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The popularity of a bleak, 20th-century novel points to tectonic shifts beneath the surface of Japanese society. (Photo by Yoshinori Kon)


All year, it appeared to be business as usual on Japanese bookstands: Get-rich-quick guides peddled by the celebrity guru of the moment; economic tomes by wizened doomsayers; salacious confessions of housewives-turned-whores. But if you browsed a moment longer, you’d find something very substantial amid the stacks of pap: A bleak, searing novel of proletarian despair, written almost 80 years ago, and suddenly outselling the sensational and the self-help.

Young Japanese employees are finding parallels between their lives in 2008 and some of the darkest days in the nation’s pockmarked political history. Corporate employers are losing their reputation as kindly upholders of Japan’s social contract. The ideology – if not the activity – of activism may be coming back, after long, languorous decades in hibernation. And leftist books are being read again. Voraciously.

Tectonic shifts are taking place beneath the polished veneer of Japanese society, and the domestic population is sensing the coming cataclysm – even as it realizes that it has few, if any, response plans.

A single random stabbing attack on a crowd of people, like Tomohiro Kato‘s rampage in downtown Tokyo this summer, may be written off as an act of individual lunacy or psychosis. But such outbursts become much harder to rationalize when there is a steady succession of them. High suicide rates have long been considered par for the course in a country where religion and culture make no taboo of the act – but the sharp rise among 30-year-olds this past year has become impossible to ignore.

The mistake – both by the foreign observer and Japan’s own corporate-governmental complex – has been to view young Japanese as heiwaboke(peace-addled) and indefinitely ovine, prone to conformity. More sensible is to think of the Japanese as long-term addicts of a narcotic malaise: politically malnourished and listless, and prone instead to bursts of unfettered hilarity, or rage.

Will a new 21st-century version of socialism be their rehab? In a land where grass-roots politics have been stunted or allowed to straggle, will left-wing sentiment and activity motivate young Japanese to organize? And are the 10,000-plus Japanese who have joined the Communist Party since January a forgettable anomaly or a valuable trend?

Are increasing instances of violence and random killings merely the dispersed, unharnessed expressions of an ideological energy longing to be given proper direction?

For the moment at least, the intellectual side of the phenomenon is about an overlooked novel called Kanikosen (The Crab-Canning Ship)published in 1929 and arguably the most powerful work of author Takaji Kobayashi. Appearing shortly before the young writer was hunted down and tortured to death by Japan’s terrifying Tokubetsu Koutou Keisatsu, or secret police (think the KGB with longer, sharper teeth), the novel describes life aboard a factory ship for its crew of seasonally-hired workers.

Kanikosen has been in print since the 1930s, but until last January, its combined sales amounted to around 1.5 million. This year alone, nearly half a million new copies have been printed and are selling out across the nation – apparently igniting the closet communism of Japan’s stereotypically lemming-like conformist commuters. Two different mangaversions of the novel have also been published to bring its savage themes to younger audiences, making them bite-sized for the new Bolsheviks. Around 200,000 copies of the manga have moved from the shelves thus far.

The story was written in the depths of Japan’s bleakest ultra-nationalist hour. Workers lived in fear of their bosses, and everyone lived in fear of the secret police. Unionism was tantamount to communism, which used to be far too subversive for Japanese comfort.

The novel’s main characters are young and desperate for work. They take jobs on the Kanikosen, which fished for crabs along the freezing coast of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, and in whose stinking hulls hundreds toiled at shelling and canning the catch.

New at the time, the factory ship stood for many things: modernity at the expense of humanity, the subjugation of man to company, and the crude association of suffering with progress. Modern Japanese readers are discovering, to their fascination and chagrin, just how well these themes have aged.

Constantly hungry and abysmally paid, the men in Kanikosen live under the continuous threat of violence and sexual abuse from a gang of thugs hired by the crabmeat company to keep the laborers working. Redemption comes only at the end, when the crab-canners realize that only by standing together can they resist their violent bosses and the faceless corporate owner of the ship.

Still, their victory is short-lived and entirely hollow. The workers’ brief revolution dies miserably, and the giant ship rolls on.

In the 21st century, Kanikosen has traversed the walls of ill-attended Japanese campuses and landed in the mainstream media. The book has pinched a nerve in what is an increasingly disoriented culture, one that Kiyohiko Ikeda, a biologist at Waseda University, calls “restrictive to the point where outbursts are inevitable.”

On their daily rail commutes to work or in stolen minutes on lunch breaks, Japan’s workers are suddenly reading about and discussing hardship again. A second, related book was recently published, cataloguing the comments of dozens of Japanese readers for whom the original novel has been an incendiary text.

“Of course I have never been on a ship like this,” wrote one woman who worked as a temp for ten years, “but I could actually smell its stench. I know exactly the dissatisfactions they are talking about. Those people on the ship are my brothers.”

Adding to the anxiety of Japan’s corporate barons, unhappy ranks of white-collar worker bees and despondent young temps are treatingKanikosen as an unambiguous revolutionary parable for the modern Japanese workplace: the insanely long hours, derisory pay and vicious institutional bullying aboard the Kanikosen seem grimly familiar – and possibly good rationale to unionize.

