A Curious Case of Comics, Crabs and Communists

Japanese popular culture needs to take a turn towards the political

Callum Dargavel

PHOTO: Photo by Moujib Aghrout on Unsplash

Society and culture, Economics | East Asia

28 February 2020

The success of Kanikōsen is a sign that manga is a vessel for voices of the afflicted in Japan, Callum Dargavel writes.

In 2006, a manga version of an old and relatively unknown novel was published in Japan.

By 2008, both the manga and the novel that inspired it were topping nationwide bestseller lists and its popularity spawned three other manga versions, three stage shows, and a movie.

Exciting — yes — but as a cultural phenomenon in Japan, hardly out of the ordinary.

Except for one detail.

Kobayashi Takiji’s Kanikōsen, the novel in question, isn’t an historic epic or contemporary romance, as is usually the case. It is a classic piece of Japanese proletarian literature. Dark, brutal, and unflinchingly political, Kanikōsen is a relic of one of the darkest periods of pre-war Japanese society, and at first glance seems deeply out of place with Japan’s contemporary social psyche.

“We’re on our way to hell, mate!”, Kanikōsen ominously foreshadows in its opening words.

Between the unforgiving environment, deadly work, and cruel overseers, hell is an apt label for the life of the workers aboard the industrial crab fishing ships of Kobayashi’s novel.

Against all odds, the unnamed workers assert their collective power and take control of the ship and it ends on a hopeful note with the men teaching others about the power of organisation and struggle.

Kobayashi wrote of great social upheaval in the interwar period as it unfolded around him. The development of liberalism and individualism under the Taisho Democracy was challenged by growing nationalism and militarism. The tenant farms, factory floors and ship decks that feature so heavily in Kobayashi’s stories were the sites of these clashes.

Increasingly, activists and militant trade unions found themselves opposed not only by bosses, but also a militarising state — out of a fear that communism had allied itself with Japan’s emerging industrial class. Violence, imprisonment and censorship were used to brutally repress those deemed a threat to the state.

Because of his writings and growing involvement with the Japanese Communist Party, Kobayashi was targeted by the Tokkō, Japan’s secret police. He was placed under surveillance and his writings were censored, forcing him underground in 1932. The next year he was captured, arrested, tortured and later found dead.

Almost 80 years after it was first written, Kanikōsen has again hit a nerve in Japan.

How can a text resonate so strongly with societies worlds apart? Modern Japan has managed an ‘economic miracle’ of high growth, low unemployment, relative economic equality, calm capital-labour relations, political stability, and social cohesion — or so the story goes.

Kanikōsen exploded in popularity because it shatters this illusion; it speaks to the masses whose lives are discordant to the national economic myth.

It speaks to the workers who fall outside of Japan’s famous seishain system of lifetime employment and who live precariously with uncertain and unsafe futures — to those trapped in a destructive work culture where overwork is so serious an issue, that there is a term karōshi for those who are killed by it. It speaks to the progressive political activists who have been obstructed by the entrenched dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party and its allies in business and the media.

Kanikōsen is overtly and unashamedly political and Japan needs more work like it.

Pop culture mediums such as manga and anime have a unique ability to engage — they engage those who are disengaged from politics, particularly younger people. They also create discussion through mediums like social media, which bypasses traditional and restrictive news media.

However, the true magic and power of pop culture is also that it is not limited to text. It creates communities, fan creations and language, amplifying the original work.

Social conditions in Japan provide no shortage of inspiration for future work. Even limiting the scope of potential to adaptation, there’s no shortage of material. Kobayashi wrote a number of other novels and Japan has a rich tradition of pre- and post-war proletarian literature.

However, embracing this new political voice would not be without difficulty.

It would be impossible to shine a light on struggles in Japanese capitalism without that light also revealing things the industry would rather keep hidden.

Abuse of workers is systemic within drawing and animation studios — a large portion of young animators sit below the poverty line, chronic overwork is endemic and widespread use of freelancers allows studios to bypass what minimal labour regulations exist.

In more subtle ways, the industry has also been complicit in gilding the image of Japan’s major corporations and creating the national economic myth.

There have been waves of biographical pieces about individuals like Sony founder Morita Akio. These works glorified corporate and industrial leaders as national heroes. All the while they made the contribution and struggles of workers invisible in the national imagination.

Kobayashi’s fame is in a way unexpected. His works are plainly written and devoid of the aesthetic polish that these commercial creations have. Even as a proletarian writer, Kobayashi has been criticised for often scapegoating the mistreatment of workers on individuals, rather than the systemic evils of capitalism.

But perhaps that is just the point. Kobayashi wrote of the world as he saw it and of the future he believed in. He was one with the rough, dirty and imperfect sailors on the ship. The same sailors who stood together, rose up and took back their lives.

Based on Kanikōsen’s popularity, Japanese workers see themselves in the former, and their dreams in the latter. For now they march to the bookstores, but if the pop culture industry takes a stand and embraces its new political voice, then maybe one day they will march to the streets.

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