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Japanese Proletarian Literature during the Red Decade, 1925–1935

Summary and Keywords

Modern Japanese literature emerged as Japan asserted itself as a military-industrial power from the end of the 19th through the early 20th centuries. The subject of modern literature was worthy of a seat at the table of the world’s powers, or so goes the story of a literary canon all too often focused on the legitimacy of elites. But modern literature is not only about a male alienated intellectual failing to have a satisfying relationship. During the international “red decade” (1925–1935), proletarian writers in Japan as elsewhere sought to harness and transform the technology of modern literature in order to represent the hitherto un- or underrepresented women and men, peasants and factory workers, elderly and children in order to bring the masses into consciousness of their collective power. For a decade, nearly every writer in Japan engaged the energetic but often divided proletarian movement as they sought to grasp the challenges of a rapidly modernizing society, transformation in the family and gender, dual economy, worldwide depression, and escalating imperialism.

Largely overlooked during the Cold War, this important decade of modern literature has experienced a well-deserved scholarly and popular revival in a period of 21st-century precarity, protests against privilege, and questioning of media and representation. Two exemplars from proletarian literature—Hayama Yoshiki’s “The Prostitute” (1925) and Miyamoto Yuriko’s “The Breast” (1935)—offer a frame to apprehend the richness of genre, voice, storytelling, experimentation, and ethics in proletarian literature, a vital part of modern literature.

Keywords: proletarian, Japan, literature, Communist Party, socialism, modern, modernism

The Subject of Modern Literature

Modern literature—that modern technology capable of representing both the greatness of the modern nation-state and the contours of alienated interiority—arose in conjunction with industrial capitalist growth and, in the case of Japan, imperialist expansion. In terms presented by Karatani Kōjin (b. 1941), the “epistemological constellation” known as modern literature was formed in Japan in the 1880s.1 It required the creation of an idea of selfhood (subjectivity) perceived as wholly separate from social systems, when in reality it was produced in response to systems of power: “the self of interiority which the novelistic ‘I’ was supposed to express did not exist a priori but was constituted through the mediation of a material form.”2 Japan began to assert itself in the languages Western imperialist powers understood best: with overseas wars to enlarge spheres of influence (Sino-Japan War 1894–1895; Russo-Japan War 1904–1905) that would result in the annexation of Taiwan (1895) and Korea (1910) and the puppet-state regime of Manchukuo (1932), and with the native production of modern literature.

Japan has over a millennium of literary history—broadly including poetry, tales, diaries, travel writing, libretti, and other genres. Most famous is The Tale of Genji (c. 1000 ce), sometimes lauded as the world’s first novel for its complex portraits of characters. During the Tokugawa period (1603–1868), mercantile capitalism allowed a relatively literate early modern society to enjoy the fruits of commercial literature. But modern literature appears distinct. The questions of selfhood, the nation-state, and global power are related in the introduction to the 1904 publication of Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things that appeared on the eve of the Russo-Japan War: “The Russian people have had literary spokesmen who for more than a generation have fascinated the European audience. The Japanese, on the other hand, have possessed no such national and universally recognized figures as Turgenieff or Tolstoy. They need an interpreter.”3 Who better, the introduction continues, than the Irish-Greek-American Hearn who nativized and died a Japanese subject, Koizumi Yakumo (1850–1904)? While the preservation of folk tales and ghost stories is distinctly modern, today it seems orientalist because the introduction suggests that one could discern from these strange tales “the national characteristics of the peoples engaged.”4

Translation into “occidental languages” of literature written in Japanese was slow, but in the meantime, curious readers could whet their appetite for Japanism with works by Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert (The Mikado, 1885), Pierre Loti (Madame Chrysanthème, 1888), and Okakura Kakuzō (The Book of Tea, 1906). Unlike these examples, however, Hearn was uniquely important to the development of the institution of modern literature in Japan, including its hybridity even amid longing for linguistic-psychic-national coherency. The globe-trotting Hearn was appointed professor of English literature at Tokyo Imperial University, a job he was relieved of in 1903 when Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916) returned from his two-year state-sponsored sojourn to England to study literature. Sōseki would resign his prestigious position and become a newspaper novelist in 1907. Extraordinarily prolific before his premature death in 1916, Sōseki is the preeminent modern novelist of Japan. Despite his trenchant critiques of the way that money corrupts, he was honored with his visage on the 1000-yen bill.

From the 1880s through the 1910s, Japanese writers strove to produce an emerging sense of modern selfhood, one that would resonate internationally in the vernacular of modern literature: works by authors such as Mori Ōgai (1862–1922), Futabatei Shimei (1864–1909), Kunikida Doppo (1871–1908), Shimazaki Tōson (1872–1943), Tayama Katai (1872–1930), and Shiga Naoya (1883–1971). They gave literary form to the anguish of modern alienated subjectivity. Mori Ōgai’s autobiographical “The Dancing Girl” (1890) describes the utter anguish of a Japanese man, who, sent to Germany to study, must abandon his pregnant German lover in order to keep his career alive. Ōgai was a military man trained in medicine, and while not well off compared to his fellow students in Berlin, he enjoyed the privileges of a certain class of man, like the French naval officer who wrote under the pen name Pierre Loti, to savor an exotic woman, abandon her in need, and then parlay that remorse into modern literature.

