It is not every election in Japan that raises questions about the direction of the nation and the identity of its people. It was natural that last week’s poll was a polemical one. After a “lost decade” now well on the way to becoming a “lost double-decade,” Japanese people have been asking themselves: Why are we like a ship at sea, lolling in the doldrums while the ships of state in East Asia and elsewhere are forging purposefully ahead?

Of course, no great answers came out of the election last week. To virtually all the politicians involved, what Prime Minister Juniciro Koizumi touted as a “referendum on reform” was actually about which faction shall have the right to arrange the chairs on the deck of the directionless — if not gradually sinking — ship.

Every year in mid-September, however, I recall a Japanese who may have had some of the answers to the question of national direction and identity. Kenji Miyazawa, author, poet, scientist and devout Buddhist, died 72 years ago on Sept. 21. He was 37 and achieved no recognition in his lifetime.

A look into the messages that Kenji (the accepted literary convention is to use the given name, not the family name) left his people gives someinsight into how a Japan that is “at sea” might fathom a new way to go forward.

The main theme in Kenji’s stories and poems revolves around the relationship between humankind and nature, humans and animals. Some of the stories in which people interact with animals are familiar to most Japanese: “The Acorns and the Wildcat”; “Gauche the Cellist”; “The Bears of Mt. Nametoko”; and the eerie “The Restaurant of Many Orders,” in which the hunters nearly end up in the “hunters’ stew.”

Life in all its forms

Kenji’s works like these are parables about the sanctity of life in all its forms. It is here that he parts company with most other Japanese and virtually all Western writers who depict animals among humans. Most Jews and Christians regard humans as the highest form of life — animals, on the other hand, do not have souls.

In Western tales, animals are present to scare or serve humans. In the stories popularized by Disney, they are often anthropomorphic. This means that they are really humans in animal skins, made to look cute or cruel to serve what are actually stories about human relations.

To Kenji, animals are at least on the same level as humans, if not higher. Bears talk among themselves; hawks chatter, as do wildcats, mice, cats and others. But this is not the cutesy conversation of “The Lady and the Tramp.” Kenji’s animals have wisdom, resignation and sadness, which they convey to humans in order to enlighten them.

So how is this message relevant to Japan, or anywhere, for that matter, in 2005?

It is relevant because Kenji was one of the first writers in the modern era to recognize that humans and animals are all part of creation, and that we must all live in harmony with each other or we will perish with each other.

Kenji’s other theme is that our relationship with nature is our most vital concern in life. But Japan in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) had set its course firmly in the direction of industrialization at all costs. Respect for nature was largely abandoned in practice, but cleverly — if falsely — retained as a national myth. Then, in the postwar economic boom years, nature itself became no more than a figment of nostalgia in the Japanese mind. If you couldn’t cost it, it had no benefit.

Kenji believed that the spirit of the Japanese people would die if they did not continue to recognize beauty and power in nature and seek happiness from a proper relation to it. Humans, birds, insects, all creatures pass on; and it is the trees and the light and the wind that passes through them that continue to communicate to humans of the future what happened in the past.

In the mid-1990s, Japan saw an unprecedented upsurge of interest in Kenji’s life and work. When an earthquake devastated the Kobe region in January 1995, thousands of volunteers flocked to the area. People began to realize that it is not enough to repeat the lovely words of formal compassion and do little or nothing for society — which is precisely what we can expect as a result of the recent election.

Happiness benefiting others

Kenji said that a people must visualize their surroundings for themselves and find personal happiness by benefiting others. He wrote . . .

In order to live properly and vigorously Each and every person shall follow the dictates Of his own individual consciousness of our galaxy.

As we consider the direction and national identity of Japanese people in the coming years, we would do well to recall his example — but without turning him into either a saint or a seer.

What he does, however, is provide a concrete example to people, and not only in Japan: humans are not the conquering heroes of nature, nor are they the arbitrary controllers of the fate of this planet’s creatures. Harness nature, yes, and use it for the betterment of all living things. But never lose respect for nature or exploit its bounty out of proportion to its supply and proper use.

If Americans are scratching their heads over the scale of Hurricane Katrina, and Japanese are wondering why the land does not work for them as it used to, perhaps the fault lies within the human brain, not in “the mysteries of nature.”

Now that this watershed election is over, it’s time to turn to the real issue facing Japan and the world. How can each and every individual play a part in reactivating their country and establishing proper principles for the future? It isn’t about who will run the post office or how many liters of water the National Guard can bail out of a city street. It’s about restructuring our view of ourselves to the point where nature will work with, not against, us.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.