Poet and Buddhist agro-revolutionary
A devout Buddhist, Miyazawa Kenji (宮沢賢治, 1896-1933) spent much of his life labouring to improve the material and spiritual lives of peasants in the impoverished farming communities of Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan. He received little recognition during his lifetime, but his work, reflecting a life full of spiritual struggle and sincerity, has attracted growing attention after the Second World War.
Kenji Miyazawa was born on August 27, 1896, in the rural village of Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture, as the eldest of five children to a prosperous and pious Buddhist family of pawnbrokers. Apart from short spells in Tōkyō, he lived most of his life in Tōhoku. An excellent student, he graduated from the Morioka Higher Agricultural and Forestry School (modern-day Iwate University) in 1918 and remained there for two postgraduate years to conduct a soil survey.
Differences with his father, mostly over religion and his repugnance for the pawnshop business and its profiting from dealings with indigent farmer-clients, were a significant source of dissatisfaction in his life. He yielded his primogenital rights to his younger brother, who eventually replaced their father’s pawnshop with a hardware store. Failing to convert his father from the Jōdo Shin sect (浄土真宗 Jōdo Shinshū, “True Pure Land School”), which he insisted was weak and too focused on money and social status, to the more activist Nichiren sect, Miyazawa left for Tōkyō in 1921.
After nine months, during which he attended a Nichiren study group and wrote children’s stories, Miyazawa returned home to Iwate because of his sister Toshiko’s illness. In December 1921, he became a teacher at a local agricultural high school. In 1924, he financed at considerable expense the publication of a collection of children’s stories titled The Restaurant of Many Orders (注文の多い料理店 Chūmon no Ōi Ryōriten) and the first section of his most famous work of poetry, Spring and Asura (春と修羅 Haru to Shura). Both books failed, but caught the attention of the poets Kōtarō Takamura (高村光太郎, 1883-1956) and Kusano Shinpei (草野心平, 1903-1988), who admired him and introduced his work to the literary world. For a short time, he also taught adult education courses geared primarily for farmers on methods of improving the quality of their communities.
Resigning his teaching post in 1926, Miyazawa began three years of intense effort to improve the plight of destitute farmers. He attempted to farm on the family-owned land, organised farmers’ groups for lectures on soil management, and began to study Esperanto. He also tried to establish an agrarian art movement and travelled in the country lecturing on the science of rice cultivation. Only his last venture was successful. Soon, however, the rigours of overwork triggered an attack of pleurisy, which incapacitated him for three years.
His last employment was in 1931 with a rock-crushing firm, whose products were intended to improve the soil. His father advanced funds to help the company expand, and Miyazawa worked hard, but his disease returned. He was again bedridden with only intermittent periods of light activity until his death on September 21, 1933. The people of Iwate fondly remember him as Kenji bosatsu (“Kenji, the bodhisattva”) for his relentless efforts to help poor farmers.
Kenji Miyazawa was a gifted, prolific writer. Manifest in his work is an acute sensitivity to his native land and the people who make a living from it. Working rapidly, he wrote a large number of children’s stories, which he intended as an aid in moral education. Among other works of prose are a few plays written for his students, but it is his poems, radiating a strong passion for the countryside and rural life, that has attracted an international readership.
Although he wrote traditional 31-syllable verse (短歌 tanka, “short poems”) and longer poems in conventional rhythms, Haru to shura, a collection of four-hundred poems in free verse, written between 1922 and his death, represents his mature work best. His poems are marked by great freedom in diction, using Chinese compounds, Sanskrit phrases, technical terms, and foreign words. They employ spoken rather than literary language as well as rural subject matter and imagery, like rice planting and manure gathering. Miyazawa was familiar with the work of the early modern poets preceding him and must have felt indebted to the proletarian and romantic schools.
Two primary sources of inspiration seemed to have influenced Miyazawa’s poetry: the music of Debussy, Wagner, and Richard Strauss and synesthesia founded on their compositions, resulting in his mystic visions of the bodhisattva Kannon, the Buddha himself, or fighting and crying demons. His more known and public source derives from his lifelong struggle to submit himself to the karmic laws of his Buddhist heritage, through absolute celibacy, renunciation of material things, and a life of self-denial. His poetry bears witness to the irony, the pain, and the passion of his spiritual progress and celebrates the joy of all things natural. Kōtarō Takamura describes him not as a poet, but as a man who wrote poetry. He struggled throughout his life to help his fellows overcome their poverty and misery and were more of a compassionate human being than a self-conscious poet.
Several of his children’s stories have been made into animated movies. His latest adaptation was released on July 7, 2012: The Life of Guskou Budori (グスコーブドリの伝記 Gusukobudori no Denki). In commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of his death, his hometown Hanamaki City inaugurated the Kenji Miyazawa Museum in 1982 (see link below).
- Spring and Asura (春と修羅 Haru to Shura)
- The Restaurant of Many Orders (注文の多い料理店 Chūmon no Ōi Ryōriten)
- Night on the Galactic Railroad (銀河鉄道の夜 Gingatetsudō no Yoru)
- Gauche the Cellist (セロ弾きのゴーシュ Cello Hiki no Goshu)
- Matasaburo of the Wind (風の又三郎 Kaze no Matasaburō)
- The Night of Taneyamagahara (種山ヶ原の夜 Taneyamagahara no Yoru)
- Vegetarian Great Festival (ビジテリアン大祭 Vegetarian Taisai)
- Not defeated by the rain (雨ニモマケズ Ame ni mo Makezu, a poem best describing his ideals and principles and the basis for “The Life of Guskou Budori”)
- Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
Kenji Miyazawa (宮沢賢治, 1896-1933)
Kenji Miyazawa as a high school student
The Life of Guskou Budori (グスコーブドリの伝記, click to enlarge)