As we embark upon our literary voyage in the 1929 manifesto “The Factory Ship”, by proletariat author Takiji Kobayashi, we learn of the unscrupulous working conditions aboard a crab cannery ship named the Hakkō Maru. In this story, Kobayashi takes creative license in his portrayal of Shōwa era Japan’s totalitarian, ultra-nationalistic and fascist government through the select use of anthropomorphism and character reification. Ultimately, Kobayashi orchestrates a gripping tale exposing the unrelenting suffocation of Japanese working class citizens by an oppressive government solely focused on rapid industrial development at the expense of human life.
Kobayashi’s foreshadowing of the totalitarian nature of the Hakkō Maru’s leadership is evident with his choice for the opening passage “We’re on our way to hell, mates!”(Kobayashi 3), and becomes increasingly more obvious as he depicts the marginalization of the crew through a strategic sequence of character reification. As we venture below deck to the crew’s berthing, we find the labor workers are treated as commodity resources “…the fishermen were sprawled about like pigs in a pigsty” (Kobayashi 5), and have lost any resemblance as human beings. Kobayashi reinforces this idea again later with another passage describing the same berthing space “The hold itself was like a vast cesspool and the men in the bunks resembled maggots” (Kobayashi 10). Kobayashi’s repeated visceral depiction of this space makes his audience keenly aware that the Hakkō Maru’s leadership makes no distinction between the labor worker’s and its consumable stock. Essentially, each labor worker is inventoried without clear distinction. This idea is reinforced during the scene when the factory superintendent inventories the crew like stock while they sleep “as if inspecting pumpkins, he twisted the heads of the sleeping factory workers” (Kobayashi 15). Even as the crewmen suffer through their daily work, Kobayashi provides the appearance of an animalistic transformation, “their hands, raw and red as crab claws” (Kobayashi 11), further blurring the division between cargo and devaluing the labor worker’s overall worth. Through this recurrent primitive reification of the crew, Kobayashi makes a clear dissimilarity between the socio-economic hierarchies afflicting Shōwa era society. Furthermore, he highlights the countries deplorable working conditions and the government’s complete disregard for human life as the central conflict within his story.
In contrast, Kobayashi’s anthropomorphic portrayal of inanimate objects, used by both the crewmen and factory superintendent, underpins his view on fascism. The ship itself is commonly referred to as a “stallion” (Kobayashi 13), “ox” (Kobayashi 3), and “giant” (Kobayashi 11) in numerous passages reinforcing Kobayashi’s elucidation of imperialistic economics as a vicious beast. Comparatively in other scenes, the ships ropes become “snakes” (Kobayashi 25) while weapons of death become “toys” (Kobayashi 15). Kobayashi uses these metaphorical inferences to describe the constrictive nature of Japanese capitalism, its obligatory adoration of state, blind devoutness to the emperor, and over emphasis on ultra-nationalism. Moreover, it underlines the government’s blasé practice of corporal punishment to abate those who dare retaliate.
Every aspect of “The Factory Ship” is representative or symbolic, of Kobayashi’s larger abstract concept of an oppressive Shōwa era Japanese government. Subsequently, through his literary use of anthropomorphism and character reification, he is able to convey a more graphic portrayal of the working class citizen’s plight. Kobayashi tugs at the reader’s emotions and attempts to ignite the same revolutionary spark witnessed within the text of his story. In the end, Kobayashi is calling for immediate action and pleading for the working class to “unite as one solid body” (Kobayashi 75) and fight the injustices against humanity by a foreboding imperialistic government.