For no reason I can easily discern I’m fascinated with the culture of Japan. It’s typically seen as a hierarchal land with a submissive people and to some extent, of course, that’s very true. I’ve never believed, however, that a country which produces novelists like Murakami and filmmakers like Kitano could be too hive minded. Even one of its most fanatical nationalists – Mishima – was a homosexual grecophile who could write as beautifully as the freest spirit.

Reading Peter Marshall’s excellent Demanding the Impossible I was pleased to hear that Japan had flirted with anarchism. An online pamphlet by one John Crump looks at these movements in greater detail.

Much of the earliest activity revolved around a journalist-cum-activist named Kôtoku Shûsui. He came of age as the state was growing more overt in its demands that the populace submit their will to their rulers yet bucked authority in an impressively courageous style by stepping down from his position as a liberal columnist to start an anti-war journal that opposed hos nation’s fight with Russia. For this he was harried, fined and eventually jailed. There he read Kropotkin and declared himself an anarchist.

Kôtoku himself was first and foremost an anarchist communist (a “Kropotkinist”, if one wishes to use the term). Conditions in Japan made anarchist communism seem highly relevant and attractive. Like the Russia which had inspired Kropotkin’s vision of a society based on common ownership, libertarian federation and mutual aid, Japan too was a largely agrarian society. Its agricultural villages seemed ready made for conversion into anarchist communes, especially since the practices associated with rice production had given rise to deeply ingrained cooperation and solidarity among the farmers. Many anarchists besides Kôtoku were enthused by the anarchist communist vision and threw themselves into the effort to popularise this view of how society could be organised.

General strikes ensued, and it seems authorities were shocked as insurrection began to threaten their order. Ideological influences and dreadful state repression pushed some anarchists to violence. This, unfortunately, gave officials the excuse they needed and innocent men were bundled into jails along with suspects. When some anarchists were found with bomb-making equipment the police declared that they’d thwarted a plot to kill the Emperor. Hundreds were arrested and twelve, including Kôtoku, were hung.

Throughout the “winter period” that followed anarchism found minimal support and its advocates were oppressed like the dissidents they clearly were. It’s inspiring, though, that they’d endeavoured to pose such a threat from such shallow foundations, and that they retained a foothold in society for decades. Whatever its benefits “togetherness” can be a tainted chalice for a people and it’s good to know that radical autonomy can flourish in the most severe of places.

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