Click on Links masthead to clear previous query from search box

Kobayashi Takiji: Class struggle and proletarian literature in Japan

Kobayashi Takiji (1903-1933).
The Crab Cannery Ship: and Other Novels of Struggle
By Kobayashi Takiji
Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2013, 328 pages
[Scroll to the end for a video presentation of this article, and to Note 1 for Takiji Memorial:  February 20, 2009, a three-part documentary tribute to Kobayashi Takiji, produced by Heather Bowen-Struyk.]

By Doug Enaa Greene

April 15, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In 2008, one of the best-selling novels in Japan was an 80-year-old novel, Kanikosen (Crab Cannery Ship) by the communist author Kobayashi Takiji, detailing the wretched working conditions on a fishing ship and the crew's strike and determination to overthrow their oppressors. The novel, previously selling a moderate 5000 copies per year, shot up to sales of 500,000, along with the release of four manga versions reaching many more readers.

What explains the appeal of his work? The same year that the Crab Cannery Ship topped the charts, the effects of the Great Recession were being felt across the globe: tens of millions of workers lost their jobs, stock markets tanked and governments imposed brutal austerity measures on the working class, while bailing out banks.

For Japan, the crisis hit after nearly two decades of an economic slump, as secure life-time employment was replaced by growing numbers of temporary workers who lacked health care, benefits and pensions. The crisis caused the gap between workers and capitalists to widen and led to a growing sense of insecurity.[1]

Kobayashi's work detailed not only the grueling reality of capitalism, but showed that united resistance by the working class was possible. It touched a nerve in contemporary Japan.

To understand the injustices exposed in Kobayashi's stories, it is necessary to look not only at his life but at the times in which he lived.

Japanese background

The Japan that Kobayashi Takiji was born into was the only part of the non-European world to escape colonisation, decline and division by the imperial powers. Following the first contact with the United States and other European countries in 1854 that opened Japan to foreign and unequal trade, it became clear to the rulers of Japan that they risked being subjugated by the more industrialised powers.

So, beginning in 1868, the Meiji Restoration was instituted. It was a revolution from above, ending the feudal isolation of the Tokugawa Shogunate by returning power to the Emperor, who was previously a figurehead. It opened a period of political, economic and cultural transformations that created a new centralised state, the Empire of Japan.

The Japanese Empire soon became a match for the great European empires as it established its rule in Korea, Taiwan and defeated Russia in the war of 1905. The initiative for the Meiji Restoration, which was to develop capitalist relations of production, did not come from the bourgeoisie, but rather from the imperial state itself. The government abolished the old feudal caste system, subsidised industrial development and made the landlords dependent on the state.

Yet the traditionalist slogans and new capitalist development did not improve the condition of the masses. According to the Marxist historian Chris Harman, the Meiji Restoration

showed that the state could substitute for an absent industrial capitalist class when it came to building industry and enforcing the new capitalist forms of work. A fully formed class of industrial capitalist entrepreneurs did emerge in Japan, but only after the state had succeeded in building up industry through the exploitation of wage labour in modern factories.[2]

The Japanese state was undemocratic and its parliament – the Diet – was elected by only 2 per cent of the population. There was no universal male suffrage until 1925 and women did not gain the vote until 1945. The Diet served the interests of the wealthy classes and not those of the impoverished masses.

The Meiji Restoration ultimately succeeded in turning Japan into a major capitalist power. A look at some statistics gives a clue of the vast social changes that came to Japan: the index for the output of manufactures rose from 11.1 in 1890, to 42.2 in 1900, 73.9 in 1900 and 100 by 1914.[3] However, Japanese development was uneven and “by 1907 manufacturing accounted for only 15.1 per cent of the working population, with 61.7 per cent remaining in agriculture and forestry.”[4] At the same time, although the cities saw the development of a modern proletariat, the countryside was marred by unemployment, deep poverty and feudal survivals.[5]

Japanese workers were subjected to miserable working conditions, low pay and trade unions were banned. Reflecting the uneven development of Japanese capitalism, most of the factories were small and located in the rural areas. According to Jon Halliday, “In 1884, 72 per cent of all factories had less than twenty workers and fifty-one years later, in 1935, 95 per cent still less employed than thirty people... The majority were women ... of the 422,019 people employed in the 7,284 factories in Japan in 1900, 257,307 were female... As late as 1929 the cotton and silk spinning and weaving industries alone accounted for 54.7 per cent of all factory workers.”[6]

Needless to say, Japanese women suffered severe discrimination and oppression from their male employers.

