The Tokyo Imperial University Settlement House: Challenging Social Inequality in Interwar Japan

The Project

In 1923, a group of left-wing students and progressive professors from Tokyo Imperial University banded together to form the university’s Settlement House in Honjo, a workers’ district in downtown Tokyo. This house contained rooms for students to live among the proletariat, and its activities included a labour school for factory workers providing night classes taught by professors and students, which produced several prominent labor leaders and future Diet members. The idea for such a settlement house originated in Victorian Britain and had been adopted around the world by the late nineteenth century. In Japan, around two dozen such houses existed in the 1920s. Among them, the university settlement in Honjo, which had been founded after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, was special thorough its connection to the most important university in the country. This was one reason why it managed to survive until 1938, i.e. long after the ascendance of militarism and fascism in Japan, despite its overt leftist connections. When it shut down in 1938, it did so because the authorities forced it to do so.

The Tokyo University students active in the Settlement, mostly from Law, but some also from Medicine, Sociology, and other subjects, and many of them earlier members of the leftist student group Shinjinkai 新人会, belonged to one of several divisions that they had set up:

  • Empirical Research (chōsa-bu 調査部): Until 1929, students conducted regular surveys to get to know the neighborhood better and to improve their skills as empirical researchers.
  • Workers’ Education (rōdōsha kyōiku bu 労働者教育部): For the university students, the labor school was the most important aspect of the settlement. Teaching staff from the university and external guests taught courses and held lectures.
  • Civic Education (shimin kyōiku bu 市民教育部): Supplementing the labor school, which focused on issues related to trade unions, economy, and social sciences, the settlement also offered a broader program of general education for adults through courses and lectures.
  • Children (jidō-bu 児童部): Children of school age were taken care of in the afternoons and evenings to allow working couples to earn a double income.
  • Infants (takuji-bu 託児部): A day care center was operated for preschool children.
  • Legal Consultation (hōritsu sōdan bu 法律相談部): Tokyo University legal scholars offered free legal consultation, mainly for conflicts with landlords and issues involving labor law.
  • Medical Services (iryō-bu 医療部): Personnel from the university’s hospital offered free health services for residents of the neighborhood.
  • Consumer Cooperative (shōhi kumiai bu 消費組合部): The consumer cooperative movement had become popular in Japan in the 1920s, and in 1927 the Settlement decided to set one up on their own. It was run by residents of the neighborhood.

Due to the range of its activities, the settlement was the most impactful example of a broader effort among progressives during this period to empower workers to seize leadership of the labour movement and overcome what was perceived to be a fundamentally unequal socio-economic system. The goal of this project is to reconstruct the theoretical conception and the practical work of the Tokyo Imperial University Settlement House. In order to do so, the project is divided into three subprojects: 1) labour movement, 2) welfare, 3) social science and higher education.

Ad 1): The Settlement was shaped by the labour movement, but it also contributed to shaping the labour movement of interwar and post-war Japan. This connection between the theoretical work of progressives including Marxists on the one hand and practical efforts on the other has not been studied sufficiently for interwar Japan. Project work focuses on a comparison between theoretical pedagogical ideas on labor schools—including a comparison with other labor schools of the 1920s as well as other forms of adult education such as the free universities (jiyū daigaku 自由大学)—and their practical implementation. Although severely limited by available sources, we also aim at tracking the biographies of workers who took classes at the labor school.

Ad 2): Through offering health and legal services as well as childcare, the Settlement became a provider of welfare services. Given that research on the history of welfare in Japan has been heavily slanted towards the state, the role of civil society actors in directly confronting inequality and the effect these efforts had on their thought deserves greater scholarly attention. We will compare the Tokyo University Settlement to other settlement houses as well as other institutions of social welfare existing at the same time. Child care as an innovative social practice of the 1920s, undergirded by new theoretical attention paid to it by the pedagogical scholarship of the time, stands out as a particularly interesting subfield.

Ad 3): The activities of the Settlement were informed by the ascent of the social sciences in interwar Japan, and in turn affected new pedagogic ideas in the realm of higher education and the interaction between university professors and students. The Law professors Suehiro Izutarō 末弘厳太郎 and Hozumi Shigetō 穂積重遠 as well as the Sociologist Toda Teizō 戸田貞三 played an important role as advisors to the students active in the Settlement. At the same time, these three were leading innovators at the university in pressing ahead with new teaching formats.

