- A Transnational EmbraceIssei Radicalism in 1920s New York
This article examines the political transformation of the Japanese American Left in New York City during the 1920s. In the autumn of 1918, Sen Katayama (1859–1933) organized the issei (Japanese immigrant; lit. “first generation”) radical movement in New York City. Katayama was a Socialist Party of America (SPA) and a Communist Party of America (CPA) official whom the Japanese government had ousted from his native Japan in 1914. Following Katayama’s departure for the Soviet Union in 1921, labor organizer Yoshio Nishimura and painter Eitarō Ishigaki directed the movement. Nishimura and Ishigaki attempted to transform issei radicalism during the 1920s from Katayama’s theory-based study group focused on understanding Marxism to an action-driven movement dedicated to dismantling the Japanese imperial and industrial capitalist system, defeating worldwide fascism, supporting workers’ rights, and fighting racial and class-based discrimination in America. By the end of the decade, however, internal divisions and external pressures had splintered the movement, forcing radicals to regroup and reassess their policies.
A small band of issei radicals in New York City, energized by the Communists’ consolidation of power in Russia, was determined to achieve a workers’ democracy in Japan. While Japanese diplomats were legitimating Japan’s territorial and economic conquests in China and the South Pacific, Katayama, a writer and editor from Okayama prefecture, was anticipating a Communist revolution in [End Page 55] Japan. The Japanese government had demonstrated its own concern about the spread of communism by deploying over 100,000 troops in Siberia between 1918 and 1922. Katayama, the founder and leader of the New York City–based Japanese Socialist Study Circle, believed that the Japanese working-class rice riots in August 1918 and almost 500 labor strikes in Japan in 1919 made Japan primed for its own versions of the two Russian revolutions.1
In May 1919, Katayama sent 36-year-old Eizō Kondō (1883–1965)—a Tokyo-born graduate of a California agricultural school and one of the older Study Circle comrades—from New York to Tokyo via San Francisco. Kondō had spent the previous 17 years in the United States as a student laborer (dekasegi-shosei), a traveling exhibitor of Japanese color prints, and, in New York, the operator of a small mail-order business in Oriental art supplies. Kondō’s mission was to contact prominent Japanese socialists and anarcho-syndicalists, most of whom were either writers or journalists, for the purpose of organizing an underground Communist Party in Japan. These persons included socialists Toshihiko Sakai (1871–1933) and Motoyuki Takabatake (1886–1928), and anarcho-syndicalists Sakae Ōsugi (1885–1923), Hitoshi Yamakawa (1880–1958), and Kanson Arahata (1887–1981). Sakai was the recognized leader of the Japanese radical movement.
In April 1921, Kondō and about seven pro-Bolshevik Japanese radicals, including Sakai, Yamakawa, and Arahata, formed a Communist Committee to establish a Japanese branch of the Third International, also known as Communist International or Comintern, which Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) had established in 1919. The committee prepared a written draft program. In May, the committee sent Kondō to Shanghai to meet with officials of the Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern. Kondō had to proceed surreptitiously because the High Treason Incident of 1910, a plot that Japanese radicals had allegedly hatched to assassinate the Meiji Emperor, had pushed radicals into the underground. To evade Japanese government detection during his journey, Kondō posed as a Los Angeles–based import-export merchant.
In Shanghai, Kondō spoke with a 12-member Comintern committee composed predominantly of Koreans but which also included Chinese, and persuaded them to withdraw their support for Ōsugi, and instead support the Sakai-Yamakawa-Arahata group. Ōsugi and other Japanese anarchists had not embraced Marxism-Leninism, and viewed the Bolshevik government in Russia as a dictatorship. Kondō also submitted a proposed monthly expense [End Page 56] budget of 20,000 JPY. The Bureau gave 6,500 JPY in cash to Kondō and advised him that it would consult with the Comintern about the budget request.
After the meeting, Kondō boarded a ship bound for Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi prefecture. During the voyage, Kondō met a Polish passenger who was...