Contextualized by introductory essays, forty expertly translated stories touch on topics like perilous factories, predatory bosses, ethnic discrimination, and the myriad indignities of poverty. Together, they show how even intensely personal issues form a pattern of oppression. Fostering labor consciousness as part of an international leftist arts movement, these writers, lovers of literature, were also challenging the institution of modern literature itself. This anthology demonstrates the vitality of the “red decade” long buried in modern Japanese literary history.
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For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution
An Anthology of Japanese Proletarian Literature
By Heather Bowen-Struyk, Norma Field
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
The Personal Is the Political
When is your personal problem not just your personal problem? In 1969 American feminist Carol Hanisch (1942–) insisted that the problems women were experiencing as largely personal problems, including gender inequality in the home and workplace, could be mapped neatly onto social structures of power with this simple question: "Who benefits from this problem?" In her essay "The Personal Is the Political," she was responding to criticism that the emphasis of US second-wave feminism on raising consciousness was more concerned with the psychological (i.e., bourgeois therapy) and less concerned with the political (i.e., collective action). Responding that women are "messed over, not messed up!" Hanisch insisted that raising collective consciousness was not about individuals curing themselves but rather collectively realizing what objective conditions needed to be changed to combat their oppression.
The stories throughout this anthology ask us to think about how personal tragedies happen because capitalism not only does not care to prevent them but benefits in various, often invisible ways, such as assuring a docile labor supply by inducing psychic and material precariousness. Injuries received on the job, sexual harassment, ethnic discrimination, miscarriages, malnourished children, and many other indignities of poverty show us how even problems experienced as deeply personal — such as a child's loss of her father in "Hell"  — form a pattern of oppression that becomes apparent when we ask, "Who benefits from this problem?" The phrase "the personal is the political" seems to come straight from the proletarian movement, as the men and women of the movement addressed the problems of class, colonial, and gender inequality through deeply personal narratives of injustice. That the title in fact comes from US second-wave feminism and, moreover, that the slogan continues to resonate is useful because it reminds readers that collective action against oppression, like the kind seen in the proletarian movement, continues to be relevant.
In a dispute over literary method in chapter 3, Sata Ineko (; see also [8, 21]) shares the problems in her life — her husband has been arrested, her father has become unhinged, and her brother has become a "bum" — and states that "we can see in all of these [instances] a reflection of current social conditions." The task of proletarian literature according to Sata? "We proletarian writers, even when dealing with something that happened in a single household or to one individual, don't just scratch the surface of an event as if it had occurred in isolation. Rather, we take it upon ourselves to discern the social necessity of its occurrence and then give it concrete expression." How does Sata understand the "social necessity" of her hardships? Her 1932 essay is a rebuttal of criticism offered by rival proletarian writer Hirabayashi Taiko  that proletarian works had become too "formulaic"; Sata rejects what she sees as a naïve understanding of proletarian realism as a "method of depicting reality 'just as it is,'" and instead argues for "a method for taking a given phenomenon as it is and penetrating its essence in order to reveal the necessity of its occurrence. There can be no such thing as presenting reality simply 'as it is.' That is an empty expression, referring to what bourgeois realism imagines it has achieved in merely scratching the surface of reality."
The three short stories in this section invite us to "penetrate the essence." "Comrade Taguchi's Sorrow" (; see also [5, 11, 22, 29, 30]), by the movement's best-known author, Kobayashi Takiji, is a memory of a day spent with a beloved sister told by a now-grown man to a comrade. Like "Tetsu's Story"  by Nakano Shigeharu, a harrowing boyhood account of a calligraphy demonstration before the crown prince, the framework of recollection in Taguchi's tale makes available the events of the past as part of a system of oppression. Unlike "Tetsu's Story," however, "Comrade Taguchi's Sorrow" stops short of revealing how this memory and the fate of his sister might have affected his decision to become "Comrade" Taguchi, leaving readers to make sense of it themselves. In Wakasugi Toriko's short story "The Mother" , by contrast, the eponymous protagonist suffers first the loss of her son to illness and then her daughter to the socialist movement, but the latter helps her to see that her personal tragedies are part of a greater pattern. Like Maksim Gorky's (1868–1936) Mother, translated into Japanese in 1929, the loss of a conventional family enables this protagonist to pursue a new, more socially just formation of a family; but in contrast to Gorky's work, Wakasugi's mother is led toward socialism by a daughter rather than a son.
