Dehumanization By Food


Kobayashi Takiji’s proletarian literature piece, The Factory Ship, tells the narrative of a crew of workers on a factory ship. The exploited workers organize a mutiny against the superintendent, Asakawa, who treats them as mere tools to expand his capitalistic desires. The dehumanization or “thingification” of the workers on the factory ship is most obviously shown through Kobayashi’s descriptive use of figurative language when he compares the workers to food. There is a power struggle evident in this story as well, with capitalism being its driving force. Food acts as a salvation to the workers not only as sustenance but also as “motivation”. By reversing the dehumanization process and providing a sense of unity and community among the workers, food is used to give them an opportunity to overthrow the power struggle and to better their lives.

            From the beginning of this piece, Kobayashi compares the workers with the rotting food on the ship. Even their quarters are in close proximity to the storeroom, as if the author wanted to say that the workers themselves were being stored like pickles, their stenches being mingled. “The men, who lived in this cooler like so many salmon, shook with the cold. (14)” The steel of the ship was like a refrigerator storing the workers as if they were prisoners with no free will. “Like animals being led to the slaughter (57).” The workers suffer on the factory ship in desolate conditions, stored until their purpose is expired like the food on the ship.

            Asakawa, the main protagonist of the piece, enforces his dominance on the ship by dehumanizing the workers. “What makes you think you deserve a full stomach on days you don’t work? (14)” He treats the workers as objects that are only good for fueling his appetite for maximum profit. His capitalistic mindset forces the workers in rivalries and participation in reward systems, in order to prevent them from uniting. Asakawa’s intentions failed to stop the workers from uniting, though. “Dinner over, the men congregated around the stove before going to bed. (56)” The workers utilize their meal times to congregate and plan out their revolt. With the interaction with other workers, they begin to feel more human and less like objects.  

A false pretense is set up that the workers are “national resources (51)” for the good of Japan, a significant contrast from the treatment the workers receive. On that night, a celebration occurred featuring various foods including rice wine, cuttlefish, and more as well as films depicting propaganda. The workers were led to be believe that their work was saving the nation and the tasty food was a reminder of the rewards they would reap if they did their job properly. However, this was not enough to sway the workers from their plans of mutiny.

“It was as if a flashlight had suddenly been turned on a swarming mass of maggots, (65)” when a fisherman had spoken up against Asakawa and sparked the last step of the revolt. The swarming mass of maggots that represented the workers had finally acted instead of staying immobile, rotting on the ship. Ultimately, Kobayashi uses food in The Factory Ship in a number of ways: as a comparison to the workers, as sustainability and drive, and lastly as a unifier.


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