Osugi Sakae: Anarchist in Taisho Japan

This book by Thomas Stanley is a study of the Japanese anarchist Osugi Sakae.

Thomas Stanley is also the translator of Osugi Sakae’s autobiography, which is also worth reading. However, because Osugi Sakae did not want to betray the activities of comrades to the police, his autobiography is very short and tends to focus almost exclusively on childhood memories as opposed to activist experiences. Anyone interested in making a thorough study of Osugi Sakae would do well to track down both his autobiography in addition to Thomas Stanley’s biography, but both books stand quite well on their own as well.

This book (Thomas Stanley’s biography) begins with Osugi’s strict upbringing in a military family, and traces his anti-authoritarian tendencies from childhood. The narrative then follows Osugi through his flirtations with socialism, and his first arrest, which confirmed him into the socialist movement.

In prison, Osugin became exposed to a number of socialist and anarchist literature, and emerged from prison as a committed anarchist. Although Thomas Stanley contends that even though Osugi Sakae was well versed in anarchist theory, and borrowed heavily from Kropotkin, Osugi was at heart an individualist first, and a syndicalist second.

In the days before the Bolshevik revolution, the distinction between socialists and anarchists was sometimes blurred, and they often worked together within the same organization. After the Russian revolution, Thomas Stanley devotes a whole chapter in his book to the anarchist-Bolshevik split in Japan. Many former anarchists ended up siding with the Bolsheviks, and Osugi himself initially supported the Bolshevik revolution. He later became disillusioned with the Bolsheviks after experiencing the authoritarian style of Cominterm, and reading the reports from about the Russian revolution by Russo-American anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.

Roughly half of this book is narrative biography, the other half is devoted to exploring the political theories of Osugi Sakae. This may only be a reflection of my bias towards narrative history, but I found the theoretical parts of this book very dry and hard to get through.

Leaving those chapters aside, this book does explore several interesting events in Osugi Sakae’s life. There’s even a soap opera like scandal, which revolves around his experiments with the philosophy of free love. This lead love affair with three different woman, culminating in one of them stabbing him in a highly publicized scandal. As a result Osugi Sakae was largely ostracized by the Japanese socialist movement for the rest of his life.

Osugi Sakae was murdered by the police in the chaos following the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, along with a handful of other socialist and labor leaders. Thomas Stanley argues that this was an isolated incident by some overzealous policemen, and did not represent government policy at the time, but that through the lens of history we can now recognize it as an ominous foreshadow of the crackdown on dissent which was to follow in Japan from 1925.

Thomas Stanely, Osugi Sakae: Anarchist in Taisho Japan, (Havard University Press, 1982).

Author: mediamouse

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