The hardships endured by the female protagonist of Nakamoto Takako's "Red" (; see also ) are depicted with a power combining the insights and techniques of both proletarian and New Sensationist writing and invites comparison with Hayama Yoshiki's "The Prostitute"  and Kataoka Teppei's "The Linesmen" . Unlike those other stories, however, "Red" articulates what it's like to inhabit a proletarian woman's body — in this case, a perennially pregnant body, abused by a drunken spouse and then left to care for too many children without a living wage. These characters and narrators — male and female, young and old, rural and urban — experience hardships that might, individually, be regarded as bad luck, but together suggest a systematic oppression that begs us, following Sata, to penetrate their "essence in order to reveal the necessity of [their] occurrence."
The essays in this chapter are by two male leaders in the movement. The youthful experience of poverty led Aono Suekichi [4, 9]to embrace nihilism and Kobayashi Takiji to yearn for riches until they encountered, as Aono puts it, "the study of society's economic system and socialist theory." HBS
(1) Comrade Taguchi's Sorrow
Translated from Weekly Asahi (April 1930)
Virtually no women appear in "The Crab Cannery Ship" (1929), the work that catapulted Kobayashi Takiji (1903–1933; see "A Chronology of My Life") to fame. The posthumously published "Life of a Party Member" (1933) made Takiji notorious because its instrumental treatment of a female character was thought to represent his own as well as Communist Party attitudes toward women. It may therefore come as a surprise that the challenges facing poor and working girls and women were a staple of Takiji's fiction. His works (see  and ) bring us wives and mothers anxious about the cost of their menfolk's political commitments, wives embracing those sacrifices, spunky factory girls taking on organizing responsibilities and brushing up against the challenges of comradely romance, still other young women whose political awakening is nipped in the bud by their obligation as caregivers, and, like the actual love of his life, women forced to sell their bodies.
The torment of "Comrade Taguchi's" sister is of a different sort. Like Takiji himself and his older sister, she receives from a benefactor the chance to make a class leap. The uncomprehending boyhood eyes of Comrade Taguchi accentuate the anxieties of class "passing" for a young woman endowed with beauty and intellect. NF
(Everybody's had the experience of whistling without knowing it. You don't know the name of the tune. — And then, as you go along, you say, that's it, it's that song. When this happens, it's always the case that the song is carrying a forgotten piece of the past that's mysteriously stuck in a corner of your mind. That's according to Taguchi. There're times when the song and the memory are related — but it can also happen that a certain song mysteriously brings out a scene that has no connection to it whatsoever.
If only till the spring snow melts ...
Taguchi says that whenever he hears this song or finds himself whistling it, he remembers how he used to walk along the tracks on the cape in the early spring cold after the sun had set, leaning his sleepy body against his sister's. Come to think of it, it was probably this song he was singing as he laid out his bedding.
I must've been about ten years old — Taguchi began, pulling the ashtray close to his pillow as he lay on his belly.)
My big sister was going to a girls' higher school. There was no way our family could've sent her, but there was a certain person who put up a little money for this. Even so, no question, life was tough. When fall came and the grain harvest was supposed to be shipped off, my sister would no sooner get home from school than she would be off to the "hand-sorting factory" for export green peas. In other words, she was joining the night shift.
