Tag Archives: Factory Ship

Literary Analysis: Thingification with food

In the Factory Ship by Kobayashi Takiji, the ship hands, fishermen and all the workers are all dehumanized to work like machines and tools. They all struggle to survive with the terrible treatment and living conditions, and the torment and verbal/physical abuse mainly from Asakawa. The story uses a lot of sensory details and metaphors to describe how the condition is to help us understand or maybe even feel how the situation at each scene was, mainly with food.

            The way food was used most commonly was in scenes where they were describing particular smells and visuals. Oyster’s slimy and bouncy surface was used to describe an ill fisherman’s bleated eyes. A Crab’s bright red color was used to describe the men’s freezing hands and face. By using these types of similes to describe the men, the men are also somewhat reduced to objects for the use of the executives, emperor, and company for their own benefits and profits. Their labor, lives, energy, and hard work are drained by how they work nonstop, only to be consumed as a resource to be taken advantage of. Since they are described with food, they themselves are might as well be considered food eaten by the authorities.

            Not just by how they are use similes within the story, they are also described octopuses because of their conditions of how they would “eat their own limbs (if they could) in order to survive”. This describes Japan from the current period very well because of all the workers (including farmers, miners, etc…) and their struggles to get money, which are stripped from the higher-ups. A little different from how the ship workers are described, Asakawa also directly addresses everyone on the ship as pigs.

And though the factory ship was a ship to capture and fish a lot of crabs for profit, there was only little talk of crabs. The only times crabs were mentioned were when there were empty broken shells on the deck, when they were canned to be shipped, or the juices that splashed on the men everyday, causing their stench and body odor to get worse by the day. Which leads to the lice and the fleas. Instead of the crabs being the stock (for food), it is almost as if the men are treated as livestock for profit on a farm. The situation where they are only allowed to bathe twice a month and for them to live with fleas and lice also hints animal qualities at a farm.

By the hints and treatment like animals within the story, Takiji shows how the men are considered possessions for whom they work. Not human workers, but they are “thingified” to be livestock, and their resources to be consumed and eaten by their owners as food. Maybe even worse than livestock since they are not even fed properly, but to be used as machines that work without rest, and not cared for (or abused) when ill or injured.


The Factory Ship: “Thingnification” of Food

The Factory Ship, a pro proletarian novel is written by Japanese writer Kobayashi Takiji and published in 1929. The novel starts with the fishermen’ suffering from poor living condition and dehumanized treatment in the ship, and the suffering finally leads to a strike and rebellion that against the superintendent and furthermore, the current social status of Japan. Although the rebellion is collapsed and fallen apart easily in first time, Kobayashi intensively concludes the novel as the pursuing of righteousness, fairness and liberal is never going to stop.

The novel symbolically refers the Hokkaido workers as octopuses and the “thingnificantly” importance of crabs as great profits toward the rich. The two metaphors are both food materials but referring to “thingnificantly” different thing. By using octopuses as a metaphor to workers in Hokkaido, or basically refers to all grassroots workers in Japan at that time, it precisely analogizes their condition of living is alike octopuses “since, to keep itself alive, the octopus will eat its own tentacles, if it must.” (Pg. 39) This description in its implied meaning is saying that even the grassroots workers are already undertaking heavy and overloaded works, the return is never going to fulfill their disbursements. The result of this condition is straightforward, which the poor have to sacrifice their health even more to keep their living, but it’s no different to deathward ongoing. Kobayashi directly indicates this point in content which says “what difference was there basically between the workers and this sea creature”. (Pg. 39)

As the original title of this novel in Japanese also mentions crab, crab as a metaphor of profit to the rich is intuitively given to the readers. The indication is appeared in a conversation where the Shibaura man gives his idea to his fellow workers, he says “All right, then, let’s assume that a ship has been built on money put up by the rich… With this one ship they stand to make a clear net profit of between four and five hundred thousand yen… it doesn’t just grow out of nothing…The money to buy the ship and equipment and to hire the men was earned with the blood of other laborers and with ours!” (Pg. 71-72) This conversation is a direct and powerful criticism towards the rich and capitalism, and the unbalanced benefit relationship is the main pathogen in the society that Kobayashi is trying to reveal and against.

The rebellion is caused by poor food supply along with inhumane treatment. It’s a significant movement that ship crews stand up against oppression; however, the crews do not clearly understand situation by that time and where the “thingnification” of those crabs’ benefit truly goes into, therefore their first rebellion ends in failure. Most of workers think the omnipotent figure, protector of Japanese people, which the emperor should be on their side, but representative of the empire takes the other side and repressed their rebellion. At the end, the remaining crews repent and summarize the failure, and prepare for next rebellion instead of giving it up. Kobayashi affirmatively indicates a sense of hope and his resistance towards capitalism.

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.

Literary Analysis of “The Factory Ship”

A factory ship is a floating plant that processes crabs and assembles several small boats for hunting crabs. The Factory Ship was written by Kobayshi Takiji and published in 1929. It describes the plight of unemployed laborers, impoverished farmers, and poverty-stricken students who are hired by the factory ship and engaged in the burdensome crab-hunting job for a long period. The crew becomes reduced to objects when the conditions worsen and food is used to stress their transformation. Eventually, they can no longer bear the abuse from the superintendent, Asakawa, so they bind together and rebel against the leaders of the ship.

