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:

“...no 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. http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/08/12/us-japan-novel-idUST31778020080812?feedType=RSS&sp=true
Heather Bowen-Struyk, “Why a Boom in Proletarian Literature in Japan? The Kobayashi Takiji Memorial and The Factory Ship”, Asia-Pacific Journal (see below). http://japanfocus.org/-Heather-Bowen_Struyk/3180

[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. http://www.marxists.de/fareast/barker/

[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.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Wed, 05/06/2015 - 19:15


To Hell With Capitalism: Snapshots from the Crab Cannery Ship 資本主義の生き地獄より 「蟹工船」のスナップ数枚


The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue. 17, No. 3, May 04, 2015

Zeljko Cipris

“You lose, you lose, you lose, you lose, and then you win.”

Rosa Luxemburg

The worldwide revolutionary movement inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 encompassed a powerful cultural component: hundreds of thousands of literary, visual, and performing artists – writers, painters, filmmakers, photographers, composers, and others – passionately devoted their work to the monumental task of a radical reconstitution of the world. As a prominent Yugoslav author, Miroslav Krleža, was to write in 1924: “Lenin’s name in the year 1917 signified a lighthouse beacon above the shipwreck of international civilization.”

Not only was capitalism widely identified with a devastatingly bellicose form of imperialism epitomized by World War I, but also the notion that capitalism is genuinely compatible with freedom struck many contemporary observers as preposterous:

The worker under capitalism is a “free” woman. She is free to go where she likes. She does not have to work for any one boss. If she does not like an employer she can quit, but if she does not like the employing class she cannot quit, unless she is prepared to starve. She is a slave to a class. Her freedom amounts to having a longer chain than her predecessors – the serf or chattel slave. It is true that she is not bought and sold and that she has liberties unknown to former generations of workers. It is also true that she takes greater risks than former workers and that while she is not sold she is obliged to sell herself.

Yet how could it be otherwise so long as the ownership and control of life’s productive resources remained in the hands of a super-wealthy minority at the expense of everyone else? Convinced that the dominant socioeconomic system was incorrigibly exploitative and oppressive – as well as warlike and destructive – dissident writers and other radical artists of the early twentieth century dedicated themselves to portraying the lives and struggles of those who suffered its depredations and sought a way out from its nightmarish cul-de-sac. As the abolitionist artists of the nineteenth century fought against chattel slavery and serfdom, so their neo-abolitionist successors fought on against wage slavery, confident that in the not too distant future a worldwide revolution would open the way to a cooperative commonwealth where emancipated humanity could at long last begin to live up to its fullest potential.

Though a roster of writers committed to profound social transformation would be virtually endless, it might be helpful to list at random a handful of representative names, some more familiar than others: Lu Xun, Maxim Gorky, Bertolt Brecht, Alexandra Kollontai, Jaroslav Hašek, Premchand, Yi Ki-yong, César Vallejo, Vladimir Mayakovsky, José Mancisidor, Patrícia Galvão, Halldór Laxness, Meridel Le Sueur, Victor Serge, Nâzım Hikmet, Pablo Neruda, Mao Dun, Theodore Dreiser, Mulk Raj Anand, Langston Hughes, Marcel Martinet, Sata Ineko, Hirabayashi Taiko, Moa Martinson, Harry Martinson, Ivar Lo-Johansson…

One of Japan’s most renowned revolutionary authors was Kobayashi Takiji (小林 多喜二, 1903-1933), a prolific young communist writer best known for his 1929 short novel The Crab Cannery Ship (Kani kosen, 蟹工船). Based on an actual incident that took place in 1926, the novel follows a motley crew of unorganized, mostly low-skilled laborers who are subjected to such savage working conditions onboard a crab cannery ship that they almost spontaneously start to organize and unite in order to fight back and survive. Takiji’s fast-paced and vivid novel succeeds in constructing an extraordinarily potent metaphor for capitalism itself – a system whose sole preoccupation lies in the accumulation of profit, and which is fundamentally indifferent to human life, liberty, and happiness. The novel has been translated into numerous languages, including Russian, Chinese, English, Korean, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, French, Polish, and Norwegian. A classic of Japanese proletarian literature, The Crab Cannery Ship experienced an enormous revival of popularity in 2008 and early 2009, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in an economically depressed Japan. As Tokyo University professor Komori Yoichi comments in his introduction to its most recent English translation, “Kobayashi Takiji’s theory of collective action continues to be valid in the twenty-first century.”

