Kanikosen's Arrival



Preface to the newly released manga by Takiji Kobayashi

The manga version of a book that cost the life of its author has reached Brazilian readers. Young Takiji Kobayashi was arrested by the Japanese police and, only with the mobilization of his companions, his body, with signs of torture, was handed over to his family; the cause of death was claimed to have been a heart attack, but the request for an autopsy was denied. The first page of this manga published by Veneta reproduces the touching scene of Takiji's body between his, he who had been tortured and murdered by the Japanese Imperial State in 1933.

Kanikosen, Or "the crab factory ship”, had its publication censored several times, but even so, it became the most important work of Japanese proletarian literature, and is brought, in this comic version, to the Brazilian public by Veneta.


Death, culture and trait

Young Takiji in Asagaya Ward, Tokyo, in 1931.

The translation of one of the Japanese words for death sounds to Westerners like “it ran out”, an absence whose existence vanished, which leads us to the idea that the use of its content was intense; perhaps Buddhism and Confucianism came together in Japan so that the contemplation of the substance – life – and rectitude in the gesture of living – are one and the same thing, even in the life of a communist, as the author was.

On the first pages, the faces of those guarding Takiji dead seems to express that solemn tenderness, even proud, of someone who feeds on the testimony of a full life.

I think that, in that country, prayer for the dead does not have the meaning of prayer, or of request, but of a luxurious tribute, which is why the disrespectful funeral of a poor fisherman in the middle of the sea described in Kanikosen perhaps it holds a symbolism that does not reach western man with the hopelessness that foreshadows the fury of his peers. But the reader will be guided in every detail by the intelligence and objectivity of Gō Fujio's art, which in this work uses his adapted trait in a very special way, because proletarian literature does not point to central heroes: there will be no names, an Olympic head that rises of the crowd carrying out justice with courage and delicacy, sweeping hearts and minds; here, it is the mass of the oppressed who will become the subject of history, who rise and fall, and transform the world exactly as the world is: empty of superheroes.

Manga is an ongoing act of Japanese theater and even music. There will be comic expressions and gestural discipline, especially when the contrast is celebrated sometimes by demon masks, sometimes by guttural mantras – as in Shinto chants -; and, in opposition, there are great silences, mime and other empty spaces prepared for the clean and dramatic gesture of the horsehair brush of calligraphy, and of the sword. Maybe that's why, in Kanikosen, it is possible to observe the beautiful port scenery and the rough sea in silent and dramatic scenes, which prepare the breath for transitions that are triggered in crisscrossed dialogues with characters from the lower classes, from the dispossessed of that Japan, as a single mass, because this is the theme of the work: a hitherto secret history of crowds.


Proletarian literature with the voice of the oppressed

What would be the most dangerous content in the book that gave rise to this manga and that would have provoked such a reaction from the imperial authority? The circumstance of this book has an important meaning in Japan's encounter with its people, because every chosen word dripped with real violence against men, women and children in a country that was rushing to overcome the Middle Ages and move towards industrial modernity. Unlike the West, where classes measured forces outlining their civilization, in Japan power alternated within the same secular aristocracy.

Above, companions around the body of Takiji Kobayashi.
Below, the same scene, recreated in 
Kanikosen: The Ship of Men.

 two neighborhoods

Bringing oriental perception to Brazil is an impressive task due to the cultural contrast, but also due to the reciprocal fascination. If the West were a place, a neighborhood, this neighborhood here would have at its center a secular Church, to which all prayers would be addressed, in the presence of a one God, sometimes merciful, other times implacable – but who can, even be ignored, because the State is not the Church. However, in the neighborhood there, in the Far East, what exists at the center is the infallible emperor, and it is inexplicable for Western man to describe a Shintoism of many gods and demons that is intertwined with a godless Buddhism, guided by strict codes conduct of Confucianism.

It is necessary to consider that the understanding of this cultural distinction involves not one, but two worlds, with their traditions and histories; and these worlds collided in July 1853, when an American squadron of large steamships called into Edo Bay, imposing an agreement of friendship and commerce. Japan was then forced, after two and a half centuries of isolation, to leave the Middle Ages and reach the Industrial Revolution in forty years, without having gone through a revolution of a popular nature, like the French one, which brought down secular structures , myths, castes, gods and other shadows focused on the construction of difference and gave rise to the Republic, which places the citizen at the center. In Japan, elites conducted reforms repressing popular revolts, expansionist wars and harassment from foreign powers since the beginning of the Meiji Reform in 1868, moving within the class that held power from the Tokugawa clan to the Emperor. In fact, democratic and universal suffrage and freedom of expression only reached the people after the defeat in World War II, in 1945.

excerpt from Kanikosen: the ship of men.

