayama had been busy raising his profile among world socialists. He attended the Sixth Congress of the Second International — held in Amsterdam in 1904 — where his handshake with G.V. Plekhanov, Russia’s delegate to the congress, demonstrated solidarity between the two countries’ socialist movements, a vital showing of workers unity amid the Russo-Japanese War. In fact, opposition to Russia and Japan’s frequent military confrontations was a consistent theme in Katayama’s work and life. In The Labor Movement in Japan, he quotes a solidarity message that the Japanese socialists sent to their Russian comrades in 1904:

Dear Comrades: Your government and our government have been plunged into fighting at last in order to satisfy their imperialistic desires, but to the socialists of both countries there is no barrier of race, territory, or nationality. We are all comrades, brothers and sisters, and have no reason to fight each other. Your enemy is not the Japanese people but our militarism and so-called patriotism. Nor is our enemy the Russian people, but your militarism and so-called patriotism. Patriotism and militarism are our common enemies; nay, all socialists in the world look upon them as common enemies. We socialists must fight a brave battle against them. Here is the best and most important opportunity for us now. . . . When you suffer under the oppression of your government and the pursuit of cruel detectives, please remember that there are thousands of comrades in a distant land, who are praying for your health and success with the deepest sympathy!

This focus on international unity was central to Katayama’s belief system, and was grounded in his deep longing for peace and cooperation between people of all nations.

When Katayama eventually returned to Japan, the government’s suppression of the socialist cause had heightened. Two events — the Red Flag incident of 1908 and the High Treason Trial of 1910–11 — demonstrate how fiercely the ruling class resisted the rise of socialism in the Empire of Japan. In June 1908, crowds had gathered to mark the release of the prominent Japanese anarchist Koken Yamaguchi from prison. They sang communist and anarchist songs, and carried banners to match. The police attacked, arresting ten protesters, most of whom were sentenced to a year or more in prison. This marked the real beginning of the imperial government’s fight against the Japanese socialist movement. In 1910, twelve leftists, including one of Katayama’s fellow founders of the Social Democratic Party, were executed for plotting to assassinate the Japanese emperor. Several leftists escaped execution because the prison sentences they had been serving at the time of this ‘plot’, resulting from the Red Flag incident, proved they could not have been involved.

After the executions, the dangers of any kind of socialist agitation were written on the wall in the blood of the executed twelve. Regardless, Sen put any thoughts of the danger to himself to the back of his mind in order to fight for the rights of others, and participated in the Tokyo Streetcar Strike of 1911–12. Katayama himself documents this strike with vivid detail:

It was started on December 31, 1911, and lasted until the fourth of the next January. It involved six thousand engineers and conductors. The city of two million was without a single streetcar running in those busiest days in the entire year to accommodate the business and social life of the people. The entire city was tied up and everybody, except perhaps working men, felt a great inconvenience and suffered very much. Strikers conducted themselves with precision and firmness, temporarily organizing themselves to deal with the employer. They got what they were after, and squeezed out of the pockets of the old streetcar company one hundred thousand dollars as a bonus. This was the greatest sort of victory for labour. Those who were in close touch with the strikers were more than pleased with the result. As soon as the strike was settled the authorities arrested one after another of the strike leaders; in all, sixty persons. On January 15, 1912, five of us were arrested and brought to the Tokyo local court and were examined and sent to prison on the charge of inciting workers to strike. Later, three of us were tried and condemned to prison and we remained in prison for nine months.

The Tokyo Streetcar Strike illuminates the imperial government’s attitude toward the labour movement in Japan and its desire to crush it in its infancy — even when the movement was victorious and had some of its demands met, its leaders still faced retribution. Following Katayama’s release, he felt compelled to leave Japan and head for what had become his second home, the United States, where he settled in California. This turned into one of the more difficult periods in his life: he suffered from extreme poverty, and his wife, who had remained in Japan with two of their three children, divorced him. Despite, or perhaps because of these personal hardships, he dedicated his life even further to the cause of socialism.