Much of the early-twentieth-century revolutionary optimism and some of the proletarian artists themselves were to vanish amid the turmoil of repression and war. Takiji himself was tortured and killed by police in Tokyo at age 29. Many other radical artists have been almost forgotten along with much or most of their work. This is more than a pity, for the current global status quo is in some ways even more pernicious than it was in their days. Nowadays, to note only one example, the insidious idea of “marketing” and “selling” oneself seems to all too many nothing more than commonsensical.

Given the possibly catastrophic course our globe appears to be following, it might be high time for a worldwide resurgence – on a tremendous scale – of proletarian literature, and of all the proletarian arts. For in conjunction with internationalist grassroots solidarity, radical art could just possess the power to transform the world for the incomparably better.

What follows is a baker’s dozen of short scenes and passages that convey the dynamic and flavor of The Crab Cannery Ship:

Off to hell!

“Buddy, we’re off to hell!”

Leaning over the deck railing, two fishermen looked out on the town of Hakodate stretched like a snail embracing the sea. One of them spit out a cigarette he had smoked down to his fingertips. The stub fell skimming the tall side of the ship, turning playfully every which way. The man stank of liquor.

Steamships with red bulging bellies rose from the water; others being loaded with cargo leaned hard to one side as if tugged down by the sea. There were thick yellow smokestacks, large bell-like buoys, launches scurrying like bedbugs among ships. Bleak whirls of oil soot, scraps of bread, and rotten fruit floated on the waves as if forming some special fabric. Blown by the wind, smoke drifted over waves wafting a stifling smell of coal. From time to time a harsh rattle of winches traveling along the waves reverberated against the flesh.

Directly in front of the crab cannery ship Hakkomaru rested a sailing ship with peeling paint, its anchor chain lowered from a whole in its bow that looked like an ox’s nostril. Two foreign sailors with pipes in mouth paced the deck back and forth like automatons. The ship seemed to be Russian. No doubt it was a patrol vessel sent to keep an eye on the Japanese cannery ship.


The two fishermen, peering down through the hatch into workers’ quarters in the dim bottom of the ship, saw a noisy commotion inside the stacked bunks, like a nest full of birds’ darting faces. The workers were all boys of fourteen or fifteen.

“Where you from?”

“X District.”

They were all children from Hakodate’s slums. Poverty had brought them together.

“What about the guys in the bunks over there?”

“They’re from Nambu.”

“And those?”

“Akita.” Each cluster of bunks belonged to a different region.

“Where in Akita?”

“North Akita.” The boy’s nose was running with thick, oozing mucus, and the rims of his eyes were inflamed and drooping.

“You farmers?”


The air was stifling, filled with the sour stench of rotten fruit. Dozens of barrels of pickled vegetables were stored next door, adding their own shit-like odor.

Them or us

“I’d like to say a word,” declared the manager. He had the powerful build of a construction worker. Placing one foot on a partition between bunks, he maneuvered a toothpick inside his mouth, at times briskly ejecting bits of food stuck between his teeth.

“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. Now just supposing you lose – this could never happen, but if it did – all Japanese men and boys who’ve got any balls at all would slit their bellies and jump into the sea off Kamchatka. You may be small in size but that doesn’t mean you’ll let those stupid Russkies beat you.

“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 problems 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. And though something like that could never happen, make damned sure that what I’m saying gets through to your heads…”

The manager sneezed repeatedly as he began sobering up.

Won’t matter a damn

As the ship reached the Sea of Okhotsk, the color of the water became a clearer gray. The chilling cold penetrated the laborers’ clothing and turned their lips blue as they worked. The colder it became, the more furiously a fine snow, dry as salt, blew whistling against them. Like tiny shards of glass, the snow pierced faces and hands of the laborers and fishermen who worked on all fours on the deck. After each wave washed over them the water promptly froze, making the deck treacherously slippery. The men had to stretch ropes from deck to deck, and work dangling from them like diapers hung out on the clothesline. The manager, armed with a club for killing salmon, was roaring like mad.

Another crab cannery ship that had sailed out of Hakodate at the same time had gotten separated from them. Even so, whenever their ship surged to the summit of a mountainous wave, two masts could be seen swaying back and forth in the distance like the waving arms of a drowning person. Wisps of smoke torn by the wind flew by skimming the waves. Intermittent howls of the other ship’s whistle were clearly audible amid the waves and shouts. Yet the next instant the one ship rose high and the other fell away into the depths of a watery crevasse.

