Kanikōsen 蟹工船, (The Crab Cannery Ship) has recently received much attention in the Japanese and foreign press for being one of the least expected publishing successes of 2008. Written in 1929 by Kobayashi Takiji 小林多喜二 at the height of Japan’s proletarian literature movement, the book tells the story of the eponymous cannery ship and its workers of northern Japan: their desperation, their wretched prospects, their exploitation at the hands of the bosses and the ruling class … and, eventually, what they do about it. Kobayashi later joined the Communist party and was tortured to death by the police in 1933, but the unpolished urgency and populism of his work has kept it in the canon — a cult classic subject to periodic revivals.
The first revival, of sorts, was in 1953 — the year after the Occupation ended — with the release of the film adaptation. Technically, the postwar boom had begun by this time; in practice, very little of it had trickled down to the general populace. The Red Purge of recent years had made it clear that Japan and U.S. leaders would not tolerate anybody trying to rewire the system. There was frustration and dissatisfaction in the air, and the release of Kanikōsen capitalized (!) on that.
But we know how things eventually worked out: Japanese industry and government working together managed to get enough citizens employed on agreeable terms that most of the previous dissatisfaction evaporated. Postwar Japan’s economic success was so great that the country came to be seen as a serious threat to the U.S. itself.
Then the bubble popped. Corporations restructured, cutting costs by relying more on contract employees (契約社員) or dispatch workers (派遣社員) and less on the seishain (正社員) — “true company members” — who had come to expect lifetime employment and other inconvenient things. Young people entering the workforce are faced with the choice of either taking these less desirable temporary jobs, sacrificing much of their personal life to compete for the few coveted seishain spots — or just not working at all. And so today you have an under-30 underclass which feels exploited and locked out of “real” adult society.
Working the register at 7-11 or answering phones in a Shinjuku high-rise may not be back-breaking labor, but the problems of “freeter” life are real: few opportunities to build a real career, patronizing and insulting treatment from people on the traditional career path, working the exact same job as the seishain but only receiving 40% pay and no chance to bounce to the management track, and growing uncertainty about whether they’ll be able to receive social security if and when they retire — despite the contributions deducted from their paycheck every month. This is the background against which the Japanese Communist Party is enjoying increasing interest from under-30s and the background against which Kanikōsen is enjoying its latest revival as a metaphor for modern Japan. People are responding once again to its vivid worldview: an undeserving but firmly entrenched ruling class who live luxuriously and hypocritically, an exploited working class kept hidden below decks, and tales of ill-specified external threats, used by the former to keep the latter in line.
“Oi! We’re off t’Hell!”
The two fishermen leaned over the deck’s guardrail, craning like snails stretching out of their shells to view the ocean-hugging town of Hakodate. One of them spat out a cigarette he had smoked down close to his fingers. The cigarette tumbled and whirled as though clowning as it scraped its way down the tall side of the ship. The fisherman’s entire body stank of booze.
Broad-floating steamboats with bellies like fat red drums; boats still being loaded up, tilted precariously to one side as though someone were pulling at their sleeve; buoys like thick yellow chimneys and great bells; launches weaving between one boat and the next nimble as fleas; the chill murmur of the waves, bobbing with soot and chunks of bread and rotten fruit, like some unique fabric… Above the waves, smoke streamed before the wind, bringing the thick smell of coal. Every so often a winch’s rattle would carry across the water to echo nearby.
This was the Hakkōmaru, a crab cannery ship, and directly before it a sailboat with peeling paint was letting out an anchor chain from the a hole in the bow like a bull’s nostril. Two foreigners smoking wide-bowled matelot pipes could be seen running back and forth between the same two places like clockwork dolls. A Russian boat, no doubt. A surveillance craft assigned to Japan’s crab cannery fleet.
“I ain’t got a mon to my name,” said the fisherman. “Shit. Here.”
So saying, he moved his body closer to the other man’s. Then he grabbed the second man’s hand and brought it to his hips. He touched it to the pockets of the corduroy pants he wore under his hanten jacket. There seemed to be a small box in there.
The second man looked wordlessly at the first man’s face.
The first man giggled. “Cards,” he said.
On the boat deck, the captain was looking like a shogun, smoking a cigarette as he wandered about. When he exhaled, the smoke bent at an acute angle just past his nose before breaking up and drifting away. Sailors dragging their wood-soled straw sandals on the deck carried food buckets busily in and out of the forward cabins. Preparations were complete, and the ship was ready to leave.
