Japan economy angst reaches bestseller lists

A Marxist novel written in 1929 has climbed to the top of Japan’s bestseller list, reflecting growing anxiety about job security and widening income gaps in the world’s second-biggest economy.

“I think people are feeling keenly that the economy is starting to slow down and things are getting more difficult,” said Sota Furuya (27), a marketing consultant who recently read the book.

Furuya is one of the many Japanese readers who have put Kanikosen (A Crab-Canning Boat) on bestseller lists in recent months. It is near the top of several of Japan’s leading bestseller lists, almost unheard of for a book of this genre.

It tells the tale of a crab boat crew working in harsh conditions under a sadistic captain. It was written by Takiji Kobayashi, a communist who was tortured to death by police at the age of 29 in 1933.

Most of the novel is devoted to the crew’s struggle to unite and coordinate a strike, and the story ends with their vow to topple their capitalist masters.

The book has long been a favourite of scholars of Marxist literature, but it gained mainstream attention after an advertising campaign linked it with the concept of working poor, said Tsutomu Sasaki of Shinchosha Publishing Company, which reprints the pocket-sized book. The book has been on bestseller lists since around May.

Experts say the novel’s popularity reflects anxiety over job security, widening wage gaps and the hardships suffered by growing ranks of low-paid part-time and contract workers.

“I think the keywords here are sympathy and similarities,” said Hirokazu Toeda, a professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University. “Young people are sympathising because they see themselves and today’s situation today in the novel.”

Workers’ plight
But while the story resonates, the novel is unlikely to hold practical lessons for workers in present-day Japan, where labour union membership has been in decline for decades and only a tiny minority of voters back leftist political parties.

“The sympathy is sporadic and I don’t think it will lead to organised movements,” Toeda said. “The readership is too fragmented.”

Once famed for its life-time employment system, Japan has seen the number of workers hired by the day and on short-term contracts, often without medical or pension benefits, grow in the years since its economy slumped in the early 1990s.

Critics say economic reforms introduced during the 2001-2006 term of prime minister Junichiro Koizumi sped up the trend.

The average number of non-permanent workers rose to 17,3-million in the year to March 31 2007, government data shows. That was up 19% from five years earlier and more than 50% from a decade ago.

The plight of such workers grabbed headlines in June after a 25-year-old temporary worker stabbed seven people to death in a popular Tokyo shopping district, after posting messages on the internet complaining about his work and loneliness.

For decades, a majority of Japanese considered themselves middle class. As employment conditions change, economic inequalities are widening, although the gap between rich and poor is still much narrower than in the United States.

Many Japanese are also anxious about their future pensions, given the growing costs of a fast-aging society in which two in five people will be 65 or over by mid-century.

The economic angst among younger Japanese is reflected in the readership of A Crab-Canning Boat. About 30% are in their 20s, 30% in their 30s and 40s, and another third in their 50s and 60s, Shinchosha’s Sasaki said. Fans of similar classics in the past have been mostly students or retirees.

“Things are different now from the stable employment conditions of Japan’s period of high economic growth,” said Waseda University’s Toeda. “Life-time employment is gone and it’s uncertain whether people will receive their pensions. I think such insecurity attracts people to this text.”

That said, readers agreed they were unlikely to take to the streets against their capitalist employers.

“The novel’s like a dream ... everyone uniting, fighting, and winning together,” said Toru Sakai (24), a blue-collar worker. “But I doubt we’ll see that type of reaction now.”

Marketing consultant Furuya agreed.

“Society today is too diverse so there isn’t one thing that people can bond over,” he said. “It isn’t as simple as it was in the novel.”—Reuters



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