Activism of Silk Mill Workers

Figure 4: 和田英子, Tomioka Nikki富岡日記 (古今書院 1931). Gunma Prefectural Library Collection群馬県立図書館所蔵. (CC 4.0)

Several accounts show that women of the era were actively engaged in efforts of activism in several different forms to express their disapproval of their situation. One method of activism and showing their disdain for their working situation was through the use of “work songs” (such as those already referenced in the previous section). Women who worked in factories often composed songs to sing along while working away at the machines.[1] Below are some examples of lyrics of songs created by workers at these mills:

At other companies, there are Buddhas and Gods.
At mine, only demons and serpents.
When I hear the manager talking,
His words say only ‘money, money and time.’
The demon overseer, the devil accountant,
The good-for-nothing chrysalis.
If you look through the factory’s regulations,
You see that not one in a thousand lies is unused.
We have to follow the regulations.
We have to look at the foreman’s nasty face.[2]

Doing duty in this plant is doing time in prison,
The absence of a metal chain is the only difference;
Harder than a bird in a cage or life in prison,
Is our residence in these barracks;
The plant is hell and the foreman is devil,
Spinning and turning is the spool of fire.

The year’s contract and the advance money,
Bound our feet to no end.[3]

The first of these compares their employers to demons and serpents, and mentions how their managers and overseers only seem concerned about money and how to use the factories regulations in unfair ways while still expecting the women to follow the regulations. The second outright compares their factory to a prison and states that life in the factories was even harder than an actual prison. Like the first, it mentions contempt towards their higher-ups and how the contracts and advance payments essentially kept them bound and “imprisoned”. Songs as critical as these can be considered a method by which the women both attempted to make their lives more tolerable and also speak up against their employers.

Activism also took form in workers simply attempting to change their job or transfer to other factories, with many proceeding to either move on to other fields of work or to other textile factories.[4] However, one of the most blatant methods of activism could be seen in the form of women engaging in worker strikes and other forms of organization.  As opposed to commuter male workers who protested for the right to form and join unions (and eventually went on to exclude women from these groups), most women sought to improve things such as living conditions in the dorms (since they mostly lived on the grounds of the factory), and more gendered issues such as maternity leave.[5] Sexual harassment was also a common thing that women protested against in their strikes.[6]  This often paid off in the form of reduced work hours and overall systemic reform.[7]

 

[1] Liao, “Population, Resources and Female Labor in the Raw Silk Industry of Nagano in Meiji Japan,” p. 28. 

[2] Tsurumi, Factory Girls: Women in the Thread Mills of Meiji Japan, pp. 29–30.

[3] Yamamoto, Ā nomugi tōge: aru seishi kōjo aishi, p. 375.

[4] Molony, “Activism Among Women in the Taisho Cotton Textile Industry,” p. 233.

[5] Hasegawa, “Honpō ni okeru fujin rōdō undō no sūsei to sono kentō,” p. 465.

[6] Tsurumi, “Yet to be heard: The voices of Meiji factory women,” p. 24.

[7] Watanabe and Suzuki, Tatakai ni ikite: senzen fujin rōdō undō e no shōgen, pp. 168­–69.