There is no doubt that the major personal event in Miyazawa Kenji's life was the death of his younger sister, Toshiko. Kenji, it must be remembered, was a man who displayed no particular interest in romantic love or sex. He is the only major Japanese author of any era whose works make virtually no reference to sex and only scant mention of love of the heart between two adults. He certainly could have married, coming from such an established family and having a respected career as a teacher. Arranged marriage was, indeed, offered to him at least twice. But he saw himself as too frail and sickly to take on the responsibility of a wife and family. In November 1922, Toshiko died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. Kenji composed three of his most famous poems, it is said, the very night of her death. One of them involves a cold journey, oddly illuminated:
Oh my little sister who is travelling so far away|
Sometime on this day...
It is sleeting, yet the light outdoors is strange!
How could he come to terms with her death other than by accepting it as a mere passing from one state to another? Certainly not an ending, but rather a single small step in a circle.
The sleet is sinking to slush|
Dark from the clouds of bismuth-ochre
You asked me for a refreshing bowl of snow
On the furthest verge of death
To bring light to my life
Thank you, my brave little sister
Now I too will continue forward without wavering
The next year he took a ship to Sakhalin, then a Japanese possession, and I am convinced that, in his mind, the purpose of the trip was not to forget Toshiko but somehow to search for her.
If Kenji thought he might come to understand the real and natural state of the dead spirit on the cold waters of the Sea of Okhotsk, he imagined that state in fiction a few years later when he wrote his classic novel, Night 0n the Milky Way Train. This lovely story is a parable. It describes the dream of a boy, Giovanni, as he takes a ride on a rail road car throughout the heavens in the company of his best friend, Campanella.
Miyazawa gave Italian names, the latter apparently a family name, to his two heroes. There are characters in the story with Japanese names as well, but it is clear from the line of the narrative that this is a tale of universal setting in more ways than one.
The two boys, meeting eccentric and fascinating people who inhabit or are passing through the sky on their way to their individual destinations, go from northern constellation to southern, observing incidents with fire and light of the most dramatic beauty.
Giovanni is never quite sure where the train is going, and is surprised to find a small folded piece of paper in his pocket when he is asked by the conductor for his ticket. The two boys gaze at the paper in amazement, feeling that "if they continued to stare at it they would certainly be swallowed up into it."
"Good heavens," says the bird catcher, a crusty character who catches herons in the Milky Way and presses them into cakes that are as good as goose, "that ticket is really tops. It will take you higher than the sky. With this ticket you've got safe conduct to anywhere your heart desires to go. With this ticket you can go wherever you wish on the imperfect Four-Dimensional-Milky-Way-Dream Train."
"Giovanni's Ticket" is the last and longest chapter of Night on the Milky Way Train. For Miyazawa the little piece of folded green paper that miraculously appeared out of Giovanni's pocket was a pass to the other world--and back. He must have held a similar ticket in his hand when he left Hokkaido, heading north to Sakhalin.
In a flash Campanella is gone from the train. Giovanni feels abandoned. After all, weren't the two friends going to continue on to the ends of the earth and beyond? Giovanni wakes up in the grass on the hill overlooking his town, where a festival is in progress. He makes his way down to the river. He is told that a boy has fallen in and has not been found. It is, of course, Campanella.
The startling thing about the ending is the attitude taken by Campanella's father in the face of his son's death. After only 45 minutes he decides to accept the fact. While gripping his watch tightly in his fist, he politely asks about Giovanni's father, who is due to return home after what appears to be a tour up north at the government's pleasure. He invites Giovanni to his home the next day, when the other children will be arriving for what will probably be a wake.
"With those words, Campanella's father gazed far downstream where the galaxy was part of the river itself."
Miyazawa is consoling himself over the death of his sister, telling himself that it is precisely at times of profound sadness that people should think not of the dead or themselves but rather of the welfare of others. The novel opens with the chapter "A Lesson in the Afternoon." The night ends the lesson.
"Downstream, the Milky Way was reflected from one edge of the river to the other as if there were no water there at all but only sky... Giovanni felt that by now Campanella could be nowhere but on the very farthest edge of that river of the sky."