Source: The Communist International, 1924, No. 28, pp. 118-128 (4,459 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Proofread: Andy Carloff, 2010
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
The Eta Class has become a great revolutionary factor in Japan. The public became aware of this during the rice riots of 1918, for the Eta took a prominent part in this uprising in all the large cities. They proved themselves capable of leading unorganised mobs and guiding mass action. In fact, they were the most determined and able of the revolutionary fighters. The Rioters, led by the Eta, took possession of and controlled entire cities, such as Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto, during the rice riots. From these experiences the Eta became aware that they were in possession of great potential power among the masses. Since then, they have openly declared to the public that they intend to emancipate themselves by their own efforts.
The Eta have formed the lowest class in Japan for over a thousand years. It is estimated that there are about three million Eta at present. During the ten centuries of its existence, the growth and development of this class fluctuated considerably. But the most conspicuous characteristic of the Eta Class through all these ages is the fact that it is proletarian in make-up—it consists entirely of workers. The Eta belong to the Japanese race and it is impossible to distinguish an Eta from any other Japanese.
Why has the Eta become an outcast, hated and buffeted by all other classes? The Eta are confined to certain undesirable trades. They are butchers, leather workers, slaughterers, and undertakers. Buddhism prohibits the eating of flesh and the killing of live creatures. Thus, according to the Buddhist faith, the Eta are unclean persons and have been commonly accepted as such by the people.
During the feudal period (1606-1868) the occupational restrictions of the Eta Class became very definitely defined by custom. Their chief occupation is leather work such as making saddles and other horse equipment, drums of all kinds, leather sandals, etc.; and they dispose of these goods as pedlars among the common people, either making a house-to-house canvass, or selling on the streets The Hinen, also outcasts, did the cheaper sort of entertaining, such as playing various kinds of instruments, singing, and dancing. The Eta Gashira-Dan Zaemon, during the feudal regime, had control of all the actors and actresses, as well as of the houses of prostitution, bath houses, fortune tellers, witch or female fortune tellers, and monkey performances; and of certain trades, such as pen maker (Fudeyui), ink maker (Sumishi), bow and arrow maker, maker of strings for musical instruments, paper screen maker, paper hanger (Fusumashi), maker of unglazed earthenware (Kawarake shi), earthenware baker, maker of hats of bamboo bark or sedge, maker of straw rain coats, stone mason, plasterer, comb maker, etc. Dan Zaemon was himself an Eta, but he was recognised by the Tokugawa Government and received a salary from it.
The prison warders and hangmen and those who care for executed bodies were Eta —everything that was considered as undesirable work by the ordinary person was given to the Eta to do.
In 1708 the chief of the Eta died in Kyoto and there was no successor. After that each Eta village was put under the control of an elder Eta. Thus the outcast class obtained complete self-government.
Long before the revolution of 1868 the Hinin (cheap performers and entertainers) were emancipated and became part of the class of commoners. Some of the professional Eta people were also freed, but the Eta who pursued the old trade of butchery and leather work, and who lived in the Eta villages, were ostracised more than ever, and were thoroughly despised by the common people.
The Eta are not allowed to live outside certain restricted areas—either fixed districts within the city, or entire Eta villages in the countryside. The Eta population increases extraordinarily fast, but it is given no space for expansion. The. Eta, like all other people, wish to raise their standards of living, and their efforts to live a freer and more expansive life brought them into conflict with their non-Eta neighbours. The Government stepped in and passed repressive measures against the Eta. Other outcasts have long since been absorbed by the people of Japan, and all ostracism against them has ceased. But the Eta alone, because of their despised occupations and because of their seclusion, have been oppressed more and more both socially and politically. Finally even the Government itself placed legal restrictions upon them, governing their relations with the rest of the Japanese population.
In 1872 the population of Japan was estimated at 33,110,000 and in 1916 at 55,640,000. Thus the yearly increase was from seven to eight hundred thousand. According to this average increase, the present population of Japan must be about 60,000,000. The Eta population in 1872 was about 380,000, making the proportion of Eta to the rest of the population about 1 to 92. The official census gives the Eta population at about 1,500,000, but it is popularly claimed that the Eta Class comprises about 3,000,000 to-day. Thus the present proportion of Eta to the rest of the population is about 1 to 20. This increased proportion may have been an important factor in the change of conditions among the Eta and in their present awakening. Those Eta who had been living incognito among the people and had mingled with them in disguise, have come out openly. The Eta to-day estimate their own number at about three million.
