Osugi Sakae and Little Acts of Resistance

There’s a tendency for people on the radical left to focus on large acts of rebellion, such as general strikes, riots, or revolutions. The problem with doing this too much is that it is difficult to translate lessons from these massive events to our every day mundane lives. After all, I won’t be storming Parliament on Tuesday or abolishing wage labour on Friday. It is because of this that I think its very important to learn about tiny acts of resistance performed by normal people going about their lives. These more down to earth actions can inspire me to act differently in the here and now and thereby push against the cage that we all live in.

One little known example of such tiny resistance comes from the autobiography of Osugi Sakae. Sakae was an early 20th century Japanese anarchist. He was arrested a lot and as a result had served almost 37 months in prison before his 27th Birthday. He was killed in 1923, at the age of 38, when the military police beat him, the anarcha-feminist Noe Ito, and his 6 year old nephew to death and threw their corpses down a well.

Once when in prison Sakae was told by the captain of the guard to sit beneath him on the floor. In Japanese culture at the time the height at which you sat denoted relations of subordination. The person who sits high up is powerful and the person who sits beneath them is subject to their power. Hence why one of the complaints of Japanese striking workers in 1898 was that assistant stationmasters sat above railway engineers and firemen. Sakae responded to the guard captain by refusing to sit beneath him and instead insisting that he stand. When the guard captain responded by shouting at him and ordering him to sit down, Sakae said “What do you mean, order? If you want to make me sit, go ahead and make me sit.” In the end Sakae was not forced to sit and was instead taken back to his cell. What I like about this example is that even though Sakae is in prison, and so very unfree, he still refuses to submit to those who have power over him. A lesson I think we could all learn when dealing with authority figures who lord it over us.

Source: Byron Marshall, trans., The Autobiography of Osugi Sakae (University of California Press, 1992), 157.

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