By situating the Tokyo Imperial University Settlement House in the larger histories of the labour movement, welfare policy and social science and higher education in Japan during the first half of the twentieth century, we hope to shed light on the interconnection of these areas and on the international connections at work in these contexts. For instance, Soviet ideas about a specific proletarian culture were discussed in Japan in their British inflection and adapted to theoretical considerations about adult education, while the empirical turn in the social sciences was the result of experiences the Settlement’s guidance professors had in the United State. An overarching concern of the project is the relationship between theory and practice in progressive social movements. Ultimately, this project will serve as an important building block within a larger and more ambitious monographic history of equality and inequality in modern Japan.

The German Research Council (DFG) has provided three years of funding for the exploration of these questions in the context of the project ‘The Tokyo Imperial University Settlement House: Challenging Social Inequality in Interwar Japan’, based at the Department of Japanese Studies at the University of Heidelberg. For the duration of the project from April 2021 until March 2024 a team of investigators and research assistants will systematically pursue the question of the contributions made by the Settlement House concerning social equality in between the two World Wars.

Introduction of the Team

Deleu, Hanne (04/2021–12/2021)
  • Responsible for: Social policies
  • 2020 M.A. Transcultural Studies, University of Heidelberg
Grover, Bruce Gordon
  • Responsible for: Intellectual history
  • PhD student, Japanese Studies, University of Heidelberg
  • 2014 M.A., School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Janzen, Violetta
  • Responsible for: Transfer of ideas and contacts with foreign countries, especially the soviet union
  • 2020 M.A. Japanese Studies, University of Heidelberg
  • Responsible for: Educational history and science transfer
  • Professor for Japanese Studies (focus History/Society), University of Heidelberg
Lau, Sai Kiet Niki (04/2021–12/2021)
  • Responsible for: Minorities and Labour Schools
  • 2020 M.A. International Christian University, Tokyo
Witt, Alice
  • Responsible for: Biographies of students and teachers
  • Master student, Japanese Studies, University of Heidelberg
  • 2019 B.A. East Asian Studies with focus on Japanese Studies, University of Heidelberg


  • 22. and 23. November 2018, Workshop in Heidelberg in cooperation with HCTS (Heidelberg Center for Transcultural Studies), Prof. Dr. Hans Martin Krämer and Prof. Dr. Till Knaudt, „Labor Schools and Settlement Houses: Global Efforts to Overcome Economic Inequity in Japan, the Soviet Union, and the Anglosphere in the Interwar Period“
    • Sarah Badcock (University of Nottingham), „Popular Enlightment Campaigns in 1917: Political Elites and ‚Ordinary‘ People“
    • Christopher Read (University of Warwick), „Proletkul't and Prosveshchenie (Enlightment): Developing a Strategy for Socialist Education”
    • Fabian Tompsett (University of East London), „Whose Civilisation? Whose Education: The Contribution of Cedar and Eden Paul as Seen Through the Workers‘ Dreadnought“
    • Bruce Grover (Universität Heidelberg), „The Tokyo Imperial University Labor School in Context: The Free University Movement, Proletkult, and New Culture in 1920s and 1930s Japan”
    • Aaron Retish (Wayne State University), „Cultural Education in Soviet Courts and Law”
    • Colin Jones (Columbia University), „Does the Law Live? The Yanagishima Settlement and the Question of Legal Consciousness“
    • Tom Woodin (University College London), „The Co-operative Movement and Education in Britain during the Interwar Period”
    • Chris Perkins (University of Edinburgh), „Models of Participatory Worker Education in Prewar Japan: The Cooperative of the Tokyo Imperial University Settlement House”
    • Laura Hein (Northwestern University), „Concluding Discussion”
  • May 24, 2022, Expert discussion, Dr. Robert Kramm, LMU Munich University (Global History)
  • June 2022, Archive journey to Washington DC (Library of Congress, Japanese Censorship Collection), Bruce Gordon Grover
  • July 27, 2022, Expert discussion, Fuke Takahiro, Kyōto University (Institute for Research in Humanities)


  • Knaudt, Till; Krämer, Hans Martin (2017): „Politische Agitation und Sozialreform im Alltag: Das ‚Settlement‘ der Universität Tōkyō in Shitamachi“. In: Köhn, Stephan; Weber, Chantal; Elis, Volker (Hrsg.): Tōkyō in den zwanziger Jahren. Experimentierfeld einer anderen Moderne? Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, pp. 241–259.



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Letzte Änderung: 28.07.2022
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