Posters from the 1930s
The Social Context

Toshihide UMEDA

This essay was originally written for the pictorial record of "Japanese Posters and Handbills in the 1930s- Communication in Mass Society-," an exhibition organized by National Film Center (the National Museum of Modern Art) from October 14 to November 4, 2001in Tokyo. It is shown on this website with a permission of National Film Center and Ruth S.McCreey, translator of the essay.


Social Movements after World War I

While socialist and labor union movements did develop in the Meiji period (1868-1912), they were invariably quashed, their organizations outlawed and their journals and newspapers prohibited from publishing. That hostile climate drove those social movements in increasing radical directions, and some of their participants were even involved in a plan to assassinate the emperor. The High Treason Incident of 1910, in which an anarchist plot to assassinate the emperor was uncovered and several of the alleged conspirators executed, put a temporary stop to the progressive movement. In 1912, however, Suzuki Bunji, secretary of the Unitarian Church in Japan, brought together fifteen workers to found the Friendly Society (Yuaikai), Japan's first lasting national labor federation. That event marked the start of a peaceful resurgence of the labor union movement in the Taisho era (1912-1926). Advocating self awareness and self help, the Friendly Society was supported by laborers, who then had an extremely lowly social position, and grew explosively, achieving more than 18,000 members a few years after its founding.

A defining event in the growth of social movements occurred in the summer of 1918, when rice riots broke out nationwide. The riots were touched off by a protest by women in Toyama Prefecture against shipping rice outside the prefecture at a time when local consumers could not buy rice at affordable prices. The rice riots spread explosively throughout the country, with outbreaks in all prefectures except Aomori, Okinawa, Iwate, and Akita. These disturbances not only had a huge impact on the government but also were traumatic to people of every social stratum. In their aftermath, a variety of social movements started or restarted-labor union and socialist movements, farmers' movements, movements for universal suffrage, movements to eliminate discrimination against the burakumin caste, women's liberation movements, student movements, ultranationalist movements.

Japan had been experiencing one war a decade: the Sino-Japanese War of 1894, the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, and then World War I. In the process, its manufacturing sector grew dramatically. Factories sprang up all over the country, the number of factory workers increased, and manufacturers aggressively exported their products, especially textiles. By the end of World War I, industry had become largely concentrated in the four major industrial zones that exist today (Keihin, or Tokyo-Yokohama; Hanshin, or Osaka-Kobe; Chukyo, or Nagoya; and Kita Kyushu, northern Kyushu).

While factory output was growing, under the deflationary policies in effect from 1881 until the end of the century, the farming community was being dismembered, with small owner-farmers losing their land and being forced into tenancy, typically under share cropping arrangements. By the early twentieth century, with about half the nation's farmland being farmed by tenants, the spread of parasitic absentee landlords was causing agricultural output to stagnate. As both factory labor and tenant farming spread, after World War I, labor and tenant disputes intensified throughout the country.

In December, 1918, while the rice riots were still fresh in their memories, students in the Faculty of Law at Tokyo Imperial University started the first student movement by founding the New Man Society (Shinjinkai). In 1919, Hiratsuka Raicho and Ichikawa Fusae founded the New Women's Association (Shin Fujin Kyokai) to advocate equal rights for women, including the right to vote. Meanwhile, the Friendly Society turned into a highly political labor union, changing its name in 1919 to the Friendly Society Greater Japan Federation of Labor (Dainippon Rodo Sodomei Yuaikai) and then in 1920 to the Japan General Federation of Labor (Nihon Rodo Sodomei). The socialists had kept a low profile after the High Treason Incident of 1910 but now became gradually more active. Towards the end of the 1920s, they founded the Japan Socialist League (Nihon Shakaishugi Domei). In 1922, the nationwide Levelling Society (Suiheisha) was founded to eliminate discrimination against the burakumin caste, and the Japan Farmers' Union (Nippon Nomin Kumiai) was also launched, proclaiming in its statement of purpose that farming is the foundation of the nation and farmers are a national treasure. The period after World War I, then, was a time of considerable ferment when people from many strata of society were founding social movements.