More and more part-timers, barred from joining the anemic official unions of the companies where they work, have begun forming their own enclaves. There is even one at Toyota, Japan’s über-corporation. And these newer unions are angry enough to point out the many flaws in what workers have for decades been dulled into believing is normal.

Japan is, after all, a country where death by overwork has both a proper name – karoshi – and legal recognition, as does ostracism within a company. As does the demotion of white-collar staff to meaningless manual labor designed to punish lack of loyalty.

Many Japanese remember with a shudder Hiroaki Kushioka, the accountant-turned-whistleblower forced to spend more than 30 years tending the weeds in the company parking lot after bringing a major price-fixing scandal to light.

In recent decades, while Japan Inc, the corporate-governmental alliance, could still get away with the pretense that it was delivering collective prosperity to the nation, scathing public criticism of companies has been muted. Unions were weak and almost comically acquiescent.

But now, as the economic chasm widens between rich and poor, the revolutionary flavor of Kobayashi’s socialist tract is appealing to the nominally capitalist masses.

Karin Amamiya, a former punk rocker-turned-writer and social commentator engaged in a recent public debate on Kanikosen and described the book as the “bible for freeters (freelance part-time workers) and their vicious struggle.”

The bookstores themselves are making little secret of the novel’s new appeal. When Kanikosen was reprinted earlier this year, Tokyo’s largest bookshop put a poster at the front of the store reading: “Revival of the book that describes the cruel labor environment of the past: an environment similar to that of the current working poor in 2008.”

Japan is fad-friendly, of course, and there have been plenty of domestic commentators quick to dismiss the novel’s popularity as a mere “boomu” (boom). Like tamagotchidigital pets and super-loose socks on schoolgirls, say the jaded veterans, the rumblings of literary socialism will be short-lived, and will ultimately have little effect beyond the enrichment of a few publishers.

And yet there are many others who also believe that the surprising sales of Kanikosen suggest a more fundamental shift in public thought. The resurrection of the novel and its popularity with modern readers has no parallel in Japanese literary history.

One senior officer in the National Confederation of Trades Unions firmly believes the phenomenon may precede a wider swing to the left.” The situation of those laborers in the book is very similar to that of modern temporary workers: unpredictable contracts, working under heavy supervision, violence from supervisors, widespread sexual harassment and pressure against unionization – these are all things that the modern Japanese recognize every working day.”

Another believer in the book’s revival is Daisuke Asao, the managing editor of the bi-yearly magazine Rosujene (Lost Generation). Steady sales of his fiercely socialist journal, he says, attest to the resonance of so many of its stories – think pieces on the nature and philosophy of Japan’s corporate gulag and on the increasingly troubling pathology of its inmates.

True, a broad-based socialist movement with trouble on the shop floors and campuses may not immediately be in the cards for Japan, admits Asao, but at the same time, ordinary Japanese are starting to question the values and direction of their capitalist-oriented society.

In rioting and civil disobedience, Japan remains a long way from its feisty past. But it’s equally true that the nation’s much-heralded love of everything cute – the colorful harmlessness of its youth culture and those famously crime-free streets – has not fully eradicated an awareness of history. Left wing rioting in Japan has a proud and credible ancestry that began when the United States ended its occupation in 1952 and did not die out until the corporate edicts of the 1970s.

What clearly separates then from now is that the current discontent has minimal scope for collective expression. There is no unifying channel into which all the pain can flow, so it is either turned inwards on the individual, in the form of suicide, or haphazardly outwards in the form of random stabbings.

Whether Japan’s Communist Party can be that channel is moot. A great many of the more than 10,000 who have joined the party this year are in their 20s and 30s. They read Kanikosen, said Toshio Ueki, the party’s chief spokesman, because they “can identify with the inhumanity and are just as unable to imagine a tomorrow. We expect to expand our rolls to 20,000 next year.”

Plenty of the new members joined after the Communist Party chairman made a speech in the National Diet declaring that Japan’s young people would have no future if matters remained as they are. His speech was then relayed globally via YouTube.

Rather than scoffing at the claim or dismissing it with glib assurances, then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda replied that Japan’s situation “had never been good in the middle to long-term.”

Japanese capitalism – that ostensibly special “third way” version of capitalism, which has so consistently defied and irritated the United States – is less straightforwardly acceptable to its local drones than it used to be.

“The patience of a public that has been so quiet and content for so long has finally run out,” says Asao, “there are many little bubbles of dissatisfaction in Japan at the moment.”

As they endure the nightly mundanity of the convenience store or the daytime lobotomy of waving red sticks at traffic jams, the freeter part-timers know that Kanikosen is a novel aimed at them. But the full-time, white-collar “salarymen” think it is all theirs, too: the novel describes cruelty, exploitation and imprisonment, all of which echoes the sense of padded slavery felt so keenly in Japan’s white-collar ranks. And women, whose relationship with the Japanese workplace has been a long, largely unrewarded struggle for equality and respect, empathize deeply with the below-decks repression of the crab-canning ship.

