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The Battle of Toho Company

A unionization fight led to widespread effects on the Cold War and Japanese and global culture.

toho company
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  • A miniature Pearl Harbor set for the Toho Company film 'Hawai Mare oki kaisen'.Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Maybe you have never heard of the Toho Company, but you have definitely heard of Toho movies. From period thrillers like Lone Wolf and Cub to creature features like Godzilla, Toho plays a massive role shaping popular culture in its native Japan and beyond. 

What you almost certainly don’t know is that the world was nearly deprived of these films thanks in part to a union dispute that threatened to tear Toho apart. Or that the clash between Toho’s workers and management became a proxy battle in the Cold War, complete with guerilla tactics, siege weapons, and tanks. 

Toho survived the Pacific War thanks in part to its fortuitous location, far from central Tokyo where allied bombers had concentrated their fire and fury. Still, Toho’s workers and filmmakers did not have an easy time of it. 

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Throughout the war, they continued to work as they endured gnawing hunger and rolling blackouts. Japan’s imperial government forced Toho to crank out propaganda films. Credits were cut from the beginnings of movies to save expensive film stock.

But after the war’s end, many at Toho hoped they were entering a new era of prosperity and creative freedom. Early in Japan’s postwar occupation, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) encouraged democratization, peaceful assembly and the formation of labor unions. There was a flurry of activity as unions formed across Japan in 1946. Toho was no exception. 

The Toho union’s first demands were for democratization of management and wage increases. When management refused, the union organized the first Toho strike. Toho seized control of film production, inspired by Yomiuri newspaper workers who had ejected their owners and taken control of their publication. Toho management folded within months, granting the union’s demands in April of 1946. 

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Around this time, SCAP’s motion picture chief commissioned a screening of Akira Kurosawa’s pro-union film Those Who Make Tomorrow. The film, about a labor dispute at a film production company, supposedly made the SCAP chief cry. (Kurosawa, the legendary director of Seven Samurai and Rashomon who got his start at Toho, later called the film “uninteresting.”)

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  • Still from One Wonderful Sunday, Akira Kurosawa's 1947 feature film.

    Photo Credit: Toho Company

There was a brief peace followed by a more disruptive strike later the same year. An emboldened union de-throned the studio’s producers to install a “joint-worker management council”. This gave filmmakers more autonomy, empowered union representatives and further sidelined management. 

This time the union faced backlash, and not just from management. Communists within the union had begun to alienate many of the other members. Even Kurosawa, generally a union man, said that “in many areas, the union was going too far". 

Some of Toho’s most famous and well known actors walked out, calling themselves The Society of the Flag of Ten. Among the deserters were Setsuko Hara, who would later headline Yasujirô Ozu’s classic Tokyo Story, and Susumu Fujita, a Japanese equivalent to John Wayne, known for playing war heros. This left Toho largely starless. 

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To make matters worse, 445 employees followed Hara and Fujita’s leads. Sensing an opportunity, Toho’s management swooped in and formed a new company around the Society of the Flag of Ten. They named it “Shin Toho” (“New Toho.”) 

So Toho had a shiny new competitor whose ranks were stacked with the actors they had just lost. But Toho had already survived imperial repression and allied bombing. They resolved to survive Shin Toho as well, and adopted a twofold strategy.

First, they relied on their directorial talent. They still had Kurosawa, who was by this point nearing the height of his powers, and the director Yamamoto Satsuo had recently returned from a Chinese prisoner of war camp.  Satsuo returned to find the labor dispute already in progress. After the Flag of Ten walkout, Satsuo brawled side by side with other unionists to kick defectors out of their union headquarters. 

“Our strategy was to throw them out the window one by one, and we proceeded to do just that,” Satsuo wrote in his autobiography. (He fails to specify whether the fight took place on a ground-level floor.)

Second, Toho got to work developing young talent to make up for lost star-power. Enter Toshiro Mifune, a devilishly handsome up-and-comer who would go on to become one of the most iconic performers of the 20th century. 

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After the war, Mifune walked away from the military with nothing but the clothes on his back—clothes which he had fashioned from two strips of blanket. He found part-time work with the U.S. Navy hauling tanks of Coca Cola syrup. 

Broke, Mifune went to Toho looking to find a job as a camera operator. According to company lore, his resume was sent to the wrong department, so he ended up auditioning to become an actor. 

Mifune burst onto the scene playing a bank robber in Snow Trail. A strong script, combined with  an ominous score from Akira Ifukube (who would later write scores for Toho’s kaiju films, including Godzilla) helped make the movie a success. But the key ingredient was Mifune’s performance. Mifune was known for his intensity even before he started acting. In the military, he would step in when high-ranked officials bullied their subordinates.