These factories were usually on the second floor of seaport warehouses. Wives who lived from hand to mouth brought their kids along when they came to work as day laborers. — If you worked the whole day without stopping to piss, you'd make seventy, eighty sen. But only the pros could make that much. Fifty or sixty was more like it. — If you worked until eight or nine at night, then you'd get up to one yen. And then, on their way home from the night shift, some of the women would have to sell themselves in the warehouse corners, surrounded by those swirling piles of grains.
My sister would work from four or so until nine o'clock and earn forty, fifty sen. There were no girls like her working in that kind of place. But she never acted like she resented it. She said it wasn't like she was one of those people who could afford to just go to school.
There was a "volcanic ash company" near the house. If you took a bucket and went behind the factory, you could pick coke from the slagheap. — In winter this was a substitute for charcoal. You stick it in a bucket and punch holes all over the sides and you've got yourself a stove. It burns with a purple flame. Needless to say, we didn't have a chimney so the whole house got smoky. Father went around with the rims of his eyes all red. Still, it was better than putting up with the cold. — You have to be there before anybody else has picked through it, said my sister, who'd get up earlier than the rest of us and set out. When she got home, her head would be all white from the cinder dust. — I've been coke picking, too, led by her hand.
That year, the seas of Otaru were bustling with the first big catch of herring in five years. — In Hokkaido, people and money pour in or flee depending on whether it's a good or bad year for herring. With a rope basket on her back, even a woman could earn two or three yen a day unloading the herring. If you knew how to dress it, you could make even more. There were never enough hands. After all, thousands, no tens of thousands of bushels of herring had to be unloaded and disposed of in the space of two or three days.
— But my sister wouldn't say she'd go.
"You go one day, and you get a whopping two yen! Think of what a help that'd be." Mother kept repeating herself.
"But ... I just don't wanna do it! ... See ..." This wasn't like my sister at all.
"If you just go on Sunday, you'll make as much as you do in a whole month...."
"It's because it's Sunday...." My sister didn't seem to want to spell it out.
"Because it's Sunday?"
"..." — Sister was watching Mother silently. — "You know how the people from town come sightseeing ... and ..." And here she stumbled over her words. "And ... well, my friends, you know, my friends from school ...!"
Mother started and looked into her face.
It probably shouldn't have been a surprise that she hated the thought of being out there with a basket on her back. — My sister, in spite of everything, did have a bit of vanity. I don't know if you can call it vanity in the usual sense. She just never brought home friends from school because our house was on the "wrong side of the tracks" and it was dirty. — It was the kind of house that rattled with the slightest bit of wind. So it was propped up with "stakes" in the back. The ceiling had no panels, so you could see the bare rafters, and the rain poured right in. The area was swampy, and the house was set on low foundations to begin with. When it rained, the tatami mats felt sticky to your feet. And underneath, you could hear the plop, plop of the water. The pieces of mud and straw glued into the wall had turned a dull brown from the rain and snow, and it would crumble wherever you touched it.
In springtime, city folk would come strolling through this forsaken part of town by the sea. If she spotted any of her school friends among them, my sister would hide in the house and refuse to go out. — That's the way she was.
If there was a big catch, come Sunday, you could be sure that students and office- worker types from Otaru would come around for the "herring spectacle." — You'd be in your navy-and-white quilted jacket, gaiters on your legs and cowl over your head, a basket on your back. They'd see you like that. This was something she couldn't bear to think of.
But in the end, it was decided that she'd go. — Sister stood biting her thin lip. I followed along after her that day.
Jutting out to the shoreline, old Mt. Baldy separated Kumausu Village from Otaru.
If you round the bumpy path under the cliff that looks like it's about to cave in, then you come out to where you can see the whole fishing village in the gently curving bay. Scattered houses follow the mountain wall pressing against their backs all the way to the other side of the cape. Two tracks run through that narrow space between the sea and the mountain. The villagers use the railway as their road. So the trains blow their whistles the whole time as they pass right under the eaves. — No sooner than you think you've seen a puff of white smoke at the turn of the cape on the other side then it's passing in front of the mountain, slipping in between the houses, coming at you in a rush. When it's midway through the village, you suddenly hear the rumbling....
