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Culture and Education

The "Kanikosen" Boom
Reflecting Present Day Suffocation

Hirokazu Toeda,
Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

The word "kanikosen" (crab-fishing and canning boat) has recently been making the headlines in the Japanese media. First published by Takiji Kobayashi in 1929, "Kanikosen" is a representative work of proletarian literature. The novel depicts the harsh life of workers who worked on a crab-fishing and canning boat in the northern seas of Japan. These men were forced to undergo inhumane labor under harsh supervision, often violently treated by their boss. The novel depicts how the workers united and revolted against these continuous and unreasonable acts of power. The novel's title, "Kanikosen", has frequently appeared over the last several months in newspapers, magazines, TV, and on the Internet,

The so-called "kanikosen" boom was started by an article in the January 9 edition of the Mainichi Newspaper about a talk between writers Genichiro Takahashi and Karin Amamiya. Their discussion focused on the significance of "kanikosen" in modern Japan. Inspired by this dialogue, the "kanikosen" boom was responsible for significantly increasing sales and reprints of the novel. This boom has apparently continued for the past several months. The word "kanikosen" may become a "keyword" in symbolizing the current social state of the Heisei period. As the "kanikosen" boom appears to have been widely felt throughout Japanese society, what particular aspects of today's Japan is the boom reflecting?

One particular newspaper advertisement reminds us of this question. Published in the Yomiuri Newspaper on May 29, 2008, the four-column ad featured the essay, "Kanikosen and the Partisans" (Shincho paperback). This ad was published after more "kanikosen" articles started appearing in other media. The distinct characteristics of the "kanikosen" boom are apparent in the ad's catch phrase: ".a masterpiece depicting the harsh labor environment born again in the "gap-widening society" of the Heisei period!" Three major newspapers also followed suit with "Kanikosen - Sad reminder, lamenting disparity, young people's empathy" (May 2, Yomiuri Evening Paper) and "Kanikosen - Catching young people's attention, sympathy to harsh labor" (May 13, Asahi Newspaper) and finally, "Kanikosen, proletarian masterpiece - unusual best seller" (May 14, Mainichi Evening Paper).

The ads and newspaper headlines help us understand the reasons for the boom - who was empathizing with "kanikosen" and why the novel has been selling well. It becomes easier to recognize the current harsh working environment in the disparity society. This "disparity" has been intensified, in a sense, by the progression of globalism, thus making it easer to understand the young people who are identifying with the novel.

We cannot yet interpret the "kanikosen" boom as a resurrection of the historical novel because there is no evidence that the novel has reached a large enough audience. The boom may have been stimulated by "Masterpiece Manga" which advocates a "Masterpiece Revival" and it may also have been supported and enhanced by a series of media reports on "kanikosen". More probably we can say this is a "contemporary trend".

Even though the media has played a significant role, it is true that a novel written 80 years ago has been revived and caught the attention of many. This phenomenon is also apparent from an essay contest, in which young people's essays on books they had read were compiled. One of the essays on "kanikosen" was titled "How we read "kanikosen" (February issue)". Many of the essays discussed a commonality between "kanikosen" and modern society; readers identified themselves with the characters in the novel and empathized with them. These essays demonstrated the seriousness of the young people who read novels or manga.

It becomes easier to understand the "suffocation feeling" of today's young people in Japan. "Kanikosen" has now moved beyond its title and is becoming a symbol that reflects the uncertainty about the future and the "suffocating" current culture. It is functioning as a "negative symbol" representing the pessimism and uncertainties so often reported in the popular media.

"Kanikosen" is discussed and analyzed every time a critical social issues occurs - the disparity society, severe labor conditions, consumer product falsification, random killings. This is a unique characteristic of the "kanikosen" boom and it now is symbolizing or mirroring all those negative aspects of current day Japan.

Hirokazu Toeda

Born in Tokyo, 1964.
Professor, Waseda University. Assistant professor at Otsuma Women's University and associate professor at Waseda University.
Specialist in Modern Japanese Literature (Research on Modernism Literature by New sensationist, Publication Culture Theory, Image Culture Theory, etc.)
Recent publications:
"Collection - Modern Metropolitan Culture 19: Movie Theaters" (2006), "Letters of Literatus 4 - Literatus in Showa Era" (Jointly-edited, 2007), etc.