Marxism, Opiate of the Japanese Masses?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 8/14/2008 11:47:00 PM
In these days of rising economic inequality as well as chronic episodes of financial manias and panics, many have come to revisit these evergreen themes through the refracted light of Karl Marx's works. In the past, I have discussed how these current economic convulsions would be interpreted via a Marxist perspective [1, 2]. Marxism has, in diffent times, found appeal in various parts of the world. For instance, Marx was voted the "greatest thinker of the millennium" in a 1999 BBC online poll. Einstein, Newton, Darwin, and St. Thomas Aquinas? They were all overhauled by the bushy-bearded one. With Japan headed into another bout of economic stagnation, a 1929 book with Marxist overtones is currently all the rage with Japanese readers, Takiji Kobayashi's Kanikosen. This book concerns a mutiny on board a crab-canning ship: an abusive captain exploits his crew and cheats them on their wages. They eventually fight back, and this serves as a metaphor for class struggle.

What is seemingly odd is that unions have long since gone out of fashion in Japan. How are contemporary Japanese supposed to take it to the Man? Still, in these times of economic insecurity, there is a growing backlash against "neoliberal" practices which are accused of eroding traditional Japanese ideas about loyalty and equality. While "lifetime employment" was never as widespread as commonly believed, the less certain economic picture of Japan does invite more angst over future employment, especially among the young. Indeed, the rising consciousness about the plight of temporary workers was magnified when 25-year-old Tomohiro Kato went on a murderous rampage in the Akihabara electronics district. Notable too is Japanese curiosity about Marxist themes without necessarily buying the idea of class struggle. Marx once said that religion was the opiate of the masses. Perhaps Marxism is performing that very same role in modern-day Japan. With demographic challenges steadily increasing, matters can only become more pointed. Many feel...alienated. From Reuters:
A Marxist novel written in 1929 has climbed to the top of Japan's best seller 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 27-year-old Sota Furuya, a marketing consultant who recently read the book. Furuya is one of the many Japanese readers who have put "Kanikosen", or "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.

"A Crab-Canning Boat" 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 capitalists masters. The book has long been a favorite 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 Co, which reprints the pocket-sized book. The book has been on bestsellers' 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 sympathizing because they see themselves and today's situation today in the novel."

But while the story resonates, the novel is unlikely to hold practical lessons for workers in present-day Japan, where labor 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 organized 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 show. That was up 19 percent from five years earlier and more than 50 percent from a decade ago. The plight of such workers grabbed headlines in June after a 25-year-old temp 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-ageing 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 percent are in their 20s, 30 percent in their 30s and 40s, and another third in their 50s and 60s, Shinchosha's Sasaki says. 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, a 24-year-old 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."