Bringing the Red Decade into View

But, modern Japanese literature is not only about an alienated male intellectual failing to have a satisfying relationship. Women, the poor, children, ethnic minorities—what are their great concerns, and how could these concerns be represented with that mighty technology of selfhood, modern literature? That is the challenge issued by writers who called themselves “proletarian writers” during the international red decade (1925–1935). Michael Denning writes, “The turning point was the world upheaval of 1917–1921. In the wake of the European slaughter, regimes and empires were challenged: there were revolutions in Czarist Russia and Mexico, brief lived socialist republics in Germany, Hungary and Persia, uprisings against colonialism in Ireland, India, and China, and massive strike waves and factory occupations in Japan, Italy, Spain, Chile, Brazil and the United States.”5 With the Soviet experiment as a beacon of possibility, writers around the world formed organizations in the spirit of not just witnessing but also affecting the dramatic transformations of the 1920s–1930s.

By the end of the 1920s, proletarian literature in Japan rose to such a position of prominence in the literary world that there were few writers who could be accused of having ignored it altogether, and “only at the risk of being dismissed as mere hedonists, indifferent to everything except their own pleasure.”6 However, its reception was dismissed until recently. In the mid-1920s, writers supported various journals with anarchist, Bolshevik, liberal, and other political orientations, but the field transformed early in 1928, with the first mass arrests on March 15 and the formation of the proletarian arts organization NAPF (Nippona Artista Proleta Federacio), partially in response to the repression, just ten days later, with its elected Communist leadership.7 It is therefore difficult to distinguish the rise of proletarian literature from its repression, but it is fair to say that NAPF played an important role in directing the movement, which found that it needed to be increasingly well organized in order to survive.

NAPF, a proletarian arts organization, was reorganized into KOPF (Federacio de Proletaj Kultur Organizoj Japanaj), a proletarian cultural organization, in late 1931, amid intensifying repression. The worldwide Great Depression may have stirred worker unrest and lent strength to the movement, but the Manchurian Incident in September 1931 rekindled nationalism such that organized labor began to compete with capitalists for the honor of being the most patriotic.8 As the dissidents arrested in the March 15, 1928, mass arrests were finally brought to a public trial starting in 1931, public sentiment increasingly saw them as traitors to the nation.9 But still, until 1933, proletarian writers, who were likely to also be activists, carried on energetically writing and publishing, as well as producing plays, translating, organizing cells among workers, starting writing circles in factories, even operating proletarian day-care centers. The arrests of “thought criminals” quadrupled between 1928 and 1932, reaching over 14,500 in 1933.10 By 1933, the movement was critically wounded: in January, an inflammatory story broke about how Communists were using women sexually; in February, writer-activist Kobayashi Takiji (1903–1933) was tortured to death while under interrogation; and in June, Communist leaders Sano Manabu (1892–1953) and Nabeyama Sadachika (1901–1979) issued a recantation letter from prison which was well-circulated and initiated a landslide of similar recantations. Finally, the “red love” scandals (most famously the “housekeeper problem” in which the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) was accused of using women as cover wives to protect male party members) were construed as the damning evidence that the proletarian vanguard was out of touch with the masses. Stalwarts persevered for a couple years in the different branches of the movement, which included theater, poetry, birth control, Esperanto, and music, before being silenced as the Pacific War intensified. After the war, many former proletarian writers rebranded themselves as creators of democratic literature.

Until the recent lively investigations of proletarian literature, the canon of modern Japanese literature focused myopically on works of male privilege, such as Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s Naomi (1924) and Kawabata Yasunari’s Snow Country (1935–1937, 1947–1948). Both novels have enjoyed tremendous popularity in Japan and the Anglophone world, perennial favorites in university classes. Both feature a well-off male protagonist who is failing to have a satisfying relationship with a woman. Both narratives call attention to the aesthetic lens through which the men view their women, and in both cases, the male protagonists demonstrate some awareness that their preferred version of reality is untrue. In Snow Country, Shimamura prefers the wonderland of his imagination over the real woman, refusing to see that Komako is not a country geisha tragically in love with him, but rather a working woman with a clear idea of her labor conditions and future possibilities. In Naomi, Jōji takes a pretty, Eurasian-looking café girl into his home and raises her as a bourgeois daughter without concern for earning her keep (before making her his lover), but he fails to see that for her, the entire relationship was a transaction. Published just before and after the red decade, these two novels have done a marvelous job of obscuring women’s labor (and all labor) and allowing generations of readers into the wonderland narratives of these men who persevere in their flawed but therefore oh-so-aesthetic, privileged realities. But there are other ways of seeing the world.

In a children’s story by proletarian writer and editor Murayama Kazuko (1901–1946), Elephant and Mouse share a desk at school, but Elephant is a bit of a bully. One day, Mouse brings a telescope to school; this modern technology is a gift from an uncle overseas. Elephant demands to look through it, but Mouse looks at him through the wrong end, sees a little Elephant and laughs at him. Elephant angrily grabs the telescope, but when he looks through it correctly, Mouse looks “as big and magnificent as a mountain.”11 Each way of seeing is transformed. This story allegorizes how the energetic red decade was a crucible for literature and ideology—in Japan as internationally. Modern literature is transformed when proletarian literature of the red decade is brought into view.

Framing the Red Decade: “The Prostitute” and “The Breast”

Bracketing the decade from 1925–1935 with different works alters the critical understanding of modern literature. Hayama Yoshiki’s short story “The Prostitute” (1925) was highly regarded in its time and continues to be among the most frequently discussed and anthologized stories from the period of proletarian literature in Japan. And Miyamoto Yuriko’s long story “The Breast” (1935) is considered one of the last works of the proletarian movement. “The Prostitute” is a provocative account of a young sailor coming into class consciousness, thanks to a terribly degraded prostitute. Like Naomi and Snow Country, “The Prostitute” relies on a masculinist perception of reality, but in contrast, it begs its reader to reflect on the economic conditions that created such grotesquerie. And, published at the end of the long red decade, “The Breast” showcases the strengths and vulnerabilities of women in the movement—as activists, mothers, friends, wives, and lovers—focalized around protagonist Hiroko, a committed yet critically engaged woman working to support the labor aid movement.

