Transnational Travel and the Life of an Activist: Sen Katayama (1859-1933)

Standing on Lenin’s tomb at the Red Square in Moscow (from left to right: Katayama, Rykov, and Stalin, year unknown).

From the archive: Sen Katayama’s autobiography (Moscow, 22.10.1922)

Sen Katayama was born in ”a far away country village” in Japan on 1859, and died as a distinguished leader of Japanese communism in Moscow 1933. Eleven years earlier, Katayama arrived in Moscow for the first time, and as it turned out, the capital of Soviet Russia would be his ”home” for the reminder of his life as a national revolutionary. As for everyone who was connected to or worked for the Communist International (1919-43), Katayama had a personal file (lichnye dela), comprising of documents that outlines his life in the international communist movement between the wars. The personal files of international communists in the interwar period represents a crucial source of information for any serious historian on the history of radicalism, communism, socialism and international organizations in the twentieth century. The Comintern was pivotal in spurring and establishing numerous associations and campaigns with emphasis on social and political issues, and, as Brigitte Studer writes in The Transnational World of the Cominternians (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), ”[I]t was through the Comintern that the Soviet Union became the centre of a worldwide zone of circulation”. Katayama was part of this circulation, and he depended on this circulation in achieving a prominent position in the international communist movement up until his passing away in 1933.

I visited the Russian State Archive for Social and Political History (RGASPI) in November last year, and examined (among many other files in the archive) Katayama’s personal file. Below follow an excerpt of the content in his autobiography he wrote and handed over to the Comintern after arriving in Soviet Russia in 1922. It is a fascinating narrative that disclose a political journey that covered transnational aspects (Japan – Southeast Asia – US – Europe – Soviet Russia), and meetings that evolved into life lasting contacts. It also shows that experiences formed in different spatial settings, and taking place in contexts not by choice but by necessity, should have a central role in historical examinations of ideology and biographical accounts.

”In a far away country village twenty miles from sea three miles from a town I was born 1859. My register shows I was born in December 5th of that year. I was born and brought up in a farm house; my father and mother were all peasant and worked all in the field. At the same time my family has been for many and many decades or it may be a century or more served as a village mayor so my father as well as my brother served as the village mayor. But the family was not rich so every one of the family worked. My native village is in valley surrounded by high mountains with one small river that run eastward that meets in the middle of the village with several small brooks that run down from the mountains. […]

I was 9 when the revolution took place in which we the tenants became the owners of the land and paid tax in money until that time we paid rent in rice. My education consists of learning IROHa, that is, A. B. C. in Japanese at a house of the Shinto priest and also in a Buddhist temple that stood on a mountain some distant of a mile and a half. […] From 15 to 20 I worked in the farm, but during those years I studied myself to fit to enter the normal school which I did in 1880. Next year I quitted the normal school and came to Tokyo where I worked as a printer and studied Chinese classics in the private school conducted by Senjin Oka, an old revolutionary leader of Sendai who associated with the most leaders of the revolution of 1868. My progress in learning was quite rapid last few years […]

I worked as a janitor in the school soon so I was able to study more the helping the Principal in the history itself was study, for I have to read many old documents for the Principal. I travelled with the Principal in the country and also taught Chinese classics in a school where only Chinese classics are taught. But dissatisfied with the Chinese classics myself, for then the English language was quite popular, I very wanted to study the English but it cost much and I was unable to pay for it. Just at this time my friend sailed for America in the spring of 1884 to escape the conscription and wrote me from San Francisco in the effect that in America it is possible for a poor boy can study without money, namely, by work. […] There I worked and studied [in San Francisco] went through Academy and college as well as university finishing my courses that American colleges could then give after 11 full years beside to do all kinds of works from farming, that is, ploughing with horses or mules, making hay and cutting rice plant in the field of Texas. […]

But I was soon called to enter in the wider movement, namely, the labor movement, which was started in the summer of 1897. From 1897 to 1903 I was regular labor agitator organising labor unions and going round the country as labor agitator and union organiser. At one time our Iron Workers’ Union had grown to a membership of over 6,000 with 42 branches scattered all over Japan. […] I became one and decided to work for the cause of socialism. We organized the Social Democratic Party but was suppressed on the very day of publication of the Manifesto and Platform of the Party and I was tried and fined just for publishing the Manifesto of the Party. In December of 1903 I left for America with intention of attending the Amsterdam Socialist Congress arriving Seattle in early spring of 1904. […] In America during the war I mostly worked a casual day labourer for the families in San Francisco and also in New York. In the latter place I was in the left wing movement with many comrades such as Rutgers, Boudin, Lore, Debs and many now prominent leaders in Russia such as Trotsky, Bukharin, Kollantai, Volodarsky and others. […] In March 1921 I went to Mexico on the same duty where I stayed till October 31, 1921 and then came to Moscow in December. Since then I am here. Moscow, October 12, 1922. Sen Katayama”

The detailed autobiography of Katayama entails a narrative of a political journey that was enacted in different settings, but foremost, it was transnational by nature and scope, and in the end, it facilitated a transformation and political development of Katayama’s life as a political activist. Part of the information in Katayama’s autobiography will be included in my forthcoming monograph on transnational anti-colonialism between the wars.