Japan History Lab

Quality of Life Under the National Mobilization Law (1938)

In the years leading up to the Second World War, the Japanese government was heavily influenced by the military. War with China in the 1930s ate up much of Japan’s resources and began to be very costly. In 1937, the army put immense pressure on the government of Japan by demanding a budget of ¥2.5 million, a figure close to the entire national budget for 1937, which was ¥2.8 million.1 For this to be possible, it was obvious that the Japanese government would have to do serious economic planning, especially taking control of imports and exports, and the economy would have to be completely mobilized for production in the appropriate industries. The National Mobilization Law, passed in 1938, came into effect in these years, and gave the Japanese bureaucracy the authority, among other things, to conscript workers for war industries. Throughout the war, many workers were taken away from their homes and livelihoods in order to serve in the factories of these industries. Mandatory service in factories in wartime Japan decreased quality of life for factory workers and other citizens by taking away freedom, limiting the food supply, and providing poor working conditions, and although factory workers received living wages, this was not enough to compensate for the negative impacts of conscription.

By the late 1930s, Japan was at war with China. Following the Manchurian incident in 1931, the Japanese invasion and occupation of Eastern China in 1937 marked the beginning of a conflict between these two countries that lasted until the end of the Second World War in 1945.2 This occupation put a strain on Japan’s economy because it meant that all resources were being used for the war effort, rather than for exports, Japan’s main source of income.3 Japan attempted economic mobilization in this time, but it was not enough to compensate for the resources being lost to the war. The need to mobilize became more urgent as the war progressed and the military demanded more from the government, and in 1938, the economic planning board of Japan decided it was necessary to take total control of the economy and focus on the production of armaments and the development of heavy industry. 4 These new economic initiatives lasted throughout the duration of the Sino-Japanese war as well as Japan’s involvement in the Second World War, and funneled more manpower and resources into the war effort than ever before.

The National Mobilization Law was a major vehicle for the bureaucracy’s control of the economy. The National Mobilization Law, passed in the Japanese Diet in July 1938, gave the Japanese emperor or government ministers the power to give orders regarding the economy without the approval of the Diet.5 The hope, inspired by the Soviet Union’s five year plans, was to effectively control the economy in order to increase efficiency and modernize industry for war.6 The law included the authority of the bureaucracy to change the purpose of private businesses, manage and expropriate factories, order the construction of transportation facilities, manage hiring in industry, and conscript workers, among many other things.7 Many members of the Diet protested the passing of this legislation, as it seemed that it would take away power from the Diet all together. 8 Eventually, the Diet succumbed to extreme pressure from the military, and the National Mobilization Law was passed with the agreement that it would only be invoked in a time of national emergency, not including the current situation in China. 9 However, only a month after its passing, the law was invoked anyway. 10 This was allowed by a discreet inclusion in the bill that it could be invoked in “incidents analogous to war,” allowing it to be applied to the conflict with China. 11 The invocation of this law had a great effect on the Japanese people, slowly at first, but more rapidly as Japan’s involvement in the Second World War increased. The law, and the results of its invocation came to affect not just working conditions, but the quality of life in general.

Many Japanese people were drafted into industrial service under the National Mobilization Law. This was due to the fact that war industries were being expanded and created, causing a need for more employees, as well as because many young men, who had previously worked in factories, had been drafted into military service, leaving behind vacant jobs in factories.12 The identity of the workers that were being drafted not only opposed national tradition, but also affected the overall quality of life for Japanese citizens. The workers that were drafted were not always men, and in fact, were not even always adults. Although only adult men were drafted in the beginning, as fewer became available to work, and the war grew increasingly demanding of Japan’s economy, it became necessary to draft women. This began in 1941, when unmarried women between the ages of 16 and 25 began to be drafted into industrial service. 13 This was very controversial, as it was believed by most at the time that a woman should be at home supporting her family. 14 This is reflected in the fact that only unmarried women were drafted; there was an effort to preserve traditional family values at this time. Women were not the only unlikely workers drafted into service. By the later years of the war, school children too, were being conscripted to work in factories.

Millions of children in Japan were forced to miss out on their education in order to work in factories. Between 1943 and 1945, approximately three million school children, ranging in age from elementary to secondary schools, were drafted into service, causing them to leave school and instead spend their days working in factories next to adults in order to feed the war effort. 15 Not only did this likely cause emotional trauma by taking children away from their families, but it also would have deprived them of a chance to get an education. Taking away their right to learn and forcing them to work in factories is a clear indicator that the quality of life for children plummeted during wartime Japan. Even the children who were not drafted during their schooling years were not safe from the oppression of the factories. Bureaucrats began to collaborate with school principals, planning the industries that future graduates would be best suited for, and drafted in to. 16 Children were not just missing out on their education during their schooling years, but even after those years, the war, and its consequent economic mobilization, caused young people to have very little freedom to live their lives the way they wanted to.