Hayama Yoshiki (1893–1945) had jobs as diverse as a sailor, roller skate boy (!), office worker, accountant at a cement factory, and news reporter. He was working at the Nagoya Cement Factory in 1921 when a worker fell in the burning ashes and died. This incident spawned both an attempt at organizing a labor union (for which he was fired) and one of his famous works, “Letter Found in a Cement Barrel” (1925).12 It was while he was in Chigusa Prison in 1923 for communist-related activities that he wrote this and “The Prostitute,” for which he would become famous. In “The Prostitute,” the narrator Minpei reflects back on an encounter that transformed his consciousness. At the beginning of the story, the now wiser narrator recalls himself as a young, inebriated sailor in port, sauntering along the fashionable promenade of the Yokohama Wharf among people of exotic visage, when suddenly he is hailed by someone offering him “some fun for next to nothin’, the kind of fun young guys like.”13 Minpei follows three men, one of whom is referred to as Slug, to an abandoned warehouse where they present to him a dying, naked, young woman. Saying, “You can do whatever you want. I’ll stand look out for you,” Slug leaves.14 Minpei is overcome, not by passion but by compassion, and after a tortured self-examination, he offers to save the young woman and take her away. She laughs at him, telling him that the men are taking care of her, but he can’t understand.

Minpei tries to put up a fight when the men return to tell him his time is up, but he realizes it is useless. He leaves only to return later, slightly more inebriated, to question the men further. It turns out the woman is not a prostitute, but part of a nightmarish freak show. They display her in this manner to make money to pay for medicine for her and for themselves. Finally starting to understand a bit, Minpei comes to feel solidarity with both the woman and the men. “The Prostitute” ends with him gazing upon the woman’s sleeping figure draped with a summer yukata:

I was looking at a martyr, not a prostitute. She appeared to me to symbolize the fate of the entire exploited class.

My eyes filled with tears. I walked away, careful not to make a sound, and gave Slug, who was standing by the door, my one yen. As I gave it to him I grasped his wizened hand with all my might.

I went outside. As I started down the stairway, tears fell from my welling eyes.15

The fact that she is not really a prostitute is already forgotten because the power of the “prostitute”—“selling off the ultimate leavings of her labor . . . that which a woman ought not offer for sale”16—to become a symbol offers him (and potentially the reader) a welcome catharsis.

Hayama’s eponymous “prostitute” represents the misery of a female victim as a means for the male protagonist (and the reader) to come into class consciousness. In order to come into this consciousness, Minpei imagines the debilitating work conditions that might have brought her to this end, enabled by contemporary media exposés. Sheldon Garon writes that “most surveys and exposés after 1895 highlighted the plight of respectable farm girls who were caught, stripped, and beaten, or of women workers burned to death because the owners locked the dormitories every night.”17 Vera Mackie writes that “the convention of writing about women as objects of pity and compassion continued into the 1920s, particularly with the publication of Hosoi Wakizō’s book Jokō aishi (The Pitiful History of Female Factory Workers) in 1925.”18 Hosoi’s book, among others, highlighted women workers as victims, but not as a potentially revolutionary proletariat.

“The Prostitute” offers a fascinating perspective, however, because not only does it participate in the masculinist proletarian imagination (and modern literary imagination more broadly) seeing women as victims and symbols of social change or tradition, but it also includes the muted narrative of the exploited subaltern. Minpei struggles to affirm his masculinity and save her. He can only do so, however, by overcoming sexual desire and finally seeing the woman as an emblem of her class instead of as a woman. But, as he reminds us, he can only come to this resolution because she is a woman: “If that which had lain before me had not been a naked woman but a naked man, I doubt I would have stayed where I was quite so long a time or that my soul would have felt such agitation.”19 This complicated process—where sexual desire must be overcome so that sexual difference can allow for an epiphany regarding class difference—is an excellent example of “sexing class.”20 Minpei’s conflict is hideous: she is naked, and more, her hair is matted with “muck that she had apparently vomited . . . intermingled with dark blood stains . . . A sour stench rose from her head.”21 Self-consciously playing with narrative, Hayama’s story invokes the emerging genre of ero-guro-nansensu (erotic-grotesque-nonsense) with a proletarian allegory that resists being just an allegory.

By April 1935, when Miyamoto Yuriko (1899–1951) published “The Breast,” the proletarian movement was effectively over: nearly all proletarian writers had been arrested, and many had begun to recant, although stalwarts persevered in myriad ways. Nakamura Tomoko calls this story “the last properly proletarian work that could be published.”22 Yuriko had been arrested in April 1932 and detained for eighty days; she was arrested again in September and released a month later, then arrested again along with many comrades when she visited Kobayashi Takiji’s mother after his death. Her husband, Miyamoto Kenji, was arrested in December 1933 and remained in prison for twelve years. Yuriko was again arrested in April 1934 and released five months later, in bad health, for her mother’s funeral; in 1935, she was rearrested to resume her previous detention.23

“The Breast” speaks to the zeitgeist as it articulates the double threat of sexual and political vulnerability faced by activist women, but it does so while focalized around a strong female married protagonist who soldiers on despite these dangers. Working for a labor aid organization that supports labor struggles (in particular, in the story, a developing streetcar workers’ struggle), protagonist Hiroko makes leaflets, meets in study groups with comrades, visits her husband in prison, attends a union meeting on behalf of labor aid run by a self-serving petty bureaucrat, and runs a proletarian day-care center.24 She offers the crèche as a convenience for working women, but also as a way for women working in different places to feel connected to each other, and ultimately to the struggles at hand.

