Has striking in Japan become extinct?


Dear reader, what do you think when you hear this word? What impression do you get? Do you see the blood, sweat and tears? Do you see an angry, vicious mob disturbing our civil society? I bet a majority of Japanese people under the age of 40 have neither a positive nor negative impression of strikes. They have no impression at all and no idea about what a strike is because strikes have become rarer in modern Japanese society. This, however, hasn’t always been the case.

In 1974, Japan saw 9,581 strikes lasting more than half a day, involving 3,620,283 workers. This postwar peak strike activity occurred when I was 3 years old. As a child, I remember seeing quite often work stoppages involving train conductors or bus drivers. The latest data is from 2013, when there were a total of just 71 strikes. I teach labor law to teenagers and 20-somethings at university, but the most challenging lectures focus on strikes. The questions I field: “What is a strike?”, “Why would anyone do something like that?” and “What is the point?”

Young students come to my class having never seen or heard of strikes. In that sense they have no prejudice or preconceived notions either; their minds are blank slates. I tell them, “Article 28 of the Constitution of Japan guarantees workers’ right to solidarity, and that includes the right to strike.” I see perplexed looks on the faces of many of my students. If you’ve never seen or even heard of a strike before, it’s hard to really get what it is.

Last year, while I was teaching a post-semester course, something happened that ended up serving as a spectacular textbook for learning about the meaning of strikes. On March 20, 2014, the labor union at Sotetsu Holdings Inc., which handles rail and buses in Kanagawa Prefecture, went on strike. Students at my college, Sagami Women’s University, often use that group’s buses and trains. Several of my students seemed pleased to report that a strike was happening.

Some of my students showed me “strike vouchers” that were distributed at the station to certify to their workplaces or schools that they were late due to a strike. Photos of the vouchers went viral on the Internet and social networks, and comments indicated that the vouchers were seen as collectible treasures.

Sotetsu Holdings claimed they received many complaints due to the ruined schedules, but there was also an excitement in the air among many students and Internet observers who were experiencing slightly out-of-the-ordinary circumstances. Is there something similar in times of disaster or tragedy? Incidentally, the trains stopped for just two hours from the first train until 7 a.m., so schedules were not dramatically affected. While I’m happy the students reacted positively to the strike, I’m sad it illustrates how rare strikes have become in today’s society.

Why have strikes declined dramatically in Japan? The reasons are as follows:

Our work is being chopped up into little pieces involving part-time contingent and dispatch workers, making it harder and harder for workers to build solidarity at a workplace.

Large unions have failed to recruit part-time workers, so the chance for unions to resolve disputes has declined.

Workers are increasingly isolated and, subsequently, turn to lawyers and courts to resolve disputes.

Workers have come to see unions as institutions external to themselves that will aid them when they have labor problems.

In Japan, “the customer is god” and has been ever since singer Haruo Minami made this expression famous:

Whatever a customer does, we cannot cause the customer any trouble. 

We cannot displease the customer who is paying money.

Minami was, in fact, misunderstood and lamented that this was taken as an endorsement. He said: “As a singer, if I don’t always think of those in the audience as gods, then I cannot perform my best.” Yet for the past half century, it is become the mantra of Japanese business.

Add all this together and you get some people saying that “workers are inconveniencing customers over their own selfish desires. They should not involve customers in their own attempt to maintain and improve working conditions.”

One writer who embraces such a view of strikes is Emi Kawaguchi-Mahn. She lives in Stuttgart, Germany, and last year published a book titled “Lived in Europe and the Results are in: Japan 9, Europe 1″ (“Sundemita Yoroppa Kyu-sho Ippai-de Nihon no Kachi,” published by Kodansha in 2014). In 2014, she had written a book titled “Lived in Germany and the Results are in: Japan 8, Europe 2″ (“Sundemita Yoroppa Hassho Nihai-de Nihon no Kachi”). These ridiculous titles are part of a wave of recent Japan-worshipping books, in her case lauding superiority over not just Germany but all of Europe.

She has quite a different perspective on strikes, which happen far too often in her new home. “In my eyes, this (Lufthansa strike) is nothing but blackmail,” she has been quoted as saying. “It’s fine for workers to pressure management. However, involving people who have nothing to do with it as much as possible is a cowardly way to pressure management.

