[Interview] Discussing the solidarity of workers between the two countries in the conflicts between S. Korea and Japan

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[The members of Doro-Chiba were marching and demanding "no war." Doro-Chiba has been in solidarity with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions Seoul Reginal Council(KCTUSRC) since 2003.]

[Editorial note] On July 1, Japan’s Abe government announced that it would regulate exports of materials and parts needed to make semiconductors to South Korea. And on August 2, it took steps to exclude Korea from the white list.

It is confirmed that the measures of the Abe government in many ways have been connected with the annulment of the agreement on ‘comfort women’ which was made in 2015, the Korean Supreme Court ruling that ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to forced labor victims, and even the issues that can trace back to 1965 Korea-Japan agreement and Japanese colonial responsibility. In addition, the Abe government has the intention to tame S. Korea as a sub-partner of the US-Japan alliance. The liberal Moon Jae-in government, which has been using ‘pro-Japanese’ frames(which stigmatize reactionaries as having ‘pro-Japanese’ origins) to maintain its outdated confrontation with reactionaries, has taken a hard line with Japan and has fostered a nationalist fervor because it believes its conflicts with Japan could be used in its favor.

The international solidarity between Korean and Japanese workers, which unites against both Japan’s Abe and Korea’s Moon Jae-in government, has become more important than ever. Indeed, most of the Korean socialist and progressive forces are currently emphasizing the international solidarity of Korean-Japanese workers. However, this argument still remains at the level of principle and has failed to lead to the formation of an actual movement. The Socialist arranged for an interview with the following two workers to share the voices of the workers of both countries.

<Interviewees>

Okiyama, Yoshitada
International Labor Solidarity Committee of Doro-Chiba

Lee, Geun-haeng
Director of Education, Station attendant division of the Seoul Metro Union

Doro-Chiba has been in solidarity with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions Seoul Reginal Council(KCTUSRC) for a long time. On August 1, Doro-Chiba announced an emergency appeal against Abe’s export restrictions. The interview was held on August 16 at the Socialist office.

Since this is an interview conducted by socialist media in S. Korea, I would like to ask some questions to comrade Okiyama first.

Q1. This is a question about the Abe government. Japanese progressive and labor organizations’ appeals and statements introduced to Korea include the slogan of overthrow or the resignation of Abe. So I wonder how Japanese workers like those in Doro-Chiba, who are waging struggles, define the Abe government.

Okiyama: In Japan, unions and civic groups in solidarity with Doro-Chiba are struggling for the overthrow or the resignation of Abe. There is a slogan of “No Abe” which are used in Korea, too. Although it is difficult to grasp all of them, unions and civic groups that oppose Abe’s export regulations seem to use the slogan “No Abe”, which the Korean people are shouting, more frequently than the overthrow of Abe.

The reason why we use the term ‘the overthrow of Abe’ is related not only to the current export regulations or the issues between Korea and Japan but also to the overall economic and security policies that Abe is pushing to create a country that can conduct a war. Specifically, we use the word ‘the overthrow of Abe’ because we have to fight against all the policies that Abe is carrying out, such as labor reforms and media control, and the trade unions have to stand at its forefront. In my opinion, trade unions should work together in solidarity with the rest of the people to inform them of the bad policies of the Abe government.

There are many cases of labor reforms. For example, JR(the Japanese Railroads) has various occupations such as railroad engineers, train conductors, track laborers, and railroad electricians. After the privatization, the engineers and conductors were still working professionally. JR tries to get rid of the professional title of an engineer or a conductor and to combine them with other jobs. So far, the engineers and the conductors each have places where they can congregate. If JR does what it wants, it would become difficult for workers to participate in union activities. So we consider it a policy that worsens workers’ working conditions and wages, and destroys unions. In a nutshell, the reforms that Abe is working on are this kind of labor regression. Among them, there are increases of irregular workers like what happened in S. Korea. Furthermore, the Abe government aims to eradicate the trade unions completely. For example, there were about 50,000 members nationwide in JREU, but after just one word by Abe, about 35,000 members withdrew from JREU last year.