The six-chapter story opens with Hiroko being startled awake from a deep sleep by a suspicious noise. She immediately fears police might be barging in, as they had begun threatening anyone who helped support labor aid since the arrest of a veteran organizer. She also worries that the landlord has sent thugs to harass her into moving and has a flashback of the sleazy landlord ogling her and her companion Tamino while making derogatory comments, like, “Nothing good gonna come from women in Western getup if you ask me.”25 And more ominously, “—If you’re having a tough time calling it quits, lemme know and I’ll do the quittin’ for ya.”26 The noise turns out to be her comrade Ōtani, who has come by to request she attend a meeting the next day, but the reader is meanwhile confronted by the anxieties attending being a single woman (or a woman whose husband is in prison) in the movement.

Living with her temporarily is Tamino, a young, honest woman who had had a factory job but lost it for labor organizing. Tamino is planning to go back into factory work, but while she looks for a job, she assists Hiroko. During this time, a fellow named Usui starts coming around, offering to help out. He puts on airs and seems to have connections. Hiroko finds him to be suspicious and asks Ōtani to check into his background, but with all of the work that needs to be done in connection with the streetcar labor struggle, this does not get done. Usui insinuates himself into some kind of relationship with Tamino, mostly outside of Hiroko’s sight, but there are hints, such as the time that Tamino mentions, “I always thought port was just Western saké, but it isn’t,” a day after Usui has helped her copy some posters.27 One night as the two women do some work, Tamino says, “Might be goin’ someplace else one of these days.” Hiroko asks if she’s found something “promising.” And Tamino responds enigmatically, “Mr. Usui’s really happy that the thing he’s been waiting for has come through . . . ” Hiroko speaks:

“What do you mean ‘come through’? . . .” Some likely conjectures popped into Hiroko’s head.28 “That doesn’t have anything to do with you, though, does it?”

Tamino didn’t respond directly. After a little while she murmured, half engrossed in her own thoughts. “It sounds like everybody’s having a hard time because really useful women are few and far between.”

As if her eyes had been just opened, Hiroko realized the significance of what Tamino was thinking but couldn’t say.

“It’s not a job?”

“. . .”29

Hiroko is immediately concerned about whether Tamino is being taken advantage of: What, after all, is a “really useful woman”? For something that is not properly a job?

Hiroko felt a rush of complicated affection for young, honest Tamino. Most likely Usui had said something to her, and that must have inclined her to take on a role that might be considered to have more positive meaning than being active in the factory. But Hiroko had long harbored doubts about the way young female activists were sucked into the roles of secretary or housekeeper as a matter of expedience. Hiroko thought it over as she continued to twist her lower lip, but then she spoke slowly, “Over there, it seems they’ve made a point of saying it’s no good to have female comrades live with men under the pretext of calling them secretaries or housekeepers, even making them have sexual relations with them. I read about it somewhere.”


“Housekeepers” were women who were called upon during times of duress in the proletarian movement to protect the identity of a male activist. They could include strangers invited formally or girlfriends, but also women who would become common-law wives and officially registered wives. The housekeeper would keep the house, stay home to protect important documents and destroy them if need be, provide the cover of an apparently normal couple, perhaps work an honest job to pay for the living conditions, and most notoriously, be sexually available to her fake husband, although that was not necessarily part of the job. Article after article announcing the shame of women being purportedly exploited by the illegal Japanese Communist Party (JCP)—which was accused of orchestrating the practice—appeared in 1933, driving an even bigger wedge between the proletarian movement and the masses.

Hiroko calls attention to how the practice is criticized “over there.” To the postwar rewritten version, a line was added: “In Hiroko’s circle, ‘over there’ always referred to the Soviet Union.” In 1935, it was clear enough. Hiroko is warning her dear friend to be careful not to be “sucked into the roles of secretary or housekeeper as a matter of expedience.” At the same time, she finds herself in sympathy with Tamino: “Hiroko felt an emotional bond with Tamino, who was setting out on the path of a class-conscious woman whose joys and trials would not be unlike the ones she herself had experienced and would continue to experience.”31 Through the representation of Hiroko’s concern but also sympathy, Yuriko depicted a sensitive perspective on the housekeeper role, allowing that it might be rewarding if entered into by a class-conscious woman making her own decisions and not being sucked into it.

As they go to sleep, Hiroko offers one last thought: “Be careful you don’t use up your enthusiasm for something twisted or self-serving, okay?”32 And she cautions Tamino to make sure that she really knows what Usui’s background is. The next morning, a policeman comes around making not-so-vague threats, and then they learn that Ōtani has been arrested. Soon after, Tamino is arrested. (A new sentence in the postwar version clarifies that Usui was a spy, but readers of the 1935 version would have had to guess.) The story ends with Hiroko wondering how long it will be before she is arrested. So it turns out that the invitation to be a housekeeper came from a spy—not the party. In the postwar period, when Yuriko’s husband Kenji was released from prison by political amnesty and had become chairman of the now-legal JCP, he lauded this story for connecting the housekeeper problem to “the spies infiltrating the underground movement,”33 controversially dismissing the connection to the JCP. Regardless, the way that Hiroko invokes the Soviet Union to disapprove of the housekeeper practice is important, because it subjects the practice to criticism from this higher authority. At the same time, she leaves open the possibility that this match would be politically and emotionally meaningful for Tamino, just as her own work is.