Those movements all had their issues and demands for change to communicate to society at large, and they used posters and leaflets, in addition to publishing newspapers and magazines, as potent media for getting their messages across.

The Universal Manhood Suffrage Movement

The Great Kanto Earthquake, which struck on September 1, 1923, devastated the Tokyo-Yokohama area. The quake, which left 140,000 dead or missing, also touched off a man-made disaster: the wholesale murder of Koreans. A completely unfounded rumor that Koreans were lighting fires and poisoning wells led to the deaths of several thousands at the hands of vigilante mobs. In addition, ten socialists were killed at Kameido in Tokyo, and Osugi Sakae and other anarchists were killed as well.

It was in the midst of the devastation and heartbreak after the earthquake that Prime Minister Yamamoto Gonbei announced his firm support for universal manhood suffrage. In response to this statement, Shimanaka Yuzo and Suzuki Mosaburo (after World War II, chairman of the Japan Socialist Party) formed a political study group in 1923 to lay the groundwork for organizing a proletarian party.

The universal manhood suffrage movement had begun in Meiji and, by 1920, had developed into a nationwide movement. There were hopes of progress under the Hara Takashi cabinet, which was formed after the rice riots of 1918; Hara, after all, was known as the "commoner prime minister." Thus his rejection of the idea of universal manhood suffrage dealt the movement a considerable blow. The Yamamoto cabinet's policy on suffrage then offered new hope-until the Toranomon Incident, an attempt to assassinate the Crown Prince (who would become the Showa Emperor), intervened. The bullet did not hit its mark and the assassin was arrested on the spot, but the Yamamoto cabinet resigned the following day to take responsibility for the incident. Work on preparing a universal manhood suffrage act came to a halt.

Yamamoto was succeeded by Kiyoura Keigo, president of the Privy Council, who formed a cabinet centered mainly on members of the House of Peers, since he disapproved of party governments. The intolerably reactionary Kiyoura cabinet aroused opposition from the liberal factions of the Kenseikai, Seiyukai, and Kakushin Kurabu political parties, which joined together in what is known as the second Movement to Protect Constitutional Government to protest the non-party government. In the elections to follow, the party that had held the majority, the Seiyu Honto party, lost, and the three parties behind the Movement to Protect Constitutional Government gained a majority. The Kiyoura cabinet resigned, and Kato Takaaki, head of the Kenseikai, became prime minister and formed the new government. It introduced the Universal Manhood Suffrage Law, which was passed by the Diet in 1925. Until then, only men aged twenty-five or older who paid three yen or more in direct national taxes annually (at a time when three yen could buy about ten kilograms of rice) had had the right to vote; the new legislation eliminated the tax payment qualification for voting.

Formation of Proletarian Parties

As universal manhood suffrage moved toward becoming a reality, proletarian parties were organizing. The Farmer-Labor Party (Nomin Rodoto) was formed in December, 1925, but the authorities outlawed it on the same day. The stated reason was that it had cormmunist backing. Thus, the following March, the Labor-Farmer Party (Rodo Nominto) was formed, explicitly excluding left-wing activists; Sugiyama Motojiro, head of the Japan Farmers' Union, was named as its head. The left wing, however, demanded to be allowed to join the party and organized local branches of it. Meanwhile, the more right-wing members of the party central committee were leaving the party; they formed the Socialist People's Party (Shakai Minshuto) in December. The centrists, who were critical of the leftists but also did not care for what the rightists were doing, then founded the Japan Labor-Farmer Party (Nihon Ronoto). The upshot was that the leftists gained control of the Labor-Farmer Party and, by late 1926, the proletarian party movement had split into the left-wing Labor-Farmer Party, the centrist Japan Labor-Farmer Party, and the right-wing Socialist People's Party.

