I would never have believed it possible, but there is actually one positive outcome of what has come to be called The Great Recession: the economic and social situation became so dire in Japan that a long neglected novel by Kobayashi Takiji (1903-1933), Kani kōsen (The Cannery Ship - 1929), a product of the brief movement of proletarian literature in Japan before the militarists really clamped down,(*) experienced such a hugely successful revival in 2008 (**) that it and two other novellas were translated into English and made available by the University of Hawai'i Press.(***)
Kani kōsen, given the title The Crab Cannery Ship in this translation, portrays the unequal owner/worker relation in a particularly pure form: the owners are faceless and absent, their representatives are crude, brutal and ruthless, and the workers are perched together on an old tub turned into a crab cannery factory in which the only law is the manager's, and that law - how well we all know it - is: maximize the owners' profits. The drama is heightened by the fact that they are fishing in the winter in the seas north of Japan that are contested by the Soviet Union and patrolled by their warships. The cannery boats are therefore accompanied by a Japanese destroyer to protect them, though it soon becomes clear that the navy is also there to protect the interests of the owners against those of the workers. The workers toil through the 20 hour Siberian winter days in miserable conditions for four, five months at a time, until the crabs move on; they are fed so poorly that many of them come down with beriberi; as they weaken, the foreman beats them to keep them working; fishermen are launched in small boats in the teeth of a storm by the manager in order to improve his "performance."
Kobayashi lived in Otaru on the Hokkaido coast where such ships made their port and in the course of his political activities spoke with these fishermen; this is a reasonably accurate portrayal of actual circumstances back in the day when the fight for labor unions was viewed by the militarists and capitalists as collaboration with the Russians and treason to Japan.(4*) In fact, he makes the additional point that Hokkaido was beginning to be developed by capitalists then because it had much the same status as the colonies of Korea and Taiwan - they could do anything they wanted there without worrying about unions and laws.
Lest you think that Kani kōsen is just a tendentious piece of left-wing moralizing, Kobayashi energetically tells the story in a colorful manner (the crowded, stinking space that serves as the workers' dormitory on the ship is almost exclusively referred to as "the shit-hole") with moments of drama that keep the pages turning. Of interest is also his attempt to present the workers as something like a single organism (none of them have names and individual "characters" do not emerge until the end) and men such as the captain (though their humanity shows through now and again) solely as their role in the money-making machine that is the cannery ship; only the manager (and a malingerer who soon wished he had been swept overboard) has a name. But there is no denying that Kani kōsen is political reportage as novel.
Though Kani kōsen was the best seller, the second novella in this collection, Yasuko (1931), is better written and more finely nuanced. In Yasuko Kobayashi evokes the life of small tenant farmers on Hokkaido, clarifying the reasons why the original Japanese settlers on Hokkaido(5*) were quickly reduced to tenant status and finally to the role of day laborers (or workers on cannery ships). He also shows the political dynamics at the grass root level of the emerging struggle between this lower class and the middle class enablers of the capitalists. Though again very informative, Yasuko also offers fully developed characters to whom one can more readily become attached and about whom one can begin to care on a more than abstract level.
This may well be due to the fact that Kobayashi was close to the people involved: he fell in love with a waitress/amateur prostitute (young women in the lower classes often had to supplement their family's income in this manner) named Yasuko. The main characters in this novella are Yasuko, her mother, brother and sister; Kobayashi himself takes a minor role in the story. The women dominate the text: the simple, subservient, hardworking mother, the shy, fearful and hardworking eldest sister, Okei, and the curious, adventuresome and hardworking Yasuko. Kobayashi is very direct about the costs and rewards of political activism in this and the novella up next.
The third and shortest piece, Tōseikatsusha (1932), translated here as Life of a Party Member, details the difficulties met while trying to organize in a factory that has suddenly been ordered to produce gas masks for use on the Asian continent. The intent is twofold: to convince the workers to stand up for themselves and to resist the imperialist war being carried out against the Chinese by the nationalists and capitalists. Both of these goals were anathema to the powers that be, and the secret police were hovering. In the real world, they lured Kobayashi and a confederate into a trap, and he was dead within six hours of his arrest.
(*) Kobayashi died while being tortured by the Japanese analogue of the Gestapo at the age of 29. There are photos of his tortured corpse online I wish I had never seen.
(**) Over 500,000 copies were sold that year, four mangas based on the book appeared and two stage productions and a movie were made. Not enough, new phrases entered the language: including a verb “kanikō suru" (to do degrading labor) and the lamentation “kore ja maru de kani ko da naa!” (this is just like Kani Kosen!). For further, serious discussion of this phenomenon, see Norma Field's article, “Commercial Appetite and Human Need: The Accidental and Fated Revival of Kobayashi Takiji's Cannery Ship” The Asia-Pacific Journal Vol. 8-8-09, February 22, 2009.
(***) Not that this excuses or otherwise justifies the greed and irresponsibility that caused the Great Recession, or, for that matter, the resultant additional huge transfer of wealth from the overwhelming majority at the bottom to the few at the top of the capitalistic food chain.
(4*) How reminiscent it is of the propaganda of the Koch brothers/Republican Party that has succeeded - against the interests of the majority working class in a supposed democracy - in convincing so many Americans that union = socialism and socialist = anti-American.
(5*) Hokkaido, the northernmost major island in the Japanese chain, was where the original inhabitants of islands, the Ainu, withdrew as the Japanese expanded their rule. Though the Ainu on Hokkaido had been under the Japanese thumb for some time, the latter had not seriously tried to colonize Hokkaido until the early 20th century.