The Masses (periodical)/Volume 1/Number 2/The Social Problem in Japan

The Social Problem in Japan

A Country Abounding in the Instruments of Death but Poor in the Means of Life

By John Spargo

WE ARE so accustomed to think only of the quaint and the picturesque features of Japanese life that there is something startling in the suggestion that each little Japanese aza, or village, has its social problem; that behind the picturesque and beautiful features which attract the attention of the traveler are the tragic facts of a struggle with increasing poverty which is arousing the serious thought of the ablest statesmen and publicists in Japan.

It is said of a famous Englishman of rank that he was greatly charmed by the simple beauty of a Somersetshire village, with its low, rambling, whitewashed cottages, their heavily thatched roofs, their attractve old-fashioned gardens, and various other picturesque features which appeal so strongly to the artist's eye. Expressing his delight to the vicar, the enraptured visitor was astounded to find that he had provoked an outburst of radical wrath. "Beauty!" sneered the vicar, "Beauty! I see no beauty. I see only an infernal ugliness of pain and poverty and death." Those who know the real life of the average Japanese village are apt to feel very much like the English vicar when they hear travelers speak of the quaint and picturesque things.

Japan, so far from being the peaceful and happy land we are disposed to regard it, is full of social unrest. In the industrial centres there are the usual problems of unemployment, low wages, high prices and poverty with which our own industrial centres are too unhappily familiar. But it is in the villages that the most serious conditions are to be found. And this is a matter of grave importance for Japan, which is really a nation of villages. "Our nation is founded upon the village," say the Japanese statesmen. "Strong in villages, we shall abide; weak in villages, our foundations are in shifting sand."

The villages are beginning to voice their discontent through the press—especially through the reform press. Something like a "social survey" is going on in scores of Japanese villages at the present time. From every quarter comes the complaint of poverty and excessive taxation. I quote here some interesting figures relating to one village—by no means one of the poorest—supplied by an investigator of unquestioned competence and integrity, a Japanese gentleman whose extensive knowledge and reliability are vouched for by no less an authority than the editor of the Japan Chronicle.

Numasawa is one of the four azas, or villages, which constitute the mura, or township of Higashigo, in the prefecture of Yamagata. It has a population of 800 men, women and children, belonging to 120 families. It is fairly typical of Japanese villages, and is rather more prosperous, or, better, less poor, than many other villages of equal size.

As in most Japanese villages the land is in the hands of small holders, peasant proprietors. Large landed proprietors are practically unknown in Japan, and tenant farming is an exception. It exists to a small extent, however, and is on the increase. As a rule, each farmer or peasant tills his own land with the assistance of his family, his wife and children doing the work which would otherwise have to be done by hired laborers. Instead of rent, he pays a tax to the State.

The chief crop raised in the village is tobacco, but silk and charcoal are both responsible for larger shares of the total income. Rice, barley and rye are grown upon practically every farm for home consumption, but it is significant that the village is not self-sustaining in this regard. The value of the tobacco crop is far from being equal to the amount of rice which has to be purchased

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Drawn by Hahn—Notecracker

Pals

from outside. The American farmer who buys butter and eggs from the country store has his counterpart in Japan!

The total income of the village from all sources—exclusive of the value of the products consumed on the farms—amounts to 13,200 yen per annum, or, roughly, $6,600, or about eight and a quarter dollars per head of the population. This income is made up as follows:

From tobacco leaf
....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
3,200 yen
From silk (raw and in cocoons)
....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
4,000 yen
From charcoal
....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
4,000 yen
From sundries
....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
2,000 yen

Total
....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
13,000 yen

On the other side of the ledger the biggest item of all is taxes. From every side comes confirmatory evidence of the fact that taxation is to-day the greatest burden of the people. Mr. Wakatsuki, Vice-Minister of Finance, has estimated that, taking the entire population, the people of Japan pay not less than thirty-five per cent. of their total income in taxes. Mr. Wakatsuki is of the opinion that this is by no means excessive! Yet there is probably not a great nation in the world in which the State takes more than one-third of the total production of its people. England takes not more than twenty per cent., and, contrary to the case of Japan, much of that amount is spent upon local improvements, education, maintenance of the poor, and other matters of direct and immediate advantage to the people. The taxpayer of Nippon is mulcted for something far remote from his own life, and rarely feels any improvement in his lot as a result of the taxes he pays to the imperial government.

The expenditure of the village of Numasawa on absolute necessities runs its total income very close, as will be seen from the following summary:

For taxes
....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
3,200 yen
For rent on sub-leased land (tenant farms)
....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
600 yen
For rice purchased to meet deficiency in home supply
....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
6,500 yen
For sake, clothing, etc.
....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
2,900 yen

Total
....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
13,200 yen

The figures are very suggestive. After taxes and rent have been paid, and enough rice purchased to meet the daily needs of the people, there remains a sum of about $1,450 upon which eight hundred souls must depend for all their "luxuries," for clothing, pleasure, saving, construction and maintenance of homes, and so on. In other words, over and above the bare cost of providing the simplest and coarsest kind of food, there remains about $1.80 per head of the population, or about $12.08 per family.

Bad as these figures are, there is all too much good reason to believe that they are far from disclosing the full measure of the people's poverty. There are many thousands of Japanese in the agricultural villages who seldom taste rice except on festival occasions. They live on rye and barley, in houses that are destitute of the most ordinary simple comforts. Picturesque such houses often are, but deficient in most if not all the qualities of homes.

From time to time it has been said by the American farmer, or by those who have championed his cause, that it often happens that the farmer's income is less than that of the hired laborer. In Japan this would seem to be commonly true. An official return, published by the imperial government, gives the average wage of a male farm laborer as $20 per annum in addition to his food, and of a female laborer as about one-half that amount.

It is very evident from the foregoing that Japan is being "taxed to death." She waged a very costly war with a much richer country, resorting to the easy, but perilous, experiment of borrowing the necessary funds. Consequently, she is now facing the problem of repayment. Each year she must pay about $50,000,000 upon her war debt. The Katsura government has been struggling hard to meet this problem and to improve the national credit. Naturally, it has had to resort to increased taxation, and the people, already overburdened, groan on account of soaring prices and sinking incomes and clamor for a reduction of taxes.

If the government should heed this clamor, and lighten the taxes on land, it will not be able to pay the interest on its foreign loans and the national credit will suffer. So argues the brilliant editor of the Kokumin, of Tokyo. But the finances of the Empire are going from bad to worse. The farms are being neglected, and the people are sinking into deeper and still deeper depression and misery, says the editor of the Hochi, also of Tokyo. And unless a speedy remedy is forthcoming the fate of the Empire is sealed, and its credit will be more rapidly and effectively shattered than by the reduction of taxes.

The meteoric rise of Japan among the great world powers created an impression in the minds of Western nations of a virile and progressive nation. It now seems likely that her rise was due to an artificial and unhealthy stimulant, which has been followed by the inevitable reaction. The Hochi is responsible for the statement that, since the conclusion of peace with Russia, five years ago, "not a single new industrial enterprise has been started."

Japan defeated Russia, but seems herself to have been conquered by debt. Her best minds are seriously asking whether, after all, the war with Russia was not equal to the financial and economic hari kari of the nation.


Following the time-honored policy of The Masses, we must make formal mention of three valuable additions to our staff of artist contributors. In this number we welcome Samuel Schwarz, Horace Taylor, and A. O. Fischer. Schwarz illustrated the sketch by Björkman, Taylor, the article by Wood, and Fischer, the story by Stettenheim.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.


The longest-living author of this work died in 1966, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 56 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.