When the government holds a press conference within the National Diet, only reporters who ask questions that suit the Abe government’s taste are given any chance to speak, which is an example of press control. Of course, there are reporters who protest against this. Still, although there is no evidence of money being handed over to reporters, the Abe government is buying off reporters with various benefits. That’s why newspapers only report what the government announced, and reporters only write articles that are in favor of Abe. Three newspapers, Asahi, Mainichi, and Yomiuri, are the worst. They don’t report anything about groups, trade unions, and those movements that criticize the Abe government. As for the export issues, they only report what helps the Abe government. They never write anything that criticizes Abe.s

Q2. For what reason do you, comrade Okiyama, think the Abe government took the sanctions against S. Korea? And please tell us briefly how the Japanese people are responding to these measures.

Okiyama: When it comes to export restrictions, it’s hard to give a simplified explanation. This is because economic policy, foreign policy, and security policy are intertwined. So domestic politics and labor policy are also deeply connected to the problem.

Economically, there is Abe’s economic policy called ‘Abenomics’. But an economist said that it should be called “Ahonomics,” instead of “Abenomics.” In ‘Ahonomics’, ‘aho(アホ)’ means “stupid.” Thus it means foolish economic policy. From the beginning, Abe conceived the idea of a “strong country” and “a country that can grow.” Recently, he said that Japan should grow to a GDP of 600 trillion yen by 2020. For economic growth and building a strong country, we are supposed to need defense power. And to make a country that exports a lot, the Abe government is focusing on exporting railroads, nuclear power plants, and military weapons.

And in finance, the Bank of Japan has bought up all government bonds. As a result, the Japanese government is now in financial trouble. The Bank of Japan has bought too much government bonds, and the state budget has been dependent on it. There are economists who warn that we should not continue in this way in the future. At the end of March 2019, Japanese government bonds amounted to 1,103.3 trillion yen. At the end of March 1989, it was 206 trillion yen, which means the country’s debt has increased fivefold over 30 years. Debt has been growing tremendously. The government and its supporters may say that we don’t have to worry about it. But as a matter of fact, Japan is heading towards a severe crisis.

As well as the national financial problem, the financial and fiscal policies that have been carried out under the name of ‘Abenomics’ are not successful. It was at this moment when the issues between Korea and Japan broke out. It seems that Abe is worried that Japanese companies could be hurt if the problems of victims of forced labor and ‘comfort women’ in Korea are left as they are. As the Supreme Court issued the ruling on the case of victims of forced labor, companies like Mitsubishi and Nippon Steel have to pay reparation. Thus, in my opinion, the Abe government feels a sense of economic crisis and thinks it must not leave the problems as they are.

Secondly, there are historical issues. According to the political calendar, when the diet is going to open in late September or early October, Abe will try to propose a constitutional amendment. To that end, Abe admires the war of aggression and defines it as a war to liberate Asia, never a wrong war. He never admits that war must be avoided by all means, and believes that the country must go forward for the Japanese King and the nation. In these reasons, he believes that he can never concede historical issues. And Japanese right-wing insists that the Japanese could conduct a war for the country and the king. So they need to accumulate experience, change Japan Self-Defense Forces into a real military, and make conscription in which the state imposes a military duty on all its citizens lawful. All those are related to historical issues.

Abe has talked about creating workers’ jobs and increasing their wages and welfare. However, the reality is that workers’ lives are becoming harder by increasing irregular workers and reducing regular workers. So workers’ complaints are likely to grow. According to one statistics, wages in Japan have declined by 9% in 20 years. In S. Korea, wages were so poor that they increased by over 200% with many struggles. In Japan, however, wages have shown negative growth. The Japan government has said it should raise wages, and corporations should follow its way. However, while some full-time workers’ wages have increased, most irregular workers have been working at lower wage levels.

