Bread and Roses: How Nakasone Crushed Japan’s Labor Movement

SNA (Tokyo) — Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone died this past November 29. During his tenure as prime minister from 1982 to 1987, he had deepened Japan’s subordination to the US hegemon through his Ron-Yasu Bromance with President Ronald Reagan. But to one middle and high schooler in the 1980s, he seemed to be the first prime minister to hold his own in friendly talks with the United States, almost as an equal.

At 178 cm, a good deal taller than previous prime ministers and just 6 cm shy of Reagan’s 184 cm, Nakasone’s stature and self-conscious charisma carved a strong visual on my childhood memory. Previous prime ministers were mainly bland, bureaucratic incrementalists.

This war hawk called for the immediate abolition of the Constitution of Japan (supposedly “forced” on Japan by the United States) and its replacement with a constitution crafted by Japan, one without that pesky Article 9, which prohibits war and even a military.

His opportunism earned him the moniker “weathervane of the political world.” He halted his visits to the war-glorifying Yasukuni Shrine after a storm of protests from China and South Korea. This flip-flop underlined his passion for improving Sino-Japanese ties.

Nakasone also broke the back of Japan’s labor movement.

Just after midnight on April 1, 1987, Japan National Railways (JNR) died at age 115. Teary eyed train nerds packed a plaza in front of Shiodome Freight Terminal (originally named Shimbashi Station) to greet newly-privatized Japan Railways (JR) and to say sayonara to Japan National Railways (JNR) with a plaintive send-off whistle from a prewar Class 56 steam engine.

As a high school student in Nara that year, I remember my initial unease seeing the new sign for our central terminus JR Nara Station, after the removal of the familiar JNR Nara Station sign. A missing letter N can make all the difference.

Nakasone rammed through the breakup and privatization of JNR, drawing in politicians, bureaucrats, and financiers in a fierce human drama that encompassed the entire archipelago. The drama hit all the dramatic notes of friendship, exacerbation, solidarity, calculation, betrayal, feelings, and foibles.

The premier worked with business leaders to push privatization and deregulation in order to smooth over the internationalization and streamlining of Japan’s economy. He aimed to smash the JNR labor union first and foremost, seeing it as a me no ue no tankobu (literally meaning “an abnormal protuberance or swelling above the eye,” but equivalent to the English-language expression “a thorn in his side”).

Countless labor unions emerged in Japan after the Pacific War, but the biggest and baddest of them all was Kokuro (National Railway Workers’ Union). This pro-Socialist Party union at its peak boasted over half a million members, and constituted the core of Sohyo (General Council of Trade Unions of Japan), the largest labor union federation in Japan at the time.

In 1989, shortly after the Nakasone Era, Sohyo merged with the conservative Domei (Japan Confederation of Labor) to create today’s Rengo (Japanese Trade Union Confederation), which just marked its 30th anniversary. My Tozen Union belongs to Rengo Tokyo.

JNR had bled red ink since 1964. The state-run enterprise at first used retained earnings carried forward to get by, but by 1967 these had dried up. Executives embarked on a plan to lay off 50,000 workers. Each engine had an engineer and an assistant, and the plan would eliminate the assistants. In response, an outraged Kokuro and Doro (National Railway Locomotive Engineers’ Union) went on strike. They won a delay in the layoffs and a consultative system at the workplace.

JNR Director-General Satoshi Isozaki, who took office in 1969, instituted a trainee system for middle managers ostensibly to boost productivity, but with the true purpose of busting up the unions. Such was the result: Some 3,000 to 5,000 workers were driven from both unions (Kokuro and Doro) each month beginning in 1971. Nine years later, Nakasone arrived on the scene to deliver the coup de grace.

At the time, Nakasone directed the Administrative Management Agency, serving then-Prime Minster Zenko Suzuki. Nakasone decided to break up and privatize JNR in order to divide and weaken the unions further. He believed he could finally choke the life out of the 1955 System (1955 to 1993), which saw the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) hold almost two-thirds of Diet seats and the Socialists holding most of the rest.