Both stories address class and ideology and the complexities of modern, socially embedded identities. “The Prostitute” dramatizes masculinist privilege and displays its moral failings through a story that both plays with narrative unreliability and challenges the reader to think about what is required for someone to become conscious of his (and her?) position in society. “The Breast” bravely invokes one of the red decade’s most damning issues, the housekeeper problem, while treating it with a sophisticated feminist lens. Through protagonist Hiroko and her companions, Yuriko dramatizes the fits and starts of organizing in the midst of repression, focalized around a woman whose problems include her incarcerated husband and dim prospects for self-fulfillment, but also the task of providing care for the young entrusted to her day-care center and using that to build connections among parents at different workplaces, participating in study groups, representing the goals of labor aid to connect workers at different workplaces at trade union meetings, and more. Even these two works as exemplars show proletarian literature as part and parcel of modern literature through representations of emerging modern subjects. These works experimented with genre, subject position, narrative perspective, gender, ethics, and storytelling during the decade leading to the devastation of total war.

The Subjects of Proletarian Literature, Modern Literature

No longer constricted to works about a privileged man having an unfortunate relationship (or, as proletarian theorist Kurahara Korehito put it, “love-at-first-sight-between-a-barkeep-and-a-shopgirl stories”34), the red decade reveals a large cast of socially enmeshed, modern subjects with works addressing gender, labor, imperialism, childhood, technology, and so much more. The magnum opus of Japanese proletarian literature is Kobayashi Takiji’s (1903–1933) novella, The Crab Cannery Ship (1929). The Crab Cannery Ship is about male workers aboard a ship organizing against dehumanizing labor conditions. Overworked and overtired, the men have no luxury to read about the conditions of their exploitation, but one incident after another leads them to collective consciousness. A nearby ship of workers signaling SOS is allowed to sink by the despicable superintendent because it is “insured for a lot more money than the damned thing’s worth.”35 A mentally and physically ill worker who tries unsuccessfully to escape is apprehended (possibly ratted out in exchange for a couple of cigarettes) and then locked up to die in the toilet—his screams a warning to anyone who might try the same. Neither he nor another worker who dies is given a proper funeral, another indication to the men that their lives do not matter. Befitting these modern times, their one pleasure is movie night, when they are treated to shorts highlighting Japanese natural treasures they will never visit and a feature-length film about how hard work pays off. And that navy destroyer on the horizon? The men think it is there to protect them as they fish contested waters near Russia until the end, when they strike and learn too painfully that the navy is there to protect the superintendent.

In contrast to works which take a deep dive into a single male intellectual’s psyche (shishōsetsu, or I-novel), Takiji experimented with a collective protagonist made up of different worker types identified not so much by name as by attribute and demonstrated how their understanding transformed through collective experience.36 In 2008, this nearly eighty-year-old proletarian novella became a surprise bestseller in Japan, prompting many to reconsider the significance of proletarian literature in the income-disparate early 21st century.37 Annual sales of The Crab Cannery Ship are typically about 5,000 copies per year. In 2008, that number jumped to over 500,000, and that does not include sales of the four manga (graphic novel) versions that reached many more readers.

But this novella is just the tip of the iceberg. Takiji was a gifted writer who grew up poor in the northern island of Hokkaido, where he nevertheless received a good education thanks to the largesse of an uncle. Befitting the zeitgeist, he watched the labor movement in his port city and experimented with the best ways to represent those who had been unrepresented in literature, including not just the male workers in this most-famous novella, but also women and children, peasants and urban dwellers, and activists.38 “Comrade Taguchi’s Sorrow” (1930), for example, is a man’s poignant reflection on a dear sister, “the kind of big sister who’d walk ahead of him in the snow all the way to school,” whose own sacrifices failed to protect her.39 “Yasuko” (1931), an unfinished novella first serialized in a newspaper, describes the paths of two sisters towards activism: the younger, prettier sister moves to the port city where her job as a café waitress puts her in contact with the male activists meeting there, while the older sister bears the burden of caring for their widowed mother.40

Many proletarian works experiment with representing the experiences of those most often not dignified with interiority. For example, Kaji Wataru’s tale “Hell” is a parable written for young people whose experiences were not represented in the glossy magazines produced for bourgeois children. An orphan Japanese boy offers to help a Korean girl find her father whom, she was told, was sent to hell. The two land in jail after trying to fight back against a rich man who was abusing his workers; there, a kind socialist offers to help raise them so they can find heaven.41 Also experimental, “wall stories” were very short stories written so they could be torn out of a journal and posted on a factory bulletin board, as illustrated in Korean writer Yi Tong-gyu’s “The Bulletin Board and the Wall Story.”42 Wall stories dealt with themes as various as a father’s rejection of the solace of nationalism when faced with the death of his soldier son, a young woman’s longing for consumer pleasures, a child’s extreme hunger following the death of her papa, and the frustration of a soldier deployed abroad.43 In fact, proletarian literature was singularly important in criticizing the expansion of the Japanese empire, an important element of modern Japanese literature.44

Miyamoto Yuriko’s Challenge to Bring the Red Decade to Light

Near the end of the red decade, Miyamoto Yuriko expressed frustration over the way that the considerable work of proletarian writers was already being strategically dismissed. At that point, late in 1934, the proletarian movement was in its darkest hour: Kobayashi Takiji had been tortured and killed while under interrogation in February 1933; the last proletarian writers’ organization, the Writers League, “voluntarily disbanded” in 1934; and most proletarian writers and activists were in prison or had renounced their pasts. But still, she issued a challenge to thinking people to one day look back at the red decade and give it the reading it deserves.