In the story, the principal way food is used to dramatize the horrible working conditions is through the crew’s complaints about the food and how their bodies are negatively impacted by of the lack of food. Even though food may not be the focus of the story, it is one of the driving factors of the fiction and the exploding fuse that triggers the conflict between the grumpy superintendent and laborers. Owing to the extremely unfair distribution of food, the tension between superintendent and laborers becomes worse and worse, and finally the strike breaks out.

At the beginning of fiction, the superintendent tries every way to take advantage of the laborers and pushes them to work harder and harder. When the confliction between the different classes intensifies, the commuter that is sent from the company brings them good food. “Rice wine, distilled liquor, dried cuttlefish, boiled vegetables, cigarettes, and caramels (p. 51)” After loading the crab cans, laborers are allowed to celebrate the harvest of crabs. However, from what I can see, the celebration to encourage laborers works on the opposite effect. Because the better food causes discontent compared with what laborers used to have to eat before. “ The fishermen had their usual meal of rice so crumbly that they couldn’t pick up a satisfying mouthful on their chopsticks and salty bean soup with thin shavings of something or other is floating on top of it (p. 55).” When laborers have no idea how the Bourgeoisie’s life is, definitely they will not realize that there is a huge contrast between their lives.  After tasting better food and noticing that the distribution of food looks ridiculous, laborers will disdain how they are treated before. Protest and indignation will be caused, and also, the emotion of revolting will expand quickly.

At the very last, the indignation reaches the peak and the strike goes on. Though the first try does not work out, the second one is already on the way. In term of the whole fiction, food is not the main focus but a significant part. It drives the story on and makes laborers realize how unfair the social distribution is. Perhaps Kobayashi tried to criticize society using this point, that what the proletarian pursues is fair.

Corporate Food

The Factory Ship depicts the plight of the Japanese proletariat, through the example of mistreated sailors, fishermen, crewmen, and factory boys on a crab cannery factory ship. The workingmen are constantly mistreated and overworked by their superiors, especially the superintendent and are treated no better than objects. This objectification or “thingification” of the crewmembers onboard the ship is represented by both the food that they consume and through the extended metaphor of the workers as food themselves.

Those on board the factory ship are divided distinctly into two groups: the lazy and mean managerial figures (like the superintendent) and the workers who are abused and overburdened. While the lazy upper class is given good food, the lower classes are basically starved: “Like prisoners, they were obsessed with food” (14). Even when they are given meals, the sailors still do not receive the same luxuries afforded to their superiors.  On one particular occasion, “the fishermen had their usual meal of rice so crumbly that they couldn’t pick up a satisfying mouthful on their chopsticks and salty bean soup with shavings of something or other floating on top of it”, while “the cooks took all kinds of foreign-style food to [the superiors]” (55). Therefore, in The Factory Ship, food serves as a representation of unfair social difference. The crew does not receive the meals that they have earned while the seemingly worthless officers dine on unmerited cuisine. Therefore the crew is not treated as human, but as things with one purpose: to work.

The proletariat crewmembers are also objectified as food throughout the text. They are stuffed into their quarters like rotting food in a storeroom. The storeroom where “several dozen pickle barrels were kept, and the pickles feces-like stench mingled with the other foul odors” is juxtaposed with their quarters, which were “dark and gloomy, and the fishermen were sprawled about like pigs in a pigsty. A foul nauseating smell pervaded the room” (4-5). The conditions in which the men live are almost identical to the conditions of the pickles: foul smelling and cramped. This exemplifies the comparison of the deteriorating men as rotting food. As conditions for the men worsen, the comparisons become darker. They work until “their hands [are] raw and red as crab claws” (11) and the superintendent continues to treat them inhumanely, as if they are merely food; for example, when checking the bunks: “Roughly, as if inspecting pumpkins, he twisted the heads of the sleeping factory hands towards him” (15). These metaphors imply that the men are not considered human beings by the officers and the corporation that employs them, but are only as useful as food is to a person. They serve their purpose and then are consumed or thrown away when no longer useful. The superintendent checks the bunks like one would check a storeroom for inventory, rudely and mechanically. The workers are not important as human beings to the company, but instead, they are fuel or food for the corporate entity. This sad truth is most explicitly exemplified in the idea that, “In Hokkaido, workers were referred to as ‘octopuses’ since, to keep itself alive, the octopus will eat its own tentacles, if it must” (39). Therefore, the text implies that workers must unify and revolt because otherwise they will be objectified as things only useful for providing fuel for the company, then discarded when rotten or sucked dry of all nutrition or worth, like some kind of corporate food.

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.

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.

The Factory Ship as best-seller in 2008 (!)

This is a photo of something you might not expect–multiple editions of The Factory Ship stacked in a bookstore in 2008. The novella became a best-seller again after it caught on among teen- and twenty-something “freeters” and the working poor–including salarymen.

Source: Japan Focus. Photo by Norma Field.