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Making Kobayashi’s works sound as if written today

by Paul Mccarthy

For most readers, Japanese literature may suggest romantic/erotic works by Nagai Kafu, elegantly classical and humorously or sinisterly “kinky” fiction by Tanizaki, or coolly stylish contemporary works by Haruki Murakami. For such readers, this volume will come as a shock — both refreshing and depressing.

THE CRAB CANNERY SHIP, and Other Novels of Struggle, by Takiji Kobayashi, translated by Zeljko Cipris. University of Hawaii Press, 2013, 303 pp., $25 (paperback)

In the 1920s to early 1930s there was a flourishing proletarian literary movement, smashed to pieces by the right-wing militarist government that controlled Japan from the coyly named “Manchurian Incident” right through the end of the war in 1945. Left-wing literature was rigorously censored or forbidden altogether, and writers were harassed, imprisoned, and, in the admittedly exceptional case of Takiji Kobayashi, murdered by the authorities. From time to time, as Japan has faced various postwar crises, popular interest in proletarian literature has revived. Now English readers have a chance to experience, in a lively translation, three representative works by Kobayashi, two of them translated for the first time.

“The Crab Cannery Ship” is the most famous of Kobayashi’s works, and of the proletarian movement generally. It describes in sometimes nauseating detail the horrific conditions on factory ships operated by giant firms, interested only in profit and not at all in the well-being (or even continued existence) of individual workers. Brutal bosses, cowed workers from the farming and fishing villages of Depression-era Japan, police and military forces who side reflexively with the owners when strikes threaten, and a few rebellious workers, including college students, who are willing to stand up to the oppressive system, sometimes urged on by Russian writings and personal contacts — these are the characters Kobayashi depicts with ideological passion combined with literary skill. He takes sides — no more a neutral observer than Solzhenitsyn was to be of the Soviet gulags across the sea in later years.

“Yasuko” focuses on the political education and progressive activism of two Japanese sisters, who are drawn into the workers’ movement by two committed, and not unattractive, male organizers. There is some love-interest in this story, but it is subordinate to a detailed account of the attempt to agitate for change in factories, while at the same time evading arrest by the Special Police. We get to know the characters in this novel better than we do those in the earlier work — they are more fully drawn, especially the two sisters. At the same time, great emphasis is placed on class solidarity as the only means of effective resistance in the midst of severe oppression.

The last novel is the only one written in the first person and arguably semi-autobiographical. The title says it all: “Life of a Party Member.” We see things from the viewpoint of a well-educated man who has devoted his life to Communist Party work for the sake of a future revolution. His fellow-workers, including again, as in “Yasuko,” women coming into their own in terms of awareness and activism, are depicted with dramatic skill. The novel breaks off in midstream with a “to-be-continued” promise that Kobayashi’s death through torture at the Tsukiji Police Station near the Ginza district of Tokyo made it impossible to fulfill.

A word about style. Kobayashi was a very talented writer, not just an ideologue, and showed a flair for striking imagery: “… the town of Hakodate stretched like a snail embracing the sea”; the dark hold where the laborers sleep is compared to “a nest full of birds’ darting faces. The workers were all boys of fourteen or fifteen”; farmers lured into working on the ship are “honest and ignorant as tree roots,” while subservient bureaucrats from the official seamen’s union are succinctly described as “walking briefcases.” It is the vividness of these images that makes the read a pleasure, despite the painfulness of many of the things described.

And a final word about translation-style. Zeljko Cipris states that he has tried to make Kobayashi sound as if he were writing today. This permits him to use language of a roughness and vulgarity that far exceeds the original Japanese (which is, truly, a relatively chaste tongue). For older or more moralistic readers, this may be a fault; but I think it was a courageous choice, and one that works. So cast fastidiousness aside, reader, and plunge into the dark world of factory-work and party activism on the eve of war.

Paul McCarthy holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, has taught language and literature at universities in the United States and Japan, and is a literary translator and writer.