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  • The Theory and Practice of Early Literary Anarchism in Japan:Ōsugi Sakae, Arahata Kanson, and Miyajima Sukeo, 1911–1923
  • Stephen Filler (bio)

Introduction: Anarchism in the Early Proletarian Literature of Japan

Works of literature explicitly influenced by socialism began to appear in Japan during the first decade of the twentieth century. Notable examples include Kinoshita Naoe’s Hi no hashira (The Pillar of Fire), which opposed Japan’s involvement in the Russo-Japanese War and presented a Christian socialism strongly influenced by Tolstoy and Shirayanagi Shūko’s Ekifu nikki (Diary of a Train Station Worker), which was a melodramatic yet skillfully realistic portrayal of a member of the laboring class. However, it was not until the next decade that socialist, or what later came to be called “proletarian,” literature grew to the level of a genuine movement. This essay will examine a number of fictional works written by social activists between the Great Treason Trial of 1910–1911 and the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 in order to demonstrate the strongly anarchist character of the socialist-progressive movement of the time.

This anarchist character was embodied, above all, in the works and acts of Ōsugi Sakae, whose dramatic life and death have overshadowed his important literary and theoretical writings. Ōsugi1 was a scathing critic of then-current attempts to create a socialist literature for the masses and argued passionately for letting the “people” or masses take control of literature. Arahata Kanson and Miyajima Sukeo, his sometime comrades, attempted to utilize these principles in fictional works combining autobiographical, naturalist, and romantic elements. These works have come to be known as among the most successful pieces of “early proletarian” fiction. What has yet to be widely recognized, though, is that in their vitalistic nihilism, individualism, emphasis on “direct action,” and rejection of hierarchy and authority, they were fundamentally anarchist in orientation. Historians of the proletarian literary movement of the 1920s have tended to dismiss such works as undeveloped predecessors to that movement. I [End Page 47] will show, to the contrary, that they were richly developed and constructively engaged in the anarchist-socialist discourse of the time.

Socialist Literary Activity and the Struggle with Censorship During the “Winter Years

The 1911 execution of Kōtoku Shūsui and eleven other socialists and anarchists following the Great Treason Trial was followed by an ordinance banning the sale and distribution of all socialist writings, ushering in the so-called winter years (“fuyu no jidai”) of Japanese socialism. While the lives of socialists were not usually directly threatened—although violence by right-wing gangs or police was a real possibility—publication and public gatherings became so restricted that there was little leeway for any kind of activism. Accounts of the lives of socialist activists during this period invariably describe the presence of plainclothes police trailing them and the possibility of being picked up for questioning at any time—not that this was a new practice. Ironically, the winter years turned out to be splendid ones for the production of socialist literature, and anarchist ideas were central to this flourishing. Ōsugi, who had escaped prosecution thanks to already being in jail when Kōtoku and the others were arrested, was one of the most important figures in this movement.

This essay will often, out of necessity, refer to the socialist or labor movement rather than to the anarchist movement. This is because anarchist ideas in Japan were generally adapted and discussed within the context of the socialist movement, including the socialist literary movement. Until the early 1920s, there was no artistic or otherwise separate anarchist movement, nor had anarchism and communism emerged as mutually antagonistic ideologies. Even in the writings of Ōsugi—viewed by himself and others as Japan’s representative anarchist—the word “anarchism” appears surprisingly infrequently. However, I will argue that socialist literature following 1911 derived much of its character from anarchistic ideas, because the concepts current at the time about the political purpose of literature were themselves anarchistic.

The Effect of Repression on Social Activism: Arahata Kanson’s Tōhisha

Ōsugi’s publishing partner, Arahata, was an important figure in the early anarchist movement and wrote a number of well-regarded...


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