Kenji for You Japanese


1996 saw an unprecedented boom in Japan in the works and life of Miyazawa Kenji. Yet this has apparently not been reflected in either the press or in the publishing world outside Japan. As the translator of his major novel, "Night on the Milky Way Train", how do you see this gap?
I had studied Japanese in Shisen Foreign Language School, and one Japanese teacher used Kenji's "Strong in the Rain" as a textbook. I was very impressed with it.
What aspects of Kenji's works are you interested in?
There are historical reasons for the gap. Japanese literature as it has traditionally been studied and taught at universities in America, England and Australia has concentrated on the "great names":ĦĦSoseki, Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima.... For many years it was difficult, if not impossible, to alter the tastes of those who made the selection. Publishers naturally took the lead from Western experts who, in turn, developed their interests under the tutelage of members of the Japanese literary establishment. A writer like Kenji who did not fit into the mould of respectability and socalled high literary style was ignored.

"Night on the Milky Way Train", together with his other stories, was labelled "children's literature" and hence not taken very seriously. Modern Japanese literature, like literature in other countries, has been preoccupied primarily with affairs of the heart and socio-historical themes. When it comes to these two themes in particular, Kenji is certainly the odd man out. His writing was not highly valued in Japan for a long time, so there should be no surprise that it was given the cold shoulder in the West.

One of our aims is to introduce his literature to the outside world. What do you see as the appeal for nonJapanese?
First, his superb unique style. He writes the Japanese language with an original blend of lyricism, colloquial reality and dialect. He is both a creator of wild fantasy and a scientific documentarist at the same time. Kenji, we must remember, was not only a poet and novelist; he was also a professional agronomist--as well as an amateur geologist--a farmer and a Buddhist scholar. One might have to look to the Europe of Leonardo's time to find such a combination. But what is amazing is that his view of nature permeated all of these interests and obsessions, bringing them together in one consistent worldview. This is what we now find appealing and useful.The Japanese literary tradition, needless to say, puts nature at the very centre of things. But generally speaking its observation of nature has been passive, often standoffish. Kenji threw himself into nature, frequently walking the fields and woods making sketches. He called his poems not poems but "mental sketches modified", that is, reflections of natural phenomena run through his mind and slightly modified when put on paper. Nature was his laboratory; and his process went from observation and examination to faithful reconstruction in ink. I somehow feel that this process can be readily understood by nonJapanese readers. It is the traditional ambiguous nonschematic Japanese approach that we find hard to grasp.
What about "Night on the Milky Way Train"?
It is simply a story about the death of a loved one, in this case a close friend. To Kenji our death is predetermined by our karma. Others must accept it. Yet how do you come to terms with the loss and tragedy of the death of someone so young. Kenji lost his younger sister, Toshi; and there is no doubt but that he is writing this novel to explain the grief to himself.

I love the scene toward the end of this book when Giovanni meets up with the father of his friend, Campanella, by the river. Campanella has been lost in the river for 45 minutes and it appears as if he has drowned. Campanella's father has given up, resigned himself to his son's death...after only 45 minutes! He enquires after Giovanni's father who was supposed to be coming home after a long absence. In other words, Kenji is telling us that we must resign ourselves to the loss of a loved one and channel our grief into consideration for others. This message forms the core of Kenji's legacy.

In your keynote address at the World Miyazawa Kenji Congress held in Hanamaki in August, 1996, you spoke of Kenji's message to our contemporaries. What is this message?
We are all motivated by our desires, be they aimed at wealth, sexual gratification or what-have-you. This is all fine and good so long as it does not lead to the exploitation of others. But if we look at Japan at the turn of this century we see a country run by officials whose greed has got the better of them. The old idea that they are humble public servants acting utterly in the public good is now seen as a coverup for incompetence and selfishness.

Kenji not only exposes, in his stories and poems, people's true motives but also gives us some answers on how to control our more primitive instincts and employ them for the good of all.

Sadly, while suppressing his own personal instincts he sacrificed his health in a relentless bid to do good. His religious zeal bordered on fanaticism; his abstentious dietary precepts took him to the brink of starvation. These are measures which we can hardly admire or follow today.

But his example stands before us: use your body and soul for the happiness of all. In an era in Japan when consideration for those less fortunate than we has been lost in the shadows of private vice and public mismanagement, Miyazawa Kenji the author and man stands out like a beacon of light.

Profile of Roger Pulvers

    author, playwright and theatre director, was born in New York City in1944. Educated at UCLA and Harvard Graduate School, where he received an M.A. in Russian Studies, he first came to Japan in 1967. He settled in Kyoto, teaching Russian and Polish until 1972 when he moved to Australia to teach Japanese language and literature at the Australian National University in Canberra. In1976 he became an Australian citizen.

    In 1982, after acting as assistant director on the film "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence", Roger returned to Japan to write and direct. He has published 18 books in Japanese and English and is currently a professor at the Kyoto University of Art and Design.

Kenji for you The World of Kenji Miyazawa