The crab cannery ship carried eight fishing boats. The sailors and fishermen were forced to risk their lives tying down the boats so that the waves, baring their white teeth like thousands of sharks, would not tear them off. “Losing one or two of you won’t matter a damn, but if a boat gets lost it can’t get replaced,” shouted the manager distinctly.

Total impunity

Crab cannery ships were all old and battered. It didn’t matter a damn to executives in some building in Tokyo’s financial district that workers were dying in the northern Sea of Okhotsk. Once capitalism’s quest for profits in its usual places comes to a deadlock, then interest rates drop, excess money piles up, and capital will literally do anything and go anywhere in a frenzied search for a way out. Given those circumstances it was no wonder that capital’s profit-seekers fell in love with the crab cannery ships, each one able to bring in countless hundreds of thousands of yen.

Crab cannery ships were considered factories, not ships. Therefore maritime law did not apply to them. Ships that had been tied up for twenty years and were good for nothing but scrap iron, vessels as battered as tottering syphilitics, were given a shameless cosmetic makeover and brought to Hakodate. Hospital ships and military transports that had been “honorably” crippled in the Russo-Japanese War and abandoned like fish guts turned up in port looking more faded than ghosts. If steam was turned up a little, pipes whistled and burst. When they put on speed while chased by Russian patrol boats, the ships began to creak all over as though about to come apart at any moment, and shook like palsied men.

But none of that mattered in the least, for this was a time when it was everyone’s duty to stand tall for the Japanese Empire. Moreover, the crab cannery ships were factories pure and simple. And yet factory laws did not apply to them either. Consequently, no other site offered such an accommodating setting for management’s freedom to act with total impunity.

House of the Dead

The manager knew even better than they did just how much abuse a human body could tolerate. At the end of the workday, workers dropped sideways into their bunks like logs, groaning, “Maybe this is it…”

One of the students recalled being taken to a Buddhist temple by his grandmother as a child, and seeing in its dim hall paintings of hell that looked just like this. Their present situation strongly reminded him of a great snakelike animal he had seen slithering through a marshland. It was the spitting image of it. The overwork perversely robbed them of their ability to sleep. After midnight, in various parts of the shit-hole there suddenly arose the eerie sounds of teeth grinding as if chewing up glass, of nonsensical words, and wild shouts.

When they could not sleep, they sometimes whispered to their own bodies: “I can’t believe you’re still alive…” I can’t believe you’re still alive – to their bodies!

It was the hardest on the students.

“Looking at it from our current perspective, I get the feeling those convicts in Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead didn’t have it so tough after all,” said a student who hadn’t been able to shit for days and could not sleep unless he tied a hand towel tightly around his head.

Mother of success

The foreign movie was American and dealt with the history of “developing the West.” Though relentlessly attacked by savages and struck down by merciless nature, settlers bounced back to their feet and went on extending the railroad yard by yard. Along the way towns were erected overnight, springing up like railway spikes. And as the railroad advanced, more and more towns kept cropping up. The movie showed the manifold hardships that arose from all this, weaving into the narrative a “love story” of a laborer and a corporation director’s daughter. As the movie reached its final scene, the benshi’s [screen-side narrator’s] voice rose to a pitch: “And so, thanks to young people’s countless sacrifices, the endlessly snaking railroad succeeded at last in sprinting across the plains and piercing the mountains to transform yesterday’s wilderness into today’s national wealth.”

The movie climaxed with an embrace between the corporation director’s daughter and the laborer, who had magically mutated into a gentleman.

This was followed by a short foreign film, mindless buffoonery that made everyone laugh.

The Japanese feature told of an impoverished youth who sold fermented soybeans and evening papers before going on to shine shoes, enter a factory, become a model worker, be promoted, and end up a multimillionaire. “Truly, if hard work is not the mother of success, what is!” exclaimed the benshi, inserting words that did not appear in the subtitles.

Young workers greeted his comment with earnest applause. But someone among the crowd of fishermen and sailors shouted loudly, “What a crock of shit! If that were true, I’d be a company president by now!”

This brought a huge burst of laughter from everyone.

Once the laughter subsided, the benshi explained that the corporation had ordered him to stress the “mother of success” message strongly and repeatedly.

As a final segment they saw footage of all the corporation’s factories and offices. It showed countless workers, all working industriously.