Industrialisation led to a worsening of working conditions – for instance the introduction of the electric light brought longer working hours. Early labour laws attempted to alleviate some of the worst abuses of capitalism, but were filled with so many employer-friendly provisions that they were largely useless.

Election poster for JCP-backed Labor-Farmer Party, 1928.

Early workers’ struggles took place in the mines in the 1870s and 1880s, but organisation was impossible due to the severe repression. Unions were first formed among rickshaw operators in 1883 and printers in 1884, both of which were crushed by the state.[7]

Working-class struggle remained fairly quiet until 1905, when protests against the Japanese peace conditions on Russia led to a police riot with clashes between workers and the cops resulting in 17 deaths and 2000 wounded, most of them by police swords. For the first time since the Meiji Restoration, the imperial government was forced to declare martial law to put down social unrest and ultimately the government was brought down.

The following two years witnessed strikes in key areas of the economy – shipping, mining and heavy military industries. A combination of government crackdowns and a reorganisation of industrial relations managed to end the strikes. The depression of 1907 hit Japan hard and brought great misery to the workers along with further repression. In 1910-11, 24 Japanese socialists and anarchists were accused of plotting to kill the emperor and 11 were executed.[8]

Early Japanese leftist movements were made up of diverse elements: Christian humanism (five of the six founders of the Social Democratic Party were Christian), business unionism along the lines of Samuel Gompers, anarchism and Marxism. The Social Democratic Party, formed in 1901, was banned two days later by the government. Socialists and union activists, of whatever persuasion, were fiercely persecuted by the government.[9]

Marxism, eventually, would become the predominant force on the left, particularly following 1917 and its appeal can be seen in the hunger for revolutionary theory among the masses. For instance, the first translation of the Communist Manifesto into Japanese occurred in 1904, followed by portions of Das Kapital in 1907, which sold 300,000 copies on its first release in Tokyo.[10]

Following World War I, Japan would see a craze for Marxist ideas as translations occurred at a feverish pace: “the world's first (at that time) complete collected works of Marx and Engels were also published in Japanese between 1927 and 1933, consisting of twenty-seven volumes comprising thirty-one individual books plus one additional volume. A ten volume collection of Lenin's works was also published in 1926-7.”[11]

In 1914, Japan entered World War I as a member of the Allies and immediately seized German colonies in the Pacific and China. Japan emerged from the war as one of the victors, and a world power, which had not suffered the same level of devastation as the European powers.

Yet Japan was not spared social upheaval -- while the war saw Japanese production in major industries increase by 500 per cent, real wages fell:

taking 1914 as the base (100), the fall was to 74 in 1916 and to 61 in 1918. The number of factory employees more than doubled – from 854,000 (in 1914) to 1,817,000 (in 1919). Precise data on the cost of living are lacking, but the whole development in the period 1914-18 had created conditions for an explosion. A sudden jump in the price of rice (by about 50 percent, varying locally a great deal) between 1917 and 1918 dislocated all strata.[12]

In July, this boiled over into the Rice Riots that were major demonstrations against merchants and officials that spread across Japan. During the Rice Riots, some 10 million people in 636 separate revolts took part. The situation was so severe that the army was brought in to restore order. Another factor contributing to the upheaval was Japanese intervention against the Bolshevik revolution in August 1918. Although the riots were successfully put down by October, they caused the government to fall.[13]

Following the riots and the end of the war, there was ferment among the students, who were inspired by Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, and who began working among the proletariat. Major strikes occurred in 1920-21, which were crushed by the army. There was also great agitation in the countryside with 7115 tenant strikes between 1920 and 1924, jumping to more than 19,000 between 1930 and 1934.[14]

However, the Japanese economy was reaching an impasse, agricultural prices sank in a sector characterised by small holdings, a scarcity of land and rising population. The end of the war also saw Japan's industrial boom become a slump, followed by a banking crisis in 1927, and finally in 1929 the country joined the rest of the world in the Great Depression.[15]

All of this was aggravated by the Tokyo earthquake of 1923 that killed more than 100,000 people and saw pogroms against Korean and Chinese immigrants. The police even used the occasion to murder nine labour militants. The ruling class saw its imperial ambitions and the power of the navy limited by the Washington Treaty of 1922 that settled inter-imperialist rivalry with Britain and the USA. The treaty gave Japan a subordinate status in the size of their fleet compared to England and the USA.

