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The Ashio Riot of 1907: A Social history of mining in Japan. (Reviews).

The Ashio Riot of 1907: A Social History of Mining In Japan. By Nimura Kazuo (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1998. xiii plus 275 pp. $17.95/paperback $54.95/cloth).

The name Ashio is usually associated with Japan's first major pollution incident. In the l890's the Ashio Copper Mine was responsible for the destruction of large portions of the Kanto Plain through caustic effluents released into the Watarase and Tone rivers. With the livelihoods and health of thousands of farmers at stake, the Ashio Pollution case quickly became a cause celebre for Meiji social reformers. What is less well known is the fact that Ashio returned to national prominence a decade later. In 1907 Ashio's miners erupted in a three day outburst of violence unprecedented in Japanese labor history. Using dynamite and arson Ashio's angry miners destroyed a large part of Japan's most modern mining complex. In the end it took a declaration of martial law, the use of government troops, and a heavily augmented police force to suppress the Ashio "riot." By 1910 the Furukawa Company's Ashio Copper Mine stood not only for environmental degradation, but symbolized the darker and more violent side of Japan's tr ansformation into a modern industrial state and economy.

Nimura Kazuo's study of the social history of the Ashio mine and the forces that led to the 1907 outburst of violence provides us with important new insights into the history of labor relations in Japanese mining in the Tokugawa and Meiji periods. Through his careful examination of traditional labor relations in Japanese mines and the way these were transformed by technological developments and new forms of organization, Nimura provides us with a highly textured examination of the emergence of an industrial labor force in Meiji Japan. Using a wide cross-spectrum of sources he examines the background, social organization, and work patterns of Japanese miners on the eve of industrialization and then traces what happened to these as Ashio was turned into a modern mining complex. Nimura is particularly interested in earlier forms of social integration such as the "lodge system" and the guild-like "brotherhood system" by which Japanese miners had been organized and the ways these inhibited and enhanced a transform ation of labor practices and organization at the mine. In analyzing these structures he shows us how new pressures built up and how these led to the eruption of violence in 1907.

Much of Nimura's study is written against the backdrop of earlier interpretations of the Ashio riots which have been important in Japanese social and labor history. He finds himself at odds with the "spontaneous resistance" arguments of the well-known political sociologist, Maruyama Masao, who saw in the Ashio riots the propensity of modern society to produce atomized individuals, and who pictured the outbreak of violence at Ashio as an explosion of discontent from hopeless and isolated laborers. At the same time Nimura challenges the interpretation put forth by o ko chi Kazuo who argued for a "migrant labor pattern" which he maintained revealed a stubborn continuity of premodern social elements that resisted technological change. Nimura's study also challenges the dominant Japanese Marxist school that saw in Ashio a stubborn persistence of semi-feudal elements that inhibited the development of the Japanese labor movement as a whole.

In his evaluation of the Ashio riots Nimura argues convincingly that the demand for higher wages served as the principal cause of the riots and notes that the wage demand was spurred by a significant decline in miners' real wages relative to those of other workers at Ashio in the years leading up to this outburst. Further cause for the outbreak involved complex issues of technological innovation, changing patterns of mine management, and economic conditions and government tax policies that were influenced by the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Miners' wage demands could not be kept in check by traditional "lodge bosses," and new forms of organizational structures and labor agitation by socialists further aggravated a deteriorating situation. Nimura notes that the violence broke out, not as some have argued in the post-war recession (which came that autumn) but at the end of what had been a boom period when labor was still in high demand. While some of the violence at Ashio was spontaneous, he believes that the start of the protest was planned and served as a projection of the miners' wage demands. The labor violence at Ashio, he concludes, was in the end multi-causal and cannot be attributed to the types of interpretations used earlier. He also argues that the Ashio "riot" profoundly influenced both the labor movement in Japan, and the government administrators who tried to plan and steer the country through its emerging industrialization.

In his epilogue Nimura places Japanese miners in a comparative perspective by considering studies of miners in the West. Here he takes up older interpretive models such as those of Clark Kerr and Abraham Siegel that stressed the idea that miners represented the "isolated mass," and the G.V. Rimlinger thesis comparing English and American miners to those of France and Germany. Nimura stresses significant differences between these models and the Japanese experience stressing that Japanese miners were on the whole less prone to violence (with far fewer deaths in Japanese disputes--only one in the Ashio case) and notes that Japanese miners, who possessed little by way of an "us and them" consciousness, were more prone to a concept of harmonious relations between the enterprise and its workers than was true in the United States and Europe. Nimura attributes these differences to the evolution of labor and labor organization in Japan and notes in particular that Japan possessed little of the craft union tradition co mmon to the West and therefore evolved along different lines.

For students of comparative labor history as well as for those interested in the industrialization of Japan this book is a useful new addition that provides many important insights into the way in which premodern forms of labor organization shaped and limited the emergence of a modern labor force in Japan's leading mining complex. The translation of Nimura's award winning study has been ably carried out by Terry Boardman and Andrew Gordon. The latter deserves further thanks for editing the work in an effective manner, allowing the essence of Nimura's arguments to be retained in this abridged version of the original.
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Author:Notehelfer, F.G.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
Words:1060
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