Peering down the hatch to the workers’ quarters, they could see them down there, making a racket in their bunks at the gloomy bottom of the ship like baby birds peeping in a nest. They were all boys of fourteen or fifteen.
“Where you from?”
“_______ Street.” Everyone gave the same answer. They were all children of the slums. They made up a crowd all by themselves.
There were bunks for every area.
“Where in Akita?”
The boy’s nose dripped like a weeping sore; his eyes were rimmed with red. “North Akita,” he said.
“You a farmer?”
The air was humid and had a sour smell like rotten fruit. Pickle barrels were stored by the dozen in the room next door, so there was a smell like shit in the mix too.
“Don’t worry, daddy’ll sleep with you.” The fishermen guffawed.
In one dim corner, a mother peeled an apple and fed it to her son, who was lying on his stomach on the floor. She wore a hanten coat, momohiki pants, and on her head a kerchief — probably a day laborer. She herself ate the long loops of peel as she watched her child eat. Every so often she would speak a few words, or open and retie the bundle beside her child. There were six or seven others like her. The children from inland, the children that no-one had come to say goodbye to, occasionally stole a glance at them.
One woman, hair and body covered in cement dust, was dividing caramels from a box between all the children near her — two each. “You take care of my Kenkichi on the job, alright?” she said. Her hands were like the roots of a tree: ugly, huge, and rough.
Some mothers were blowing their children’s noses, others were wiping their faces with handkerchiefs, and still others were speaking to their children in quiet, urgent tones.
“You got a strong boy there, looks like,” one mother said to another.
“Mine here’s a weakling. Don’t know how he’s gonna do, but you know…”
“Anywhere else’d be the same. Yeah.”
The two fishermen pulled their faces back out of the hatch with some relief. Now in a bad mood, they left the suddenly crowded worker’s hole and returned to the stern, where their own trapezoid nest was. Every time the anchor rose or fell, everyone stumbled and bumped into each other as though they had been thrown into a cement mixer.
In the gloom of their quarters, the fishermen lazed like pigs in a smell just like that of a pigsty, a smell that made them want to vomit.
“What a fuckin’ stench.”
“Yeah, because we fuckin’ stink. Can’t live like this without startin’ to smell sooner or later.”
A fisherman with a head like a red mortar was pouring sake from a two-quart bottle into a rice bowl on the edge of a shelf and using it to wash down the cuttlefish he was munching. Beside him another man lay flipped over on his back, eating an apple and reading a beaten-up pulp magazine.
The four of them were sitting in a circle and drinking together when another, still sober, broke in.
“Shit, man. Four months on the open sea. Didn’t think I could do this any more.”
He was burly man who kept licking his lips. He narrowed his eyes as he continued.
“But then I look at my savings.”
He waved his empty coin purse at eye level; it was flat as a dried persimmon.
“That hooker was skinny like this too, but she sure knew how to work it!”
“Shut the fuck up already!”
“Nah, go on!”
The other man sniggered.
“Look at that!” said one of the fishermen. “Ain’t it a beautiful thing?” He lowered his drunken eyes beneath the opposite floor, pointing with his chin and a grunt to the fisherman handing money over to his wife there.
“Look! Look at ’em!”
The two of them had a small box, where they had laid out and were now counting wrinkled bills and notes. The man was busily writing in a small notebook with a pencil.
“I got a wife and kids, too, pal!” The fisherman who’d spoken of the hooker spoke, sudden anger in his voice.
On one bunk a few yards away lay a young fisherman with a long, hungover face, swollen and pale. “I thought f’sure I wouldn’ come on board this time,” he said loudly. “But I got fucked around by th’ agencies, left without a mon. Now I get t’ work myself half-dead again for a while.”
A man with his back turned, who seemed to have come from the same place as the long-faced fisherman, whispered something to him in reply.
A pair of pigeon-toed feet showed through the hatch briefly before a man with a bulging, old-fashioned drawstring bag over his shoulder climbed down the ladder. He stood on the floor looking around until he saw an open bunk and then promptly climbed into it.
“Good day,” he said, nodding to the man next to him. His face was oily and dark, almost stained-looking. “Guess we’re going to be pals.”
