Labor unions in Japan

Labour unions emerged in Japan in the second half of the Meiji period, after 1890, as the country underwent a period of rapid industrialization.[4] Until 1945, however, the labour movement remained weak, impeded by a lack of legal rights,[5] anti-union legislation,[4] management-organized factory councils, and political divisions between “cooperative” and radical unionists.[6]

Labor unions in Japan
National organization(s)Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo)

National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren)
National Trade Union Council (Zenrokyo)

Regulatory authorityMinistry of Health, Labour and Welfare
Primary legislationLabour Union Law (Act. No. 51, Dec 1945)

Labour Relations Adjustment Law (1946)
Labour Standards Law (1947)
Labour Union Law (Act. No. 174, June 1949)

Labour Contract Law (2007)[1]
Total union membership10,238,187[2]
Percentage of workforce unionized18.5% (2010)[3]
International Labour Organization
Japan is a member of the ILO
Convention ratification
Freedom of Association14 June 1965
Right to Organise20 October 1953

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the US Occupation authorities initially encouraged the formation of independent unions.[5] The legislation was passed that enshrined the right to organize,[7] and membership rapidly rose to 5 million by February 1947.[5] The organization rate peaked at 55.8% in 1949[8] and subsequently declined to 18.5% as of 2010.[3]

The labour movement went through a process of reorganization from 1987 to 1991[9] from which emerged the present configuration of three major labour union federations, along with other smaller national union organizations.

National labor union federations

In 2005, 43,096 labour unions in Japan, with a combined membership of 7,395,666 workers,[2] belonged either directly, or indirectly through labour union councils, to the three main labour union federations:

A further 19,139 unions, with a combined membership of 2,842,521 workers, were affiliated to other national labour organizations.[2] The labour union organizations included (with membership figures for 2001/2002)[13] the National Federation of Construction Workers' Unions (717,908) Federation of City Bank Employees' Unions (105,950), Zendenko Roren (53,853), National Federation of Agricultural Mutual Aid Societies Employees' Unions (45,830), All Japan Council of Optical Industry Workers' Union (44,776), National Teachers Federation of Japan (42,000), Faculty and Staff Union of Japanese Universities (38,500), and All Aluminium Industrial Workers Union (36,000).


Meiji period to 1945

In the first half of the Meiji period (1868-1912), most labour disputes occurred in the mining and textile industries and took the form of small-scale strikes and spontaneous riots. The second half of the period witnessed rapid industrialization, the development of a capitalist economy, and the transformation of many feudal workers to wage labour. The use of strike action increased, and 1897, with the establishment of a union for metalworkers, saw the beginnings of the modern Japanese trade-union movement.[4]

In February 1898, engineers and stokers at the Japan Railway Company successfully struck for improvement of status and higher wages. In the same year, ships' carpenters in Tokyo and Yokohama formed a union, and a dispute followed with demands for higher wages.[4]

1907 saw the greatest number of disputes in a decade, with large-scale riots at Japan's two leading copper mines, Ashio and Besshi, which were only suppressed by the use of troops. None of these early unions were large (the metalworkers union had 3,000 members, only 5% of workers employed in the industry), or lasted longer than three or four years, largely due to strong opposition from employers and the government's anti-union policies, notably the Public Order and Police Provisions Law (1900).[4]

With the influence of western coalitions and their mission to implement work insurance in Britain, a multitude of Japanese citizens ignited countless riots, labor revolts, and unionization in order to counter the insufferable conditions. At the beginning of the 20th century, Bunji Suzuki, founder of the inspirational, self-help group, established a 13-member organization, but soon it rose into a powerful resisting unionization incorporating numerous artisans and factory workers. [15]

One labour organization that did survive was the Friendly Society (Yuaikai), formed in 1912 by Bunji Suzuki,[4] which became Japan's first durable union and was renamed the Japan Federation of Labour (Nihon Rōdō Sodomei or Sōdōmei) in 1921. Two years later it had a membership of 100,000 in 300 unions.[16] From 1918 to 1921, a wave of major industrial disputes marked the peak of organized labour power. A prolonged economic slump that followed brought cutbacks in employment in heavy industry. In the early 1920s, ultra-cooperative unionists proposed the fusion of labour and management interests, heightening political divisions within the labour movement and precipitating the departure of left wing unions from Sōdōmei in 1925. The union movement has remained divided between right wing (“cooperative”) unions and left wing unions ever since.[6]

After the First World War, there were many attempts to establish a trade union law to protect the rights of workers to organize themselves, including a Department of Home Affairs bill in 1925, which would have prevented employers from discharging workers for belonging to a union, or requiring workers to quit (or not join) a union. But these bills never became law.[17]

