Abe Isoo’s social democratic commitment to future citizens after the high treason incident

Masako Gavin*

*Corresponding author for this work

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1 Citation (Scopus)


Abe Isoo, regarded as the father of both socialism and baseball in Japan, was one of the country’s most eminent intellectuals in the first half of the last century. A Christian and non-revolutionary socialist, he was professor of economics at Tokyo Senmon Gakkō (the forerunner to Waseda University) from 1899 to 1926, the year he became chairman of the Social People’s Party (Shakai Minshūtō). During the ‘winter years’ of Japanese socialism, Abe broadened his target audience from fellow intellectuals to include students and members of the ‘vulnerable masses’ – workers, women, and children. As such, he was one of very few early socialists (shoki shakaishugisha) who communicated directly with the wider Japanese public, encouraging in them in a spirit of fair play and collaboration with the aim of improving society. Abe, a long-time advocate of state ownership of land and non-profit public enterprises, considered these qualities essential for realizing the central tenets of socialism. Among the few scholars to have written on Abe’s thought, Cyril Powles maintains that in comparison with Kōtoku Shūsui, Abe’s political position was adaptable to the pressures of the times (1978: 143-4). While John Crump argues that after the high treason incident Abe effectively retired from the socialist cause and concentrated on promoting baseball (1983: 299), Ogino Fujio claims that Abe’s multifaceted intellectual activities during the ‘winter years’ were as significant as the actions of those in the direct action group (1990a: 120-1). This chapter examines Abe’s commitments during the decade following the high treason incident, particularly his promotion of baseball and the liberation of women as part of his advocacy of municipal socialism. Through a discussion of these seemingly unrelated areas, this chapter demonstrates that far from abandoning the socialist cause after the high treason incident, Abe in fact dedicated himself to the task of preparing people at the grassroots to become citizens in what he saw as the future social order. Born in 1865 in Fukuoka, Kyushu, into the samurai class in its declining days, Abe became concerned about poverty and social inequality as a child. In 1881 he converted to Christianity while studying at the Doshisha English School in Kyoto (the forerunner of Doshisha University), and then became a socialist after

reading Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward while studying at Hartford Theological Seminary in the US. In 1895 travelling home from America via Europe, he read a newspaper report in London about an international track meeting between Oxford and Yale Universities. Viewed against the back-drop of the Sino-Japanese War, this event profoundly impressed him, so much so that he came to envision international sporting competitions as a means of peaceful diplomacy (1947: 216). Upon returning to Japan, Abe began proposing socialist solutions to society’s problems at a time when these ideas were still new to the Japanese. In one of his early books, Shakai mondai kaishakuhō (Solutions for Social Problems, 1901), he presented a systematic and concise analysis of the country’s prevailing social hardships, and made recommendations for alleviating them. That same year, he not only established Japan’s first Social Democratic Party (Shakai Minshutō) with, among others, Kōtoku Shūsui, but also formed a baseball club at Waseda, appointing himself as its president. Abe’s belief in a gradual realization of socialism in Japan – a transformation taking as long as 500 years – isolated him from other comrades who advocated direct and immediate action against the government. During the ‘winter years’ of Japanese socialism in the 1910s, he envisaged socialism co-existing with the imperial institution, believing that the kokutai (Japan’s ‘national polity’ or ‘national essence’ and thus intimately linked with the emperor) should not be mixed with party politics. The high treason incident further alienated Abe from his radical comrades. From 1889, the Meiji government strove to maintain its control by consolidating its absolute power through legislation. The Meiji Constitution (1889), its accompanying laws, and the Imperial Rescripts on Education (1890) were used to this end (Akita 1962: 31; Gluck 1985: 5-6, 124-7). The promulgation of the constitution legally established the emperor’s political authority. The Imperial Rescript on Education, which served as the ideological backbone of the new socio-political system, remained the official doctrine on education until the end of World War II (Passin 1982: 152-3). Each household – grandparents, parents, and children – was thereby brought under the rubric of their imperial ideology. This control consolidated a state campaign aimed at creating ‘good wives and wise mothers’ (ryōsai kenbo), making women servants to their families and the ‘national family’. The official textbook, Chokugo engi (Commentary on the Imperial Rescript, 1891) written by Inoue Tetsujirō, professor of philosophy at the Tokyo Imperial University, served to clarify the government’s educational aims. After the high treason incident, the Home Ministry appointed Inoue as leader of the national moral movement (kokumin dōtoku undō) to revitalize the moral education curriculum for schools and to ‘give the government’s family-state ideology intellectual respectability’ (Davis 1976: 17). It was in this highly ‘conservative’ social and political atmosphere after the high treason incident that Abe continued advocating what he saw as qualities essential to socialism collaboration and a spirit of fair play. Shortly after Kōtoku and others were arrested in 1910, Abe left for the United States, accompanying students from the Waseda baseball club on a tour of baseball tournaments (Nakamura 1966: 115; Satō 1990: 36; Ogino 1990b: 75). Ogino

points out Abe’s declaration in a seminar to a group of Japanese socialists living in San Francisco:

The current condition in Japan does not allow for social change. Socialism will be brought forth only gradually. . . . We must refrain from radical campaigns against the authorities but I will continue lecturing on theory, and educating people. It is too dangerous to blindly oppose the authorities as Kōtoku [Shūsui] did.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationJapan and the High Treason Incident
EditorsM Gavin, B Middleton
Place of PublicationUntied Kingdom
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9780203495940
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2013


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