It wasn’t until later that anyone learned that this man had worked in the Yubari coal mines for seven years, right up until he came to the ship. After nearly dying in the recent gas explosion — something which had happened several times before, of course — he grew too terrified of coal mining to do his job, and came down from the mountain.
At the moment of the explosion, he had been pushing a cart through the same mine. He had piled the cart full of coal and was on his way to unload it, passing through somebody else’s area, when it happened. It was like a hundred magnesium flares being struck before his eyes at the same time. And then, less than 1/500th of a second later, his body was blown up and away like a scrap of paper. Carts, too many carts to count, tumbled through the air lightly as empty matchboxes, driven by the gas pressure. That was where his memory cut out.
Who knows how much later, he woke to the sound of his own groans. Supervisors and workers alike were building a wall in the mineshaft to contain the danger of explosion. From behind the wall, he heard them: coal miners, some of whom could still have been saved, calling for help with awful clarity — a sound that seemed to have been sewn into his soul ever since he had heard it. He stood up suddenly, and screamed like a madman — “No! Stop!” — as he leapt into the group building the wall. (He had helped build walls after previous explosions himself. Those times, nothing had happened.)
“You crazy fuck! You let th’ fire get in here, we’re all done for!”
Couldn’t they hear the voices, growing weaker and weaker? Beside himself, he waved his arms, shouted, started running down the tunnel. He tripped and fell who knows how many times, hitting his head against the wooden mine girders. His whole body became covered with grime and blood. Halfway there, he tripped on a crossbar of the minecart track, flipped like a judo student, and hit his head on the rails, losing consciousness again.
“Yeah, things ain’t much different here,” said one young fisherman who heard his story later.
The miner fixed his eyes, dull yellow in that way that only miners’ are, on the fisherman, without saying a word.
Some of “farmer fishermen” who’d come from Akita, Aomori, and Iwate sat with their legs broadly crossed and their hands stuffed between them; others leaned against pillars, knees pulled up to their chest, listening without interest to the drinking and conversation all around them. These were men who had gone out to the fields every morning while it was still dim, found that they couldn’t earn a living, and been chased out here. Eldest sons stayed behind on the farms — not that they could earn a living either — but daughters had to work in factories, and second and third sons had to set out and find work of their own somewhere else. Like beans shaken from the pot, leftover humans were thrown off the land and flowed into the cities. All of them planned to “put some money aside” and return home. So they started working, put their feet on the ground, they only to find themselves like birds who’d stepped on sticky mochi, flapping uselessly in Hakodate or Otaru. Before they realized what was happening, they’d be stripped naked as the day they were born and thrown out on their bare asses. How could they go home now? With no family nearby, the only way for them to survive the snowy Hokkaido winter was to sell their bodies, and for less than you’d make blowing your nose. No matter how many times they repeated this cycle, they would casually (?) do the same thing the following year, like children who just wouldn’t learn.
A woman shouldering cardboard boxes full of sweets for sale came through, along with apothecary and a man selling toiletries and other daily goods. They each chose a spot in the center, apart from the others like distant islands, and laid out their wares there. People leaned out of their bunks, top and bottom, from all around to joke and jeer.
“Y’got somethin’ sweet for me there, darlin’?”
The woman jumped. “C-cut that out!” she said, flustered. “Touchin’ people’s asses an’ all! Creep!”
Mouth stuffed full of cake and self-conscious at the center of everyone’s attention, the man guffawed.
“She’s a fine one, eh?”
A drunkard staggering back from the bathroom with one hand on the wall used the other to pinch the woman’s ruddy, swollen cheek.
“And what was that for?”
“Aw, don’t get all mad. — Someone sleep with this girl, huh?”
He grinned to show her he was clowning, and everybody laughed.
“Oi! Manjū! Manjū!” shouted someone from way in the corner.
“Coming up!” The woman’s voice was clear and carrying, a rarity here. “How many?”
“‘How many’? I look like I need two manjū? Just gimme a manjū here!” Everyone within earshot broke into laughter.
“They say this guy Takeda dragged that mannjū girl somewhere private once. Sounds like fun, right? But it wasn’t no good, ‘s what I hear.” The storyteller was young and drunk. “She’s wearing shorts, right? Takeda grabs ’em, pulls hard as he can and tears ’em off, but she’s got another pair underneath. — Said she was wearing three pairs in all.” The man lowered his head and burst out laughing.
