It was like a tawdry oil painting of Mount Fuji. To the right was a view of Mount Tokachi against a backdrop of clear blue sky. To the left, the highlands unfurled into rolling hills along the vast expanse of land. The black line curving into the foreground was the railroad to Kushiro, and where water sparkled in the sunlight, the twisting contours of the Tokachi River were made known. It was high noon in midsummer. Smoke billowed from a fire, even as the sun blazed down on the countryside, and it was here, at this high altitude, that sweat-drenched workers toiled in the dizzying heat. Their bleary eyes, the whites of which were the color of rotten herring, betrayed the uneasiness shared by all.
The foreman was coming their way.
Another man was trailing behind him.
A commotion broke out among the hundred or so workers. “He’s run off!”
“What are you doing, you fool? Useless idiot!”
Enraged, the foreman exploded, and someone got a thrashing. The others heard the impact: the unmistakable thud of flesh being struck.
Just then, the boss man’s retinue arrived on horseback. After handing a pistol to the foreman and ex- changing a few words, several of the men appeared to set off in pursuit of the fugitive.
“What a stupid thing to do….”
Whoever it was, he’d be captured in only a matter of time—much to the dog’s delight.
Chugging along the tracks below, the steam loco- motive looked like a toy as it drew nearer. The workers heard the wheezing of its engine as the plume of white smoke, like that from a chimney on a cold winter’s morning, circled them.
* * *
The workers, still under watch, left the site as usual that evening. With the setting sun behind them, their pickaxes and shovels cast long shadows on the ground. The men had just arrived at the hillside bunkhouse when they heard the clicking of hooves. Everyone turned and saw: It was Genkichi. They’d gotten him.
Genkichi’s clothes were soaking wet. He was bound with rope, and that rope was attached to the foreman’s horse. The horse had broken into a gallop, whereupon the fugitive had been tossed about and dragged across the craggy surface of the mountain trails. His work wear was tattered, and his cheeks and forehead were streaked with a grisly black paste of blood mingled with dirt.
The workers kept walking straight ahead. No one said a word.
(As his health fell in rapid decline, Genkichi had longed to see his mother in Aomori one last time. He was 23. Clinging to a board, he had plunged into the Tokachi River, whose waters were muddy and surging due to a rainstorm two days earlier.)
* * *
After supper, the foreman summoned the workers to an empty lot.
Everyone was saying, I don’t wanna go, I don’t wanna go….
They trudged over.
The boss man and the foreman were already there. At the center of the lot lay a tied-up Genkichi. The boss man stroked the dog’s back.
His voice boomed out. “Is everyone here?” he demanded.
“That’s everyone, isn’t it?” the foreman asked the workers.
“Everyone’s here, then,” the boss man confirmed. “All right, well, let’s get started. Why don’t we see what’s in store for you?” Lifting the skirt of his yukata, the boss man kicked Genkichi. “Get up!”
The fugitive staggered to his feet.
“So you can stand, eh?” The boss man abruptly smacked him upside the head, knocking him into a daze.
The fugitive’s head hung limply, and drool trickled from his mouth. As he started to retch, blood followed.
“Fool! Look at you!”
The boss man’s hairy chest was bared for all to see. He turned and motioned to the foreman. “Throw him to the dog!”
One of his aides unbound the fugitive. The foreman attended to the tosa, whose heft rivaled that of a grown man. As he unleashed it, the mastiff produced a low growl that emanated from the pit of its stomach. The musculature of its legs hinted at its brute strength.
“There!” came the command.
The foreman set the dog loose.
The tosa bared its teeth, then stretched its front legs and raised its hindquarters. Trembling with fear, Genkichi froze in place. Time seemed to stand still, and silence filled the air as the others held their breath.
The tosa barked. Then it lunged. Like a man groping his way through the darkness, Genkichi frantically waved his hands in front of him. It was all too easy for the dog to sink its teeth into him. The two locked in a brief tussle, and the dog trotted away. With a ring of blood around its mouth, it circled the boss man a few times, shaking itself off. Genkichi lay crumpled on the ground, twitching. Yet he rose unsteadily to his feet again. This time, the tosa gave no warning before it charged. Genkichi scurried to the far wall, but he was no match for it. He whirled around to find himself face to face with the dog. With his back pinned against the wall, he slowly slid upright. The others could not help but look as he turned to reveal a face that had been mangled beyond recognition. Blood streamed down his chin and neck onto his chest, which was heaving. Genkichi stood up straight and wiped his face with his sleeve. He appeared unable to discern the tosa’s whereabouts. The dog let out a triumphant howl.
The words that Genkichi blurted out then and there were pointless. “No…” he whimpered, “Mama!”
And so he spun back around. Like a cat scratching the wall in an attempt to climb it, he struggled in vain to find a foothold. It was at that moment that the dog went in for the kill.
* * *
At dusk, the foreman and two of the workers carried away Genkichi’s remains. They headed deep into the mountains, where they dug a hole and laid him to rest under a moonlit sky. As they filled the grave, each shovelful of dirt hit the coffin lid with an eerie plunk.
Upon returning to the site, the foreman headed off to the urinals, and it was then that one comrade remarked to another: “Man, I swear, someday I’m gonna kill that damn dog.”
Takiji Kobayashi’s “The Dogs That Kill Men” (1927) was originally published in a magazine printed by a vocational school in Otaru, a port city in Hokkaido, the Ainu-inhabited islands that the imperial Japanese state expanded into during the Meiji Restoration. Otaru, where Kobayashi had moved as a child, saw a boom in herring fisheries and served as the terminus of a railroad accessing the nearby Tokachi mountain range, where coal deposits had been discovered by an American geologist.
An allegory of capitalism, the story exemplifies Japan’s proletarian literature movement, in which intellectuals attempted to illustrate power structures without reinforcing them. Dogs were an easily understood symbol of those who carry out the dirty work for their masters by the 1920s, when the expression “running dog”—the literal translation of a term with origins in ancient Chinese political parlance—was circulating in several languages. An epithet slung by everyone from Lu Xun to Mao Zedong, zou gou can be traced as far back as the 1st century B.C., to historian Sima Qian’s record of a coded missive that warned of the fate of those who had outlived their usefulness to the powerful: “Once the rabbit has been caught, the hound is readily disposed of.”
As of 1890, this quotation had been translated into Japanese, rendering the term in the same kanji that had long been used to denote a minor piece in a variant of shogi. In 1929, amid growing state suppression of dissent, Kobayashi left little room for ambiguity when he employed the phrase “the running dogs of capitalism” in his novella The Absentee Landlord.
Likewise, it was the ascendancy of communism that prompted the term’s use in English-language media. In June 1925, the Los Angeles Times cited the translation of a Chinese protest flyer in its coverage of the May Thirteenth movement, in which anti-imperialist sentiment surged after demonstrators in Shanghai, outraged by the killing of a Chinese worker by a Japanese foreman, were in turn killed by a municipal police force, a significant portion of which comprised Sikh officers who had been recruited from abroad by British colonizers. The statement—accusing the Shanghai Communists of being “running dogs of the red Russian imperialists”—was used to evidence the ideological schism within global labor movements just as the Industrial Workers of the World, whose ranks had been depleted, was facing a crisis of irrelevance.