Professor Field’s interest lies in the proletarian literature movement of the 1920s and 30s in Japan, and her talk centered on an amalgamation of Marxism, environmentalism, literature, class distinctions, and the repercussions of nuclear disaster. In particular, her lecture hinged on a dichotomy between life and livelihood; those without resources must choose between their personal health and safety and the ability to put food on the table. This is especially relevant in Japan, as the Fukushima catastrophe intensified the gravity of this choice. Through a mixture of anecdotes, statistics and summaries of stories from Kobayashi’s oeuvre, Prof. Field sought to demonstrate that the nuclear disaster has put even more pressure on the lower class people who are already struggling, further exemplifying the idea that the people who most need a movement are in a position of being least able to participate in it. This results in both an inability to escape one’s predicament as well as resentment towards those who do have the luxury to protest the goings-on (specifically, the Tokyo-ites who travel to the Tomari nuclear plant in Hokkaido to hold rallies). Adding to these concerns are of course the health problems following from radiation from the nuclear plants.
Faced with all these overwhelming issues, people are powerless. Prof. Field explained that those with means would buy up all the uncontaminated food and move to less affected areas, while those who live and work in and around the nuclear plants were trapped, even unable to protest their condition. Those who opposed the plants were labeled unpatriotic or accused of not showing solidarity.
Her points were buttressed by references to the proletarian movement in general, especially a discussion of why literature from the period is worth studying. Intellectuals at the time were very concerned with form and content, and art and politics. Literature was seen as a necessary (but not sufficient) aspect of the movement; by crafting characters and embodying the struggles of the people in the form of the novel, the intellectuals in the proletariat were able to describe their struggles in a way with which people could emphasize. Prof. Field herself came to understand, for instance, the reaction of the local people to the Tokyo-ites protesting Fukushima by immersing herself in proletariat literature.
The talk itself was passionate and heartfelt. It was clear that the issues at hand were of great importance to Prof. Field. Her presentation, however, was not particularly focused. We jumped from topic to topic, returning to one or the other at random intervals, and the segues between topics were, in general, tenuous at best. The overall structure and thesis of the lecture was often ambiguous. Accompanying audio/visual material might have rectified this unclear chronology. Furthermore, the talk devolved from literary and social analysis into a plea to recognize the vulnerability of our world, as Prof. Field exclaimed, “LDP and Tepco, do they think they are somehow invulnerable to nuclear radiation?” She expressed a desire to galvanize the 1% to recognize that they are not invincible. While this point is indeed valid, it was unfortunate that a thorough discussion of Kobayashi’s work was subordinated to her particular worldview. Kobayashi’s literature was a side-note, only utilized to reiterate general points about society. Overall, the lecture was impassioned and interesting, but unfortunately I left feeling dazed and uncertain whether I had learned anything about Japanese proletarian literature.
Norma Field is the Robert S. Ingersoll Distinguished Service Professor Emerita in Japanese Studies in East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. She is the author, co-author, and translator of numerous scholarly works, including Splendor of Longing in The Tale of Genji, In The Realm of a Dying Emperor, From My Grandmother's Bedside, and Natsume Soseki's And Then. For more information about upcoming CEAS events, visit their website.
N. Castle, SAS '14