Kenji Miyazawa Miyazawa, Kenji - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Haru to shura [Spring & Asura: Poems of Kenji Miyazawa] (poetry) 1924

Winds from Afar (short stories) 1972

A Future of Ice: Poems and Stories of a Japanese Buddhist (poetry and short stories) 1989

Night of the Milky Way Railway (short stories) 1991

John Bester (essay date 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A foreword to Winds From Afar, by Kenji Miyazawa, translated by John Bester, Kodansha International Ltd., 1972, pp. 7-9.

[In the following foreward to his translation of Miyazawa's children's tales entitled Wings from Afar, Bester summarizes the "charm and inventiveness, " humanism, and "intense nostalgia for innocence" that characterize Miyazawa's short stories.]

Of the sixteen tales translated [in Winds from Afar] six have appeared previously in a small volume entitled Winds and Wildcat Places. The previous collection was produced essentially as a book for children. In increasing the number of stories and publishing them in the present format, the aim has been not only to create a definitive edition of the best of Miyazawa but also to produce a book that can be enjoyed at least as much by adults as by children.

To do this implies a considerable confidence in the value of Miyazawa's children's stories. To translate works such as these forty years after their author's death and from a language as remote as Japanese suggests that they have acquired a kind of classic status.

Such a status has in fact long since been achieved in Miyazawa's own country. His place in modern Japanese literature is secure. Learned papers are published on him, and new editions continue to appear. His work does not seem to date, for it is read now by a generation quite different from Miyazawa's.

One obvious reason for this is that although his writing is very much a product of the northern country district of Honshu where he lived his short life, his appeal relies basically on qualities unrelated to any particular society or country. The same is true, of course, of most classic children's stories, and in this sense Miyazawa's work easily avoids the barriers that inevitably blunt our response to much in Japanese literature. More important here, though, is the question of what, in the positive sense, Miyazawa offers the adult reader in other countries.

The most obvious elements in Miyazawa's appeal are the charm and inventiveness of his tales. They are all good stories. They have the humor and inconsequentiality, the ability to evoke a world of their own, the absence of theorizing, and the satisfying sense of inevitability that everyone expects of children's stories. With engaging freedom, the choice of characters ranges from wildcats to elderly generals to dustpans. And as most good children's stories do, they comment ruefully on moral questions and the realities that precede and underlie the adult world.

But it is in the way Miyazawa's work, consciously and unconsciously, reflects that world that his special qualities begin to assert themselves. The realm that his characters inhabit is not a cozy middle-class world, but neither do his shapes and shadows harbor barely concealed Freudian horrors. His settings are northern without nordic morbidity. He avoids insipidity without falling into the grotesque. In his cautionary tales he...

(The entire section is 1265 words.)

Burton Watson (essay date 1973)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Spring & Asura: Poems of Kenji Miyazawa, translated by Hiroaki Sato, Chicago Review Press, 1973, pp. xv-xix.

[In the following introduction to Miyazawa's collection of verse Spring and Asura, Watson notes the pervasive presence of Buddhist idealsselflessness, compassion, and the oneness of the universein Miyazawa's life and poetry.]

Those who with a happy frame of mind
Have sung the glory of the Buddha,
Even with a very small sound,…
Or have worshipped,
Or have merely folded their hands,…
Or have uttered one 'Praise be!'—

(The entire section is 1877 words.)

Makoto Ueda (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Miyazawa Kenji," in Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature, Stanford University Press, 1983, pp. 184-231.

[In the following essay, Ueda studies Miyazawa's literary style, creative process, aesthetic theory, and poetic vision.]

Secluded from the mainstream of modern Japanese verse, Miyazawa Kenji (1896-1933) was almost totally unknown as a poet during his lifetime. He published few poems in magazines of nationwide literary reputation, and for his one published book of poetry and single collection of children's stories he shouldered all publication costs himself. After his death, however, his works soon gained a large following of people from all...

(The entire section is 15264 words.)

J. Thomas Rimer (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Miyazawa Kenji (1896-1933)," in A Reader's Guide to Japanese Literature, Kodansha International, 1988, pp. 145-47.

[In the following essay, Rimer examines several poems from Spring and Asura that demonstrate Miyazawa's style and personal vision.]

Matsuo Basho made famous the north country of Japan in his haiku journal The Narrow Road to the Deep North, in which he characterized the particular poetry of that area, still remote and mysterious for so many Japanese. Miyazawa Kenji (1896-1933), one of the greatest of the modern poets, has through his brilliant and idiosyncratic poetry become the modern gatekeeper to the elusive...

(The entire section is 890 words.)

Geoffrey O'Brien (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Man For All Seasons: Miyazawa Kenji Cultivates His Garden," in The Village Voice, Vol. 34, No. 49, December 5, 1989, pp. 75-6.

[In the following review, O'Brien details the sources, imagery, mood, and themes of Miyazawa's poetry.]

The Japanese poet Miyazawa Kenji, who died in 1933 at the age of 37, became a culture hero on the strength of a single brief poem written toward the end of his obscure and voluntarily impoverished life. "November 3rd"—an unpublished notebook entry probably intended more as a prayer than a poem—sketches a portrait of an idealized ascetic, "neither yielding to rain / nor yielding to wind," "without greed / never getting angry /...

(The entire section is 2116 words.)

Hiroaki Sato (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to A Future of Ice: Poems and Stories of a Japanese Buddhist, Miyazawa Kenji, North Point Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, which is a revised version of an introduction originally published in 1989, Sato provides an overview of Miyazawa's life and work.]

Miyazawa Kenji (1896-1933)—here his and other Japanese names are given the Japanese way, family name first—is probably the only modern Japanese poet who is deified. A good part of the deification may come from a piece called "November 3rd." Opening with the phrases

neither yielding to rain
nor yielding to wind
yielding neither...

(The entire section is 2138 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Khan, Robert Omar. "Heaven and Hell." The San Francisco Review of Books 16, No. 2 (Fall 1991): 58-9.

Includes a positive assessment of Miyazawa's children's story collection Night of the Milky Way Railway.

McKinney, Meredith. "Poems of Miyazawa Kenji: Notes and Translations." Overland 69 (1978): 8-10.

Overview of Miyazawa as a writer who "strove to bring religion and science together." Contains English translations of seven of Miyazawa's free verse poems.

Naff, William E. Review of Spring and Asura: Poems of Kenji Miyazawa. Journal of the American Oriental Society 98, No. 3...

(The entire section is 271 words.)