Food Things: People as Food

The whole notion of people as “things” is paradoxical at a most basic level, yet in the struggle between the proletarian and bourgeoisie classes, it is a common form of classification. Kobayashi Takiji’s The Factory Ship illustrates how people can be treated as lifeless, inanimate and (as is often the case with Kobayashi) grotesque “things”. His story describes the unrelenting life of laborers turned sailors on-board the Hakko Maru, a Japanese factory ship of the coast of Kamchatka. Kobayashi uses food related metaphors and images to intensify the thingification of people, thus helping him convey the inequality of Japanese society at the time.

Kobayashi often uses repulsive metaphors when referring to the laborers. A commonly used and vivid metaphor is seen when mentioning the factory hands. These young men who are living under absurd conditions were described by the narrator as “rotting, fly covered corpses infested with maggots” (43). Such a metaphor links the image of food; in particular, rotting meat. This image is very accurate; for like rotting meat, the laborers are not totally worthless, but they will end up rotten anyway. Yet this is of very little importance to the capitalists who are profiting of the dying laborers. The bourgeoisie “don’t think of any of you as human beings” (24), one laborer complains, and this is the essential dilemma they face. Laborers, in the opinion of capitalists, are expendable pieces of rotting meat, which will inevitably be replaced as they rot into oblivion.

Kobayashi also uses food to help dramatize the violent environment laborers faced on a day-to-day basis on-board the factory ship. The laborer’s hands are described as “raw and red as crab claws” (11). This image portrays the workers struggle and hardship, as the comparison to crab claws reveals a sense of suffering that can be perceived in the laborer’s hands. In addition, the use of words such as “raw” and “red” alludes to the blood laborer’s lose as they are forced to work. Kobayashi does not stop there, and describes the flesh being “torn from the workers’ bodies like filets of fish” (40). This image is a sort of continuation of the previous one, but the toll the factory ship has taken is now evident in the workers’ bodies. Nonetheless, this struggle was justified because it was for the “sake of the nation” (40), but no one believed that in the end, especially those who stood at the very top.

Kobayashi used food to help dramatize the thingification of the laborers on board the Hakko Maru. The images he chose to use were those of despair, lifelessness and deterioration. These images help reader’s understand how laborers were seen by the capitalists in charge. Consequently, the underlying propaganda used to motivate the worker’s reveals itself. The laborers were told to work for the empire and its people, only to find out this was a facade the bourgeoisie employed for personal gain. In conclusion, it was the proletarian realization of unity that would overcome abuse, thus making laborers more than just things.

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