Today is International Workers’ Day, when labour unions and other groups hold rallies around the world. Japan is no exception, though the weakness of the labour movement has lessened the importance of the day immensely over the years.
However, there has never been a May Day in Japan like there was in 1952, when protesters in Tokyo were fired on by police. One person died that day and another died of their injuries some years later. Think of that the next time you are walking through the plaza in front of the Imperial Palace where the clashes happened. The area was a common place for demonstrations in the immediate post-war years and had been the site of another violent communist-linked clash in 1950.
If all this sounds incredible, we should recall the context: this was a violent and disordered era. The American military ran the show but there were black markets all over Tokyo. Gangsters and criminals had infiltrated everyday life, while sinister activists seemed to lurk in every factory. There had been a large spike in union activity and strikes following the emancipation of the Japanese Communist Party after the war. It almost developed into a general strike in 1947. Communist conspirators were also blamed for a series of deadly railway lines sabotages at the end of the decade. Though the Red Purge of 1950 put a stop to this wellspring, temporarily banning the JCP and cracking down on leftists around the country, the seeds of discontent still rumbled on among workers and students.
The JCP was split, with one faction urging the party to return to its paramilitary activities to kickstart the revolution in Japan. This came to a head in a brief period following the end of the occupation on April 28th, 1952. The riot that broke out in central Tokyo, Bloody May Day, was part of this, as were other violent incidents in Nagoya and Osaka during the summer that led to a further death and many injuries.