Hampered by their weak legal status, the absence of a right to bargain collectively with employers,[5] and the setting up of management-organized factory councils, over 800 unions[18] had succeeded in organizing only 7.9% of the labour force by 1931.[6] Of these unions, the majority were organized along industrial or craft lines, with about one-third organized on an enterprise basis.[19]

In 1940, the government dissolved the existing unions and absorbed them into the Industrial Association for Serving the Nation (Sangyo Hokokukai or Sampō),[20] the government-sponsored workers' organization, as part of a national reorganization of all civil organizations under central government direction[5] and as a means of controlling radical elements in the workforce.[18] Sampō remained in existence at the end of the war.

1945 to the present

As the Second World War was nearing its end, on 26 July 1945, Allied leaders Winston Churchill, Harry S Truman, and Chiang Kai-shek issued the Potsdam Declaration, which demanded Japan's unconditional surrender. This declaration also defined the major goals of the post surrender Allied occupation: "The Japanese Government shall remove all obstacles to the revival and strengthening of democratic tendencies among the Japanese people. Freedom of speech, of religion, and of thought, as well as respect for the fundamental human rights, shall be established" (Section 10).

In addition, the document stated: "The occupying forces of the Allies shall be withdrawn from Japan as soon as these objectives have been accomplished and there has been established in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people a peacefully inclined and responsible government" (Section 12). The Allies sought not merely punishment or reparations from a militaristic foe, but fundamental changes in the nature of its political system. In the words of political scientist Robert E. Ward: "The occupation was perhaps the single most exhaustively planned operation of massive and externally directed political change in world history."

After the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945, allied forces, mostly American, rapidly began arriving in Japan. Almost immediately, the occupiers began an intensive program of legal changes designed to democratize Japan. One action was to ensure the creation of a Trade Union law to allow for the first time workers to organize, strike, and bargain collectively, which was passed by the Diet of Japan on 22 December 1945.[21]

While the law was created while Japan was under occupation, the law itself was largely a Japanese work. It was put together by a large legal advisory commission headed by the legal scholar Suehiro Izutaro. The commission was quite large, consisting of "three Welfare ministry bureaucrats and two scholars, a steering committee of 30 members (including the communist firebrand Kyuichi Tokuda), and an overall membership of more than 130 members representing universities, corporations, political parties, the bureaucracy, social workers, and labor."[22]

In addition to the Trade Union Act of 1945, the postwar constitution of Japan, which became law on 3 May 1947 includes article 28, which guarantees the right of workers to participate in a trade union.

On 1 June 1949, a new version of the Trade Union Law was enacted. It has since been amended in 1950, 1951, 1952, 1954, 1959, 1962, 1966, 1971, 1978, 1980, 1983, 1984, 1988, 1993, 1999, 2002, 2004, and 2005.[23]

Until the mid-1980s, Japan's 74,500 trade unions were represented by four main labor federations: the General Council of Trade Unions of Japan (日本労働組合総評議会 nihon rōdō kumiai sōhyōgikai, commonly known as Sohyo), with 4.4 million members—a substantial percentage representing public sector employees; the Japan Confederation of Labour (zen nihon rodo sodomei, commonly known as Domei), with 2.2 million members; the Federation of Independent Labour Unions (ja:中立労連 Churitsu Roren), with 1.6 million members; and the National Federation of Industrial Organizations (ja:新産別 Shinsanbetsu), with only 61,000 members.

In 1987 Domei and Churitsu Roren were dissolved and amalgamated into the newly established National Federation of Private Sector Unions (連合 RENGO), and in 1990 Sohyo affiliates merged with Rengo.


The rate of labor union membership declined considerably after its postwar high to 18.5% as of 2010.[3] The continuing long-term reduction in union membership was caused by several factors, including the restructuring of Japanese industry away from heavy industries. Many people entering the workforce in the 1980s joined smaller companies in the tertiary sector, where there was a general disinclination toward joining labor organizations.

Any regular employee below the rank of section chief is eligible to become a union officer. Management, however, often pressures the workers to select favored employees. Officers usually maintain their seniority and tenure while working exclusively on union activities and while being paid from the union's accounts, and union offices are often located at the factory site. Many union officers go on to higher positions within the corporation if they are particularly effective, but few become active in organized labor activities at the national level.

