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  • Rival Imagined Communities:Class and Nation in Japanese Proletarian Literature
  • Heather Bowen-Struyk (bio)

It may seem a bit contrary to pursue the question of the nation in Japanese proletarian literature. After all, amid the increasing clamor of nationalist writing in Japan in the 1930s, proletarian writers joined with Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese writers and activists in an organized resistance to Japanese imperialism and the entry into the Pacific War. This is an important point that still deserves to be emphasized in and beyond this article. Indeed, Comintern (Communist International) analysts and most Japanese Marxists, especially early on, insisted that nationalism was a tool of the bourgeois state to exploit the masses, and proletarian literature that dealt with the issue of the state generally also dealt with nationalism as something that needed to be overcome.

At the same time, the nation deserves more than a cursory rejection as something that would interest only a fascist, even in the midst of the internationalist [End Page 373] proletarianism of the 1920s and 1930s. The nation—sometimes cultural, sometimes biological, and sometimes more ambiguously ethnic—offered the allure of an imagined community that might help weather the storm of rapid industrial transformation and the high costs of capitalist-imperialist expansion. By using the term nation, I join Benedict Anderson and others in seeing it as a primarily constructed, imagined community, although one that was increasingly subject to worldwide scientific attempts to delineate race and ethnicity; in Japan, biological elements of the nation were being newly imagined in the challenging context of an expanding Japanese empire.1 The nation had many possible meanings depending on whether one was a Japanese subject on the Japanese archipelago or in a colony in Asia, a manager-level employee for a Japanese company or a wage laborer or a tenant-farmer, an impoverished settler on the Asian mainland or a trafficker in drugs and arms, an infantryman or an officer in the military.

If the nation offered an alluring community, so, too, did the vision of international proletarianism propagated in proletarian journals. Formed not by blood or soil but by the shared fate of class oppression, international proletarianism offered an alternative imagined community aware of the nation as its doppelgänger. The major proletarian journals of the time—Zen'ei (Vanguard), Puroretaria geijutsu (Proletarian Art), Bungei sensen (Literary Front), and Senki (Battle Flag)—display a commitment to internationalism and anti-imperialism regardless of whether they were affiliated with the Comintern. These journals participate in the imagining of an international community through articles, fiction, photographs, and illustrations of oppression and uprisings throughout the world. By virtue of being published next to each other, articles on worker's conditions in India, China, Mexico, and the United States, for example, together with articles on advances in Russia, emphasize the simultaneity of international proletarian shared experience, with Bolshevik-inspired revolution as the utopian payoff. For example, in the October 1930 edition of Bungei sensen, a photo montage makes visible an amalgamation of different national masses demonstrating in New York (featuring a man with a Chinese Soviet sign), California, Berlin, as well as a five-country (Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, and Japan) demonstration on the border of Germany and Belgium. The images are united by a great [End Page 374] canon that runs from the lower right to the upper left of the page, bearing the Soviet insignia and the slogan "Worker-Farmers resolutely oppose the XXist war." The "XX" here, indicating censored material, is likely "Imperial." The table of contents of this same issue, readable as another form of montage, also demonstrates this international imagined community: there are feature articles about China, Russia, Budapest, and France; there are articles on Japanese issues; and there are general articles that emphasize the internationalism of the proletarian movement, such as "Talk of the International Farming Crisis" ("Kokusai nōgyō kyōfu no hanashi"). Despite their important disagreements, rival proletarian journals shared this strategy of representing a worldwide class-based community.

In a historical moment characterized by the utopian possibilities of international Bolshevik-inspired revolution institutionalized in the Soviet Union, revolutionary strategizing was still taking place, first and foremost, on the level of the nation-state...


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