Nakasone’s plans to eliminate the Peace Constitution required a solid two-thirds of the Diet. Kokuro alone had close ties with about twenty of the Socialists’ Diet seats. He had to break up the unions along with JNR in order to put the LDP over the two-thirds threshold.

Nakasone launched the Second Ad Hoc Administrative Reform Council led by Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) Honorary Chairman Toshio Doko. This former engineer was known affectionately as Sardine Doko, due to his famed frugality that limited him to the daily consumption of dried, salted fish. The commission’s purpose was to debate how to break up and privatize JNR.

This attack certainly got the unions’ attention, but Doro, which had been considered the militant if not extremist partner in the alliance of JNR unions, suddenly switched tracks from fighting the proposed changes to negotiating terms.

Doro Executive President Akira Matsuzaki determined that JNR had no future on its current track. He had apparently made a deal with Nakasone to go along with the breakup and privatization in exchange for an agreement not to crack down on his political group Kakumaruha (Japan Revolutionary Communist League, Revolutionary Marxist Faction).

The background to all this was a violent war since the 1960s between two militant groups, the Kakumaruha and the Chukakuha (Japan Revolutionary Communist League, National Committee).

This break from solidarity with Kokuro led to internecine conflict like never before seen in postwar Japan, with outrage and betrayal felt by groups within Doro (including Doro Chiba, National Railway Chiba Motive Power Union, later associated with Chukakuha) that then splintered off to continue the fight to this day. Sohyo shattered and reorganized into several small and three large pieces (the current three labor union federations Rengo, Zenroren, and Zenrokyo).

Nakasone’s plans had worked.

JNR itself had split into six JR passenger and one cargo company, all privatized.

My late mother was born in 1937. Her cousin got a job at JNR after high school in a rural area of Mie Prefecture. She told me that people back then encouraged their children to get a JNR job, thinking it would offer job security because the boss is the Hinomaru (the flag of Japan). Surely it would never collapse.

Nakasone thought labor unions were strong at state-run companies, and that strong unions encouraged unprofessional lackadaisical behavior. He would need to privatize and crush the labor unions that protected such lazy, unambitious workers in order to increase the performance and efficiency of Japan’s rail travel.

The result has been that operators, conductors, and station staff who make mistakes during work are disciplined and removed from central train duties. This in turn has led to staff shortfalls that many believe led to the 2005 Amagasaki derailment that killed 107 passengers. Excessive focus on efficiency and performance has lowered the quality of life and the health of workers and their families, while causing a ripple effect of anxiety throughout society.

Perhaps Nakasone did not think his plan all the way through.

This history of JNR and its unions retains relevance today in 2020 for labor union activists, including me. Labor’s biggest enemy was not the late Yasuhiro Nakasone. Rather, we are our own worst enemies. We ourselves must decide if solidarity is to be anything more than a word to fling about to make us feel good. Do we intend to free ourselves from narrow sectarianism?

After retiring from politics, Nakasone appeared on a Sunday debate show on NHK, the state-run TV broadcaster. He didn’t bother concealing his union busting: “The union Kokuro was the core of the union federation Sohyo, so I felt we eventually would have to destroy it. So, when I became prime minister, I set about to privatize JNR in earnest. Thankfully, we succeeded. When we privatized JNR, the strongest opponent of privatization, Kokuro, also collapsed.”

Back in the day, Nakasone survived relentless questioning on his ties to the twin mega-scandals of the 1970s and 1980s, the Lockheed Scandal and the Recruit Scandal. Then, after his retirement, despite the above on-air confession, opposition parties seemed uninterested in pursuing the matter, arguing “well, he has already retired, so …” He had wriggled away again.

The late prime minister once wrote a haiku: “Even as dusk falls, cicada sing till their final moment.”

On top of his countless other scandals, Nakasone got away with crushing Japan’s extraordinary labor movement. He died peacefully at the ripe age of 101.

This article was written by Hifumi Okunuki, and originally published by the Shingetsu News Agency (SNA).