However, Japan actually ended up having free reign in the Pacific and East Asia since the other powers were preoccupied elsewhere. As the 1920s and ‘30s went on, Japan invaded China and extended its influence throughout the Pacific, laying the groundwork for the World War II.
At the same time universal male suffrage was established, the imperial government introduced the Public Security Preservation Law that specifically targeted leftwing movements. The law declared: “Anyone who has formed an association with altering the
kokutai, or the system of private property, and anyone who has joined such an association with full knowledge of its object, shall be liable to imprisonment with or without hard labour, for a term not exceeding ten years.”[16]

The government was concerned about the influence of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), originally formed in 1922. It was immediately banned, then reformed in 1924. The JCP was involved in popular struggles such as trade unions, tenant strikes and the Farmer-Labor parties, it was opposed to imperialist expansion and possessed a vibrant and rich political and cultural life.[17] On March 15, 1928, the police arrested approximately 1600 real and suspected communists and on April 16, the following year, there was another series of mass arrests. At least 500 communists arrested during the March 15 incident were prosecuted in 1932 – all were found guilty and sentenced to long prison terms.

By the mid-1930s, as the Sino-Japanese War began, the Communist Party had effectively ceased to exist as its mass organisations were banned and its leaders imprisoned or forced into exile.

Life of Kobayashi Takiji[18]

On October 13, 1903, Kobayashi Takiji was born in the village of Shimokawazoi in northern Japan. His father was a small landowner, but an uncle had lost the family fortune in a failed business venture. In 1907, Takiji and his family moved to Otaru on the northern island of Hokkaido in order to help his uncle in his baking business. Takiji worked at the bakery until he finished elementary school, after which he was given financial assistance to attend the municipal Commercial School – graduating in 1921 as number five in his class. While there, Takiji developed a strong interest in literature and the arts. In 1921, he enrolled the Otaru Higher School of Commerce, graduating in 1924.

While enrolled he became aware of his family's contradictory class position as former landowners and farmers, but drawing closer to the proletariat. Takiji was also very much aware that while he was a worker and an intellectual, he also desired a higher social status.
Following his graduation, Takiji took a job with the Otaru branch of the Hokkaido Colonial Bank. This bank, which originally started fairly small, had expanded its operations greatly during World War I to grow rich on loans and funded colonial development on Hokkaido and Kafafuto. Kobayashi Takiji, who was growing more aware of social injustice, was not blind to the actions of his employer.

He also developed a relationship with the 16-year-old woman, Taguchi Takiko, who worked as a prostitute.

The experience of working at a bank and falling for a woman forced to commodify herself affected him deeply. The following year, a leftist novelist named Hayama Yoshiki published a story called The Prostitute, which linked prostitution with the class consciousness of workers who sold their labour power. This story, which could be called the founding of proletarian literature in Japan, had a major impact on Kobasyashi. He wrote several short stories, known as the Takiko Stories, dealing with the condition of women at the bottom rung of society who were forced to sell themselves. These stories showcased the desire of the oppressed to resist against wretched and impossible conditions. This would be an enduring theme throughout his work.

In 1927, Takiji first became involved in political activity during Otaru's 3000-strong May Day march and later in harbour and farm workers' strikes. He participated in the strikes as a writer by designing and distributing leaflets and posters after his shift at the bank. He also took part in study classes with the farmers and workers.

This experience led to his short story, The Absentee Landlord, published in 1930. The following year, he took part in the election campaign of a member of the Communist Party, who ran as a member of the Farmer-Labor Party. This experience inspired the story, Journey to East Kutchan. Following the March 15 arrests, Takiji wrote a short story entitled March 15, 1928 that vividly detailed the arrest and torture of communists and labour activists at the hands of the police. This story was published in late 1928 sold 8000 copies before being banned – bringing Kobayashi critical acclaim, but also putting him under police surveillance and ultimately leading to his death.

By 1929, Takiji was elected to the central committee of the Japanese Proletariat Writers League, during the time he wrote the Crab Cannery Ship. This work, like many of Kobayashi's works, was unfinished. The Crab Cannery Ship sold 15,000 copies and by 1933 had been translated into Russian, Chinese and English. The story led to his dismissal from the bank since in the Crab Cannery Ship he had mentioned several of the banks' best customers by name and linked them to the exploitation of farmers.

