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  • (Photo courtesy: The Straits Times)

A novel that critics say perfectly mirrors the plight of today's 'working poor' in Japan has been nearly topping bestseller charts for the past few months.

However, the book Kani Kosen (Crab Canning Ship) was actually written almost 80 years ago by Marxist writer Takiji Kobayashi.

According to publisher Shinchosha, most of those who bought the book are people in the prime of their working life, from the late teens to the late 40s.

But they are presumed to be mostly members of Japan's 'working poor', a phrase coined by the media to describe people who do not even earn enough to make ends meet, let alone think of getting married or starting a family.

Based on a true story, Kani Kosen tells of the diabolical existence of underpaid workers on board a ship that catches and cans crabs in the Sea of Okhotsk and the workers' attempts to improve their lot.

A manga version of the story first appeared in November 2006, followed by another version a year later.

But both made little impact.

"Things are different now from the stable employment conditions of Japan's period of high economic growth."

The big break came in January this year when the Mainichi Shimbun daily carried a lengthy dialogue between two writers on the theme of the widening gap between the rich and poor in Japan.

They kicked off the dialogue with casual references to the book.

Karin Amemiya, a punk rocker and right-wing activist who turned to writing on the problems of the young, said: "It so happens that yesterday I read this book called Kani Kosen written in the 1920s. The situation it describes is exactly like those of today's freeters."

"Coincidentally," said writer and university professor Genichiro Takahashi, "I read the book recently as I had to teach a class."

His students, he said, were able to empathise with the story.

According to Amemiya, young Japanese regard what Kani Kosen says to be real because their own labour conditions have become so terrible.

The Mainichi article was followed a month later by a report in the influential Asahi Shimbun newspaper about Kobayashi's alma mater inviting essays on impressions of Kani Kosen to mark the 75th anniversary of his death. Some 120 essays were received, including from China.

The media attention subsequently spurred sales of the book at several bookstores in Tokyo.

Soon, Shinchosha could not bring out enough copies to meet demand.

Until then, about 5,000 copies of the book were sold each year. This year alone, the company has so far moved 480,000 copies, according to Shinchosha spokesman Takashi Machii.

Total sales since its first publication in 1953 as a paperback has reached 1.6 million copies.

Machii could not recall any other book enjoying boom years after it was first brought out.

The 'working poor' issue continues to haunt Japan as it could have far-reaching implications for the nation's pension system, which depends on workers supporting the retired elderly.

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said in Parliament last October that there was no official definition of 'working poor' but that they probably included freeters, part-timers, families with single parents and those living under the poverty line.

There are said to be as many as 10 million Japanese who earn less than two million yen (US$18,400) a year.

Many are the victims of economic liberalisation policies that had been slowly put in place since the 1990s.

Former premier Junichiro Koizumi is often accused of exacerbating the problem, as it was during his administration in the early 2000s that Japanese companies were encouraged to substitute permanent staff with cheaper part-timers so that they could be more competitive internationally.

As a result of such corporate strategies, many young Japanese were unable to find permanent employment after graduation from high school or university.

After working for several years as part-timers, they find themselves rejected for permanent jobs even when they are available, as most employers still prefer to hire fresh graduates.

Incidentally, the suspect behind the stabbing rampage in Tokyo's Akihabara district in June, which saw seven dead and 10 injured, is a typical example of the working poor.

Deep disenchantment with society has been cited as a possible reason for the crime.

Explaining the newfound success of Kani Kosen, professor Hirokazu Toeda of Tokyo's Waseda University told Reuters: "Things are different now from the stable employment conditions of Japan's period of high economic growth.

"Life-time employment is gone and it is uncertain whether people will receive their pensions. I think such insecurity attracts people to this text." (By KWAN WENG KIN/ The Straits Times/ ANN)

MySinchew 2008.08.17

 

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