Specifically, she was responding to a “tenkō writer boycott”—a boycott of proletarian writers who renounced proletarian ideology—issued by stalwart critics of proletarian literature Nakamura Murao (1886–1949) and Okada Saburo (1890–1954). Why, she asked, are they critical of those who have renounced proletarian literature given that they had been hostile to it all along? After suggesting that they should mind their own business, she presented the real task: to take recantation as both an individual and a historical problem and investigate further the historical conditions that had brought about this phenomenon.

Recounting the story of how young radicals in Russia, swept up in the early rush of Marxism when it entered Russia at the beginning of the 1890s, went out to provide assistance during a great famine, one that struck twenty provinces, she writes: “As the famine ended, cholera broke out and riots erupted here and there, but who do you think became the target of the angry masses? The radical intellectuals and doctors who had battled sickness and starvation alongside them.”45 This injustice was orchestrated by “the Tsar’s infamous police chief, Captain [Konstantin Petrovich] Pobedonostsev [1827–1907].” However, Yuriko continues, “Naturally, it was not Pobedonostsev but rather the Russian Marxists who had the rug pulled out from under them but still got back up on their feet and ultimately brought this dirty trick to light.”46

Yuriko’s words challenge us to reread the richness of the red decade: “Imagining the day when various present-day phenomena are brought to light from a similar perspective in Japanese proletarian literary history, I am sustained by inexhaustible interest.”47 It’s time to reread the red decade.

Review of the Literature

There was little research in Japan and hardly anything in print in English during the Cold War: the one English-language history, G. T. Shea’s monumental Leftwing Literature in Japan: A Brief History of the Proletarian Literary Movement (1964), had gone out of print, as had Frank Motofuji’s translations of two novellas (1973). Recently, however, interest in Japanese proletarian literature has grown tremendously: in 2008, a nearly eighty-year-old novella became an overnight bestseller in Japan, provoking many to reflect on the similarities between the prewar period and the early 21st century’s precarious moment. There has also been a boom in scholarship from Japanese scholars Shimamura Teru, Hamabayashi Masao, Kamimura Kazumi, Miyamoto Aki, Ogino Fujio, Kitamura Takashi, Kurikara Yukio, and others.

Since 2005, there have been half a dozen international conferences and a dozen English-language dissertations on Japanese (and Korean) proletarian literature, including a volume I guest-edited of critical essays for positions: east asia cultures critique on proletarian arts in East Asia in 2006.48 Željko Cipriš published a volume of translations of three Japanese proletarian novellas by Kobayashi Takiji as well as a volume of works by Kuroshima Denji.49 A volume of Korean, mostly proletarian, literature was published in 2013: Rat Fire: Korean Stories from the Japanese Empire.50 In September 2013, Japan Forum published a special edition on Nyōnin geijutsu, a leftist Japanese women’s journal in the early 1930s. Ruth Barraclough published Factory Girl Literature: Sexuality, Violence and Literature in Industrializing Korea, and with Elyssa Faison, she is the co-editor of Gender and Labour in Korea and Japan: Sexing Class.51 Samuel Perry published Recasting Red Culture in Proletarian Japan: Childhood, Korea and the Historical Avant-Garde and a volume of translations of Japanese proletarian writer Sata Ineko: Five Faces of Japanese Feminism.52 Sunyoung Park published The Proletarian Wave: Literature and Leftist Culture in Colonial Korea, 1910–1945.53 Ruth Barraclough, Paula Rabinowitz, and I co-edited Red Love across the Pacific: Political and Sexual Revolutions of the Twentieth Century.54 In 2016, Norma Field and I released For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution: An Anthology of Japanese Proletarian Literature.55

Further Reading

Bowen-Struyk, Heather. “Proletarian Arts in East Asia.” The Asia-Pacific Journal 5.4 (April 2, 2007).Find this resource:

    Bowen-Struyk, Heather. “Sexing Class: ‘The Prostitute’ in Japanese Proletarian Literature.” In Gender and Labour in Japan and Korea: Sexing Class. Edited by Ruth Barraclough and Elyssa Faison, 10–26. London: Routledge, 2009.Find this resource:

      Bowen-Struyk, Heather, ed. Proletarian Arts in East Asia: Quests for National, Gender, and Class Justice. Special issue, positions: east asia cultures critique 14.2 (Fall 2006).Find this resource:

        Bowen-Struyk, Heather, and Norma Field, eds. For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution: An Anthology of Japanese Proletarian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Coutts, Angela, ed. “Nyonin Geijutsu.” Special issue, Japan Forum 25.3 (September 2013).Find this resource:

          Field, Norma. Kobayashi Takiji: 21 seiki ni dō yomu ka [Reading Kobayashi Takiji for the 21st century]. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2009.Find this resource:

            Floyd, Nikki Dejan. “Bridging the Colonial Divide: Japanese-Korean Solidarity in the International Proletarian Movement.” PhD diss., Yale University, 2011.Find this resource:

              Hayama Yoshiki. “Letter Found in a Cement Barrel.” Translated by Ivan Morris. In Modern Japanese Stories: An Anthology, edited by Ivan Morris, 204–210. Rutland, VT: C. E. Tuttle, 1962.Find this resource:

