In the wake of the sabotage of Japan's commuter rail system last week, Japanese trade unions are caught between the government and the extremists in their midst. Japanese authorities and union leaders were stunned by the scope and effectiveness of the attack Friday by left-wing radicals. The attack, which crippled a large part of the commuter rail network in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan's two largest cities, came in the form of 32 simultaneous sabotage operations in seven Japanese prefectures (provinces). Some 10.8 million commuters were affected.
``We expect a harsh response from the government'' says S. Wada, an official of Kokuro, the national railway workers union. ``We fear [the government] will use this opportunity to impose severe sanctions against the trade union movement,'' he added. Japan's prime minister has ordered a ``stringent investigation'' into the incident.
The Japanese police have targeted for arrest an extreme leftist sect called Chukaku-ha, which has surpassed the infamous Japanese Red Army as the most violent fringe element in Japanese politics today.
To the discomfort of the Socialist Party-affiliated General Council of Trade Unions (Sohyo), Chukaku-ha and a rival radical group have gained a small but significant foothold in Japan's labor movement through effective control of a few small, militant unions. Sohyo leader Hiroshi Nakano denies such links.
Police said Friday's attack was coordinated with a 24-hour strike by a local railway workers union in the city of Chiba, near Tokyo. The 1,100-member local union is controlled by Chukaku-ha, according to labor movement sources, and is an independent fragment of Doro, the national railway engineers' union. The Chiba group was expelled from the national union in 1979.
According to Sohyo officials, however, the Chiba local is recognized by the Japanese National Railways (JNR) management and represents 90 percent of the engine drivers on the Sobu line, a JNR commuter line carrying Tokyo traffic.
The radicals' penetration of the labor movement extends beyond the Chiba group. According to a trade union official, Doro itself, representing some 30,000 workers nationwide, is under the control of a rival ex-student radical group. The group, called Kakumaru, according to union official Wada, ``has infiltrated the trade union movement and the Socialist Party.''
Though the radicals' numbers are small, they have gained scattered influence through their concentrated efforts. ``The problem for the labor movement in general,'' says Hajime Takano, a journalist who closely observes the movement, ``is the decrease in young activists because of apathy.''
``As a result,'' he says, ``even a small group like Chukaku-ha [said to have several thousand followers] can gain influence.''
The strike, and the countrywide attacks on JNR facilities in support of it, was called to protest the Japanese government's plans to break up and privatize the deficit-ridden national railway system. This is the paramount issue for the JNR's 307,000-strong work force, which fears massive layoffs.
The radicals' actions have deeply embarrassed Sohyo, which this summer designated its campaign against the government's plan as the central issue facing the Japanese labor movement. Socialist Party Chairman Masashi Ishibashi and the head of Sohyo were compelled to cancel a scheduled joint appearance at a train station this past weekend to promote the campaign. The Sohyo-affiliated national railway workers union (Kokuro), which represents the vast majority of JNR employees, condemned the sabotage actions
Friday. Even the militant Doro union condemned the attack.
Kokuro is in the midst of an effort to gather 50 million signatures against the JNR breakup. Today's events ``will have a very bad effect'' admitted Kokuro official Wada. ``Probably we will receive some hostile reactions from the people,'' he said.
The Chukaku group has also threatened Kokuro members with violence. ``They [Chukaku] have a very primitive way of expressing their political opinions,'' said Wada with understatement.
The Chukaku is a remnant of the 1960s radical student movement that used to be able to mount spectacular demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of students protesting US-Japan military ties and the Vietnam war. As the student movement withered away, hard-core radical groups began to seek allies beyond the campuses and to resort to increasingly violent tactics to gain attention.
Like their United States counterparts, Japanese campuses are now quiet. The radicals still try to stir up trouble, but Japanese students are more concerned with post-graduation job prospects. The Japanese Communist and Socialist parties, which supported student activism in the past, now denounce extremist-group activity.