Pre-war Anarchism in Japan

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Although anarchist thinking can be detected in long-established East Asian philosophical traditions—notably Buddhism and Taoism—anarchism as a dissenting ideology and lever for social transformation emerged in earnest in Japan in the wake of the encounter with socialist ideas from Europe and North America at the turn of the 20th century. As an intellectual current, Japanese pre-war anarchism shaped debates on the role and means of action of the Japanese Left in the context of the country’s rapid capitalist development and imperialist expansion. Anarchist activism took a variety of forms, from “direct action,” such as labor strikes and terrorism, to social experiments embedded in the fabric of everyday life.

The movement had its heyday during the second half of the Taishō era (1912–1926), when anarcho-syndicalism gained some traction among intellectuals and the working class. Anarchists also paid attention to other visions of social organization critical of state authority, such as agrarian communes and self-government schemes. Increasingly defined in tension with communist conceptions of social change after the Bolshevik Revolution, anarchism lost momentum as an instrument of political dissent in the early Showa era (1926–1989). The conversion of anarchists to communist and ultra-nationalist ideologies gradually thinned their ranks.

From the start, government censorship and repression targeted leftist political dissenters of all persuasions. Of three leading figures who shaped the anarchist movement, Kōtoku Shūsui (1871–1911), Ōsugi Sakae (1885–1923) and Ishikawa Sanshirō (1876–1956), the first two died at the hands of the state and Ishikawa spent many years in exile. The circulation and persistence of anarchist ideas relied in large part on non-institutional channels, sometimes clandestine, among which transnational exchanges—fueled by travel, correspondence, and translation of foreign texts—were paramount.

Japanese pre-war anarchism tends to be read in exclusively political terms, with an emphasis on the theoretical debates that rocked leftist circles during the period. But this perspective ignores the wide range of intellectual and practical aspirations that preoccupied many anarchists and anarchist sympathizers, whose concerns extended into the scientific, geographical, religious, artistic, feminist, agricultural, and environmental spheres. The intersection between pre-war anarchism and ecological concerns is especially noteworthy, and this is where the anarchist influence has remained strongest.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication statusPublished - 22 Nov 2023


  • Anarchism
  • High Treason Incident
  • imperialism
  • direct action
  • anarcho-syndicalism
  • human-nature relationship
  • Kōtoku Shūsui
  • Ōsugi Sakae
  • Ishikawa Sanshirō

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