The relationship between the typical labor union and the company is unusually close. Both white- and blue-collar workers join the union automatically in most major companies. Temporary and subcontracting workers are excluded, and managers with the rank of section manager and above are considered part of management. In most corporations, however, many of the managerial staff are former union members. In general, Japanese unions are sensitive to the economic health of the company, and company management usually briefs the union membership on the state of corporate affairs.

Negotiations and actions

Local labor unions and work unit unions, rather than the federations, conducted the major collective bargaining. Unit unions often banded together for wage negotiations, but federations did not control their policies or actions. Federations also engaged in political and public relations activities.

During prosperous times, the spring labor offensives are highly ritualized affairs, with banners, sloganeering, and dances aimed more at being a show of force than a crippling job action. Meanwhile, serious discussions take place between the union officers and corporate managers to determine pay and benefit adjustments.

During downturns, or when management tries to reduce the number of permanent employees, strikes often occur. The number of working days lost to labor disputes peaked in the economic turmoil of 1974 and 1975 at around 9 million workdays in the two-year period. In 1979, however, there were fewer than 1 million days lost. Since 1981 the average number of days lost per worker each year to disputes was just over 9% of the number lost in the United States.

After 1975, when the economy entered a period of slower growth, annual wage increases moderated and labor relations were conciliatory. During the 1980s, workers received pay hikes that on average closely reflected the real growth of GNP for the preceding year. In 1989, for example, workers received an average 5.1% pay hike, while GNP growth had averaged 5% between 1987 and 1989. The moderate trend continued in the early 1990s as the country's national labor federations were reorganizing themselves.


See also





  1. Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training. Labor Laws of Japan. Archived 2011-05-25 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 11 June 2011
  2. Statistics Bureau, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. Labour Unions and Membership (1945-2005). Retrieved 10 June 2011
  3. Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training website Trends in number of labor unions, members, and participation rate Retrieved on June 12, 2012
  4. Nimura, K. The Formation of Japanese Labor Movement: 1868-1914 (Translated by Terry Boardman). Retrieved 11 June 2011
  5. Cross Currents. Labor unions in Japan. CULCON. Retrieved 11 June 2011
  6. Weathers, C. (2009). Business and Labor. In William M. Tsutsui, ed., A Companion to Japanese History (2009) pp. 493-510.
  7. Jung, L. (30 March 2011). National Labour Law Profile: Japan. ILO. Retrieved 10 June 2011
  8. Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training website Labor Situation in Japan and Analysis: 2009/2010 Archived 2011-09-27 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 10 June 2011
  9. Dolan, R. E. & Worden, R. L. (Eds.). Japan: A Country Study. Labor Unions, Employment and Labor Relations. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1994. Retrieved 12 June 2011
  10. Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), Affiliated unions. Retrieved 10 June 2011
  11. Japan Institute for Labour Policy, Survey 2001-2002. Affiliated unions, National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren). Archived 2012-03-14 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 10 June 2011
  12. National Trade Union Council (Zenrokyo) Affiliated unions. Retrieved 8 June 2011
  13. Japan Institute for Labour Policy, Survey 2001-2002, Directory of Labor Administration, Major Trade Unions, and Employee's Associations in Japan. Archived 2011-09-27 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 10 June 2011
  14. Nimura, K. (1997). The Ashio Riot of 1907: A Social History of Mining in Japan. Archived 2009-12-04 at the Wayback Machine American Historical Review, 104:3. June 1999. Retrieved 16 June 2011
  15. Gordon, Andrew (2013). A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present: Tokugawa Times to the Present. Oxford University Press. p. 135. ISBN 978-0199930159.
  16. Baker, D. The Trade Union Movement in Japan. International Socialism, 23, Winter 1965/66, pp.19-26. Retrieved 19 June 2011
  17. Kimura, Shinichi, Unfair Labor Practices under the Trade Union Law of Japan Archived 2011-07-18 at the Wayback Machine
  18. Benson, J. (3 Nov 2008). The Development and Structure of Japanese Enterprise Unions. The Asia-Pacific Journal. Retrieved 15 June 2011
  19. Weinstein, D. (1994). United we stand: firms and enterprise unions in Japan. Journal of the Japanese and International Economies, 8, 53-71.
  20. Sampō is variously referred to in English as the Industrial Association for Serving the Nation, Movement in Service for the Country, League for Service to the State, and Industrial Patriotic Society.
  21. Dower, John. 'Embracing Defeat. Penguin, 1999. ISBN 978-0-14-028551-2. Page 82.
  22. Dower, John. 'Embracing Defeat. Penguin, 1999. ISBN 978-0-14-028551-2. Page 245.
  23. Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training Trade Union Law Archived 2011-06-12 at the Wayback Machine
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