New Perspectives on Miyazawa Kenji

Miyazawa Kenji’s Answers for Japan and the World


Neglected in his lifetime, the poet and author Miyazawa Kenji has come to new prominence in Japan, particularly in the last two decades. His pioneering environmentalism and emphasis on taking personal responsibility struck a chord with many in the wake of tragedies that shocked the nation in 1995 and 2011.

Poet and Visionary

Miyazawa Kenji was writing his poetry and fiction in an era of intense nationalism and military adventure.

Japan celebrated victory in the Sino-Japanese war a year before he was born in 1896, setting the stage for a sweep of events that led to the establishment of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria in 1932, the year before he died. During his lifetime, a sense of nationalistic euphoria was boosted and enhanced by Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905 and the annexation of Korea into the Japanese empire five years later.

And yet, there is no mention in Kenji’s works of nationhood or Japan’s manifest identity in Asia, let alone any reference to imperial destiny or any other buzzword of chauvinism. His concerns were elsewhere. This is one of the reasons why he received almost no recognition while alive. Since then, however, particularly in the last two decades, he has come to be seen not only as Japan’s greatest modern poet but also as a visionary whose thoughts and ideals can help us cope with the daunting challenges facing us in our present century.

What were Kenji’s concerns?

He wrote stories about the catastrophic effects of climate change on food production (though in his era the worry was global cooling). He totally believed in the importance of economic development, yet strove to convince people that any generation of energy contributing to the destruction of the environment was bound to engender furious blowback from nature. Cruelty to animals was a major theme in his prose, and he strongly opposed their slaughter. (Kenji became a committed vegetarian in the last 12 years of his life—this in a country where even today vegetarians are as rare as hens’ teeth.) Literature’s perennial theme of the triumph of good over evil rarely appears in his works, which are inspired by an uplifting morality.

In short, Kenji’s worldview is cosmic: He sees every object or phenomenon on Earth, whether organic or inorganic, as being linked to all else both on this planet and in the universe. In this sense he is the granddaddy of chaos theory, though within that chaos he saw a benign order guiding human behavior.

The Bear Hunter

One illustration of Kenji’s worldview is provided by his popular story, “Nametokoyama no kuma” (The Bears of Mount Nametoko). Nametoko rises some 860 meters above Lake Toyosawa near Hanamaki, his hometown in Iwate, the largest prefecture in Tōhoku and, indeed, on the main island of Honshū. Despite giving what strike the reader as fantastical names for the locations of his stories, most are actually set in his beloved Iwate.

Kojūrō is a hunter who ekes out a living by killing bears and selling their gall bladders, seen at the time as a kind of miracle medicine effective against a swath of illnesses. But there is a natural pact between bear and human, between all hunted animals and the hunters who murder them. (To Kenji the killing of animals was akin to murder, seeing as he considered animals to be on the same plane of existence as humans in terms of suffering and the seeking of joy.)

It is inevitable, then, that Kojūrō gets the ultimate comeuppance. In the end he loses his own life, becoming an unmoving object surrounded by the bears who were to be his prey.

Incidentally, “The Bears of Mount Nametoko” alludes to the political norms of the capitalism of Kenji’s day. He points out in the story that the bears lose out to the hunter, but the hunter loses out to the dealer. The fact that it is the hunter, not the dealer, who becomes the target of cyclical revenge is telling. Extrapolate this moral to our day and you get “too big to fail,” or perhaps more pointedly, too rich to be assailed. It is still the little guy who cops society’s or nature’s retribution. The big guys either ensconce themselves in a protected fortress or simply shut the door behind them, walk away from the calamity created by them, and “move on.” They do not become victims when things go wrong. The victims are invariably the “little guys.”

This is not me trying to put a contemporary twist on an old author’s stances. In his poetry and prose, Kenji time and again sides with the downtrodden and dispossessed, intent on helping them confront the elements and extricate themselves from their miseries.

