In Esperanto, the name for Iwate (Kenji's birthplace and the place where he spent most of his life) is Ihatov. Kenji's Ihatov children's tales, as the name itself directly affirms, are rooted in the natural features, lifestyles, and historical heritage of Iwate prefecture in the Tohoku region (northern Honshu), but at the same time the tales are a microcosm metamorphized by his poetical imagination.
The advent of rice cultivation and farming in the Japanese archipelago was preceded by a mature hunting and gathering culture that developed in the Jomon period (ca 10,000 BC-300 BC) and was concentrated in the Tohoku region. The introduction of rice cultivation and farming began to penetrate the islands from the south and west, marking the onset of the Yayoi period (ca BC 300-ca AD 300), and eventually extended to Tohoku. But the expansive forests in the region helped to perpetuate the Jomon culture. For a long time the Ezo and their descendants, who were the aboriginal inhabitants of this area, opposed and resisted the efforts of the government, which was concentrated in the Kansai and Kanto regions, to place Tohoku under its rule. Even after Japan entered the Meiji period (1868-1912) and Kansai and Kanto began to industrialize, Tohoku remained impoverished and underdeveloped.
Far removed from the central seat of power, Tohoku still contains an abundant natural domain that has not been systematically incorporated by agricultural and industrial societies, and that preserves powerful elements of Jomon and Ezo cultural traditions.
Kenji extensively explored the natural and historical features of this remote region, and the world of his Ihatov children's tales are a projection of what he discovered.
In Ihatov, the mountain men, wind spirits, wildcats, and other inhabitants of the natural environment that surrounds the villages all possess a lively individuality. The various encounters and strained relationships between these characters and the villagers make for colorful dramas. Kenji doesn't view these "outsiders" with fear and exclude them as the farming community does, but explores the alternative of openhearted communication that can bind them together.
This approach is manifest in a very apparent way in the relationship between the villagers and the mountain man . In the traditional villages of Tohoku, mountain men living in the remote mountainous districts are generally believed to be fantastical, fearful beings, although some oral traditions portray them as honest, upright men who honor their promises. While the character in Night of the Festival conforms to the typical image of a mountain man, with his gold colored eyes and queer clothes, Kenji does not give him attributes that would inspire fear in the villagers, but emphasizes his honest and pure-hearted character.
The young men in the village treat the mountain man as an outsider and pick a fight with him. But the main character, a little boy named Ryoji, senses the mountain man's inherent goodness and helps him out of this tight spot. The mountain man shows his gratitude by leaving a present of firewood and chestnuts outside Ryoji's house, and a friendship grows up between them. The theme of this story is obviously the possibility of openhearted communication between villagers and an outsider.
Wolf Forest, Colander Forest, Thief Forest is a story of the interdependant relationship that develops between a group of peasants who cultivate a field and build up a village, with wolves, a mountain man, and other inhabitants of the forests nearby. The mutual communication between these farming peoples and beings different from themselves is the theme of the story.
Crossing the Snow depicts a chance meeting between two children and a fox, who the adults prejudicially regard as a trickster. In Acorns and Wildcat , a little boy named Ichiro is summoned by Wildcat, who lives in the mountains, to come and help him settle a dispute between the acorns. In The Origin of the First Deer Dance, Kaju is entranced by a group of deer standing in a circle around the towel he left behind in a field where he had stopped to rest, and is amazed to discover that, as he listens to them, he is able to understand their speech.
The Bears of Nametoko is a story in a similar vein in which the main character Kojuro, a beer hunter, comes upon a mother bear and her cub gazing out across the valley, and is able to understand their conversation.
All of these stories deal with the theme of communication between villagers and animals, plants and other beings of different natures, that can free them to interact peacefully with one another.
For the village children in Matasaburo of the Wind , Saburo Takada, the new student with a city-bred appearance, is inextricably bound up with Matasaburo of the wind who summons the wind from far away. For them, Saburo Takada/Matasaburo is a mysterious being, completely alien from themselves.
Matasaburo of the Wind may be thought of as another example of a story whose theme is communication between disparate beings.
Who is Kenji Miyazawa? The World of Kenji Miyazawa