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Miyazawa Kenji

Entry updated 6 February 2023. Tagged: Author.

(1896-1933) Japanese poet and author, overlooked in his lifetime but posthumously emblematic of Fantastika in Japan's long 1920s, and cherished as a pacifist, internationalist thinker of the pre-war period. Graduating from Morioka Agriculture and Forestry College in 1918, Miyazawa was an early supporter of organic foods and fertilizers, a strict vegetarian, and after 1926 an ardent proponent of Esperanto, into which he translated some of his poems. Much of his work celebrates his home prefecture of Iwate (in his cod-Esperanto coinage, Ihatovo), a famine-prone northern district, devastated by a tsunami in the year of his birth, reimagined as a paradise on Earth.

Miyazawa converted from Pure Land to Nichiren Buddhism in his twenties, the source of a rift with his family, but a rich vein of religious inspiration in much of his adult work. Of particular note in his poetry is Haru to Ashura (1924, trans Hiroaki Sato as Spring and Ashura 1973), subtitled in English in its original chapbook publication as "mental sketch modified", which unapologetically fuses complex Buddhist concepts into its pastoral whimsy. Some variant translations of the title prefer "Spring and Chaos", fixating on the figurative meaning of the Sanskrit term asura ("non-gods"), rather than leaving it starkly unrendered. He self-published a collection of short fantasy stories, Chūmon no Ōi Ryōriten ["The Restaurant of Many Orders"] (1924), observing in the introduction: "These stories of mine all came to me from moonlight and rainbows, at places like railroad tracks and fields and forests."

His popularity with Nichiren and Sōkagakkai Buddhists has helped keep his work in print for a century, and his slide out of copyright in the 1980s fostered a renaissance not only in publications and translation, but also in adaptations into other media. However, during his lifetime Miyazawa existed in provincial obscurity, largely self-publishing or making unpaid contributions to local newspapers, and working as a teacher at an agricultural college whenever his outbreaks of pleurisy and pneumonia would allow. Famously earning a mere five yen from his writing before his death, Miyazawa remained largely unknown outside poetic circles until the publication of the multi-volume Miyazawa Kenji Zenshū ["Complete Works of Kenji Miyazawa"] (1934), the foreword to which lamented his remote location, ill health and religious poverty as major obstacles to his recognition as a major author. With inadvertent literary brinkmanship, the publication of his collected works was completed shortly before American air-raids destroyed his home town of Hanamaki, and most of the original manuscripts along with it.

He did not live to see the reception of his most famous work, the novella Ginga Tetsudō no Yoru (1934 Kenji Miyazawa Zenshū coll; trans John Bester as Night Train to the Stars 1987; see Checklist for variants), a melancholy allegory in which an exotically Italian boy, Giovanni, accompanies his friend Campanella on the titular train to the heavens, only tardily coming to realize that Campanella has drowned on Earth, and that his trip has no return ticket. Inspired by Miyazawa's own grief-stricken journey to Sakhalin after his sister's death in 1922, the story has become a classic of Japanese children's fiction, confronting young readers with the question of the nature of happiness, and smuggling in many Buddhist concepts, in much the same way that The Last Battle (1956) by C S Lewis presented themes in Christian eschatology. In the post-war Japanese school system, amid the mass culling of the works of authors with wartime associations like Jūza Unno, Miyazawa's stories flourished once more as suitably gentle and politically safe materials for the new curriculum. They remain embedded within the Japanese education system, particularly in picture-book variants for elementary school children, but also as set texts in secondary and tertiary education.

It is difficult to overstate the influence that Miyazawa's work has had on other Japanese fantasists – Leiji Matsumoto's Ginga Tetsudō 999 ["Galaxy Express 999"] (graph 1977 Big Comic) clearly draws on it, as does Mizuho Nishikubo's film Giovanni no Shima ["Giovanni's Island"] (2012); Hayao Miyazaki cites him as a major inspiration, and Sachiko Kashiwaba often pastiches his Iwate of the heart in her children's fantasies. Adaptations of his work into Anime have formed a new and influential stream of popularity since the 1980s, including Isao Takahata's Cello-hiki no Gauche ["Gauche the Cellist"] (vt Gorsch the Cellist, 1982) and Tadanari Okamoto's Chūmon no Ōi Ryōriten ["The Restaurant of Many Orders"] (1993). The most influential and, arguably, disruptive adaptation of his work came with Gisaburo Sugii's Ginga Tetsudō no Yoru (1985; vt Night on the Galactic Railroad). This otherwise faithful retelling of Miyazawa's most famous story elected to present the characters not as humans, but as anthropomorphized Cats, an artistic fancy that has come to permeate most subsequent adaptations of his work, including Spring and Chaos (1996), directed by Shōji Kawamori, an animated biography that includes extracts from his stories, and Sugii's own Gusco Budori no Denki ["The Life of Gusco Budori"] (2012), in which the titular character takes self-sacrifice to extremes in an attempt to bring back his sister. The latter story, first published as "Gusco Budori no Denki" (March 1932 Jidō Bungaku, trans Tatsuo Hamada in Sacred Fool 1998 coll), is notable for featuring a Scientist determined to save his village by releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere: a valorization of the greenhouse effect unlikely to appeal to modern audiences (see Climate Change).

Miyazawa first came to overseas attention through his Buddhist-influenced poetry, eighteen examples of which were included in The Back Country (anth 1967) edited by Gary Snyder. His prose reception in English has been hampered by the sheer volume of his posthumously published material, large tracts of which have been described by the translator John Bester as "uneven in tone and quality of inspiration." Much of what Miyazawa wrote comprised parables and plays designed to impart moral messages to children, and the degree to which he would have approved of its wider availability is open to debate. The curation of his collected works after his death, not unlike the feeding frenzy around J R R Tolkien, has seen the publication of practically everything in his archives, including juvenilia, rough drafts, and work clearly deemed sub-par or in-progress by the author himself. Because so much of Miyazawa's work was self-published or released posthumously, the Checklist below includes only the three landmark compendia, and presumes that most modern issues derive from the edition released in the 1970s which gives, for example, four variant texts for Night on the Galactic Railway. The only exceptions are the translations, much reprinted and reshuffled, of John Bester, which presumably derive from the earlier Zenshū. The usual patchy reception in the English language for Japanese authors (and particularly poets) has caused Miyazawa to drift in and out of print with various foreign publishers, and the out-of-copyright status of his work has led to more variants, some intended for the general reader, others for the religious or the language-learner. [JonC]

see also: Transcendence; Religion.

Kenji Miyazawa

born Hanamaki, Iwate, Japan: 27 August 1896

died Hanamaki, Iwate, Japan: 21 September 1933

works (selected)

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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