The Labor-Farmer Movement

The labor union movement, like the proletarian parties, was undergoing a process of fission. In 1925, the left wing left the Japan General Federation of Labor to form the Japan Congress of Labor Unions (Nihon Rodo Kumiai Hyogikai). In December, 1926, another labor body, the Federation of Japanese Labor Unions (Nihon Rodo Kumiai Domei), was organized; it supported the Japan Labor-Farmer Party. The labor unions also split into left, right, and center factions. The Japan Congress of Labor Unions engaged in furious battles, including the movement against the Draft Law to Control Radical Social Movements and leading major strikes. It was proscribed in March, 1928. In December of that year, the semi-legal National Conference of Japanese Labor Unions (Nihon Rodo Kumiai Zenkoku Kyogikai) was formed, but it dissolved in 1934.

The Federation of Japanese Labor Unions, the labor organization supported by the centrists, was renamed the National Federation of Labor Unions (Rodo Kumiai Zenkoku Domei) in 1929; in 1936, it merged with the Japan Federation of Labor to become the All Japan General Federation of Labor (Zen Nihon Rodo Sodomei), but it was disbanded in 1940 with the rise of the Industrial Patriotic Association (Sangyo Hokoku Kai) movement, which gave the state direct control over labor as Japan moved onto a wartime footing. The Industrial Patriotic Association's functions included allocating laborers to militarily essential industries; upon its founding, all labor unions were abolished.

The centrist Japan Labor-Farmer Party went through similar permutations, changing its name to the Japan Masses' Party (Nihon Taishuto) in 1928, the National Masses' Party (Zenkoko Taishuto) in 1930, and the National Labor-Farmer-Masses Party (Zenkoko Rono Taishuto) in 1931. In 1932, it merged with the Socialist People's Party to become the Social Masses' Party (Shakai Taishuto). It disbanded in 1940. Subsequently, with the formation of the Imperial Rule Assistance Society (Taisei Yokusankai), all political parties were dissolved (The Imperial Rule Assistance Society, established in 1940, was intended as a mass political party that would absorb all existing parties; it became a means of government control of morale and resources.)

The farmers' movement also splintered. In 1926, its right wing left the Japan Farmers' Union to form the All-Japan Farmer's Union Federation (Zen Nihon Nomin Kumiai Domei). In 1927, Asanuma Inejiro and Miyake Syoichi, supporting the centrist faction, formed the All-Japan Farmer's Union (Zen Nihon Nomin Kumiai). Those changes in effect moved the Japan Farmers' Union to the left, but in 1928 it merged with the All-Japan Farmer's Union to form the National Farmers' Union (Zenkoku Nomin Kumiai). With tenant disputes becoming frequent and more intense in the depression of the 1930s, as landlords evicted their tenants to work their land themselves, the prospects for a unified farmers' movement front improved. That resulted in the formation of the Great Japan Farmers' Union (Dainippon Nomin Kumiai) in 1938, but it disbanded in 1940.

In 1941, Japan went to war against the Allied Powers in the Pacific. As the events summarized above make clear, however, a period with no proletarian parties, labor unions, or farmers' unions had begun before war in the Pacific.

The First General Election after Universal Manhood Suffrage and Posters

The passage of the Universal Manhood Suffrage Law in 1925 granted the right to vote to an additional 10 million persons (men 25 and older only; women did not gain the right to vote until 1945), expanding the electorate to 13 million voters. The majority of those 10 million new voters were tenant farmers and poor laborers. It was not until 1928, however, that those new voters were able to have a voice national politics, because the government delayed holding a general election in order to gauge to what extent they would vote for proletarian parties. After the city council election in Hamamatsu and the 1927 prefectural legislature elections made it clear that the new voters would not necessarily vote for the proletarian parties, the government called a general election for the lower house of the Diet in February 1928.

Canvassing by telephone or door to door to solicit votes was prohibited under the Universal Manhood Suffrage Law. The regulations on election posters were, however, relatively lenient. Posters were restricted to two-color printing, but they could be as large as a two page newspaper spread, and they could be put up anywhere, as long as the owner gave his approval. Thus, electioneering became a battle of posters, with candidates plastering walls and telephgraph poles with an average of 30,000 posters each.

