I have been MIA for approximately four months. During this time I finished writing the first part of a research project (I’m a student at Tohoku University in Sendai) and I travelled inside and outside of Japan. And I read a lot of books. No less surprising, perhaps, the toll that the research project took on my daily life compounded by the exhaustion and mental depletion following its culmination were sufficient factors in my decision to temporarily abandon this blog — until today.
Two weeks ago I had just returned from a trip to Hokkaido. I moved around the desolate and frozen landscape visiting Sapporo, Abashiri, Hiretokoshari and Otaru. It felt like traveling through a black-and-white Japanese film. Flashbacks of Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (which I haven’t read since my undergraduate days) were unavoidable even if that novel was set somewhere in Niigata Prefecture. In Sapporo and Otaru I went to the local museum of literature to see the displays of one of my favorite Japanese writers, Kobayashi Takiji. The following photos are from Hokkaido Museum of Literature (北海道立文学館) in Sapporo and Otaru Museum of Literature (小樽文学館) in, well, Otaru. Kobayashi Takiji was given prominent place in both of these establishments. That’s the main reason why I paid them a visit.
Seeing all those old books written by him and reading all the voluminous information scattered on posters, banners, old newspapers and in photographs made me think of Kobayashi’s magnificent book I read with enthusiasm while vacationing in Singapore last December: The Crab Cannery Ship. But it also conjured the deep resentment I feel for the dissonant history of nationalistic nostalgia that has made such a strong comeback under Prime-Minister Abe’s administration. You only have to walk into a regular Japanese bookstore or pick up a newspaper or switch on any channel of the (predominantly) right-wing media to see what I’m talking about. Kobayashi’s undiluted presence in Hokkaido and the frozen sprawling spectacle peopled with charming inhabitants made me forget for an insular moment the vicissitudes of the Japanese “mainland.” But I want now to talk a little about the book.
Kobayashi Takiji’s The Crab Cannery Ship, in the fresh and exuberant translation by Zeljko Cipris, is more than an established example of the proletarian current that swooped on Japan during the 1930s: it is an explicit articulation of seething outrage as well as indictment of the domestic and international villainies carried out by Japan during the early Showa period. Moreover, it is a condemnation of the capitalist system which rises above insipid demagoguery due to its unique literary value, a fact illustrated by the notable currency and recognition the novel acquired in 2008 after being propelled to the status of national bestseller. This noteworthy media reclamation of a workers’ struggle aboard a cannery ship doing its rounds near Soviet shores is indicative of a general global revival of politically-loaded and humanistically-inclined notions of solidarity, struggle and class. Norma Field and Heather Bowen-Struyk do a far better job of explaining the social, cultural and economic issues underlying this unanticipated Takiji “boom.” Instead, in these few lines I would like to concentrate on the unprecedented intensity of criticism which Takiji leveled at imperialism, the army, capital, labor exploitation and, most outrageously, the Japanese Imperial family. The fact that this novel was published, even in censored form, is an amazing oversight on the part of authorities who began to crack down on leftist ideas following the promulgation of the Peace Preservation Law in 1925.
I want to enumerate here my favorite passages from the book, all of which reveal Kobayashi’s heroic streak bordering on madness and, naturally, bringing the outrageous truth to light. There are also a few passages that offer a counter-history to the established knowledge about the development of Hokkaido which runs against the glorified selfless, patriotic acts captured in various national museums (one that jumps into my mind is the Abashiri Prison Museum, 網走監獄, which I recently visited). But I’ll let the text to do the rest of the talking.