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  • Toshiro Mifune in Snow Trail.

    Photo Credit: Toho Company

According to one source, “(Mifune) had such powerful eyes that his superiors would usually back down.” 

Toho released a series of beloved, critically acclaimed films during this period, including War and Peace, which showed the Pacific War from the perspective of the people of China. SCAP censors cut a labor strike sequence from the film, manifesting the first chills of the Cold War. 

On the other hand, Toho was bleeding money. Endless political debates over scripts had slowed production to a crawl. In 1947 they were down 75 million yen. Shin Toho, meanwhile, was making commercially successful star vehicles.

This might not have been entirely the union’s fault. Inflation was rampant at the time, and some unionists accused management of cooking the books to make them look bad. 

Across Japan, business leaders fretted that other workers might follow the Toho union’s lead. At a secret meeting in Tokyo, business leaders conspired with Toho’s management to bust up the union. The group agreed to funnel money to fund the battle.

The man chosen to lead the fight was Tetsuzo Watanabe, who became president of Toho in 1947. Watanabe had a reputation as a fierce anti-communist. He was also a financial backer of the far right wing Chrysanthemum Flag Association.

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He vowed to purge Toho of its “two reds-” that is, the red in their ledger and the red flag of communism. He started by dismissing at least 1,000 out of the 6,000 workers at Toho, all suspected communists. 

Furious, unionists turned to drastic measures: They occupied the studio.

Actors and actresses worked side by side with carpenters to build barricades at the studio gates.  Barbed wire was strung up, and lightning technicians used their spots to illuminate the shadowy areas where the police or agents of management could sneak in by night.

“The greatest work of genius was the fans,” wrote Kurosawa. “They set up two big wind machines just inside the front and back gates of the lot, facing outward like heavy artillery. In the event of a storming of the gates, they were ready with a huge amount of cayenne pepper to toss in front of the fan blasts and blind the oncoming enemy.” 

Leftist groups joined the strike too, including members of the Communist Youth League and the North Korean Workers Association. Estimates put between 1,000 and 2,500 people in the studio. Occupiers lived on “yeast bread” baked with white flour; thin rice; and vegetable stew. When they got bored, they would drink cheap sake and dance. 

The unionists held their position for months, from April to August 1948 as directors supported the strike from the outside. Kurosawa toured around Japan speaking on behalf of the union. Mifune and the actress Hatae Kishi did the same. 

Unionists put together “parachute units” that paid to enter theaters playing Toho films and then jumped on stage during intermission to plead the union’s case. In spite of a hostile press (the media mostly wrote from the management’s perspective), the union gained the public’s sympathy. 

The stalemate was broken by an external force: the SCAP’s determination to make Japan an anticommunist shield against forces amassing in China, Korea and the Soviet Union. In 1948, Japanese business, Japanese government and the SCAP came together to crack down on unions. In spite of there being little compelling evidence of a connection between the unionists and the Soviets, it was determined that Toho should be made an example of.

Heading to Toho on the train one morning, Satsuo noticed that one of the roads leading to the studio was choked with armored vehicles. When he arrived, he found 2,000 Japanese police, American military police, and at least 5 Sherman Tanks, recalled from combat maneuvers around Mount Fuji. An observation plane circled the studio, and more U.S. soldiers were on alert at Camp Drake. 

The police carried saws, axes, battering rams and ladders. In the face of an armed siege-force, the unionists’ guerilla tactics were rendered useless.

“The only thing they didn’t send was a battleship,” said Akagi Ranko, a Toho actress and unionist.

Ito Takero, a producer barricaded inside with the strikers, announced that the union would surrender to avoid bloodshed. By 11 a.m. that same day, the unionists evacuated. Takero would later be forced to resign from the company anyway, along with hundreds more. 

The way the Toho strike ended set a precedent that would resonate through Japanese politics for decades, from mass dismissals at Toshiba in 1949 to the triumph of consumerism in the 1960s. 

Kurosawa resented the heavy handed tactics and left the company soon after. “(Management) never recognized that movies are made by… a union of individual human talents,” he lamented. “They never recognized how much effort was required to bring about that union.”

Satsuo left too. Long after, he returned to the studio as an outsider. As he left a meeting, a man from the SCAP recognized him. The SCAP-man grabbed Satsuo and made a slicing motion across his throat, indicating with a sadistic grin that Satsuo and the union had been successfully dismembered.

“Suppressing my urge to literally kick the ass of that son of a bitch, I decided to leave him alone and went home,” said Satsuo.