Q3. I think the current Abe government is very reactionary and therefore progressive forces like Doro-Chiba are calling the overthrow of Abe. Nevertheless, the Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition won overwhelmingly in the July 21 election of the House of Councillors, while the opposition has been devastating. However, the turnout in this election was meager at 48.8%. What this kind of Japanese political situation means? What is the subjective condition of progressive and socialist forces in Japan?

Okiyama: Also, in Japan, people can vote from 18 years old. The turnout for 18-19-year-olds is 31.33%. In our view, it means despair over parliamentary democracy and existing parties. There are reports that the LDP candidates were overwhelmingly elected, but the actual number of LDP votes was 23 million in the constituency or 18.9 percent in absolute number. For the first time since Abe took office, it has fallen below 20%. Even in proportional votes, votes were reduced by 2.4 million. There was also a loss of 104 million votes in the Komeito. It analyzed that it could not organize young people, but because of the low turnout, there were some seats available. The Communist Party also lost six million votes.

By the way, in the election of the House of Councilors, there was a party called “Reiwa Shinsengumi” made by Taro Yamamoto. 60% of voters under 40 supported the Reiwa. Compared to other parties, such as the LDP and the Communist Party, the rate was very high. By the fact that Young people voted to a new political party for the first time, we can find that they want to change society now. However, there was the “Party to Protect the People from NHK,” in which extreme right-wing individuals entered. This party earned supports.

The conditions of Progressive and socialist forces in Japan are not good. The Japanese Trade Union Confederation(Rengo) with six million members is not a militant union and stands for Abe or Democrats. The Democratic Party is also a bad party. The Democratic Party is in favor of export restrictions and a similar position to the Abe government on historical issues.

Of course, not every member of Rengo struggles. Japan Teachers Union and Japan Public Sector Union still have the potential to struggle. In the private sectors, irregular workers, such as convenience store workers, are starting to struggle. In Japan, there have only been unions made by the owners of convenience stores. However, a comrade in solidarity with Doro-Chiba organized a trade union consisted of not owners but workers in convenience store-related companies. The head of the union’s executive committee is a worker at the Seven Eleven headquarters. In June of this year, a union called the Convenience Store-related Union was established. Anyone involved in convenience stores, such as delivery, store employees, owners, and headquarters employees can join the union. It is struggling in solidarity with another union. The workers at the Seven Eleven headquarters made a union for the first time. So it became a very shocking event nationwide. Right now, we are fighting against running convenience stores for 24 hours. We demand that “we are against working long hours” and “we should reduce our working hours.” The Japanese labor movements as a whole are in severe conditions, but some workers struggle in these conditions.

There are many civic groups, and when the Fukushima nuclear accident occurred, an anti-nuclear organization was created to fight. “Shields,” which opposed Abe’s reform a few years ago, was led by Communist influenced students. The group, Shields, had a position that we should obey what is written in the Constitution even if it were to be revised. But if you have a bad constitution, you have to fight it. Many of the groups emerged from the student movements in the 1960s and 1970s have been dissolved. Now in Japan, by and large, we gather through the internet and fight together. People in each group come together to make demonstrations and other actions.

The following questions are common to comrades Okiyama and comrades Lee, Geun-haeng.

Q4. Behind the trade sanctions of the Japanese Abe government lies historical issues such as “comfort women” and forced labor. However, these problems are not limited to past colonial rule. Rather they related to the recent weakening of the division structure of Korean peninsula and the realignment of the imperialist order in East Asia. Please tell me how you are looking at it.

Okiyama: In the Abe government, economy and security are intertwined, and Abe says of aiming for the world’s best. It is to combine increasing defense costs and defense forces with economic growth. Abe consolidates the alliance with the United States and accepts the demands of the U.S. to make Japan grow. As for S. Korea, even if the economic impact of the future is unpredictable right now, he believes that companies can be hurt, and historical issues are unnegotiable one. As for China, while strengthening the alliance with the United States and japan’s defense forces, he seeks the position that put pressure on China. Abe wants to deploy troops in the Middle East too. In these ways, the Abe government seems to be trying to establish its existence globally.