Looking for trouble

After supper the cabin boy came down into the shit-hole. Men were sitting around the stove and talking. Some stood under the dim light picking lice from their shirts. Each time their bodies blocked the light, the men cast great oblique shadows on the painted, sooty bulkheads.

“Let me tell you what the officers, captain, and the manager are up to. It looks like we’re going to be sneaking into Russian territory to fish there. And so the destroyer’s going to stick close to us all the time and guard us. They’re going to be making lots and lots of this.” He made a circle with his thumb and forefinger in the shape of a coin.

“They’re saying that Kamchatka and northern Karafuto are rolling with money to be made, and they’re making damned sure to add this whole area to Japan. They say this region is just as important to Japan as China and Manchuria. On top of that, it seems that this corporation’s gotten together with Mitsubishi to nudge the government along. If the company president gets into the Diet at the next election, they’ll really be stepping things up.

“And so they say the destroyer’s been sent to guard the cannery ship, but it turns out that’s not the main reason. They’re going to carry out a detailed survey of the sea around here, northern Karafuto, and Chishima Islands, and to study the climate. That’s the big objective and it has to be carried out thoroughly. I guess it must be a secret, but it seems they’re quietly moving artillery and fuel oil to the northernmost of the Chishima Islands.

“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 smell money. They’re looking for trouble.”

Masters and slaves

In a lower bunk, Shibaura talked waving his arms. The Stuttering Fisherman rocked back and forth, nodding at his words.

“… See? Let’s suppose the ship exists because the rich put up the money and had it built. If there were no sailors and stokers, could the ship move? There’re hundreds of millions of crabs on the bottom of the sea. Let’s suppose we all got our gear and came out here because the rich were able to put up the money. But if we didn’t work, would even one solitary crab end up in the pockets of the rich? See? Now, think about how much money’s coming our way after we work here all summer. Yet from this ship alone the rich will snatch four or five hundred thousand yen of pure profit. Well, we are the source of that money. Nothing comes out of nothing. You see? Everything’s in our power. And so I’m telling you to wipe that gloomy look off your mug. Show them who you are. In their heart of hearts they’re scared shitless of us, and that’s no lie. So don’t be timid.

“Without sailors and stokers, ships wouldn’t budge. Without the workers’ labor, not one lousy penny would roll into the pockets of the rich. Even the money to buy the ship, to outfit and equip it, comes out of profits wrung from the blood of other workers. It’s money that’s been squeezed out of us. The rich and we are masters and slaves…”

A rolling snowball

Triangular waves came rushing at the ship. Fishermen accustomed to the Kamchatka Sea instantly knew what that meant.

“No fishing today, way too dangerous.”

An hour went by.

Men stood around in groups of seven or eight under the fishing boat winches. The boats swung in the air, each lowered only halfway. Men shrugged and argued gazing at the sea. A few minutes went by.

“I quit! I quit!”

“They can go fuck themselves!”

It was as if they had been waiting for somebody to say it.

As they jostled and milled about, someone else said, “Hey, let’s pull the boats back up.”


“Yes, a damn good idea!”

“But…” A man looked up at the winch and hesitated, frowning.

“If you want to drown, go out there by yourself!” said another scornfully, turning away with a jerk of his shoulder.

The whole group began to leave. “I wonder if this is really OK,” whispered someone. Two men uncertainly lagged behind.

At the next pair of winches too fishermen stood motionless. Seeing the crew of Boat Number 2 walking toward them they understood what it meant. Four or five of them waved and raised their voices:

“We’re quitting! We’re quitting!”

“That’s right, time to quit!”

As the two groups met, their spirits rose. Two or three men who were not sure what to do looked on, baffled. The newly formed group moved on to join the crew of Boat Number 5. Seeing this, the men who had been hanging back started to walk forward, grumbling.

The Stuttering Fisherman turned around and shouted loudly, “Be tough!”

Like a rolling snowball becoming larger and larger, the group of fishermen kept on growing. The Stuttering Fisherman and the students ran constantly back and forth between the group’s front and its rear. “All right, all right, don’t let yourselves get separated! That’s the most important thing. Stay together and we’re safe. That’s it, now we’re good!”

Fishermen who sat in a circle mending ropes near the smokestack straightened their backs and called out, “Hey what happened?”

The advancing group lifted their arms toward them, and raised a great shout. Sailors watching from above saw a forest of waving arms.

“Good, that does it! We’re stopping work.”

They briskly began to put away the ropes. “We’ve been waiting for this!”

The fishermen understood. Once more they raised a great cry.

