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FOCUS June 2009 Volume 56

Matsumoto Jiichiro ? Peacenik?

Ian Neary

Matsumoto Jiichiro (1867-1966) was one of, if not the, most important human rights activist in Japan in the twentieth century. His main contribution to that movement was as leader of the Buraku liberation movement. He was born and brought up within a household in a Buraku community located to the east of Fukuoka and he retained links with that community throughout his life. After experiencing discrimination at upper primary school he moved to continue his education first in Kyoto and then Tokyo but returned to Fukuoka to attend the medical prior to conscription. He was not required for military service and instead left Japan soon after his twenty-first birthday to spend three years in north China. Returning from there in 1910 he started to work in a building business that had been set up by his brothers. This was turned into a legal corporation in 1916 and it was to grow into a major construction company over the next decades generating profits that would support not only organized opposition to discrimination but also other causes of the socialist left.

Anti-discrimination Movement

Activists founded the Suiheisha (National Leveler's Association) to encourage the Burakumin to overcome discrimination 'by our own efforts'. It was initially based in the Kansai region but when the leadership sought to establish a branch in Kyushu it was Matsumoto to whom they turned for support. Soon after the Kyushu Suiheisha was created Matsumoto was selected as chairman of the national organization and he continued in that role until the movement was forced to disband in 1942. When the movement was re-constructed in the post war era, known as the Buraku Liberation League (BLL) from 1955, he was its unchallenged leader until his death. In practically all of the speeches that he made in the post war period, whether in Japan or overseas, he would talk of the need to oppose discrimination against Burakumin within Japan and seek to establish broad respect for human rights there and across the world.

However this was not his only contribution to the development of progressive causes in Japan. In 1936 he was elected to the Japanese parliament where he continued to serve throughout the war years until 1945. His construction company prospered through the war years and into the occupation. He was a founding member of the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) in November 1945 and following his election in 1947 he became deputy speaker of the House of Councillors until his removal from politics by a purge order in 1949. Nevertheless he resumed his political career in 1953 and was re-elected three times, on each occasion increasing his number of votes.

Meanwhile in 1953 he visited Beijing for the first time and on his return was elected as chairman of the Japan China Friendship Association (Nitchu Kyokai) another role that he continued to perform until his death. All of this is relatively well known and documented in the various biographies and memoires about his life. However in this short article I want to comment on another dimension of his activity that has attracted rather less attention: his involvement in the international peace movement.

International Peace Movement

His purge from politics in 1949 was said to be because of his links with the wartime regime in the early 1940s but a more likely explanation is that it was because he was a prominent and vociferous critic of the emperor and emperor system. In May 1952, about nine months after the purge order was lifted, he was invited to Beijing to attend a preparatory meeting to organize the Asia Pacific Peace conference. However the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) refused to give him a passport. Preparations continued in Japan to send representatives and a delegation of sixty was selected with Matsumoto as its leader. Once again the MFA refused to allow him to go despite him launching a legal appeal against their decision. He nevertheless sent a message to the conference held in October 1952 which was broadcast by radio back to Japan and he was selected one of the eleven vice presidents of the Peace Liaison Committee of the Asia Pacific region. In October 1952 Jean Lafitte of the World Peace Council invited him to a conference in Vienna ? another event he was not allowed to attend.

He was allowed to attend a meeting of Asian socialists in Rangoon in January 1953 representing the Left Wing of the Japan Socialist Party. After this he went on to India, Europe ? meeting Jean Lafitte in Prague ? and finally ending up in Beijing at the end of February 1953. In most of the countries he visited on this trip he contacted local representatives of the peace movement. The following year he visited China again, this time to attend the fifth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China and while he was there he met Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister of India spending a night at the theatre with him. From there he went on to visit Moscow, Helsinki and finally Stockholm where he was one of the four Japanese delegates at a meeting of the World Peace Council. He made a speech there in which he talked of the campaigns against nuclear weapons in Japan, protests about Buraku discrimination and the need to promote friendship with China.

