"We’re going to hell!," shouts a Japanese fisherman as he boards a factory ship bound for freezing waters off Russia.
The sailor and his comrades – a mix of sea-hardened veterans, university students and poor farm boys – are beaten and exploited by sadistic foremen and greedy bosses. When they form a union and strike, the army stomps aboard and brutally puts it down.
Such is the bare-bones plot of the proletarian classic The Crab Ship, a novel that earned its author Takiji Kobayashi the attentions of Japan’s infamous special police, who tortured him to death four years after it was published. But that was 1933, and to the astonishment of many, except perhaps Japan’s growing army of working poor, Kobayashi’s book is back in fashion, outselling most other titles on the shelves.
After years ticking along on annual sales of about 5,000, mainly to college professors and socialists, The Crab Ship exploded in popularity from January. Shinchosha, publisher of a pocket version of the book, has run off nearly 490,000 copies this year, a 100-fold increase, and says there is no end to the print run in sight. "It’s caught us by surprise," admits a company spokesman, Yuki Mine, who says over half of new readers are in their twenties and thirties. A comic version, published in 2006, has proved hugely popular with students.
The resurrection of a Marxist tome many had long consigned to the dustbin of Japan’s poverty-stricken past is seen as evidence of growing discontent in the world’s second-largest economy, which has shed many employee protections in a decade of profound restructuring. More than one-third of Japan’s workforce is part-time and millions more, especially the young, are learning how to live on shrinking wages and diminished expectations.
"Circumstances in the novel are different but the structure of society is the same," says Karin Amamiya, a writer and critic, who helped spark the book’s revival when she praised its prescience during a January interview in The Mainichi newspaper. "Readers nowadays see themselves in the book. Especially poor young people see their own lives described."
Publishers are not the only ones to have benefitted from the changing national mood. The tiny Japan Communist Party (JCP), which has for years languished near the bottom of the political league tables, is reportedly recruiting 1,000 new members a month, after the party leader Kazuo Shii harangued Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in February. "Day temp staff workers are being discarded like disposable articles," said Mr Shii in a TV clip endlessly circulated on the internet. The party sells 1.5 million copies of its daily Akahata (Red Flag) newspaper, though this is well down on its 3.5 million peak.
But the growth of the JCP is an anomaly. Union membership in Japan is at an all-time low and the country is still dominated by the pro-business Liberal Democrats, who have ruled almost continuously for half a century. Still, The Crab Ship phenomenon is a sign that many of Japan’s young are hungry for radical change.