“First of all, let’s get everyone out of the shit-hole. Yes, let’s do it. That motherfucker knows damn well that a storm’s coming up, and he still has the nerve to order the boats out! What a fucking murderer!”

“Damned if we’re going to let him kill us!”

Now he’ll see who he’s been messing with!”

On the side of the people?

It was starting to grow dark when a fisherman who had been keeping watch from the hatchway spotted the approaching destroyer. Agitated, he rushed to the shit-hole.

“Damn it to hell!” The student leapt up like a spring. His face turned deathly pale.

“Don’t jump to any wrong conclusions,” said the Stuttering Fisherman with a laugh. “Once we win over the officers with a full explanation of our situation, viewpoint, and demands, this strike will turn out even better. That’s as plain as day.”

“That’s true,” said others in agreement.

“That’s our own imperial warship out there. It’s got to be on our side, on the side of the people.”

“No, no…” The student waved his hand. He seemed shaken by a powerful shock. His lips were trembling, and he was stammering. “On the side of the people? … No, no…”

“Look, you idiot! How the hell can a warship that belongs to the empire not be on the side of the people who belong to that same empire?!”

“The destroyer’s here! The destroyer has arrived!” Excited voices drowned out the student’s reply.

Everyone bounded out of the shit-hole and onto the deck. Voices suddenly joined in a great shout: “Imperial navy, hurrah!”

The manager, his face and hand bandaged, stood at the top of the gangway together with the captain and a few others. Directly opposite them stood the Stuttering Fisherman, Shibaura, Don’t-act-big, students, stokers, seamen, and the rest of the men. Dimly visible in the gathering darkness, three steam launches left the destroyer. They drew up alongside the cannery ship. Each launch was packed with about sixteen uniformed sailors. All at once the sailors rushed up the gangway.

“Hey! They’ve got fixed bayonets! And they’re wearing helmets!”

“Oh hell!” cried the Stuttering Fisherman voicelessly.

Blood and flesh

Every year as the fishing season drew to an end, it was customary to manufacture some cans of crab meat 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!”

One more time!

“Nobody’s on our side except our own selves.”

This was the feeling that now penetrated deep into everyone’s heart. “We’ll show you soon enough!”

But repeating the phrase “we’ll show you soon enough” hundreds of times brought them no satisfaction. The strike had been miserably defeated, and the work – “Have you learned your lesson, you scum?” – had grown even harsher. The added brutality was the manager’s way of revenge. It exceeded even the most extreme limits. The work had become unendurable.

“We were wrong. We shouldn’t have put nine people out in front of us like that. We might as well have been saying to them, here’s where our vital organs are. We should’ve all acted together, every one of us. That way it would’ve been useless for the manager to radio the destroyer. They sure as hell couldn’t drag all of us away. There’d be nobody left to do the work.”

“That’s right.”

“No doubt about it. If we keep on working like we are now, we’ll really get ourselves killed this time. To make sure nobody has to be sacrificed, we all have to strike together. Let’s take the same approach as before. Like the stuttering guy used to say, the most important thing of all is to join forces. By now we sure know how much we could’ve accomplished that time if we’d stayed united.”

“And if they still call in the destroyer, let’s stay united and get handed over together without leaving anyone behind! That’ll help us even more.”

“You may be right. Though come to think of it, if that happens the manager will be in very hot water with the company. It’ll be too late to send to Hakodate for replacements, and the output will be way down… If we do this right, if might turn out even better than we expect.

“It will work out just fine. Besides, it’s fantastic how nobody’s scared any more. Everybody’s ready to take on the fuckers!”

“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!”

And so they rose. One more time!

Recommended citation: Zeljko Cipris, "To Hell With Capitalism: Snapshots from the Crab Cannery Ship", The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue 17, No. 3, May 4, 2015.

Zeljko Cipris is Professor of Asian Studies and Japanese at the University of the Pacific in California, and a Japan Focus contributing editor. He is translator of Inoue Hisashi’s play Living with Father (The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Drama); Ishikawa Tatsuzo’s novel Soldiers Alive; and A Flock of Swirling Crows and Other Proletarian Writings, a collection of works by Kuroshima Denji. His translation of The Crab Cannery Ship and Other Novels of Struggle by Kobayashi Takiji was listed among the best translations of 2013 by World Literature Today. The present article is dedicated to Ljubomir Ryu and Shane Satori, and to Masha.

Komori Yoichi's introduction to the Crab Cannery Ship is available here.

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