In 1954 Nehru and Zhou En-lai announced their Five Principles of Co-existence as Nehru led India from a position of western oriented neutralism to one independent of both Cold War blocs. The development of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was further consolidated at the Bandung conference held in April 1955 that Matsumoto attended as an observer. It is clear from the speeches he made at this time that he would have liked Japan to become an active member of the NAM even if, or perhaps precisely because, this would have meant Japan would have had to break its links with the USA.

Later, in June that year, Matsumoto was a delegate at the World Assembly for Peace in Stockholm that heard speeches from leaders of the European peace movement including Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre. He was a member of a 'sub-commission' on Asia that welcomed the news about 'the growing efforts of the Japanese people to get their country to conduct an independent policy of peace and re-establish relations with all countries.' This should, they concluded 'be held as a positive contribution to peaceful coexistence.'

Japanese Peace Movement

In September 1955 Matsumoto became a member of the Japanese committee of the movement to abolish nuclear weapons (Gensuibaku Kinshi Nihon Kyogikai) and in April the following year he spoke at the movement's conference. This probably explains the invitation that came in 1957 for him to visit Australia to attend a National Conference for Peace and to make a series of speeches in various cities there in support of the campaign against nuclear weapons. After spending a month in Australia he went on to New Zealand to talk at a number of meetings organized by the peace movement there. Just as he was leaving he was interviewed for a newspaper article. He took this opportunity to re-affirm his republicanism, 'there is a prospect within our time of the end of the Emperor system', of his, and the Japanese people's opposition to the development of nuclear weapons. He warns about the current Prime Minister, Kishi Nobusuke, who was about to visit the country saying that, 'He is not a suitable leader to improve relations with New Zealand and Australia.'

As it turned out this was the last contribution he made to the international peace movement although he continued to give it his support within Japan becoming a member of the Japan Peace Council in July 1959. By this point he was 73 and suffering from high blood pressure. His doctors advised him against foreign travel. Nevertheless he gave his full endorsement to the campaigns against the renewal of the Security Treaty with the USA and the presence of US bases on Japanese soil.

Meanwhile the BLL in the 1950s had embarked on campaigns against instances of discrimination against Burakumin trying to link these protests to demands that the state accept its responsibility for the poverty in which most Buraku families lived. These demands were backed by the JSP but only in 1960 did the government concede that they should investigate to see what might be done. A report based on these investigations was published in 1965 and suggested that the state not only intervene to improve the physical environment of the Burakumin but also provide assistance to enable them to develop their living and education standards. While Matsumoto broadly welcomed the report's recommendations he was worried that the improvement schemes might undermine the Buraku communities' self-reliance that the Suiheisha had sought to encourage.

Two Concluding Questions

We know quite a lot about the contribution that Matsumoto made to the Buraku liberation movement thanks to the extensive coverage of most aspects of his life in publications produced by the BLL. There is however relatively little about his involvement in the peace movement despite that fact that he was a member of several of the key committees within Japan and seemsto have played a relatively high profile role in international conferences in the mid 1950s. I wonder if there is more detailed evidence about what he did sleeping in the archives of the Australian or Japanese peace movement?

Another aspect of his life that remains unexplored is the period between 1942 and 1945 when he continued to be active as a politician and took part in the government of wartime Japan both at the national and local levels. He never talked about this time frankly or transparently. This is understandable. He tried to re-invent himself in the 1950s as an advocate of peace and critic of government both at home and abroad. It would have undermined his credentials if he had been too open about what he did in the war. What is perhaps less easy to understand is why in the twenty-first century there remains so little written about this period in his life. Matsumoto was, like all of us a complicated person, and one who lived in difficult and confusing times. Would it not add to our understanding of both the period and the person if more light were shone on those aspects of his life that create difficulties for those of us who would praise him?

Ian Neary is Professor in the Politics of Japan at Oxford University and is completing a biography of Matsumoto Jiichiro that will be published by Routledge by the end of 2009.

For further information, please contact: Professor Ian Neary, Nissan Institute, 27 Winchester Rd, Oxford OX2 6NA, e-mail