Novel as Historical Document: The Box Man and Kobo Abe’s Tokyo
”Boxing with the Dual Structure”
Born in Tokyo, 1924, Kobo Abe grew up in the Japanese colony of Manchuria. In 1948, he received a medical degree from Tokyo Imperial University, but instead, went on to become one of Japan’s best known modern novelists. His novel The Box Man (originally published as 箱男, 1973), one of his most famous works, is a powerful metaphor about the high-speed economic growth in 1960s Tokyo, and the problems arising from it.The novel begins with the first of many images, a photographic negative showing the figure of a man. Beside this image is what appears to be a newspaper clipping with the headline, “CLEAN SWEEP OF UENO HOBOS- Check This Morning-180 Arrests”. The clipping relates a police round-up of hobos caught ironically, “behind the Tokyo Institute of Culture.” After processing by the police, they were “released after signing an agreement not to relapse into vagrancy. An hour later there was every indication that almost all had returned to their former haunts,” (page 3).
The beginning is a commentary on what Abe sees as the hypocritical governmental response to poverty and suffering. Abe explains that “since [a box man] is not especially uncommon, there is every opportunity of seeing one. Surely, even you have, at least once. But I also realize full well that you don’t want to admit it. You’re not the only one,” (page 8). The box man is a metaphor for the downtrodden. The averting of gaze can be read in this context as a commentary on society’s apathy, and government lip-service.
But the box metaphor has a clever double meaning. As the protagonist explains, he is a box man by choice. Why would anyone choose to live in a box? The box is a metaphor for the capitalist dream. As unappealing as living in a box may seem, someone is always trying to buy or steal the box from the protagonist, through overt force, cunning, and seduction, the contest over the box is a theme throughout the novel. The protagonist writes, “Just as there are almost no more people who are afraid of shots, contrary to times past, now there are few who shrink from installment buying. But with installment buying one mortgages everything, one exposes oneself, one’s work, one’s house to securing the money borrowed,” (page 141). Here we see Abe combine the several themes, sight and vulnerability, with a commentary on capitalism.
Abe elaborates on the complex relationship between power and sight and extends the metaphor to talk about the state. He writes, “In seeing there is love, in being seen there is abhorrence. One grins, trying to bear the pain of being seen. But not just anyone can be someone who only looks. If the one who is looked at looks back, then the person who was looking becomes the one who is looked at,” (page 81). This dance of contradictions is a mutual relationship of need related to mating courtship, a “modified form of attack and threat,” (page 96). Abe continues to play with this theme of sight and love/hate, for example, with the story of the boy voyeur related in “The Case of D” (pages 149-158). The state in its seemingly threatening posture becomes reinterpreted. The dance the police and vagrants enact in the opening becomes a ritualized, symbiotic act. Each is an actor playing their role. The vagrants nominally reinforce the image of the state’s power by submitting to its gaze, only to return to their invisibility later. Their condition is not imposed however, nor is the state’s neglect unintentional.
The book is a historical document. In the late 60s and early 70s, Japanese government officials and elites debated the course Japan’s economic recovery should take. Leftist, elites like Arisawa, Ouchi, and Minobe struggled with ways to alleviate the so-called “dual structure”, pockets of poverty existing alongside pockets of affluence. Also in this period, Japan and especially Tokyo began to confront the effects of its high-speed economic growth. City officials, like mayor Minobe- elected in 1968 on a populist platform, addressed “quality of life” issues like pollution, garbage, and water treatment. While Tokyo, refurbished for its world-debut during the 1964 Olympics, appeared modern and developed, uneven development and problems caused by fast-paced growth remained hidden. Abe highlights these contradictions in The Box Man. His protagonist sits alongside a dirty canal, spanned by the “Prefectural Highway Three,” (page 14). While new Japanese-made cars (a sign of Japan’s growing economic power) zip overhead on the modern, elevated highway, the faceless box man huddles underneath.
The story Abe tells in The Box Man is the story of the contradictions of his times, high-economic growth, amidst the lingering effects of the dual structure, emerging quality of life issues, made more poignant by the questioning of capitalism itself. Finally, it relates the complex relationship the state had with the poor. Abe through the box metaphor is able to dwell on all these issues, so evident to anyone who has walked beneath the shiny, new superhighways, and seen the homeless huddling below.
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