“Needless to say, as some of you may know, this crab cannery ship’s business is not just to make lots of money for the corporation but is actually a matter of the greatest international importance. This is a one-on-one fight between us, citizens of a great empire, and the Russkies, a battle to find out which one of us is greater — them or us…” (26)
“Another thing, our fishing industry off Kamchatka is not just about canning crabs and salmon and trout, but internationally speaking it’s also about keeping up the superior status of our nation, which no other country can match. And moreover, we’re accomplishing an important mission in regard to our domestic problem like overpopulation and shortage of food. You probably have no idea what I’m talking about, but anyhow I’ll have you know that we’ll be risking our lives cutting through those rough northern waves to carry out a great mission for the Japanese empire. And that’s why our imperial warship will accompany us and protect us all along the way… Anyone who acts up trying to ape this recent Russky craze, anyone who incites others to commit outrageous acts, is nothing but a traitor to the Japanese empire.” (26-27)
“International competition is never going to be won by acting nice, and you got no business sticking your nose into this!” The manager twisted his lips hard, and spat. (34)
“Japan no good now. Working people, this.” (He bent back and shrank into himself.) “Rich man boss, this.” (Swaggering, he imitated a bully knocking people down.) “That no good! Working people, this.” (With a fierce look, he stood up and lunged forward as if to knock down and trample an oppressor.) “Rich man boss, this.” (He mimed fleeing.) “Japan all working people, good country. Proletariat country…” (46)
Everybody was made to go to the work site before dawn. They were forced to work until their pickaxes glittered bluish-white in the dark and their hands could no longer be seen. Everyone envied the prisoners who worked in a nearby jail. Koreans were treated most cruelly of all, not only by the bosses and overseers but by their fellow Japanese laborers. (54)
It was the same at the mines. New tunnels were dug. To find out how best to deal with whatever gases leaked from the ground and whatever momentous changes the digging would cause, the capitalists — following the methods of General Nogi, sainted hero of the Russo-Japanese War — simply used up tens of thousands of workers whom they could buy more cheaply than guinea pigs, then throw away. It was easier than discarding used tissues! The tunnel walls kept on being reinforced with multiple layers of miners’ raw flesh. Horrors were perpetrated taking advantage of the mines’ distance from cities. In the loaded mine cars, slabs of coal sometimes turned up with severed thumbs and little fingers adhering to them. Women and children did not even raise an eyebrow at such sights. Accustomed to them all, expressionless, they merely pushed the cars to the next station. That coal propelled a gigantic engine churning out capitalists’ profits. (55)
In Hokkaido there were “immigrant farmers” and “new cultivators.” Through movies filled with enticing slogans like “Develop Hokkaido,” “Solve the food problem through promoting immigration,” and the childish “Strike it rich as immigrants,” the powers that be encouraged the mainland’s impoverished peasants who were about to be robbed of their fields to emigrate, only to abandon them on the land that — four or five inches below the surface — turned out to be nothing but clay… By the following spring entire families, buried in the snow and without even potatoes to eat, had starved to death. Such things happened over and over. (55-56)
Even in those rare cases where immigrants managed to cultivate their land for a decade without staving to death, when they finally had turned it into decent fields, they would find that the land now belonged to “outsiders.” The capitalists — usurers, banks, nobles, and the superrich — casually lent out lavish sums of money, so that once the wasteland was transformed into fields as fertile as plump cats they unfailingly fell into their own hands. Imitating such practices, other shrewd people came to Hokkaido determined to make easy money. The peasants found their possessions snatched at from every direction. In the end they were reduced to being just what they had been on the mainland: tenant farmers. (56)
“It’s only the Russkies who quit working the moment the time’s up, even if there are frigging shoals of fish right under their noses. With that kind of attitude, no wonder Russia got to be such a fucked up country. Japanese men must never act like that!”
Some of the men ignored his speech, thinking: “The asshole’s lying.” But the majority swallowed the manager’s suggestion that the Japanese were truly an outstanding people. And they felt somewhat consoled by the notion that their cruel daily sufferings seemed to have something heroic about it. (61)
“It bowled me over when I first heard it, but when you come right down to it the truth is that every single one of Japan’s wars to this day was fought at the orders of a few rich or super-rich men (I’m talking really rich men), with the excuses cooked up any which way. Anyhow, these crooks are itching like crazy to get their hands on every place they mell money. They’re looking for trouble.” (72)
“Nobody’s on our side except our own selves. For the first time, I get the picture.”
“All that bullshit about the navy being on the side of the people…On the side of the people, my ass! They’re nothing but flunkies of the filthy rich.” (94)
Every year as the fishing season drew to an end, it was customary to manufacture some cans of crabmeat to be offered to the Emperor. Yet not the slightest effort was ever made to precede their preparation with the traditional ritual purification. The fishermen had always thought this terrible of the manager. But this time they felt differently.
