Obituary: Remembering Yamahara Katsuji 1947 – 2020

Jul 24, 2020

He was known popularly to General Union members simply as Yamahara. No mister, no sir; just affectionately called Yamahara – and one of the most unpretentious people you could have ever met.

On 23 July 2020, Yamahara passed away quietly at his home 73 years after his birth in Sumiyoshi-ku, Osaka.

A union organiser since finishing school, Yamahara worked for many years for the General Council of Trade Unions of Japan (Sohyo) affiliated Metal and Machinery Workers Union (Zenkin) until its merger into the Japan Trade Union Confederation (Rengo).

During this time, he was a prominent Kansai area organiser not only due to his excellent strategies and tactics in protecting workers’ rights and lives, but also for his continuous efforts in strengthening ties between Japanese and international workers especially in Asia.

In his mid-forties, while many gave up on the idea that the Japanese labour movement could remain vibrant, he left Zenkin in order to organise a union that would be there for all workers and founded the General Union in 1991.

Since that time, the union grew from a band of Japanese union activists into a union with a predominantly foreign membership in the language teaching industry and universities.

His role as relaxed general of this new army of union members played an integral part in the union that we are now.

He developed and mentored young union activists, not dominated them with his superior knowledge and experience.

He treated all as his equal even though most of us will never achieve his ability as a union negotiator and strategist who wowed both employers and union members.

Friend and foe alike will all admit to one same thing: his simple presence filled any room he was in.

He was Yamahara,  friend to all workers and enemy to all those who wished to exploit them. He definitely did not come in grey.

And Yamahara didn’t just stop at General Union activity: he was a regular contributor to Rodo John labour magazine, and an active member in the Asia Pacific Workers Solidarity League.

His home was the worldwide workers movement and continued building stronger ties with with other Asian workers hosting Korean, Taiwanese, American, Filipino union activists when they visited Japan in their battles against Japanese companies.

A father and brother to many, a comrade to all in in the workers struggle, and a union leader who helped grow a union in the dry years of unions in Japan.

He will be eternally loved and missed by all who knew him.

We could go on and give him credit for a lot more many things, but he would deny it all with a simple flash of his smile.