By now, Takiji was forced to go underground, and he was arrested in May and August 1930, and during the latter incarceration he suffered torture at the hands of the imperial police. Kobayashi's underground activities included lecturing, raising funds and writing for the Writers' League and other left journals. From August to October 1931, he wrote the short story, Yasuko, that was published uncensored. While completing Yasuko, Takiji joined the Communist Party.

Takiji's entry into the JCP coincidenced with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and a further wave of arrests. In April 1932, Takiji married Ito Fukijo, a comrade, and went underground to rebuild the left cultural movement. In August, he completed a semi-autobiographical work on his underground work entitled, Life of a Party Member.

Even though he was constantly on the run from authorities, Takiji wrote an incredible amount. In the end, on February 20, 1933, Takiji and a comrade were arrested by the police. For the next five hours, he was brutally tortured to death as the police demanded information on JCP activities. He died without divulging any information and the police claimed he died of a heart attack. Requests for an autopsy were refused at several different hospitals.

Takiji's martyrdom ensured that he became an icon to the radical left and that he was recognised as one of the great literary figures of the era.

His work

Although Kobayashi Takiji's Crab Cannery Ship has been in English translation since 1933, albeit as an incomplete text, it has long been out of print. The 2013 collection, containing not only the full Crab Cannery Ship, but also Yasuko and Life of a Party Member (both in English for the first time) has been ably translated by Zeljko Cripis into readable, sharp and vivid prose.

Crab Cannery Ship, as discussed above, is the most famous of Takiji's works. The story provides excruciating detail of the conditions on a fishing ship that is run by giant companies, who are interested only in profits and imperial expansion and not at all with the lives of the crew:

Profits were just scooped up. Then very skilfully such catch phrases as "the development of national wealth " were tacked on to these enterprises, which were thus completely justified. The capitalists were very shrewd. "For the sake of their country" the workers were starved and beaten to death (pp. 54-5).

The crew, composed of students and nameless farmers driven off their land, are the central protagonists of the novel. The ship is a reflection of the state of class war that grips capitalist society with the ruthless captain confronted by the resistance of unorganised workers. Yet it is through the experience of the crew and an encounter with Russians that the exploited crew begins to become conscious of its plight and organise against it:

“ rich man boss. No tricky people. No exploit people. Understand?” This, the men vaguely thought, is probably what was meant by the “terrible” phrase “turning Red”. But if that's what “turning Red” was about, it seemed to make perfect sense. Most of all, they felt strongly fascinated by what they were hearing (p. 46).

The crew members, mutiny against their conditions is put down when a ship from the Imperial Navy arrives, arresting the ringleaders. Despite its defeat, the crew vows to fight on, even if their cause remains hopeless:

“Frankly, there's no sense hoping for some future victory. It's a matter of life or death right now.”
“Well, let's do it again, one more time!”
(p. 95).

The second story in the collection, Yasuko (unfinished), tells the story of two sisters – Okei and Yasuko – who are drawn into political activism and the labour movement. The two sisters are portrayed as well-rounded figures, who not only attend rallies, organise trade unions, but fall in love and take care of their poor mother. The ultimate theme of the story is the linkage of women's liberation to the class struggle as shown in the following exchange:

I've said that this can happen once women become economically independent ... but actually, the way things are now -- in a capitalist world where idle people with money make immense profits -- a great many people, far from being independent, are painfully struggling just to get by, as you yourself should know. That's why this capitalist world that's founded on exploitation offers no hope at all for women to live truly emancipated lives.
The man swiftly finished smoking a cigarette he had just lit.
You understand right?... That's the truth, you see. Working-class women are bound by double chains: on the one 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 (p. 158)

The last story in the collection, Life of a Party Member (unfinished), details the underground political and personal life of Saski Yasuji, who remains nameless for most of the story. Yasuji is a member of the Communist Party who is organising munitions workers against the war in China while he is constantly evading the imperial police. This story is a gripping tale of the responsibilities and costs of political commitment. Yasuji continually goes to meetings, agitates in factories and deals with the reality of living in a police state. His life has become so absorbed in the struggle, so much so that he no longer can recognise the seasons of the year apart from how they impact his party work:

All traces of my private life had vanished. Even the seasons became no more than components of life in the party. Seasonal flowers, blue skies, and rain did not strike me as having an independent existence of their own. I was delighted when it rained. It meant I had to carry an open umbrella when going out, which made it harder for my face to be seen. I wanted summer to end quickly. It wasn't that I disliked summer, but summer clothes were thin making the distinctive features of my body (devil take them!) recognizable. If winter arrived quickly, I thought, 'Well, I can live on and stay active for another year!' But Tokyo winters were too bright, which made them inconvenient. Far from growing indifferent to the seasons since entering this life, I had become extremely sensitive in an entirely unexpected way. And this was clearly different from the exceptional keenness to the seasons I had developed during my imprisonment the year before last (pp. 282-3).