In winter, he had worked at a rubber boot factory. When spring came and that work dried up, he came out to Kamchatka in search of more. The factory and the crab ship were both what you call “seasonal work” (like most of the jobs in Hokkaido), so when he got a chance at the night shift, he could work right through till dawn. “If I can live three more years, I’ll be happy,” he’d say. He had dead-colored skin like low-grade rubber.
Some of the fishermen were from land developments far inland; others had been sold by an “octopus” to labor gangs laying the railroads; still others were wanderers, luckless wherever they went; and then there were those who just needed booze to be happy. Also mixed in with the group were farmers, men who “knew nothing” but were “trustworthy as tree-roots”, chosen and sent here by their virtuous village elders down Aomori way. —And to gather together such a motley crew, various and fragmented, suited the management just fine. (The Hakodate unions were killing themselves trying to get organizers into the crab ships and among the Kamchatka-bound fishermen. They kept in close contact with the unions in Aomori and Akita, too. That was what management feared most.)
A waiter in starched, pure-white clothes that included a short overcoat was scurrying back and forth through the salon, “Tomo,” serving beer, fruit, and glasses of wine. In the salon were the “company bigwigs, the captain, the supervisor; and also the boss of the destroyer that’d guard the ship in Kamchatka, the chief of the Coast Guard, and some briefcases from the Seamen’s Union.”
“Fuckers can really put it away,” the waiter muttered.
In the fishermen’s “hole,” light bulbs like beach tomatoes lit up. The cigarette smoke and body heat made the air thick, foul, turned the hole into one big cesspit. Humans loafed in their divvied-up bunks, looking like a swarm of caterpillars. —Down through the hatch came the fishing supervisor, followed by the captain, then the factory representative, and finally the worker’s foreman. The captain, concerned for his moustache and its turned-up ends, kept a handkerchief pressed to his upper lip the entire time he was down there. The walkway was covered in discarded apple and banana peels, wet socks, sandals, flimsy wrappers with grains of rice still clinging to them. It was a gutter that had stopped flowing. Eying the garbage with distaste, the supervisor spat on the floor. All of them looked to have been drinking; their faces were red.
“I’ll make this brief.” The supervisor was burly as the foreman on a building crew and stood with one foot up on a bed rail, working his mouth with a toothpick as he spoke. Every so often he would pause to spit out what he had dislodged from between his teeth.
“As some of you may know, it goes without saying that this crab ship’s operations are not just about one company making a profit. They are an extremely grave international issue. Do we have — do we, subjects of the Japanese empire, have the upper hand? Or do the Russkies? This is a battle, one-on-one. And if — if, you understand! It could never happen, but if we did anything like losing, we ball-dangling sons of Japan would have our guts cut out and be kicked into the Kamchatka sea. We may be smaller than them, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to lose to those idiot Russkies.
“To continue, there is more to our Kamchatka fishing industry than crab canning. It is also important for salmon, trout; speaking internationally, the maintenance of territories so rich that no other country’s can even compare. It is a mission vital to the domestic problems of population and food that have Japan up against the wall. I don’t expect any of you to understand a word of this, but nevertheless, know that this is a serious mission for the Japanese empire, for which we put ourselves on the line and brave the choppy northern seas. That, after all, is why one of the emperor’s warships will be protecting us at all times while we are out there… Now, I know that copying the Russkies has become a bit of a trend these days. But if anyone pulls anything like that out there, if anyone feels like instigating something, he will have done the unforgivable: sold out the Japanese empire itself. I don’t expect this to happen, but I will have you remember what I have said.”
The supervisor sneezed over and over again as he started to sober up.
Stinking drunk, the destroyer’s captain stepped jerkily as a clockwork doll down the gangplank to the waiting launch. Sailors held him from above and below, only barely keeping him upright; he was like a pebble in a Canton bag. He waved his arms and dug in his heels and bitched and moaned, and spat right in the sailor’s faces more times than they could count.
Once they’d hustled the captain on board, one of the sailors turned back to unhook the rope from the gangplank platform. “Always talkin’ big about this and that,” he muttered, stealing a glance at the captain. “Look at ‘im now.”
“You wanna finish him off?”
For a moment, neither of the two sailors breathed… but then burst out laughing together.