                Hirano Ken, Kurahara Korehito, Odagiri Hideo, Noma Hiroshi, Takeuchi Yoshimi, eds. Nihon Puroretaria bungaku taikei. 9 vols. Tokyo: San’ichi Shobō, 1955.Find this resource:

                  Kamiya Tadataka, Hōjō Tsunehisa, and Shimamura Teru, eds. “‘Bungaku’ to shite no Kobayashi Takiji” [Kobayashi Takiji as “literature”]. Special issue, Kokubungaku kaishaku to kanshō (September 2006).Find this resource:

                    Karlsson, Mats. “The Proletarian Literature Movement: Experiment and Experience.” In Routledge Handbook of Modern Japanese Literature, edited by Leith Morton and Rachael Hutchinson, 111–124. London: Routledge, 2016.Find this resource:

                      Kitamura Takashi. Hanhinkon no bungaku [Literature against poverty]. Tokyo: Gakushūnotomosha, 2010.Find this resource:

                        Kobayashi Takiji. The Cannery Boat by Kobayashi Takiji and Other Japanese Short Stories. Translated by Max Bickerton. New York: International Publishers, 1933.Find this resource:

                          Kobayashi Takiji. “The Factory Ship” and “The Absentee Landlord.” Translated by Frank Motofuji. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973.Find this resource:

                            Kobayashi Takiji. The Crab Cannery Ship and Other Novels of Struggle. Translated by Željko Cipriš. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                              Kurihara Yukio. Puroretaria bungaku to sono jidai [Proletarian literature and its era]. Rev. ed. Tokyo: Impakuto Shuppankai, 2004.Find this resource:

                                Kuroshima Denji. “A Flock of Swirling Crows” and Other Proletarian Writings. Translated by Željko Cipriš. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                                  Nakano Shigeharu. Three Works. Translated by Brett de Bary. Ithaca, NY: Cornell China-Japan Program, 1979.Find this resource:

                                    Nihon puroretaria bungaku hyōronshū. 7 vols. Tokyo: Shinnihon Shuppansha, 1990.Find this resource:

                                      Nihon puroretaria bungakushū. 41 vols. Tokyo: Shinnihon Shuppansha, 1985–1987.Find this resource:

                                        Perry, Samuel. Recasting Red Culture in Proletarian Japan: Childhood, Korea, and the Historical Avant-garde. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 2014.Find this resource:

                                          Sata Ineko. Five Faces of Japanese Feminism: Crimson and Other Works. Translated by Samuel Perry. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2016.Find this resource:

                                            Shea, G. T. Leftwing Literature in Japan: A Brief History of the Proletarian Literary Movement. Tokyo: Hōsei University Press, 1964.Find this resource:


                                              (1.) Japanese names in the essay have been left in Japanese order in the essay (family name followed by personal name); but in notes, I have standardized in Western order (personal name, family name).

                                              (2.) Kōjin Karatani, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature, trans. ed. Brett De Bary (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 77.

                                              (3.) Introduction to Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1904). Republished online.

                                              (4.) Introduction to Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan.

                                              (5.) Michael Denning, Culture in the Age of Three Worlds (London: Verso, 2004), 57.

                                              (6.) Donald Keene, Journal of Japanese Studies 2.2 (Summer 1976): 225–226.

                                              (7.) The arrests are memorialized in Takiji Kobayashi, “March 15, 1928,” trans. Justin Jesty, in For Dignity, Justice and Revolution: An Anthology of Japanese Proletarian Literature, ed. Heather Bowen-Struyk and Norma Field (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 103–159.

                                              (8.) Louise Young, Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 163–167.

                                              (9.) Richard H. Mitchell, Thought Control in Prewar Japan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976), 104–109.

                                              (10.) Arrests were 3,426 in 1928, 13,938 in 1932, and 14,622 in 1933. Mitchell, Thought Control in Prewar Japan, 142.

                                              (11.) Kazuko Murayama, “Elephant and Mouse,” trans. Mika Endo, in For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution, 208.

                                              (12.) Susumu Odagiri, “Hayama Yoshiki nenpu,” in Gendai Nihon bungaku taikei. Hayama Yoshiki, Kuroshima Denji, Hirabayashi Taiko shū (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 1971), 56:422–423.

                                              (13.) Yoshiki Hayama, “The Prostitute,” trans. Lawrence Rogers, in For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution, 56.

                                              (14.) Hayama, “The Prostitute,” 59.

                                              (15.) Hayama, “The Prostitute,” 63.

                                              (16.) Hayama, “The Prostitute,” 60.

                                              (17.) Sheldon Garon, The State and Labor in Modern Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 15.

                                              (18.) Vera Mackie, Creating Socialist Women in Japan: Gender, Labour and Activism, 1900–1937 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 108.

                                              (19.) Hayama, “The Prostitute,” 60.

                                              (20.) See Heather Bowen-Struyk, “Sexing Class: ‘The Prostitute’ in Japanese Proletarian Literature,” in Gender and Labour in Japan and Korea: Sexing Class , ed. Ruth Barraclough and Elyssa Faison (London: Routledge, 2009).

                                              (21.) Hayama, “The Prostitute,” 59.

                                              (22.) Tomoko Nakamura, “Miyamoto Yuriko,” in Kindai Nihon shakai undōshi jinbutsu daijiten/Biographical Dictionary of the Social Movements in Modern Japan, ed. Kindai Nihon Shakai Undōshi Jinbutsu Daijiten Henshū Iinkai (Tokyo: Nichigai Associates, 1997), 4:507. Thanks to Norma Field for this reference.