“It is somewhat akin to terrorists who try to force through their demands by taking people hostage. Every time I see news about strikes, all my Japanese friends living here in Germany with me become furious. I can’t believe the nerve of people who can do such a thing with such nonchalance!

“In Japan, a country that worships the customer, strikes draw the fiercest ire among all union activities. In my opinion, although perhaps workers’ rights are a tad weaker, Japan is a far more pleasant country to live in with its dearth of nerve-wracking strikes and irritating disputes.”

I’m impressed that someone with such views had endured spending so many stress-filled years in Germany.

I would like to know what my readers think. Before answering, however, it’s first necessary to define a strike. Put simply, it is the refusal to work by organized workers. The purpose of this collective action is to pressure employers to concede on union demands.

If workers simply walk off a job or put down their tools during a nonstrike, it is dereliction of duty that could incur legitimate disciplinary action under the law. However, as long as certain legal conditions are met, a strike is a legal right of workers not to work. This right is guaranteed in law. Thus employers may not discipline, sue for damages or otherwise disadvantage workers for participating in a legitimate strike (Article 7 and Article 9 of the Trade Union Act). They also cannot press criminal obstruction of business charges against the workers even when the company’s operations come to a halt due to the strike (Article 1.2).

So what are the conditions that make a strike legitimate and thus protected? First, strikes are prohibited in certain types of jobs. In Japan, this includes government officials. Police officers, firefighters and Self-Defense Force members also don’t even have the right of solidarity, although some claim that these prohibitions violate the Constitution.

Strikes must also be directly related to working conditions (or union-recognition demands such as requiring prior consultation for changes in working conditions, etc.). Workers can strike for higher pay or fewer hours at work but not for political goals, social movements or religious activities. (Although it should be noted that scholars such as the late Inejiro Numata to the currently active Satoshi Nishitani believe strikers should have the legal right to engage in political strikes on issues that have enormous economic impact on workers, such as consumer prices, taxes and social security.

The motive for a strike must be in accordance with social norms. This means a union cannot suddenly strike over demands that have not even been negotiated. Workers also cannot strike for exorbitant demands impossible for the company to comply with or with the sole purpose to damage the company or interfere with its operations. It must relate to workers’ conditions or the union’s relationship with the company.

Tokyo High Court ruled on Sept. 8, 2004, that a strike by a baseball players union was legal even though it concerned the sale of a Pacific League team to a new owner. The court said the sale would impact players’ working conditions.

I believe strikes are a fundamental and universal right for all workers regardless of race, nationality, gender, age, type of work or contract. Kawaguchi-Mahn compares strikers to terrorists and takes great pleasure in condemning unions. I believe it is her that is using customers/consumers to take away this fundamental right of workers and forcing them into a position of complete subservience. Remember that customers/consumers have contracts with the business enterprise — not the workers — so it is the company that is responsible for providing the product or service. If a company’s labor problems cause it to be unable to serve its customer, the responsibility lies with the company — not its workers or the union.

Kawaguchi writes as if workers are in a position of strength vis-a-vis the company. Looking back at why labor laws and unions were created, we see that the purpose was to address the glaring power imbalance. Workers fought to win labor laws and unions, to close the gap, and strikes are their most powerful means of bolstering their negotiating position. Without strikes, workers have no way to stand up to corporate goliaths. Workers give up their wages and risk their livelihoods each time they strike. By striking, they convey to the employer that the company operates only thanks to their labor. Germany’s Federal Labor Court has ruled that “signing a collective labor-management (agreement) without the right to strike hovering over management’s head is nothing more than collective begging.”

Strikes have impact well beyond the walls of the strikers’ workplace. History teaches us many instances of successful strikes boosting working conditions at other workplaces, even in different industries. Today, the shunto spring offensive has become little more than a formality, but we should not forget that it once represented a struggle of extraordinary solidarity across industries and workplaces.

Professor Kazuhisa Nakayama inspired me to become a labor law researcher. “Strikes have been around since the first time humans ever rebelled and continue today,” he writes in his 1977 book on the subject, “Sutoraiki-ken” (“Iwanami Shoten”). “A strike is eminently human. Since it is such basic human behavior, strikes have not become extinct even though strikers have faced severe sanction.”

Words as true today in 2015 as ever.


Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union. She can be reached at tozen.okunuki@gmail.com. Labor Pains appears in print on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month. Originally Published in the Japan Times