Most of the time, it was just a remote fishing village. — But when the herring swarmed, the entire stretch of sea became a cloudy white. Seagulls skirted the surface of the water in rings, crying like babies. The bay thronged with the boats around the "set nets" and the little boats with the "gill nets." On the beach were planted lots of long red streamers and white streamers. They were banners celebrating a big catch.
Not only was it a Sunday, but you could tell early on that it was going to be a fine day, so people crowded in not just from Otaru but even from Sapporo. Every train that stopped at the Otaru Harbor Construction Station or Asari Station was packed. City people of the kind you don't see around here formed a line from the stations to the beach. — It also happened to be the first day when, after six months of imprisonment in Hokkaido's long winter, you could step into a flood of bright outdoor light.
My sister, with a basket on her back, shrouded her face with a hand towel so that no one would recognize her. I was playing nearby. — The other women working with her could only stare in the direction of the pretty women coming from town. They chattered about their kimonos and their hairstyles. But my sister would not look their way.
Two boards led to and from the sampans. You crossed one to unload your basket of herring, and then the other to go back, making a loop as you repeated the trek. Every time the herring were scooped up, their fresh scales gleamed silver.
A fine-looking couple stood watching the spectacle together with their little boy, dressed in naval uniform with binoculars slung over his shoulder. — As for me, my eyes were glued to his Western clothing. I'd never seen anything like it. Not to mention the binoculars — you didn't see that kind of thing often. And, without knowing it, I began to draw near him. — The boy saw me approaching. When our eyes met, he suddenly frowned. And then he must have tugged at his mother's hand. She had been watching the basket carriers, but then, as if to say "Hm?" — she turned her gaze toward me. Feeling as if I'd done something bad, I began to back off.
"You get back here!"
I got a sudden poke in the back. My sister was standing there, frowning. — Obediently, I sat down on the sand near her equipment. I felt lonely but didn't know why.
Excerpted from For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution by Heather Bowen-Struyk, Norma Field. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
Chapter 1. The Personal Is the Political
1 Comrade Taguchi’s Sorrow
3 The Mother
4 A Statement of My Views in Response to Mr. Masamune Hakucho
5 A Chronology of My Life
Chapter 2. Labor and Literature
6 The Prostitute
9 Natural Growth and Purposeful Consciousness
10 Going on a Field Trip?
Chapter 3. The Question of Realism
11 March 15, 1928
12 The Linesmen
13 The Path to Proletarian Realism
14 On the Tendency of Proletarian Works to Become Formulaic
15 Covering Over the Essence
Chapter 4. Children
17 Death of a Cricket
18 Elephant and Mouse
19 Tetsu’s Story; Or, a Rope around Whose Neck?
20 The Question of “Reality” and “Unreality” in Children’s Stories
Chapter 5. Art as a Weapon
24 The Bulletin Board and the Wall Story
25 A Farmer among Farmers
26 To Qiqihar
27 A Day at the Factory
28 Our Own Literature Course (1): A Guide to Writing Literary Reportage
29 On Wall Stories and “Short” Short Stories: A New Approach to Proletarian Literature
30 A Guide to Fiction Writing: How to Write Stories
31 The Achievements of the Creative Writing Movement: An Assessment of Works to Date
Chapter 6. Anti-Imperialism and Internationalism
32 Another Battlefront
33 Hell of the Starving
34 On Antiwar Literature
Chapter 7. Repression, Recantation, and Socialist Realism
35 Midnight Sun
36 The Breast
37 Negative Realism: One Direction for Proletarian Literature
38 Proletarian Realism and “Socialist Realism”: A Study of Literary Method (1)
39 Socialist Realism or XXX Realism?
40 Buds That Survive Winter