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Monday, Sept. 27, 2004


Debating the life of a long-deceased poet

NEW YORK -- Inuhiko Yomota, one of the most well-read and prolific writers I know, was in town, and when I said I am working on a new book on the poet Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), he told me that his friend, Masahiko Nishi, has written a book arguing that Miyazawa expressed strong anticolonialism through his children's stories. Miyazawa is famous for both genres of poetry and story-telling in equal measure.

I saw at once why such an argument may be made. Miyazawa is unique among 20th century Japanese poets because of the tendency to turn him into "a saint." The hagiography started a mere several years after his death, but recent years have also seen the suggestion that he most likely would have ended up a supporter of Japan's militarism had he not died at age 37 -- a year after Japan "recognized" the government it had set up in Manchuria through military machinations.

But, first, why turn a poet into a saint or, more specifically, "an agriculture saint"? This is because of the view that Miyazawa worked himself to death for the peasants in an area prone to famine. In one of his poems, he prays to be strong so he may help them while himself subsisting on meager food. To add to the poignancy, when he wrote it he was in the grip of resurgent tuberculosis. The poem made him into a national icon.

Then, why speculate on his militarist stance?

There is, of course, an urge to detract when someone is touted as beyond reproach and, when that detracting urge comes to the fore, another urge to counteract. In truth, I do not know the sequence of events. I have yet to read Nishi's book and I do not know if the author was engaged in counteraction.

With Miyazawa, at any rate, the first urge to detract surfaced with his religious association. He had grown up among the devout followers of the quiet True Pure Land sect of Buddhism. But early in his 20s he converted to the firebrand Nichiren sect and, to realize his newfound convictions, he turned to the Kokuchukai (Nation's Pillar Society), an organization founded to propagate the teachings of Nichiren (1222-82).

The Kokuchukai, which today promotes such benign matters as closer relations with Korea, was in the 1920s and 1930s an ultranationalist religious body that advocated tengyo, which may be characterized as Japan's answer to America's "manifest destiny." Chigaku Tanaka (1861-1939), charismatic founder-leader of the society, proclaimed that the society's duty was to achieve "a spiritual unity" throughout the world with "Japan as the Imperial Headquarters and the Japanese as soldiers." It was "fundamentalist" through and through. And among Tanaka's followers were Kanji Ishihara (1889-1949), mastermind of the Manchurian Incident, in 1931; Nissho Inoue (1886-1967), leader of the Blood League that assassinated Ikuma Dan, head of Mitsui, in March 1932; and Ikki Kita (1883-1937), who was executed as philosophical leader of the "2.26 Incident" of 1936.

Kenji Miyazawa, though he revered Tanaka, knew none of these men or their deeds. He would have been shocked to learn that Tanaka's close associate was behind the assassination of Dan, but Inoue's involvement did not come to light until many years afterward. He would have been no less shocked to learn that another fervent follower had contrived the Manchurian Incident, but he had no way of knowing it because Ishihara's involvement was revealed only later. He probably died believing that it was as reported then, an incident triggered by Chinese sabotage. An army uprising for which yet another follower of Tanaka was executed did not occur until a few years after Miyazawa's own death.

Besides, those things happened in the 1930s. By early in that decade, Miyazawa was practically incapacitated. He spent the 1920s studying agriculture and regaling his students at a small agricultural school imparting the knowledge he acquired. He wrote fanciful poems and stories such as never seen before. Or, when he was not ill with another resurgence of his lung problem, he devised fertilizer plans for the farmers.

But there is also his notion of war and world order as revealed in his more than 400 letters. It did not diverge much from what prevailed in his day or from what Tanaka taught.

Miyazawa's view of the world was concisely expressed in his letter to his father in March 1918. By then World War I was winding down but the allies were readying to fight Russia's revolutionary government. Japan and Britain landed their forces in Vladivostok in April, foretelling the large-scale Siberian invasion. The world, at any rate, was in the Latter-Day-of-the-Law phase from the religious perspective, Miyazawa told his father, and, from the perspective of global politics, "a war constantly occurs as a result of overpopulation and [the need for] its adjustment."

And writing to his close friend who had just become an army officer in July 1920, he addressed him "His Majesty's true treasure, / righteous descendant of the Great Buddhas, / my brave, young officer." In December of the same year he joined the Kokuchukai. Announcing this momentous step to the same friend, he wrote, "I only exist in Teacher Tanaka Chigaku's beck and call," adding, "If so ordered, I'll go anywhere, be it the Siberian tundra or Inland China." Miyazawa's view of such matters seems not to have really changed before he died.

And yet we can go too far. In Japan, as in the United States, it is de rigueur to condemn anyone associated with a lost cause. The militarism and nationalism of Japan in the 1930s and the socialism and communism of the U.S. in the same decade share the same fate in that regard. Not long ago I was startled to find an American academic lambasting Shuzo Kuki (1888-1941) for advocating "national aesthetics." His sin? Apparently, writing that delightful tract, "The Structure of Iki." Or his association with German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Yet condemning Miyazawa is largely guilt by association. We do not know what form of political permutation his religious beliefs might have taken. In poems and stories they manifested themselves as a cosmic vision or compassion pervaded with a note of despair. Still, we must be prepared for speculative condemnation. Meanwhile, it is good to know that Masahiko Nishi has imagined Miyazawa as Japan's George Orwell, even though the man never left Japan, never served in a colony.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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