The proletarian parties received about 500,000 votes in that election, and eight of their candidates were elected. The Socialist People's Party elected four, the Labor-Farmer Party two, and the Japan Labor-Farmer Party and Kyushu People's Party (Kyusho Minkentol one each).

The Proletarian Culture Movement

Writers, artists, and intellectuals also participated in social movements after World War I. The proletarian culture movement took off with the founding of the magazine The Sower (Tane Maku Hito) in 1921. It was launched in Tsuchizaki, Akita Prefecture, by Komaki Omi and his friends after Komaki returned from France, where he had participated in the peace movement led by French novelist Henri Barbusse. They later moved to Tokyo and resumed publication there. Akita Ujaku, Arishima Takeo, and other progressive writers and thinkers cooperated with the magazine and the movement, issuing a manifesto stating they would "protect revolutionary truths." In 1924, The Sower group launched another magazine, Literary Battlefront (Bungei Sensen).

The movement, then becoming more substantial, led in 1925 to the formation of the Japan Proletarian Literary Arts League (Nihon Puroretaria Bungei Renmei). Under growing Marxist influence, the league reorganized as the Japan Proletarian Arts League (Nihon Puroretaria Geijutsu Renmei) in 1926. In 1928, it merged with the Vanguard Artiats League (Zen'ei Geijutsuka Domei) to form the All Japan Federation of Proletarian Arts (Zen Nihon Musansha Geijutsu Renmei). This group is commonly known aa NAPF after its name in Esperanto, Nippona Arista Proleta Federacio. NAPF began with six sections, literature, theater, visual arts, music, film, and publishing, but in 1929 each became independent, and subsequently five separate federations were organized, covering each of the sections except publishing. The publishing section became Senkisha, a publishing company, which published the proletarian literature magazine Battle Flag (Senki). This magazine had so many readers that, it was said, "People would line up to buy Battle Flag that was not yet outlawed and it would sell out immediately" at the Kinokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku.

In 1931, NAPF was reborn as the Japan Proletarian Culture Federation (Nihon Purorateraria Bunka Renmei), known as KOPF from its name in Esperanto, Federacio de Proletaj Kultur-organizoj Japanaj. The change was aimed at unifying the proletarian culture front, and eleven bodies, including the artists' federations and the Proletarian Science Center (Puroretaria Kagaku Kenkyujo), headed by Akita Ujaku, a private academic body founded in 1929 by Ogawa Shinichi and Miki Kiyoshi, did join. KOPF became more radical, however, and members were increasingly subject to arrest by the police. It disbanded in 1934.

Fine Arts and Theater Movements

Since participants in progressive visual arts and theater movements were a major source of posters, they deserve special mention. The major twentieth-century movements in the arts reached Japan as well. Fauvism, the Post-Impressionism of van Gogh and Gauguin, Constructivism (the Russian sculpture movement)-all had their impact. Among the leaders of the avant-garde movements in the fine arts and theater were, for instance, Yorozu Tetsugoro, Kishida Ryusei, Yanase Masamu, and Murayama Tomoyoshi. In 1924, Murayama and Yanase organized the Sankakai, and the following year mounted the avant-garde production Gekijo no Sanka at the Tsukiji Little Theater (which had become the training ground for those interested in Shingeki or new theater in Japan). Gekijo no Sanka represented the acme of Dadaism in the Japanese theater. Thereafter, in the late 1920s, they began moving towards realism and in the process drew closer to the proletarian culture movement.

Of that group, Yanase Masamu (1900-1945), a Western-style painter and cartoonist, had been a member of The Sower group. In 1925 he became the cartoonist for the Proletarian Times (Musansha Shimbun, the legal newspaper of the then-illegal Japan Communist Party). He began actively producing posters promoting subscribing to the Proletarian Times as well as magazine covers. Murayama Tomoyoshi (1901-1977) returned from Germany in 1923 to introduce Constructivism to Japan, becoming one of the leaders of the avant-garde art and theater movement. He later moved closer to Marxism and realism and, in 1926, joined the Japan Proletarian Arts League, as did Yanase. Murayama was another active creator of posters for proletarian theater and other events.

