In 1908, a political rally called “The Red Flag Incident” took place in Japan, when a political activist and anarchist by the name of Yamaguchi Koken was released from prison. Crowds of activists celebrated his release by singing communist songs, and waving red flags bearing phrases like “Revolution” and “Anarcho-Communism”. The Japanese police attacked and suppressed the demonstration, and arrested ten prominent activists who had been involved in the rally.
Almost one year later, police found bomb-making materials in the home of a 35-year-old lumber mill employee named Miyashita Takichi. Police announced he was involved in a plot to assassinate Emperor Meiji. They would go on to make several more arrests of his accomplices, including his former common-law wife, a feminist author named Kanno Suga. By the time they were done with their investigations and arrests, twenty-five men (including four Buddhist monks) and one woman were brought to trial for what would be known as the “High Treason Incident”.
In spite of most evidence being merely circumstantial, two were sentanced to 8 and 11 years in prison respectively, twelve were sentenced to life in prison, and twelve were executed by hanging. Those executed included Kanno Suga, as well as a prominent anarchist, a doctor, and a Buddhist monk. It was well known that most of these imprisonments and executions were a thinly veiled excuse to round up dissidents.
In 1911, Japan established a special police force called the Tokubetsu Koutou Keisatsu, meaning “Special Higher Police”. Their name is most often shortened to Tokko, but they were known by several other names as well. One such flowery name was the Chian Keisatsu, or “Peace Police”. An accurate, but less glamorous name, was Shisou Keisatsu, or “Thought Police”.
Peace Preservation Laws
Among the laws the Tokko helped enforce, were the Public Order and Police Law of 1900, which placed restrictions on freedom of speech, the right to assemble, and the right for workers to go on strike. There were also provisions banning women from political affiliations. Any resident of Japan who expressed views that encouraged “dangerous ideologies” could be arrested for treason.
In 1925, an additional set of laws known as the Public Security Preservation Law of 1925 gave the Tokko’s Criminal Affairs Bureau full power over anyone suspected of “thought crimes”. By these laws, a potential dissident didn’t have to actually commit any criminal activity, they simply had to have expressed an opinion that was at odds with the militant and totalitarian views of their government. However, this was not the Tokko’s only branch. The other branches included Foreign Surveillance, Labor Relations, Arbitration, Censorship, and even a branch designed for dealing with Koreans In Japan.
By 1936, the Tokko had arrested over 59,000 people. Five-thousand of those arrests would later go to trial, and as many as half received prison sentences. Prisoners were forced to write essays about how they had become involved with “dangerous ideologies”, and made to rewrite them under great duress until their interrogators were happy with what they had written. These essays were then used in court to prove their criminal involvement.
In 1945, the Allied Occupation Authorities released of thousands of political prisoners, and General Douglas MacArthur issued the “Restoration Of Electoral Rights To Released Political Prisoners”. The Tokko was abolished, and political activism in Japan would flourish throughout the 60s and 70s.