Lee: In the case of Abe in Japan, he has started an economic attack on the ground of historical issues. I agree as comrade Okiyama said, that economy and security are intertwined. To overcome the crisis of Japanese capitalism, he seems to be aggressive about the issues of forced labor and “comfort women,” and mislead and mobilize the Japanese people nationalistically. Until recently, Japan has benefited from beating North Korea at every election. But now that North Korea does not respond to it and it has no say in North Korea. So it seems to attack South Korea economically using the superior status of the basic materials industry in an economic crisis phase.

Q5. Korean-Japanese workers’ solidarity is more urgent than ever. However, the demand for international solidarity stays only at the level of principle, and there is no actual international solidarity movement yet. Also, in S. Korea, some labor activists are engulfed in the nationalist craze. Please tell us how you estimate what the solidarity between workers of the two countries has done and will be.

Okiyama: KCTUSRC and Doro-Chiba have met each other since 2003. The first opportunity was the struggles to withdraw privatization and layoffs of Japanese National Railways. In the global trend of privatization, it was a common task of workers to stand against it. For it, international solidarity was necessary. Secondly, in 2001, after the September 11 terror attacks, the United States entered the Iraq war. Workers and citizens all over the world rose up to fight the war. KCTU also made a statement against the Iraq war, and Doro-Chiba saw international solidarity was needed to fight it.

Doro-Chiba established the “International Labor Solidarity Committee of Doro-Chiba” in 2003 and has been promoting international solidarity. I have learned a lot from the struggles of the KCTU and been able to fight with courage thanks to them. It is our thought that through international exchange, we can make solidarity with not only S. Korean workers but also workers of other countries. The struggles of KCTU can provide significant impacts not only in S. Korea but in different countries around the world. Because through the Korea-Japan International Solidarity, the comrades of KCTU have provided confidence to Japanese workers that ‘struggles have occurred incessantly in S. Korea like those,’ and ‘we can do so.’ There were a lot of struggles in Japan during the 1960s and 1970s. However, after the privatization in the 19’80s, struggles have occurred less and less, which make people seek the way to revive the labor movements. Those who struggled in the past had an image of how to struggle. Whereas younger people haven’t such an image and confidence in the absence of any struggle. So We have believed that the struggles of the KCTU are necessary, which makes our steady solidarity with S. Korean Workers.

When I was in Japan, I knew nothing about how S. Korean comrades lived and struggled. It hindered me from realizing that ‘workers are one.’ I have realized it after engaging in the exchanges. Finally, through the struggles, I have realized what a worker is and the capitalist in my country. In short, workers struggle with similar tasks, fighting against capitalist governments, and being in solidarity with each other. I believe international solidarity will be more critical in the future.

Lee: Comrade Okiyama said that S. Korean labor movements give him courage. However, there are many things to learn from each other. I went to Japan and felt there exists a small but proper working-class movement. Specifically, on November 4, last year, there was a march against the constitutional revision and war, and I was in there. Then members of Japan’s Doro-Chiba, Doro-Mito, Minato-Godo(Metal and Machinery Workers’ Union), and Kan-Nama Branch(All-Japan Construction and Transport Workers’ Solidarity Union, Kansai Regional Ready-Mix Concrete Branch) took the lead in and crossed the downtown of Tokyo. Because I was used to S. Korean labor movement that focuses only on wages and employment conditions, it was a fresh and unfamiliar experience for me to march and shout such slogans as against Abe’s war efforts in the middle of Tokyo. Doro-Chiba has fought unwaveringly for over 30 years against the Japanese government’s attack of privatization and division on the Japanese national railroad, which was the biggest dismantlement attack since World War II. It has resolutely continued the struggles of repealing the layoffs and rehiring the layoff workers. On August 1, the International Labor Solidarity Committee of Doro-Chiba issued an emergency appeal that condemned Japan’s export restrictions, which is, in my opinion, an example of Korea-Japan Workers’ Solidarity. We should criticize the Korean and Japanese capitalist governments that attempt to gain a political and economic advantage by promoting nationalism and chauvinism in this phase of conflict about export restrictions.