Small business owners also were deprived of their freedom under these conditions. Under the National Mobilization Law, the bureaucracy not only had the power to draft business owners away from their own businesses, but also to assign these businesses new purposes. 17 This had a profoundly negative impact on many business owners because it forced many of them to give up the trade that had formed their own livelihood, and the livelihood of their family for many generations. 18 This obviously would be upsetting for many people, and decrease the quality of their lives in a qualitative way. Some businesses were forced to change their purpose, whereas some were shut down altogether in order to free up the workers of that business to do something more vital to the nation. For example, the textiles industry, which had employed many families for generations, was essentially halted, its factories and machinery being used for scrap metal. 19 Like women and school children, these people were force to leave their traditional lifestyles behind in order to serve Japan by aiding its economic development. The loss of freedom experienced by these people, viewed through our own cultural norms, can be seen as a decline in the quality of living because their own pursuits of happiness were taken away and replaced with the goals of the nation.

Not only did conscription take Japanese people away from their livelihoods, but the conditions under which they were working were sub-par. Factory work was physically demanding for some, and hours were long. In addition to the physical strain of working long hours, factories were regularly subjected to bombings, which threatened the safety of the employees within, and repeatedly disrupted the work day. By the end of the war, with allied bombing of Japan at its height, this problem caused employees to be in and out of the factories all day, and constantly fearing for their lives. Conditions in the factory hostels were hardly more pleasant than within the factories themselves. Workers living in these hostels were rarely fed enough, as the food supply during the war was diminishing. They were forced to work long hours with very little sustenance; often workers were only fed twice a day, and their meals contained very little rice, which was a staple of the Japanese diet. Forced labour, along with the lack of proper food, caused serious declines in the quality of life for Japanese workers. The food shortage would have caused exhaustion, as well as malnutrition among the population.

The food shortage did not just affect people working in factories. The food supply, which diminished in response to farmers and agricultural workers being drafted into the war effort, was dwindling and caused inflation of prices and hunger all across the country. Also, with international conflicts at its height, Japan was unable to rely on outside sources for the imports of necessary goods, and most of what was being imported was channeled directly into the war effort. For these reasons, there was a severe shortage of food in Japan during the war. In response to this, food was being rationed, but it was not enough to overcome the diminished production of food, and rations were not big enough to provide proper sustenance. Because of this, many people resorted to purchasing food on the black market in order to survive. There is no doubt that a shortage of food would cause a decline in the quality of life. Like the factory workers, all citizens were susceptible to experience hunger and potential malnutrition, opening up possibilities for illness and fatigue. This decline in life can be linked directly to the agricultural workers being drafted away from farms, and therefore directly to the National Mobilization Law.

Despite the horrendous working conditions faced by the people who were drafted into the factories, there were some benefits to service. All workers were to receive a ‘living wage,’ and received regular raises based on seniority. By 1943, these raises were happening twice per year for each employee. However, even this one upside to mandatory factory service had its negative attributes. Although the raises were meant to be given based on seniority in order to provide a living wage, in reality, it did not always work this way. Often, young employees would be offered large incentive premiums by individuals on the spot, even though this contradicted the rule that wages and raises would be based on seniority. This would be disheartening to older employees who had provided more years of service, who would expect more compensation than their newer counterparts. The system of raises based on seniority had its problems, even when it was being followed properly. With regular raises based on seniority alone, there was little incentive for employees to work hard, and employees who were working hard did not receive compensation or recognition based on the effort they put in. Although in this case, it would be impossible to satisfy employees new, old, hard-working and lazy, some sort of balance, which did not involve corruption, would have helped to compensate employees for their forced service in the factories. The raise system was not enough to make up for the loss of freedom and poor conditions suffered by conscripted workers.

The National Mobilization Law took away freedom, food, and health from the people of Japan. Although the quantitative data for the decline in quality of life is clear, that is not to say that Japanese people at the time did not support their mobilization. The mentality of Japanese people was heavily influenced by propaganda during the war; the government mobilized artists and authors to create media that supported the aims of the regime. Japanese culture was in general more open to the idea of giving everything to the nation than Western countries, a characteristic that became useful during this process of mobilization. Through state control of the economy and ideology, all Japanese people were slowly incorporated into the war effort in one way or another. The war altered the way of life for the Japanese people, and it would have been hard for anyone to avoid feeling its effects.


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