In 1916, S. J. Rutgers invited him to New York where he met Nikolai Bukharin and Leon Trotsky. Inspired by meeting these prominent Bolsheviks, and by the Russian Revolution’s success, Katayama became an early member of the Communist Party of America and later helped to found the Japanese Communist Party in 1922, a party that, unlike many others founded in the early 1900s, is still standing today. Sen Katayama greatly admired the October Revolution and spoke highly of it in Japan and Soviet Russia. There, he linked the Bolshevik government and revolutionary Russia to the pacifism that first drew him to politics, writing:

Capitalist governments and their diplomats will not make a lasting peace in the world. We know that. There is only one true lasting peace of the world, which is the Russian Bolshevik peace proposed by Lenin and Trotsky when they formed the Soviet Government.

The Bolsheviks and the Soviet Union’s success galvanized Katayama into becoming an officer for the Communist International. He left the United States for Mexico City on an eight-month assignment, and eventually relocated to Moscow to accept a high Comintern position, and to make his home in the world’s first workers’ state. The Soviet Union welcomed him warmly as a comrade and leader of the incipient Japanese communist movement. While in the USSR, Katayama continued to oppose Japanese militarism and imperialism. His letter To the Soldiers of the Japanese Army in Siberia voiced his discontent with Japanese support for the counterrevolution in Russia. Katayama denounced the Japanese government’s manipulation of the soldier peasantry and lauded the Russian soldiers’ defence of the workers’ and peasants’ government. He called on Japanese soldiers to organize a soviet in Siberia, promising that the Red Army and the whole population of the Soviet Union would support them. The letter ended with a rallying cry: “Down with the world imperialists! Down with the Japanese militarists! Down with world capitalism! Long live the world brotherhood of labour!” His fierce opposition to imperialist aggression never mellowed with age, Katayama stood tall in the face of such evils and fought them with his words, and his deeds, from the very beginning of his time in the labour movement, until the very end of his life.

Katayama found a sense of belonging and a feeling of being at home in the USSR that seems to have been missing throughout a lot of his life; once he settled there he never left – bar a brief visit to China - he remained there in the Soviet Union until he passed away on November 5, 1933. After his passing he was commemorated as a staunch internationalist and a revolutionary of the highest calibre; Stalin and other high-ranking dignitaries served as pallbearers at his funeral, and he is among the few honoured with a burial within the Kremlin’s walls. Today, however, Katayama receives little glory or remembrance from the left. There are no shouts of “Long live Katayama!” as there are for many other dead revolutionaries, but despite being one of communism’s forgotten men, Katayama has left a lasting legacy on the Japanese left that should not be forgotten. Today, the Japanese Communist Party that Katayama helped to found is one of the largest and most powerful non-governing communist parties in the world. Over recent years, the party has had reasonable levels of success on an electoral level, and has over 300,000 members. The party also continues Katayama’s enthusiasm for print media; they publish a newspaper, Akahata (Red Flag), which has a daily circulation of about 1.2 million. Whilst the Japanese left remains factional and far from power, Katayama played a profound role in helping to develop the labour and communist movements in the country. While in the post-war period the Japanese Communist Party has played a more moderate role - spurred on by their ideological re-positioning towards neo-communism after distancing themselves from the Eastern Bloc following the Sino-Soviet split - the Japanese authorities still continue to keep the party under heavy police surveillance to this day. Regardless of the JCP’s revisionist elements and their recent role as opposition kingmakers to the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (liberal constitutionalists founded out of a split within the Democratic Party), Katayama’s old party continues the tradition of anti-militarism; running on a platform that directly opposes U.S military bases in Japan.

Whilst his memory is often lost amongst the tide of historical and present communist successes, those who know of him will remember him as a dedicated revolutionary and a committed anti-imperialist and we will shout “Down with world capitalism! Long live the world brotherhood of labour!” as he once did.