Takiji was aware of his time, and was ambushed for it. At that point, many intellectuals of his time were poring over the possibility that the transition from the medieval economy would still be overcome by a bourgeois revolution. The expulsion of peasants from their land was a fact, as was territorial expansion, and so on, like every mechanism of accumulation in the marching rise of Japanese capitalism. For the author, the record of an era should be done by proletarian literature, which has its greatness in simplicity. Although the simple (and sometimes vulgar) language is present, the depth of the human issues involved lays bare the crudest images and explores the bad thoughts of those who, when they arise, are so bad that they are shaken away from the head.

The level of detail is the result of the intense observation of the author's reality, who witnessed the strength of Capital which, in turn, opened space wildly in those years of enormous expansion of the Japanese corporations that dominated the State, in addition to detailing the operation of fishing, which makes us wonder if the author was not trying to reflect on the historical vocation and protagonism of that elite. In the case of Kanikosen, an apparently unpretentious script spills over sophisticated theories, such as that extending the working day to the physical limit of the workers required by the superintendent captures an extra gain in work in the transformation of capital. Even the figure of the fierce overseer Asakawa himself is the personification of factory despotism described in Capital – a work precociously translated into Japanese, by the way.


giant crabs

The activity of fishing for giant crabs in cold seas is famous today for the high risk of death offered to the crew. At the time, in an even more dangerous way, old spoils from the war against Russia were thrown into the sea (such as the Kasato Maru itself), adapted as a factory to can the product; they were true aberrations.

excerpt from Kanikosen: The Ship of Men

In the wide (albeit lean) hierarchy of these gigantic factory ships, there is a small elite that represents their owners, passing through the bland figure of the Captain and his body of officers; but there are also the captains of the fishing boats who lead dangerous forays into the icy sea of ​​northern Japan. These men transit between two worlds: they live with “those from below”, in the workers' and sailors' dormitory, called “latrine”, because it is fetid, cold and full of lice and fleas; but, on the other hand, these ship leaders are ideologically controlled by those “from above”, and these, to compensate for the boredom of months of work at sea, get drunk in banquets that are as inappropriate as they are real, because surprisingly they are still practiced and accepted in today's corporate world. Perhaps despotism has a primitive impulse that still appears today by virtue of its nature, such as ostentation or sexual harassment, which are recurrent practices (but the reader is mistaken if he assumes that physical punishments belong to the past; they do belong , to a past that has not been defeated, and is present in Brazilian reality). Finally, the superintendent is entrusted with the role of factory despot, a figure molded to extract the most from the conditions presented to him by his bosses – his authority comes from strength and, above all, from a narrative absorbed by subordinates.

The factory ship is the negation of its two identities: on the one hand, it is a canning factory, to escape its nautical legislation; on the other, it is a ship, to dodge limited union legislation. To deepen this scenario, the factory ship crosses Japan's territorial limits to fish in Soviet waters, and, symbolically, the administrator replaces the iron rod with the pistol. The entire ship, from that moment, breaks the limits of its own laws, invading borders under the guard of a Japanese destroyer, and theft and murder finally reveal themselves as a natural resource of the enterprise. Here, then, is testimony to the mechanism of Japanese capitalist accumulation that cost Takiji Kobayashi his life.


the round earth

The experience of reading a manga is a difficult journey between two worlds: the oriental man's reading gesture makes his head and eyes sway as if saying “yes”; Western man, on the contrary, simulates a “no”, following the direction of writing in each language. The dynamics of the original reading form determines the layout of the graphic elements in such a way that the effort of the translation resources alone may be insufficient. This is a small example of the distance we intend to bring closer. Other distances between these two places, West and East, which we try to address here produce estrangement; imagine how absurd it is, out of curiosity, to wear a very old Japanese sailor outfit from the beginning of the XNUMXth century: after laughing, even for a few seconds, we transport ourselves in time – listen to the sea.

It is necessary to make the estrangement that arises from being in that other place return reflections about ourselves as well: it is the effort of generations that triggers collective struggles and historical circumstances that reflect the present; there is no immanent magical nature, as has been created around everything to do with Japan.

We hope that the way back from these places that literature and manga take us is even better: contemplating the East / I find myself / beyond.

*Ciro Seiji Yoshiyasse is a journalist and illustrator for Mouro magazine.



Go FujioTakiji Kobayashi. Kanikosen: The Ship of Men. Translation: Drik Sada. Veneta Publisher. 2022.


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