The growth in the population was one of the chief reasons why maltreatment and oppressions against them at the hands of society increased. In December, 1870, for instance, Wakayama, a feudal lord, said that as he had noticed that in recent years the Eta had developed bad manners and were insolent in their conduct, they must note the following regulations and obey them:—
1. All Eta must walk along one side of the street only, in order not to obstruct other passers-by.
2. No Eta may appear on the streets after sunset or before sunrise, not even in the suburbs of the cities. In the country he must not loaf about at night.
3. No Eta may enter restaurants or other eating places.
4. Except when it rains, no Eta may wear a hat or use a parasol.
5. The only footwear an Eta may use is the sandal. (There are various kinds of footwear in Japan, such as geta, omatetsuki, setta asaura, and kutsu.)
There were numerous other restrictions generally practised against the Eta. For instance, an Eta was not allowed to enter the house of a commoner; if the latter had a gate, the Eta was compelled to take off his shoes and enter the premises barefooted. There is an anecdote illustrating the fact that the life of an Eta, according to the laws of the feudal Government, was considered to be worth one-seventh of the value of the life of a commoner. A commoner once killed an Eta. Dan Zaemon appealed to the Mayor of Yedo (Tokio) for redress and was told by the latter that the status of the Eta was one-seventh that of a commoner; therefore, when the murderer had killed six more Eta, he was to be punished. Dan Zaemon was compelled to submit to this verdict.
Most of the oppressive measures against the Eta were inaugurated during the Tokugawa regime. It was at the beginning of this era that the Eta were placed under the rule of the Dan Zaemon. In 1669 the Government prescribed what clothing the Eta were to wear—their clothing was to be of inferior quality compared with that of the commoners. All registrations of vital statistics concerning the Eta were to be made separately from those of the commoners. Intermarriage between the Eta and commoners was strictly prohibited. The Eta were not allowed to live among the commoners. This regulation, however, was secretly disobeyed. The Eta have always endeavoured to mingle with the other Japanese, often secretly becoming servants in the families of commoners, in spite of the increasing harshness of the Government’s regulations against co-mingling.
The revolution of 1868 abolished all class distinctions and legally established freedom of occupation and of movement. All feudal rights and privileges and all religious and social restrictions were abolished. All people within the country were absolutely equal, and there were no police regulations discriminating against any groups of former classes. A Government decree forbade the use of the terms Eta and Hinin, all people became “commoners” and were equal before the laws of the country. Thus, the Eta officially became the equal of any citizens in Japan. They were admitted to the schools, universities and other institutions of learning, served in the army, and performed all public duties together with the other citizens.
But the customs and habits of centuries cannot be so easily changed by a mere Government decree. The attitude of the other people could not change overnight, especially since the Government, instead of refraining from using any special class name, adapted the word “Shinheimin” (new commoner) to designate the former Eta. Thus the Eta still remained in a class by themselves, shunned as before. They felt this social discrimination more keenly than the former legal discrimination, for they felt equality to be their right and were determined to get it. This defiant attitude made the Eta more unpopular than ever.
The social status of the Eta, therefore, did not improve after the revolution. On the contrary, it has been getting worse and worse. The insistence of the Eta on social equality, in the face of the deep and unshakable social prejudice against them, has made the other Japanese people more determined than ever in ostracising them. For centuries they have considered him to be unclean, due to his profession of slaughtering animals. An even though all of Japan eats flesh and does not consider as unclean to do so since the revolution and since Western influence has increased, the prejudice towards the Eta has not been overcome. In the eyes of the Japanese he was born unclean and he must not come in contact with those who are pure. The Eta still cannot intermarry with the others. Even in business circles he is made to feel the stigma of his birth. Legally he cannot be denied his part in business transactions, but an Eta has no chance of promotion in a Japanese business house, unless it is controlled by Eta. As he is compelled to serve in the army and navy (he has shown marked abilities in some instances in these fields) it is impossible to deny him the advantages of higher education. But even in these enlightened spheres, social ostracism is felt keenly by him, especially since he is theoretically and legally the equal of all.