Yasuji forgoes any chance for personal happiness, family, love and his health for the sake of his mission. And this price is something that Yasuji fully understands and embraces, declaring:

Now that I was only able to sleep face down, it occurred to me that I was gradually coming to resemble my father. It was more than twenty years since father, without protesting to the landlord and getting him to lower the rent, had sought to escape his situation through work, even if it meant destroying his body. But I was different. I had cut my connections with my mother, become a missing person to my younger sister and brother, and had now sacrificed a life with Kasahara as well. It looked as though I was beginning to destroy my body. --- However, unlike my father I was not doing this to render more service to a landlord or a capitalist, but for a purpose that was diametrically opposite! (p. 282)

Yasuji, like Kobayashi Takiji, recognised that the struggle against oppression, fascism and capitalism may cost his life, but he was a part of a wider movement dedicated to its revolutionary overthrow. To shrink from fulfilling his duty would be a betrayal of his comrades, the working class and the revolution:

Our comrades' heroic struggles brace us up. At times when I'm too sleepy to do the work that must be done by tomorrow and want to go to bed, I think of the people on the inside and I persevere. Mere sleepiness turns to nothing when I remember them. What is happening to them now? Are they being beaten up? I go and finish my absurdly easy work. Our daily lives are linked in various ways with the lives of our comrades on the inside. Although the inside and the outside are different, from the standpoint of our struggle against the ruling class there is no difference between them at all (p. 255).


Kobayashi Takiji's stories are not hack works of socialist realism or “party propaganda”, rather they represent the best that proletarian literature is capable of producing, possessing engrossing narratives, sharp imagery and memorable characters, both individual and collective. Takiji's stories tell the story of ordinary workers, peasants, women and party cadre from a period of Japanese history that is filled with intense class struggle.

This historical epoch, unfortunately is little known, even by the wider left. However, for those interested in learning more, there can be no better introduction to this history than reading the novels of Kobayashi Takiji.

[For more by Doug Enaa Greene, click HERE .]

Doug Enaa also presented this talk to the Center for Marxist Education on April 4, 2015.



[1] Yoko Kubota, “Japan economy angst boosts sales of Marxist novel”, Reuters.
Heather Bowen-Struyk, “Why a Boom in Proletarian Literature in Japan? The Kobayashi Takiji Memorial and The Factory Ship”, Asia-Pacific Journal (see below).

[2] Chris Harman, A People's History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium (New York: Verso Books, 2008), p. 367. See also Colin Barker, “Origins and Significance of the Meiji Restoration”, Marxists Internet Archive.

[3] Makoto Itoh, Value and Crisis: Essays on Marxian Economics in Japan (New York: Monthly Review, 1980), p. 13.

[4] Ibid. p. 13.

[5] For more extensive discussion on these popular struggles, see Mikiso Hane, Peasants, Rebels, and Outcasts: The Underside of Modern Japan (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982).

[6] Jon Halliday, A Political History of Japanese Capitalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975), p. 62.

[7] Ibid. pp. 67-9.

[8] Ibid. pp. 68-70. An early history of the Japanese labour movement by a leading participant can be found in Sen Katayama, The Labor Movement in Japan (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishers, 1918).

[9] Halliday 1975, pp. 73-4.

[10] Ibid. pp. 73-4.

[11] Itoh 1980, p. 17.

[12] Halliday 1975, p. 71.

[13] Ibid. pp. 71-2.

[14] Germaine A. Hoston, Marxism and the Crisis of Development in Prewar Japan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986),p. 10.

[15] Ibid. pp. 7-11.

[16] “Peace Preservation Law”, Wikipedia.

[17] For some background on the JCP see Halliday 1975, 74-81 and Hoston 1986, pp. 35-75.

[18] Biographical information for this section was principally taken from Takiji 2013, pp. 1-17.

Powered by Drupal - Design by Artinet