And we should take issue with the labor movement that inclines to nationalism. Keeping this in mind, I asked the KCTUSRC to issue the joint statement of the Korean-Japanese workers and was given a positive answer. On the contrary, the Seoul Metro Union posted about 20,000 stickers on the train, which read “Boy Court Japan” and “I will not go. I will not buy.” The Seoul Metro Union issued a self-justifying press release. It goes as follows: “we would not let our campaign be used as an indulgence of Lee Jae-Yong, the vice-chairman of Sam Sung. And we will fight firmly against the Chaebols’ unscrupulous management and anti-union activities.” However, it is undeniable that it is trapped in the nationalist tide.

Q6. The trade conflicts between Korea and Japan are unlikely to end in a short time. Thus it is essential to create solidarity between Korean and Japanese workers. What kind of efforts should we make for it?

Okiyama: The independent exchange between Japanese and Korean workers or citizens, as well as the international exchange between Doro-Chiba and KCTUSRC and the Korean Railway Workers’ Union Seoul Headquarters, is essential. I hope that we can promote such an exchange. In particular, in my view, it is necessary to make efforts to see what kind of movements exist in Japan. As I said before, because the Japanese media rarely reports on such movements, it is important and necessary to deliver them to the working people in Korea.

The candlelight protests that the Korean working people mad may not happen right now in Japan, but we have to work hard so that such a protest can be made. To achieve this goal, trade unions should be at the forefront of struggles, and citizens and social groups should fight together in solidarity with them. If we do not make such a struggle in Japan, international solidarity will not develop and be only a word.

Lee: Capitalist commodity production operates in the global division of labor. The Japanese capitals have long invested and concentrated production means and labor power to materials and parts industries. So they can attack S. Korea. Within global divisions, for example, Apple shares 30% of the profits from the i-phone alone to Japan’s materials and parts capitals and then to process and assembly capitals in China and S. Korea. A capitalist world connects capitals internationally. Thus workers are connected internationally and have to struggle accordingly.

I believe it’s natural for workers in a particular country to struggle against capitalists in their country, and make solidarity with workers in other countries against foreign capitalists. For example, workers in Asahi Glass, a Japanese capital that entered S. Korea, went to the Japanese headquarters in Chiba prefecture four times, demanding the withdrawal of firing and illegal subcontracts. Comrades of Doro-Chiba showed devoted solidarity, providing accommodations for the Asahi workers from S. Korea. It seems to be a model of workers’ solidarity. These comrades are the ones who aren’t overwhelmed by nationalism, the monopoly capital, or its representative agent and try to change the conditions of the working class.

Q7. Is there anything you would like to say lastly?

Okiyama: We have joined the Asahi Glass struggle since last year. Their struggle gives a good effect on irregular workers in Japan. Because they show us irregular workers can fight. It is difficult for irregular workers to fight after getting fired, and in the circumstance, they have kept fighting and making solidarity beyond their industry and workplace. Thus we have to learn something from them. While talking with Asahi Glass workers and supporting their coming to Japan, we were encouraged too. We want to say thank you.

Lee: Japan and S. Korea are in the capitalist crisis, in which S. Korea’s Moon Jae-in government have nothing to do. In the reason, as soon as Abe waged export restrictions, it provoked nationalism to mobilize working people in a conflict among capitalists. The ruling forces of the two countries have the same attitude. Thus S. Korean and Japanese workers must recognize the nature of their capitalists. And once again they must confirm the ultimate goal of the labor movements, which make workers of the world unite and the emancipated world come true), and commit to it thoroughly. Based on it, workers need to make international workers’ solidarity.

The growing background of the peasants’ children was a chance to arouse interest in ecology, and when I encountered the labor movement, I opened my eyes to Marxism. A member of ‘Acting solidarity for the labor emancipation’. I translated and published two books, 『What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism』, 『Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature』.

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