“We’re on our way to hell, mate!”
That’s the opening line of a gripping short story about life on a Japanese king crab canning boat in the 1930s. The story was written by Takiji Kobayashi (1903-1933), one of the most famous writers of the proletarian school in Japan in the 1920-1930. He was a prolific writer, with a passionate commitment to the liberation of peasants and workers from conditions of servitude, and his early death—he was tortured by the police—made him a national tragic figure.
He began to write The Factory Ship (or The Cannery Boat, it has been translated under both titles) in 1928. Two years earlier, he had read a newspaper account of the inhuman treatment inflicted on workers of a factory ship ironically named Hakuai (Brotherly Love) Maru. The men, who had been hired to process crabs caught in the Okhotsk Sea, were paid an adjusted wage ranging from six to eighteen sen (100 sen=1 yen). Punishment for infractions of rules was severe; the men (some only in their early teens) were beaten, branded, or strung up. When the ship returned to its home port of Hakodate, the workers brought complaints against the captain, superintendent, and foremen. The whole story was reported in the press. The men responsible for the brutality were fined or sentenced to prison terms.
When Takiji read the expose, he urged a friend who had been investigating the working conditions of industrial workers to extend his research to include the workers on the factory ships, and Takiji himself set about writing a story about life on such a ship. In a note submitted to the publisher, Takiji wrote:
Capitalism, intending that labor remain unorganized, has ironically created a situation where it has caused it (almost spontaneously) to organize. I have attempted in this work to show how inexorably capitalism infiltrates the new territories and colonies to carry out a primitive exploitation and, with the backing of the powers that be and the armed forces as guards, watchmen, and bullies, carries out a never-ending series of brutalities. And how rapidly do the capitalists succeed in their enterprises!”
One version of the book makes it clear the boat is poaching, in Soviet waters; the other
version does not. The workers on the cannery boats came from poor farmers from the northern island of Hokkaido, who depended on the extra labor during the winter. They were not paid much, but it was an important source of income.
One of the interesting things about the short story are the comments about the link between the military and fishing. This is the supervisor’s pep talk to the workers, which captures the “divine mission” of Japanese fisheries expansion:
“We’re small, but I’ll be damned if we’ll go down before those big stupid Russkies. Our Kamchatka operations involve canning sardines and salmon as well as crabs. From the international standpoint, we’re way ahead of the other nations in this area. And this ship also has an important role in the problems of overpopulation and food in Japan. I don’t know if what I’m saying makes any sense to you. Anyway, just remember that we are going to fight our way through the northern sea for this mission even at the risk of our lives.”
Kobayashi has had a bit of a resurgence in Japan, an recent online search found these two links:
(downloaded July 28, 2014)
 Takiji Kobayashi, The Factory Ship and The Absentee Landlord. (Seattle and London, University of Washington Press. 1973).