Books | Children's Literature in Japan

Children's author Kenji Miyazawa: Fundamental to the modern form

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

A teacher, philosopher, farmer and activist, and yet distinctly childlike himself, Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) continues to exert his influence on Japanese children’s literature. The characteristics of Miyazawa’s works — fantastical worlds, a deep connection to nature, layered texts of poignancy and progressive morals — laid the foundations for much of the genre.

John Bester’s translation of Miyazawa’s, “The Restaurant of Many Orders,” part of “Once and Forever,” a collection of tales by Miyazawa, was featured in an issue of Granta just last year, testament to the author’s lasting popularity. The short story playfully considers the plight of two hunters who stop for a bite to eat at Restaurant Wildcat House only to gradually realize that they themselves are on the menu. An ardent vegetarian, Miyazawa spares the two hunters in his work, but his subtlety in questioning our attitudes toward eating animals and his ironic humor give the work a timeless relevancy.

Another popular work, “Matasaburo of the Wind,” translated by Lafcadio Hearn, describes the reactions and interactions between the village children and “the stranger with reddish hair,” whom they decide must be a wind spirit for his sudden appearance and connections to nature.

Miyazawa is best-known, however, for the beloved short novel, “Night on the Galactic Railroad,” in which two friends catch a train to the stars and explore the cosmos together. It’s a gorgeous, complicated work that shares Miyazawa’s altruistic worldview, intersecting threads of friendship and tragedy, and care for the galaxy with care for our souls.

In many ways, the work is a fractured reflection of Miyazawa’s life and interests. Born into a wealthy pawnbroker’s family in rural Iwate Prefecture, as a young man Miyazawa rejected his inheritance and embraced Nichiren Buddhism after reading the Lotus Sutra, spending several months living rough and proselyting on the streets of Tokyo. He also taught himself Esperanto despite spending most of his life in the countryside. Known as an eccentric, his ideas were not always accepted, as when he encouraged local farmers to grow with natural pesticides based on his studies of agronomy.

Sensitive and compassionate, he also wrote poetry from his teens, and many of his poems are also considered classics. Profoundly affected by his younger sister’s death at only 24, Miyazawa returned to his hometown and devoted himself to his local area, teaching science at an agricultural high school.

An account of his life can be found in “The Manga Biography of Kenji Miyazawa” by Ko Yano, surprisingly the only biography on Miyazawa that has been translated into English. He died at 37 of pneumonia, largely unknown as a writer or poet, but his legacy remains: a beloved figure in children’s literature.

This is the second installment of the series “Children’s Literature in Japan,” which explores notable authors and illustrators of children’s literature. Read more at jtimes.jp/childrenslit.