The Proletarian Theater Federation (created after NAPF reorganized) was founded by several theater companies, including the Tokyo Left-wing Theater (Murayama Tomoyoshi) and the Senkiza in Osaka. With the formation of KOPF, the group renamed itself the Proletarian Dramatic Federation. It was joined not only by the Tokyo Left-wing Theater but also by the New Tsukiji Theater Group, the Vanguard Theater, and other theater companies.

As the proletarian culture movement spread, theater groups with left-wing tendencies were organized throughout the country. Confining our discussion to left-wing theater groups active in Tokyo, we find, for example, the Trunk Theater, a member of the drama section of the Japan Proletarian Culture Federation. It renamed itself the Vanguard Theater in December, 1925. In 1927, the company split into the Proletarian Theater and the Vanguard Theater, then reunited the following year as the Tokyo Left-wing Theater. In 1934, when members of left-wing movements were increasingly being harassed and arrested by the police, it took the name Chuo Theater (Murayama Tomoyoshi) and converted itself to the more politically acceptable Shingeki (New Theater) movement. In September of that year. Chuo Theater members were instrumental in gathering part of the New Tsukiji Theater Group and the Arts Theater, to unite members of the Shingeki movement in the Shinkyo Theater Group. One of the key figures in the Shingeki movement was the playwright and director Osanai Kaoru.

In 1924, Hijikata Yoshi, one of his followers, built the Tsukiji Little Theater to house Osanai's new theater company of the same name . After Osanai's death in 1928, Hijikata founded the New Tsukiji Theater Group in 1929 and promoted the proletarian theater movement. His group waa ordered to disband in 1940, as was the Shinkyo Theater Group. The Shingeki movement, however, produced many talented and highly trained actors who became prominent after World War II, including Takizawa Osamu, Uno Jukichi, and Sugimua Haruko.

Finding Solutions for Social Problems

The government also embarked on trying to solve the social problems that the drastic rise in labor and tenant disputes after World War I signaled. In 1920, it set up a Social Affairs Bureau in the Home Ministry. It revised the Factory Law, implemented a Health Insurance Law, and sought cooperation between labor and management through regulations and labor relations legislation. In 1919, the Hara cabinet's Home Minister, Tokonami Takejiro, proposed the Cooperation Council (Kyochokai), which was founded as a nonprofit organization funded by donations from the government and business circles to do research and also to become involved in mediating and arbitrating disputes. The Cooperation Council sought the enactment of a labor union law, because in the absence of unions the increasing number of labor and tenant disputes were intensifying and even becoming violent. For example, if a small factory fired all its workers, then its management and former workers would find themselves bogged down in a morass of a dispute-of an increasingly violent tone. The workers would, for example, plaster the town with posters and stickers labeling the employer a murderer and vampire. The Cooperation Council thought that passing a labor union law would establish a mechanism for labor-management negotiation through the unions and thus promote industrial peace. In the end, though, no labor union law was passed before World War II.

In 1925, the Home Ministry's Social Affairs Bureau founded the Industrial Welfare Society (Sangyo Fukuri Kyokai) as an external body with the goal of preventing industrial accidents, which were a growing problem. Incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1929, it was abolished and its functions taken up by the Industrial Welfare Section of the Cooperation Council in March, 1936.

The Industrial Welfare Society began, from 1926 on, a public call for accident-prevention posters. It held about 100 such poster contests until its disbandment in 1936, roughly one a month for ten years. The slogans ranged from general-purpose admonitions to "Take Care with Fire" or "Improve Your Health" to slogans related to preventing industrial accidents, such as "Safe Is Efficient" or "Messy Hair: Take Care," which was intended to keep people from being tangled in factory machinery. In the thirties, such public service posters were put up in factories and on the streets, where they joined commercial and election posters.

As war neared, those public service posters mutated into propaganda posters for government policies. After the war ended and peace returned to Japan, however, posters once again became an important means of protecting the health and welfare of the people through messages on, for example, traffic and fire safety.

(Researcher Ohara institute for Social Research, Hosei University)
                     (Translated by Ruth S.McCreey)

Japanese Text


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