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Unions in Japan

Yonatan Reshef
School of Business
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta


It has been the large-scale enterprises, private and governmental those largely identified with the old Zaibatsu cartels and military establishment, which have furnished the bulk of unionism in postwar Japan. These, of course, are the very sectors of the Japanese economy which are synonymous with the modern industrialization of Japan -- coal mining, shipping , cotton textile spinning, chemicals, transportation, communications, electricity and gas as well as steel and iron. 

Growth & Development

On the right and supporting the newly established Social Democrat Party was the Sodomei (The Japanese Federation of Labor). On the left stood Sanbetsu (The National Congress of Industrial Unions) which is predominantly under Communist control but also favoring socialists and other left-wing groups.

During this period, Sanbetsu claimed almost twice the membership strength of Sodomei. Sanbetsu comprised of 21 components with 1.6 million members and its major constituents were government workers, miners, electric power, transportation, and other heavy industry groups. Sodomei, a confederation of 24 district federations and 4 industrial unions with a membership of 850,000 drew its support mainly from light industry and the smaller enterprises. It is also well represented in textiles and shipping.

SCAP and Diet restrictions upon government worker unions and the 1949 revisions of the Trade Union and Labor Relations Adjustment Laws however caused Sanbetsu to crumble steadily during the years 1948 to 1949.

Sodomei and various other non-affiliated national unions, all of which were anti- ­or non-Communist, later formed the Sohyo ( The General Council of Trade Unions of Japan) on July 12, 1950.

Currently, there are 4 national trade union centers in Japan:

(1) Sohyo (The General Council of Trade Unions of Japan) -- with a membership of 4,200,000 is the largest and hence dominant national trade union center and represents left-wing political radicalism.

(2) Domei (The Japan Confederation of Labor) -- with a membership of 1,800,000 ranks second and is noted for political moderation

(3) Churitsu Roren (The Federation of Industrial Unions) -- has a membership of 1,037,000 members

(4) Shinsanbetsu (The National Federation of Industrial Unions) has 69,800 members and have usually associated themselves practically, if not ideologically, with Sohyo.

Today, in any case, Sohyo and Domei stand as the two major rival organizations in Japanese labor. Domei has shown its viability in a consistent policy characterized by conscious avoidance of ideological implications and a steady rise in membership, whereas Sohyo has pursued an erratic line of action vacillating between left-wing political radicalism and traditional unionism that has emphasized economic interests exclusively.

The principal functional distinction between the national organization and the enterprise union is that the former largely looks after the political activities of the labor movement and the latter concentrates on the economic. Concentration of the upper structures of the Japanese labor movement upon political functions should not come as a surprise. The initial drive to achieve wholesale reform of the Japanese society, the radical heritage of the prewar labor movement with its rival ideologies, and the realization that Japan's economic viability depended to a major extent upon central government policy drove the national organizations toward their preoccupation with political functions. At the same time the traditional concern with permanent attachment to enterprises meant a primary emphasis on economic activity at the local level. Accordingly, the chief function of the national organization has remained a political one and it is also here that rival ideological and political groupings contest to exercise control.

One evidence of the failure of the enterprise unions to rely upon the national organizers for carrying out economic functions is the latter's lack of personnel and funds. Heavy staffing of the enterprise unions accounts for the relatively large proportion of the funds expended at the local level.

The national unions are hardly equipped to carry out these economic functions because collective bargaining relationships are mainly at the enterprise level and this would require detailed supervision in administering labor agreements. The lack of collective bargaining leadership at the national level stems to a considerable degree from the hesitancy of enterprise union leaders to accept positions as national officers because they are often unwilling to exchange their powers for the relatively minor role that a national leader plays in enterprise union affairs.

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