An Alliance Through Food

After setting sail on the Hakkō Maru, a crab-canning ship’s crew becomes determined to stand up to their harsh supervisor because they cannot tolerate their atrocious conditions any longer. A story of dehumanization unfolds in Kobayashi Takiji’s The Factory Ship as a crew of Japanese proletariat men slowly deteriorate into “objects” due to poor treatment and abuse.  Takiji skillfully uses food to emphasize how the crew members are becoming less like humans and more like objects to their superiors. Food becomes a driving force that eventually thrusts the men into a rebellion against unfair conditions and treatment.

As the ship journeys onward, the fishermen even become the food themselves at some points when the author uses metaphors to depict the environments. The men are juxtaposed with “maggots” in a “vast cesspool.” The significance of this comparison is that the crew members are reduced to beings less than humans and that maggots are usually associated with rotten food. This association might even imply that the vessel as a whole is the rotten meat and the people aboard are the scum and filth that inhabit it. We can even imagine the fisherman living in their own waste.

In addition, Takiji also draws another comparison with the workers’ hands being “raw and red as crab claws” (11). This metaphor gives us a closer understanding of the mens’ transformation from humans into “things.” The raw and red that is used to describe the fishermans’ hands hints at the painful and grueling work the men deal with. The crab claws also tie in to their job of canning shellfish on the ship; therefore, the comparison probably also suggests the way the workers were seen by their supervisors: nothing more than objects for self-profit.

Likewise, another metaphor emphasizing how the supervisor’s poor treatment causes the crew to lose human qualities is the men having “no more feeling in them than giant turnips” (13). The men become so overworked that they reduced to unfeeling lumps of flesh with dangling arms and legs. It’s easy to imagine the men as turnips and their limbs as the shriveled roots of the turnips. The fishermen are more and more like emotionless objects as they stay onboard the factory ship. Several of these associations with food often cause a numbing of the human characteristics in the ship’s crew.

Although food is not necessarily the central theme in the story, it is an extremely powerful influence in the eventual rebellion of the crew against their leaders. In fact, because the men are “obsessed with food,” the lack of any decent food inevitably leads to conflict. The author uses food as metaphor for the crew to stress the impact that food actually has on them. The quality of the food they are given reflects how human they are. Thus, objectification of the proletarians is connected to the food they eat. Because of contrast in living quality, the foundation for revolt is set. Even though the crew is “made up of such a motley, diverse bunch” (9), they are able to unite because of food.

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