                                              (23.) Susumu Odagiri, “Miyamoto Yuriko nenpu,” in Gendai Nihon bungaku taikei. Miyamoto Yuriko, Kobayashi Takiji shū (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 1969), 55:468–469.

                                              (24.) For examples of period leaflets, see “Japanese Posters and Handbills in the 1930s–Communication in Mass Society (1),” Poster Exhibition.

                                              (25.) Yuriko Miyamoto, “The Breast,” trans. Heather Bowen-Struyk, in For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution, 366. Translation based on first published version: Chūjō [Miyamoto] Yuriko, “Chibusa,” special issue, Chūō kōron 50.4 (April 1935): 65–103.

                                              (26.) Miyamoto, “The Breast,” 366.

                                              (27.) Miyamoto, “The Breast,” 386.

                                              (28.) Added to the postwar version: “In any case, there had no doubt been some contact between Usui and the Party organization.” Miyamoto Yuriko zenshū (Tokyo: Shin Nihon Shuppansha, 2001), 5:36.

                                              (29.) Miyamoto, “The Breast,” 386.

                                              (30.) Miyamoto, “The Breast,” 396–387.

                                              (31.) Miyamoto, “The Breast,” 388. “Class-conscious” was rendered “XX” in the 1935 publication. Miyamoto Yuriko zenshū, 5:37.

                                              (32.) Miyamoto, “The Breast,” 389.

                                              (33.) Kenji Miyamoto, “Kaisetsu,” in Miyamoto Yuriko zenshū (Tokyo: Kawade Shobō, 1951), 5:308.

                                              (34.) Korehito Kurahara, “The Path to Proletarian Realism,” trans. Brian Bergstrom, in For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution, 178.

                                              (35.) Takiji Kobayashi, “The Crab Cannery Ship,” in The Crab Cannery Ship and Other Novels of Struggle, trans. Željko Cipriš (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013), 33.

                                              (36.) Takiji Kobayashi, letter to Kurahara Korehito, March 31, 1929, in Teihon: Kobayashi Takiji zenshū (Tokyo: Shinnihon Shuppansha, 1969), 14:49.

                                              (37.) Norma Field, “Commercial Appetite and Human Need: The Accidental and Fated Revival of Kobayashi Takiji’s Cannery Ship,” The Asia-Pacific Journal 7.8 (February 22, 2009); Heather Bowen-Struyk, “Why a Boom in Proletarian Literature in Japan? The Kobayashi Takiji Memorial and The Factory Ship,” The Asia-Pacific Journal 7.26 (June 29, 2009).

                                              (38.) Norma Field, Kobayashi Takiji: 21seiki ni dō yomu ka (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2009).

                                              (39.) Takiji Kobayashi, “Comrade Taguchi’s Sorrow,” in For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution, 25.

                                              (40.) Takiji Kobayashi, “Yasuko,” in The Crab Cannery Ship and Other Novels of Struggle.

                                              (41.) Wataru Kaji, “Hell,” trans. Mika Endo, in For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution.

                                              (42.) Tong-gyu Yi, “The Bulletin Board and the Wall Story,” trans. Samuel Perry, in For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution.

                                              (43.) For more about wall stories and proletarian children’s literature, see Samuel Perry, Recasting Red Culture in Proletarian Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2014). For exemplars of both genres, see also For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution.

                                              (44.) See works in Denji Kuroshima, A Flock of Swirling Crows and Other Proletarian Writings, trans. Željko Cipriš (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005) and For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution.

                                              (45.) Yuriko Miyamoto, “Buds That Survive Winter (excerpt),” trans. Heather Bowen-Struyk, in For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution, 407.

                                              (46.) Miyamoto, “Buds That Survive Winter,” 407.

                                              (47.) Miyamoto, “Buds That Survive Winter,” 407.

                                              (48.) Heather Bowen-Struyk, ed., Proletarian Arts in East Asia: Quests for National, Gender, and Class Justice. Special issue, positions: east asia cultures critique 14.2 (Fall 2006).

                                              (49.) Kobayashi Takiji. The Crab Cannery Ship and Other Novels of Struggle, trans. Željko Cipriš (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013); Kuroshima Denji, “A Flock of Swirling Crows” and Other Proletarian Writings, trans. Željko Cipriš (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005).

                                              (50.) Theodore Hughes, Jae-yong Kim, Jin-kyung Lee, Sang-kyung Lee, eds., Rat Fire: Korean Stories from the Japanese Empire (Ithaca, NY: Cornell East Asia Program, 2013).

                                              (51.) Ruth Barraclough, Factory Girl Literature: Sexuality, Violence and Literature in Industrializing Korea (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012); and Ruth Barracloughand Elyssa Faison, eds., Gender and Labour in Korea and Japan: Sexing Class (London: Routledge, 2009).

                                              (52.) Samuel Perry, Recasting Red Culture in Proletarian Japan: Childhood, Korea and the Historical Avant-Garde (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2014); and Sata Ineko, Five Faces of Japanese Feminism, trans. Samuel Perry (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2016).

                                              (53.) Sunyoung Park, The Proletarian Wave: Literature and Leftist Culture in Colonial Korea, 1910–1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard East Asia Center, 2015).

                                              (54.) Ruth Barraclough, Heather Bowen-Struyk, and Paula Rabinowitz, eds., Red Love across the Pacific: Political and Sexual Revolutions of the Twentieth Century (New York: Palgrave, 2015).

                                              (55.) Heather Bowen-Struykand Norma Field, eds., For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution: An Anthology of Japanese Proletarian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).