1920s proletarian novel strikes chord with young underemployed

by Kisaku Seno

Kyodo News

A book released nearly 80 years ago and considered a representative piece of proletarian literature is apparently striking a chord with young part-time workers amid growing income disparities and poverty in Japan.

“Kanikosen” (“Crab-Canning Boat”) by Takiji Kobayashi (1903-1933) debuted in 1929. Kobayashi was tortured to death during questioning by the Tokko thought police, who were tasked with investigating communists and leftists before and during the war.

Kobayashi depicted workers on a crab-canning ship off Japan who rose up against inspectors in a struggle against inhumane treatment.

The pocket-size book had been republished but around February a Tokyo bookstore ran an advertisement that read, “Working Poor?” following an article on the 75th anniversary of Kobayashi’s death.

Shinchosha Publishing Co. said that in a normal year around 5,000 copies of the book would be reprinted. But this year, it has already printed nearly 380,000 copies.

The Tokyo publisher said people in their 20s account for about 30 percent of buyers. Another publishing house is reprinting copies, while “Crab-Canning Boat” is also available in the form of a “manga” comic.

A bookstore in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, a popular hangout for young people, is displaying copies of “Crab-Canning Boat” on the best-sellers shelf at the front of the store.

University student Taku Okamoto, 19, who first came across an excerpt of the book in a school textbook, said he wanted to read it after hearing that it was selling well.

Sho Katsumata, 26, a union activist, said he read the book last year. Currently living on unemployment benefits and savings while fighting to be reinstated in a part-time job he lost, he said, “I feel like I don’t want to be silent and remain defeated.”

Makoto Yuasa, secretary general of the nonprofit organization Moyai Independent Life Support Center, said quite a few readers seem to relate the book to the current situation, which he described as characterized by high-handed corporate posturing, and believe “it’s akin to the way we are being forced to work.”

A discussion thread four years ago under the title “Densha Otoko” (“Train man”) on Internet forum 2channel was compiled into a love story. The editor of the story was struck by a post on the same forum that read, “I am working for a ‘black’ company (engaged in shady business) but I am probably reaching my limit.” The editor compiled posts from the site into a book, which was published by Shinchosha at the end of last month.

The main character of “2 Channel” is a 26-year-old computer programmer in a small information technology company who got the job after spending time as a NEET — someone not in employment, education or training.

He puts in miserable, hard overnight work for a subcontracting firm with a despotic superior and tough deadlines. Encouraged by messages of support on the site telling him to “hang in there,” he struggles on.