Perhaps because it is more relentlessly urban than most modern industrial countries — thanks to its inhospitable geography — Japan is also more devoted than most to the ideal of an unspoiled rural life. The faster the foreground fills up with ugly concrete structures and electricity cables, the more doggedly the country’s city-dwellers focus on the splendid peaks and forests in the background.
Everyone has seen Mount Fuji from the shinkansen or the expressway, obscured by smog and bisected by power lines, yet the nation’s mental image of the sacred mountain remains the one in the coffee-table photo books: a vision floating free and grand and untrammeled above the trivial urban blight. In the same way, Japanese still tend to think of themselves as a rugged, simple people, unusually attuned to natural beauty and seasonal rhythms and somehow undefined by their own unsightly cities and artificial urban lifestyles. It is not really a contradiction. The intensity of the one experience — high-speed, neon-lit, money-driven urban life — logically generates a celebration of its opposite.
One measure of how deep the strain of rural nostalgia runs here can be found in the books people read, especially the books they give their children to read. Significantly, some of the most popular children’s books in postwar Japan have been translations of foreign classics that strike exactly this pastoral-inspirational note: “The Secret Garden” from England, “Anne of Green Gables” from Canada, and, towering above them all, “Heidi,” by the Swiss writer Joanna Spyri, who died 100 years ago this July.
The story of the little girl who found happiness and freedom among the Swiss Alps was first published in 1880 and has been a worldwide favorite ever since, never out of print. But in no other country has it had such a loyal following as in Japan, where translations of the original book and its two sequels, a popular animated television show, hotels and theme parks and the home movies of hundreds of thousands of Japanese pilgrims to Switzerland have made “Haiji” a national icon.
It makes a certain sense. You remember the story: Five-year-old, orphaned Heidi is abandoned by her go-getting young aunt to the care of a grimly reclusive grandfather, who lives alone in a hut high in the Alps. The free-spirited child wins over everyone in sight, including Grandfather and the dim goatherd Peter, before being sent to Frankfurt to act as a companion to the rich invalid Clara. This is where the tension that animates the book is set up: Heidi becomes terribly homesick for the Alps, where she had known beauty, simplicity and freedom from all the conventional constraints and aspirations that fetter life in boring, ugly, upper-middle-class Frankfurt. Naturally, since this is a children’s fable, there must be a happy ending, which Spyri more than supplies — nearly all of it attributable to the unpretentious rural Swiss life, “God’s sunshine and the mountain air.” (The significant exception is education.)
It is easy to see the appeal of this particular idealized vision to a country like Japan, which has experienced during the 120-year lifetime of “Heidi” a shockingly rapid, twice-repeated transformation. In 1880, it was a country based, in at least some aspects, on just the kind of sturdy rural values enshrined by Spyri. Now, some might argue, it is a country driven by “Frankfurt” values — urban, materialistic, rootless and sophisticated, as gaudy as Aunt Dete in her city finery. The tension at the heart of “Heidi” is also the tension at the heart of contemporary Japan.
It was interesting to read last week of a new movie — already released in Switzerland and scheduled for release in Japan before the July centenary of Spyri’s death — that supposedly brings Heidi into the modern world. The heroine dyes her hair blue, Peter surfs the Web, the Frankfurt family is transposed to a Berlin high-rise, Clara is a Britney Spears wannabe rather than a wheelchair-bound invalid (get it? a metaphorical rather than a literal cripple). There is plenty here for young Japanese to identify with. And yet the alternative to all this is unchanged in the film: Heidi still finds refuge and inspiration with her grandfather in the mountains. “The content is the same,” points out a Swiss tourism official. “The myth of Heidi is recreated generation by generation.”
So it is. But what does that mean for the present generation in Japan, where a life among the mountains has long been more metaphor than reality? Maybe the myth will persist as a metaphor — a way of thinking skeptically about how most of us live now, as deracinated urban individuals. But maybe, too, it is time to think about the Heidi myth literally and collectively. How can we embrace or celebrate the ideal of an unspoiled life in the country when the country is being spoiled as we watch?
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