The economic conditions of the Eta has become decidedly worse than it was during the feudal regime. Although the Eta during that time had been restricted to certain occupations, he had had the advantage of a monopoly in those trades. With the introduction of capitalist methods of production, the slaughtering of animals began to be done by large slaughter-houses companies. Tanning of hides and the making of harness and other leather goods began to be done on a large scale. The less “unclean” of the minor trades, such as policeman, undertaker, and prison warder, became respectable trades and were adopted by commoners. Thus the trades of the Eta have slipped from them, but their social ostracism is more distinct than ever. As a class the Eta became poorer, their standard of living became lower, more and more they deserved to be called filthy—economically and socially they were being crushed.
To escape social stigma and economic discrimination, hundreds of Eta secretly mingle with the commoners and pursue various trades among them. But theirs is a precarious position, for they are in constant danger of being discovered.
The children of the Eta also suffer. In the larger Eta village, there is usually an elementary school especially for Eta children, but the Eta children in the smaller villages and from scattered Eta families are compelled to attend the ordinary schools. These children are persecuted by the other children in the school and are discriminated against by the school authorities. Some time ago in Nara Prefecture there was a serious riot of Eta inhabitants because some Eta children had been maltreated by the school authorities and had been insulted by their schoolmates.
In the army barracks and in the universities and higher institutions of learning, Eta soldiers and students are discriminated against by the others. This coming generation of youthful Eta find such, social ostracism unbearable.
But the Eta have shown themselves capable of throwing off these social and economic burdens. In the rice riots of 1918 came the first test of strength, and ever since then they have been asserting their rights at every opportunity. Naturally, this results in greater suspicion on the part of the privileged classes than ever before, and frequently the Eta are openly insulted.
Encouraged by their successes in the rice riots, the Eta have begun an organised movement for emancipation. The organisation they have formed is called “Suiheisha.”
“Suihei” means horizon and “sha” means society. The intentions of the Eta to rise from their present submerged condition to the level of other classes are indicated in this name. Their movement is meant to bring about a general water-level of all classes. Comrade Sano, the leader of the Japanese Communist movement, writing in “La Emancipo,” a radical monthly, explained the ideals of the members of Suiheisha as follows:—
“The new society that the members of Suiheisha are depicting for the future is ‘Suihei no Shakai,’ or a water-level society. Suiheishakai is the promised land for the members of Suiheisha, a society in which all men stand on the same level line; it is a non-class, non-exploitation society, where all men work equally and all men enjoy equally. In this society will blossom forth in modern garb the beautiful ideals of Shinran, the revolutionary religious leader; through this society the ‘Kingdom of Liberty’ will be realised, which, according to Karl Marx and Engels, will follow the destruction of capitalist society.”
The name Suiheisha has come to be of great revolutionary significance in present-day Japan. The association was organised in March, 1921, in Wabara, Nara Prefecture, by Selichiro Sakamoto, Mankichi Nishimitsu, Kisaku Kornai, Tomiichi Yoneda and others, after the Youth Comrades’ Association was dissolved. At the very beginning the Suiheisha refused to campaign for the abolition of discriminations by appealing to the sympathies of the non-Eta population; it launched a spontaneous movement among the Eta people themselves, endeavouring to awaken them and draw their attention to the necessity of a mass movement on their own behalf. They issued a call for organising the Suiheisha throughout the 6,000 Eta villages in the country. There was a ready response to the call from many villages, and numerous branches have been organised. The work was so successful that it was decided to hold a national congress of Suiheisha.
The first national Congress of Suiheisha was opened on March 3, 1922, in Okasaki Public Hall, Kyoto. Four thousand delegates were present and the following platform and resolutions were passed
1. The Eta people shall achieve their liberation through their own acts.
2. We, the people of the Special Community, demand full liberty to choose occupations as well as complete economic freedom, and are determined to obtain them.
3. We, who now understand the laws of life, shall march to the final goal of human perfection.
1. Those who offer us insult and act contemptuously towards us shall be reprimanded in the most thoroughgoing manner.
2. At the National Headquarters of Suiheisha at Kyoto, monthly organ, “Suihei,” shall be published.
3. Having submitted our case to East and West Honganji (Buddhist Sects), in the ranks of which the Eta constitute an overwhelming majority, we await an answer as to the attitude of the sect toward our movement for emancipation, and shall determine our own attitude in future in accordance with the reply given.