“We’re squeezing our very blood and flesh into these cans. Huh, I’m sure they’ll taste wonderful. Hope they give him a stomachache.”
Such were their feelings as they packed the cans for the Imperial table.
“Mix in some rocks! I don't give a fuck!” (94)
And lest anyone thinks that Kobayashi Takiji had only the interests of his fellow *men* on his mind, then check out these passages from the novella Yasuko. Kobayashi can quite realistically rival the astuteness for anthropological analysis of any social scientist of his era (Hosoi Wakizou and Yasoo Kusama come to mind) and his feminist sympathies and support for Japanese women's social, economic and political emancipation are unmistakable.
“And yet most people consider this kind of life only natural, or they’re convinced that nothing can ever be done about it. The boss who makes you work like that and doesn’t do a lick of work himself grabs profits dozens of times bigger than what you get. All the same, there’s still a lot of folks in Japan who accept all this as a matter of course because he’s got money and they don’t. Many women tend to think like that…” (156)
“It’s especially women who’ve been trained to submit unquestioningly to everything. Even if she has a family, the woman must not raise her head because it’s the man who brings in the money. A man gets away with doing wrong, a woman gets blamed even when she’s right. That’s why women ought to work on their own, so as to become fully self-reliant…” (156)
“Women’s work has long been limited to sewing, cooking, and taking care of children, but now they’ll find themselves in the wider society, occupying the same workplace as men. As a result women’s way of thinking will also change, and anyway they’ll earn money, enabling them to gain economic independence. Therefore they’ll be able to break free from slavish ways of thought that have taught them till now to depend on men. Right?… First of all, since you’ve got a boss then you don't just cook and clean, you go out to work every single day, and with the money you get working for that boss you provide for your family and you handle various household matters all with your own strength. Without realizing it, you’ve become different from a woman who does needlework…”
Okei had never before heard such talk. Although this was her first time, she felt she understood its meaning as accurately as if it had struck some measuring instrument within her heart.
“In the old days, women’s only profession was prostitution. Look at you now: tens of thousands of factory workers, cafè and bar waitresses, office workers, typists, bus conductors. Not only are your numbers growing, but your sphere of work is rapidly expanding too. This sort of thing will have an extremely socializing and elevating effect on women’s way of thinking about things.” (157)
“…Working-class women are bound by double chains: on the one hand they must be liberated from men, and on the other hand they must be liberated from capital. To be liberated from men, women must first of all be economically independent, but to solve that basic economic problem it’s essential that women be liberated as workers. So, enabling women to exist truly as women is only conceivable through a liberation of the working class. It may sound like a self-serving argument, but to join our work on a mass scale is the best way to break both these chains at once.” (158)
And finally there’s the straightforward unveiling of Japan’s overseas intentions and the deluded utopian ambitions that saw a lot of left-leaning humanists abandon their homeland for the harsh, barren wastelands of Manchuria in order to build a better society with the support and/or in the name of his majesty, the Emperor.
“Unlike earlier wars, they claimed, the present war was not being fought so that Mitsui, Mitsubishi, and other corporations could erect gigantic factories in the occupied territories; it was being fought to create a way out for the dispossessed. Once we took Manchuria, we would exclude the big capitalists and set up a monarchy of our own. The nation’s unemployed would rush off to Manchuria, and some day not a single unemployed person would remain in Japan. There was not a single unemployed person in Russia, and we too must become the same. Therefore, they said, the present war was a war for the good of the proletariat, and we too had to work as industriously as we possibly could at the jobs that we had been given.” (263)
|Kobayashi Takiji's death mask|
Takiji Kobayashi. The Crab Cannery Ship and Other Novels of Struggle. University of Hawaii Press, 2013.
Bowen-Struyk, Heather. "Why a Boom in Proletarian Literature in Japan? The Kobayashi Takiji Memorial and The Factory Ship." The Asia-Pacific Journal 29 (2009).
Field, Norma. "Commercial Appetite and Human Need: The Accidental and Fated Revival of Kobayashi Takiji's Cannery Ship." The Asia-Pacific Journal 8 (2009).