On May 7, Norma Field, the Robert S. Ingersoll Distinguished Service professor of Japanese studies at the University of Chicago, argued for the continuing value of Japanese proletarian literature at the 2009 Andrew L. Markus Memorial Lecture. Her talk entitled “What Counts as Literature?: The Astonishing Revival of The Cannery Ship (Kani kosen, 1929) in Recession-era Japan” explores possible explanations for the recent revival of Takiji Kobayashi’s novel. Kobayashi, who died while in police custody in 1933, has continued to remain a significant historical figure. However, his works have, until recently, largely fallen into disregard.
Field admits that the slave-like conditions on a factory ship operating in the freezing waters off of the Soviet Union depicted in Kobayashi’s novel diverge significantly from contemporary working conditions. However, his depiction of methods to combat exploitation remains relevant in Japan’s economy, in which the income gap between the highest and lowest wage earners is increasing. In particular, she speculates that Kobayashi’s appeal might indeed stem from his espousal of collective resistance. In this sense, Kani Kosen has encouraged a rallying cry of resistance rooted in events occurring almost a century earlier.
On the second day of her visit to the University, Field conducted a seminar that focused on a reading of Kobayashi’s posthumously published novella “The Life of a Party Member” ("Toseikatsusha").The seminar provided a venue for graduate students to engage directly with this esteemed scholar. Discussion ranged broadly from topics of pedagogy to recent trends in literary analysis. Field’s commitment to mentoring was apparent in her willingness to engage the interests of each and every student, no matter what their subject of interest might be.
Field is the author of numerous books, including The Splendor of Longing in The Tale of Genji (1987), In the Realm of the Dying Emperor (1991), and Kobayashi Takiji: 21 seiki ni do yomu ka (Kobayashi Takiji: reading him in the 21st century, 2009). She is currently co-editing a literary collection to be titled For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution: An Anthology of Japanese Proletarian Literature.
The Markus lectureship honors the contributions to the field of Asian languages and literature of Andrew L. Markus, associate professor of Japanese literature at the University of Washington from 1986-1995. The lecture series brings to the University of Washington distinguished scholars in the field. The annual lecture is considered the premiere public event sponsored by the Department and is the highest honor the Department can bestow on a scholar in the field.