The national Suiheisha was organised, a constitution and by-laws were adopted, and the following lines of activity were laid down:—
1. Diffusion of education among the masses.
2. Housing reform.
3. Establishment of consumers’ co-operative unions.
4. Settlement of conflicts by arbitration.
5. Road repairing.
6. Improvement of conditions in slaughter houses.
During the first year of its existence, the influence of the Suiheisha steadily increased throughout the country. On March 3, 1923, the Second National Congress was called.
The Second National Congress was attended by 5,000 delegates who had full voting power, and about 5,000 in an advisory capacity. These, together with interested non-official visitors, brought the attendance to over thirty thousand. There were several women, young girls and youths among the delegates. Three urban prefectures—Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, and 26 rural prefectures, in fact, almost all sections of the country, were represented.
The Enlarged Executive held their conference on March 2, and various field reports were made. The most impressive report and proposal was that of the boys’ and girls’ organisation of Suiheisha.
The Second Congress passed many important measures to be carried out during the ensuing year. With reference to discrimination in the army and navy, the Congress voted a strong protest to be sent to the Ministers of the Army and Navy. One of the branches of Suiheisha proposed that an appeal be sent to the Government asking it to pass a law to punish those guilty of insulting the Eta; this proposal was unanimously voted down, for the Eta have resolved not to depend upon present laws for redress, by which they mean that they do not trust the laws passed by the present Parliament. With reference to ostracism, they voted to continue direct action in retaliation for insults as long as there are no effective legal guarantees against such discrimination.
The resolution which will have the most far-reaching effect is the one with reference to religion. The Shinshu Sect was the only Buddhist Sect which admitted the Eta people to worship. For 700 years the Honganji, or Shinshu Sect, has been taking advantage of its monopoly privileges over the Eta, and exploiting them in the most thorough-going manner. At the Congress the Eta passed a resolution not to support the Shinshu either financially or morally for 20 years, thus breaking with the only religious sect that will admit them.
Other important resolutions were passed, some of which are as follows:—
1. To establish producing and consumers’ co-operative unions.
2. To establish a Suiheisha Library, as well as circulating or travelling libraries.
3. To reconstruct the Youths’ Association and Saigo Gunjinka (Association of Reservists).
4. To establish a peasant union.
5. To establish a women’s branch of Suiheisha.
6. To establish a propaganda school to train youths for fighting.
7. To establish a Suiheisha printing house.
8. To publish a weekly organ (a monthly organ is already in existence).
9. To internationalise the Suiheisha movement.
The third resolution requires explanation. There already exist Youths and Reservists Associations which are semi-official in character, and, of course, are decidedly reactionary. They were organised for the purpose of checking any radical ideas or movements. In many places to-day they are working in conjunction with the Fascists. The Suiheisha intends to reconstruct them into associations that are more in accord with its purposes.
A street parade through the City of Kyoto preceded the opening of the Second Congress on March 3. The Press estimated that over thirty thousand people took part in the parade. The sessions were conducted entirely by Eta, and no regular policemen were present during the proceedings, as there had been on the previous day. Their own committee kept perfect order.
All the resolutions and manifestos adopted by the Congress were unanimously passed, although some of them evoked heated discussions.
The tone and spirit of many of the speeches delivered at the Congress clearly indicated its revolutionary and decidedly proletarian character. The Government found it difficult to interfere directly with such a strong mass movement; it was compelled to resort to indirect action through the barbarous Fascist movement to counteract the influence of the Eta and to fight against its increasing development.
Open fights have occurred between Fascist bands and Eta groups, some of them taking the shape of armed conflicts and developing into riots and bloody battles. I shall give an account later of such a battle which recently took place between the Eta and the Fascisti in Nara Prefecture.
On March 18 a pitched battle was fought between the members of Suiheisha in Shimo Mizu and the members of Kokusuikai (the Japanese Fascist organisation), in Isogi County, Nara Prefecture. The battle lasted for two days, from four to five hundred persons were engaged on each side, armed with various weapons, such as pitchforks, bamboo lances, and rifles. It was the most bloody battle that had ever taken place in the experience of the district police. Several people on each side were seriously wounded, and many were injured. Several hundred police were called upon to suppress the fight; the army at Osaka was asked to send a battalion, but the fighting had ceased before it arrived. According to the Press reports, over 5,000 persons were involved during the two days’ fighting.