Still, it is undoubtedly among the young, Asao’s “lost generation,” now aged between 20 and 35, that the connections are the sharpest.

Rika Kayama, a psychiatrist who specializes in analyzing the slew of pathologies that have emerged in Japanese society in recent years believes that the crisis lies in a direct friction between the relentless demands of capitalism and a sense of expectation and responsibility in society and employers instilled in the Japanese from an early age. As those expectations are repeatedly suborned to industrial reality, and young hopes are dashed, the reaction has become more extreme: “The majority of young people who have suffered from low wages and hard labor blame themselves because modern society appears to promote self-responsibility and justifies temporary jobs,” she says.

The economic forces behind the despair of young Japanese are highly toxic. Many, when interviewed on the subject, make reference to the quite spectacular mountain of public debt amassed by Japan over the years. Amounting to some 160 per cent of gross domestic product, that money has effectively been borrowed by the two postwar generations from the one hitting its mid-20s today. The money, notoriously, was used to finance the illusion that Japan’s third-way version of capitalism equitably distributed national wealth around the country in a way that US capitalism visibly could not.

Massive public works projects ensured that jobs were not lost. Vast, flabby bureaucracies employed millions as worthless paper-shufflers. Monstrous lies were floated so that bridges and tunnels might connect places that nobody really needed to traverse. Everything was done for the benefit of only two generations of Japanese.

Young Japanese feel they cannot afford to leave home, so they continue to live with and off their parents as so-called “parasite singles.” They feel they cannot afford to raise families, so they do not. They feel they can afford no gambling with their precious savings, so they run screaming from risk.

Japan’s socio-economic dysfunction has hit them hardest. As Masahiro Yamada, a professor of family psychology at Chuo University who originally coined the term “parasite single,” notes: “Economic disparity in Japan has had a direct influence on Japanese youth. Low-paid, unskilled work goes to the youth of Japan who should be training for higher-skilled jobs because the government still limits the influx of unskilled foreign workers. And those young people, particularly the part-timers, cannot secure a stable income and find it difficult to get married. On the other side of the coin, young women who want to become homemakers cannot find husbands.

“The economic gap itself is not the issue here: what is serious is the social problems it causes and the way it is multiplying the sources of social instability. The government and companies need to work hard on giving young people some sense of hope.”

While there is clearly more to the crisis than pure economics, Japan has allowed the problem to be rather strikingly under-analyzed. Phenomena like hikikomori – the “shutaway” youngsters who cower for months or years in their bedrooms – are treated as curios, rather than emergencies. Suicide rates above 30,000 per year never earn more than a perfunctory official declaration that something must be done. Millions of young Japanese share their thoughts and despair on thousands of blogs, chat-rooms and message boards every day. Japanese is the most blogged language in the world. If the authorities ever bothered to read any of them, they would find the content profoundly disturbing at best or cause for panic.

The phenomenon of the Japanese otaku, the cultish obsessives whose lives revolve around manga or robots or plastic models of busty maids, has also been written-off as politically irrelevant. But if otakudom were viewed as a religion (and in terms of form and impact on the individual, there are plenty of strong arguments for doing so), more notice might be paid to its devotees – the fundamentalism, the spiritual void their obsessions are filling, and the community-building function it performs.

And, if devotion to improbably-breasted cartoon schoolgirls, bullet-train timetables or cyborg assassins is filling the gap vacated by religion, are individual explosions of violence filling the gap left by vacuous politics?

After Kato’s murderous spree in Akihabara, some believe the answer may be “yes.”

When Kato finally snapped and recorded the seven-hour countdown to the bloodbath on his blog, his rants merely joined a million other howls of anguish and dejection floating through Japanese cyberspace.

What is obvious, says one of Japan’s most famous observers, Tsukasa Yoshida, is that the energy of discontent is visibly looking for direction. When confronted with adversity, Kato did not simply “do the Japanese thing” and quietly take his own life.

“From everything that Kato said about not caring who he killed, I think that the borderline between suicide and murder is becoming more blurred. Young people are converting a form of suicidal energy into an outward-facing impulse, and the target is anyone but themselves.”

Japan is now on its fourth Prime Minister in four years – Taro Aso. But Aso is the least popular Prime Minister to enter office since World War II.

As I write, Japan may finally be rejecting its dependence upon America. And with the global economy teetering on collapse and Japan’s own politics in turmoil, the country may be finding a new path, one devoid of the inequities of Kanikosen and alive to the possibilities of a socialist future. In short, Japan may finally become, in spite of itself, “No. 1.”

_Roland Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S. ( He is a columnist for Japan’s Daily Yomiuri newspaper, a contributing editor for A Public Space and a professor at the University of Tokyo and Sophia University in Japan. He is the co-director of a new anime lecture and screening series, Anime Masterpieces (, launching in the US, Canada and Japan in 2009. His forthcoming novel is called Access.

_Leo Lewis is the Asia Business Correspondent for The Times of London. He has worked for the Liverpool Echo and the Independent on Sunday newspapers and written for numerous magazines, including The Economist, Edge and GQ.