by Kanza Takeshi and Joseph Essertier, Aichi Solidarity Union, July 5, 2021
In the last few years, the government of Japan has severely cracked down on dozens of members of a branch of a labor union called the “Solidarity Union of Japan Construction and Transport Workers, Kansai Area Branch” (Zen Nihon kensetsu unyu rentai rōdō kumiai Kansai chiku namakon Shibu) or “Kansai Namakon” for short. Between 9 August 2018 and 14 November 2019, there were 89 arrests of 57 people in connection with 18 incidents, in the cities of Kyoto and Osaka, as well as in Wakayama Prefecture. In this highly unusual crackdown, out of those 57 people, indictments were brought against almost all of them. According to Mainichi Newpaper, this is “said to be the largest criminal case involving the labor union movement in the postwar period,” in other words, the largest case in the last three quarters of a century.
In Japan, labor unions are often formed within one company, but Kansai Namakon is a Western-style trade union. (“Namakon” means “ready-mixed concrete” in Japanese). At one time, they had organized about 1,300 truck drivers transporting ready-mixed concrete (i.e., “concrete mixers”). Known for its militancy, Kansai Namakon held one strike in 2010 that lasted for 139 days. That was a struggle aimed at stopping the redevelopment of Osaka Train Station.
Kansai Namakon is also a powerful advocate of peace. They have dispatched union members to Henoko, Okinawa to oppose the expansion of the existing U.S. base, Camp Schwab and organized car caravans nationwide in order to prevent the new construction there, construction that is very unpopular among Okinawans.
The union has received major support from the national organization Peace Forum, an organization that originally grew out of the labor movement (especially the General Council of Trade Unions or “Sōhyō”). Peace Forum focuses on peace, the Buraku Liberation Movement and other human rights movements, and environmentalism such as the campaign to ban synthetic detergents. In cooperation with their affiliate, the Japan Congress Against A- and H-Bombs (or Gensuikin), they have also been involved in the campaign to abolish nuclear weapons and nuclear power.
In Japan, the number of strikes dropped sharply after 1989 when the national centers for left-wing labor unions were disbanded. But Kansai Namakon had a remarkable capacity to continue to struggle for workers’ rights even in the midst of that decline in union militancy.
They represent a unique movement, one that has built cooperative relationships with small and middle-sized businesses who handle ready-mix concrete, so they present a formidable challenge to “big capital,” particularly in the cement-making and construction industry. They have opposed the entry of external capital into provincial areas and have prevented working conditions from deteriorating.
Union chair labor union chair TAKE Ken’ichi explains that these efforts have resulted in a backlash from construction companies, and warns that regular union activities in Japan are now being treated as crimes. “The right of workers to organize and to bargain and act collectively is guaranteed.” Those are the precious words written in Article 28 of Japan’s constitution. There is no question that the Japanese government is violating that article.
What started out in August 2018 as a labor strike that was in accordance with Japan’s labor laws was mis-labeled “forcible obstruction of business” in order to crack down on Kansai Namakon. They stood up for workers’ rights and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with small and medium-sized enterprises, but such joint solidarity actions were falsely labeled “unfair transactions” and “coercion and extortion.” The normal day-to-day activities of the union going back 5 years were reviewed and twisted one by one to make them like criminal offenses. It is not an exaggeration to call this a “frame-up.”
In December of 2019, 78 researchers and lawyers who were members of the Japan Labor Law Association issued a statement in which they protested the government’s series of criminal investigations, alleging that basic labor rights guaranteed by the Constitution were being ignored. (The Japan Labor Law Association has a total of about 700 members).
In Japan this frame-up is often referred as the “Kansai Namakon Incident” (Kannama jiken). In connection with the Incident, Japan’s courts are incessantly handing down other union-busting judgments; an ever-growing web of injustice is spreading. On 8 October 2020, two labor union leaders who were not at the site of a strike in Osaka were sentenced to time in prison, one for 2 years and the other for 2 ½ years. On the 15th of March of this year, seven union members who called on workers to cooperate with the Osaka strike were assigned sentences ranging from 1 ½ to 2 years in prison. In Kyoto, on 17 December 2020 two union members were sentenced to a prison term, one for 10 months and the other for 1 year.
These judgments were written by the courts as general criminal cases of obstruction and coercion, clearly not applying labor union laws.
Out of 500 day-laborers who were members of Kansai Namakon, 450 have lost their jobs and have been forced to quit the Union. While trials were ongoing, the Kansai Namakon chair TAKE Ken’ichi (around 78 years of age) and the vice chair YUKAWA Yuji (around 48 years of age) were detained for about two years. Mr. Take will be sentenced on the 13th of July. The prosecutor’s office seeks eight years in prison for Mr. Take. On the scale of punishments, it is as if Mr. Take had committed the crime of murder, when he has merely done the work of a labor leader, i.e., collective bargaining.
Many people think of Japan as a country of “freedom and democracy,” but the severe crackdown of unions that has been taking place during the last few years is greatly undermining such noble principles. Kansai Namakon, and the unions and civic groups that support them, have not given up in the face of this government repression. They persist, day in, day out, to do the hard work of building true freedom and democracy.
Many thanks to Olivier Clarinval for helpful comments and suggestions on this report.
KANZA Takeshi is the chair of Aichi Solidarity Union (which is Aichi Rentai Union in Japanese. Aichi Prefecture is the home of Toyota and Japan’s fourth largest city, Nagoya. About half of Japan’s factories are in the Aichi area).
Joseph ESSERTIER is an associate professor at the Nagoya Institute of Technology, a member of Aichi Solidarity Union, and the Coordinator of Japan for a World BEYOND War.