Kenji Miyazawa 1896-1933
Japanese poet, short story writer, and essayist.
A Buddhist writer who abandoned traditional Japanese forms in his verse, Miyazawa is remembered for his intensely personal poems, which feature an idiosyncratic mix of ethical idealism, humor, agrarianism, and Buddhist piety. Self-trained in traditional, highly-structured tonka poetry, Miyazawa was among the first poets in Japan to exploit the possibilities of the free verse form, most notably in his Haru to shura (Spring and Asura). Juxtaposing images from science, religion, and the rugged environment of his native Honshu, he created works he called "imagery sketches," which explore themes of selflessness, compassion, and the ultimate unity of all sentient creatures. In addition, Miyazawa is recognized for his many short stories, ostensibly written for children. Akin to his poetry in vision and theme, these tales range in subject matter from comic satire to metaphysical meditation.
Miyazawa was born in Hanamaki, Iwate prefecture on the northern Japanese island of Honshu. A poor farming region, Iwate was Miyazawa's home for the majority of his life and the inspiration for much of his poetry. Demonstrating an early interest in the natural environment, he attended an agricultural high school, and later worked for a time in his father's pawn shop on Honshu. While still young, Miyazawa formed a devout interest in Mahayana Buddhism, focusing his studies particularly on the Lotus Sutra, one of its sacred texts. After high school he traveled to Tokyo to further his learning with the Nichiren Buddhist sect, and began to write poetry and children's stories. Some of his verses were published in national literary magazines, but Miyazawa remained largely unknown in Japanese literary circles. In 1921 news of the prolonged illness of his sister Toshiko prompted him to return to Iwate; Miyazawa later chronicled his intense sadness at her passing in the poem "Last Farewell." He remained on Honshu for the remainder of his life, returning to Tokyo only on occasion, as in 1924 to publish several of his poems. In addition to composing more works of poetry and fiction, he devoted his everyday existence to the destitute farmers of the Iwate prefecture. As a teacher of natural science and agriculture he instructed them in soil improvement, crop rotation, and other modern forms of cultivation. During this period, Miyazawa is said to have undertaken a rigorous schedule of work while allowing himself only meager nutrition, a combination that eventually destroyed his health. He died of pneumonia in 1933, with plans to publish a collection of short stories, and more of his approximately 1200 poems.
Unpublished during his lifetime, Miyazawa's essay "Agrarian Art" is thought to outline the basic tenets of his aesthetic theory. In it, he seeks to combine the ideals of artistic beauty with the earthy agricultural ethic of hard work demonstrated by the impoverished farmers of his native Iwate region. A philosophical idealist and devout Buddhist, Miyazawa focused his writing on the transcendence of the phenomenal world through the humble ideals of compassion, selflessness, and equality. His poetry—written in both the classical Japanese style and a modern, colloquial idiom—is considered to be at once highly personal and spiritually transcendent, as it depicts the beautiful landscape of the Japanese countryside alongside his inner feelings of despair, self-pity, and elation. Miyazawa's collection Spring and Asura features a variety of these poems, as well as satirical and humorous pieces in free verse. Its companion volume is A Future of Ice (1989), a collection of previously unpublished poems translated into English. This later work contains Miyazawa's most widely-known poem—written while he was sick and preparing to die—"November Third." Bearing many similarities to his poetry, but often more comic and light-hearted, Miyazawa's short fiction has been collected in two English editions, Winds from Afar (1972) and Night of the Milky Way Railway (1991). Visionary and poetic, "Night of the Milky Way Railway," the title story of the latter collection, follows young Giovanni on a fantasy trip into the afterlife instigated by the mysterious disappearance of his classmate Campanella. Critics see this work as demonstrative of Miyazawa's belief in the fluidity of time and ultimate unity of the cosmos. Other tales of note include "A Biography of Gukibudori," whose protagonist, like Miyazawa in his later years, dedicates his life completely to the welfare of others, and "Oppel the Elephant," a satire on blind capitalism.
Miyazawa's works were almost completely unknown during his lifetime; he was able to publish only a handful of his free verse poems as Haru to shura by financing the entire run himself. Yet soon after his death in 1933, Miyazawa was elevated to the position of cultural hero, known to many Japanese as "the saint of northern Japan." Likewise his famous poem "November Third" is familiar to many in his native country who otherwise know nothing about him. By the second half of the twentieth century, Japanese scholars had begun to devote considerable attention to his poetry and fiction, an interest that was carried across the Pacific to the United States in the 1960s with the appearance of several of Miyazawa's translated poems in Gary Snyder's Back Country. In the ensuing decades further translations of Miyazawa's writings have appeared, making Miyazawa's comic, spiritual, and idiosyncratic works accessible to audiences outside Japan.