The immediate cause of this bloody conflict was the insult offered to Katsujiro Minaraitso, a member of the Suiheisha, by Kumakichi Morita, a member of the Kokusuikai, at the former’s wedding procession. The local Executive of the Suiheisha demanded that the insult be retracted and that proper apologies be made. Morita, backed by the Kokusuikai organisation, flatly refused. The Suiheisha responded with mass action, several hundred armed men invading the village where the perpetrator lived. The Kokusuikai immediately prepared for battle, calling upon its members from all the neighbouring towns, and arming them. The members of the Suiheisha throughout the adjoining prefectures read of the fight in the Press or heard of it by direct communication, and ten thousand Eta were soon ready to come to the assistance of their comrades.
The Government authorities did not immediately suppress the riot by force; but sent in the police inspector to attempt mediation. Comrade Takahashi, writing in the “Emancipation,” a monthly, described the event as follows: “In Shimo Mizu an important event took place that frightened and terrorised the public. A conflict between Suiheisha and Kokusuikai, arising from the ‘four-finger’ insult, has assumed the proportions of a bloody battle fought on both sides of the river. Troops were called upon to suppress the fighting. From beginning to end the members of the Suiheisha conducted themselves with dignity. They fought against the united front of Kokusuikai, police, and gamblers’ organisations and demonstrated by their acts how close the bonds are that tie the members of the Suiheisha into one great brotherhood.”
After a great deal of discussion and persuasion, Kumakishi was at last prevailed upon to write an apology. The members of the Suiheisha gained their point, but at the price of imprisonment of many of their members. Nearly 20 are now being tried. The determined fight of the Suiheisha terrorised the ruling class and gained the admiration and sympathy of the workers and peasants of the country. The Government, in consequence, began to persecute the members of the Suiheisha and tried to suppress the movement, but in vain. The movement has been growing in intensity and scope, and the members have become more class-conscious and revolutionary in spirit.
The Press frequently reports conflicts between the Suiheisha members and the Fascist organisations. In Fukuoka several of the Suiheisha members have been imprisoned on charges of rioting. The Mayor of one of the villages insulted a member of the Suiheisha and was threatened with force by the organisation. As a consequence he resigned his position, but over 200 members were arrested on a charge of sedition.
Since the Second Congress held in March, the Suiheisha has been growing steadily throughout the country. Many new branches have been organised, new members have been pouring in, and the youths’ and women’s organisations have taken definite shape. A good deal of work has been done along the lines laid down by the Congress, in spite of repressive and brutal interference by the Government. On April 3 the Suiheisha of Hyogo Prefecture held a prefectural conference, and on April 30 one was held in Kyushu under the banner of the class struggle. In Gamma Prefecture one thousand members were present at a prefectural conference held recently.
The Suiheisha movement has a great mission to perform, not only in emancipating the Eta, but in reconstructing all of society in common with the workers and peasants. It has become more and more proletarian in character, its leaders are closely identified with the labour and peasant movements, and its tendencies are veering definitely toward social revolution. Efforts are being made to make the movement an international one. It is in close communication with the Japanese immigrants in America and Canada, and its propaganda has recently been extended to Korea, where there is a similarly submerged class. The editor of “La Emancipo,” reviewing the work of the Second Congress of the Suiheisha, makes the following predictions with regard to the future of the Suiheisha movement: “It is my firm conviction that the Suiheisha is one of the greatest factors in the coming radical reconstruction in Japan,”
The Suiheisha, the organisation representing the movement for emancipation of the Eta in Japan, will, as the editor of “La Emancipo” predicted, play an important role in the social revolution in the Far East. At the Second Congress, two youths who spoke made a great impression on those present—Masuda Hisao, a girl delegate, and Konojiro Yamada, a boy delegate, 15 years of age. Their speeches inspired their listeners with the profoundest sympathy for the youth movement. Since then, the movement among the youths and the women has been progressing rapidly throughout the country. Thus the movement for the emancipation of the Eta will surely play a great role in the coming struggle of the proletariat of Japan.
1. Before the bourgeois revolution of 1868, there were three recognised classes in Japan. The Eta were not included in any of these classes. Hence, holding up four fingers to an Eta is a popular form of insult.