Eternal Light

Kenji had a very good reason, too, to feel the burden of responsibility toward the weak and the meek. He was the eldest son of a man, Masajirō, who made a fortune running the town’s pawnbroking shop. In those days, pawnbroking was a far more respectable profession than it seems to be today. A small provincial town in a prefecture far from the centers of development in the Meiji era (1868–1912) lacked the banking facilities of the big industrialized trading cities. The Miyazawa family business provided essential financial services to the destitute farmers of the region.

As a boy Kenji witnessed many encounters in his father’s shop, where poor farmers came in with whatever they could barter for a bit of cash to feed their families. He grew up with a keen sense of guilt over this and saw it as one of his missions to repay the farmers by teaching them through his writing how to achieve happiness and comfort in life. Not only that, he became an expert on the use of fertilizer and worked tirelessly to increase its applications. Suffering from pleurisy and tuberculosis, it was his indefatigable—perhaps the right word is obsessive—missionary spirit and social activity for the betterment of the local farmers that led, in part, to an early death.

Kenji described himself as a blue light in the preface to his poem “Spring and Pandemonium.” The light that is Kenji flickers incessantly in harmony with all else in the universe. This light—the life of an individual—does not die out at death. He writes in this preface that it is only the lamp, or the body, that is lost. The light remains on, flickering forever.

Though we die, the light and its memory continue to shine; and it is that light that can be seen throughout the cosmos. That is why some of Kenji’s characters end up in the heavens. Campanella, one of the heroes of his exquisite novel Ginga tetsudō no yoru (trans. Night on the Milky Way Train), alights from a train that is traversing the night sky. Another character in this novel, the scorpion, becomes a star so that its body can provide light and heat for an age. Yet another, the nighthawk in “Yodaka no hoshi” (trans. “The Nighthawk Star”), flies straight up into the sky, also turning its body into a star.

Kenji’s characters defy time and space to set for us, if you will, shining examples.

Strong in the Rain

How is Miyazawa Kenji relevant to us today, 120 years after his birth?

The answer to this may be seen to the responses to his work seen in 1995 and 2011.

In January 1995, the Hanshin district of Japan that includes the major port city of Kobe was struck by an earthquake that killed more than 6,400 people. Two months later the pseudoreligious organization Aum Shinrikyō executed a nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in what was Japan’s worst peacetime incident of terror. The so-called asset bubble had burst a few years earlier, and Japanese people began to ask themselves why they had worked like the devil since the end of the war if all they were faced with after 50 years was an economy that did not provide for the basic needs of all citizens and a society lacking security against natural disasters and homegrown terror. Kenji seemed to have some answers, and a boom in his work swept throughout the country.

Again in 2011, a natural and manmade catastrophe struck Japan in the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear contamination triggered on March 11 off the Pacific coast of Tōhoku. And again Japanese people were asking themselves why their government and the cartels that dictate economic policy in this country failed to protect them. Kenji seemed to have an answer to this too, and another flare of interest in him shot through the darkening skies of Japan.

Those answers were that we must never enter into the folly of pushing growth at the expense of nature and that we should seek ways to provide for and look after each other with a dedicated compassion.

His most famous poem, “Ame ni mo makezu,” (trans. “Strong in the Rain”), a kind of prayer of self-sacrifice for the good of all, particularly the weak and disadvantaged, was often recited in the media and at public events throughout the Tōhoku region that had been hit so hard by the triple disaster. Miyazawa Kenji suddenly became the spokesman for Japanese public and private morality.

His message for us all, wherever we live in this era of profound insecurity, is this: Don’t listen to some voice outside yourself, whether it comes from politicians on high or gods presumably higher up; you have your own moral compass inside you that has been calibrated by your natural connections with art and nature. Your conscience is guided by the needle of your personal compass.

If you follow that ahead, ever bearing in mind your natural connection with all human beings and other animals, as well as the plants, water, air and soil, you will find personal fulfillment and security . . . and this world may transform itself into a somewhat better place for all things than it has been up to now.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: A statue of Miyazawa Kenji in the garden of Iwate Prefectural Hanamaki Agricultural High School. © Ōhashi Hiroshi.)

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