Kenji Miyazawa: Two Worlds of Death

E/N: This article contains major spoilers for Kenji Miyazawa’s works.

Kenji Miyazawa always seemed to be an extremely underrated author. Today he is one of the most famous writers in Japan. Despite this, people outside Japan are more familiar with some of his masterpieces rather than with Miyazawa himself. “Nokto de la Galaksia Fervojo” was a breakthrough in the world of allegorical novels. Colliding the Western and Eastern understandings of death, Miyazawa managed to show the reader how substantially similar these interpretations are. What can we learn from that?

Miyazawa had an unusually tough life, but the author himself would not agree with such a statement. Kenji had both financial and ideological struggles as his family did not share his view of the world. In particular, his father, Masajirō Miyazawa, followed a different school of Buddhism. It may seem that Miyazawa did not support only the beliefs of his dad, but in fact it was a major conflict between the materialistic and the idealistic world. Kenji was disappointed with his family’s ambition for wealth and social status, which led to him finding his own way of life.

Kenji Miyazawa teaches agriculture at Hanamaki School. RINPOO.

At some point, Kenji worked both as a teacher of agriculture and as a farmer. He never stopped writing while holding these jobs. His students remember that Kenji taught them to understand the Earth through specific spiritual techniques, like going outside and listening to rocks. At the same time, his lectures were precise and informative, as Kenji was very well-educated. He knew Esperanto and was an expert in geology and agricultural science, which allowed him to make a huge contribution to Japanese and worldwide agriculture.

Miyazawa published just a few things before his death in 1933. His “Spring and the Demon” poetry collection and “The Restaurant of Many Orders” short story were not commercially successful. I doubt that Miyazawa shed many tears about it. Up until his death, the key inspiration for the wonderful things he wrote were hidden in his optimistic and, to a degree, existentialist perception of reality. Miyazawa was a rare person that had an understanding of where the real world of “money, food and things” collides with the imaginary paradise of “beliefs, love and knowledge”. He helped local farmers both in a physical and a spiritual way, even if they were rude to him. Farmers used the help he provided them, but many continued to blame him both for his father’s actions and for the fact his methods sometimes didn’t work. That didn’t break Kenji.

Spring and Chaos, 1996. Animated movie about Kenji Miyazawa’s life. He was represented as a cat just as the heroes of his famous novels.

I think that the most autobiographical work of Kenji Miyazawa, The Life of Guskō Budori, is the best illustration of his passion to help people. This novel is the most “down-to-earth” among his writings, and hence it depicts a person that can sacrifice their life to solve climate problems. He was concerned with the fate of people living with poor infrastructure and underdeveloped agriculture, who suffered from famines and cold weather. Budori’s decision is the result of two major things: the crisis that happened to his town, and his turning into an intelligent erudite in the city. Helping others comes from the combination of emotional struggle and intellectual development. The best knowledge is the knowledge you can use to help others, and Budori did it. Just like Miyazawa himself.

Guskou Budori worked hard to save his land. Guskou Budori no Denki, 2012.

In 1985 the world was introduced to the “Night on the Galactic Railroad” animated movie. The colorful fairy tale about two cats who are heading towards the end of the galaxy in an imaginary train seemed to be another children’s cartoon from the first minutes. However, the more you watch, the more you understand how symbolic this piece of art is, and why the plot is so entangled.

The train probably symbolizes the transition between life and death.

The final part of the “Night on the Galactic Railroad” is terrifyingly sad. Campanella, one of the main characters, steps from the train directly into the Coalsack, the dark region of our night sky. Giovanni, the other boy, awakens from the depressing dream, and finds out his friend died 45 minutes ago. His body was not found, and his father concluded his son was dead. He drowned in a river saving another boy.

‘It’s no use. It’s been forty-five minutes since he fell in.’

The allegorical meaning of “Nokto de la Galaksia Fervojo” also refers to the real world through its symbolism. Miyazawa tried to express to the reader his reflection over the death of his beloved sister Toshi. Some people think that the idea of a train as a plot device came to Miyazawa during his train trip to Sakhalin that he made after his sister died. My point is that we should try to look a bit deeper into this novel to understand why “Night on the Galactic Railroad” is mostly not an expression of grief, but of optimism.

Campanella is out there. Between stars. Giovanni knows.

Death is not an easy topic to talk about in the West. We have several religious and secular interpretations that assume totally different ideas about what awaits us after our life has ended. However, the common feature of our perception is that we always feel sorry for the fact that the person has died.

We may explain this either by the idea of the missing puzzle (that our world is lacking someone, and it makes our world incomplete), or as a sorrow for the person’s unfinished journey (that the person did not live long enough to see all the wonderful things in this world). This notion of sorrow is a core element of our perception of death, as we are both fearful and curious about what is on the other side.

The Northern Cross. Here the journey begins. Miyazawa wanted to understand all religions.

Miyazawa was not from the West, but he explored our spiritual world in different directions. His reflection over “the Other Side” can be seen in the imagery of Northern and Southern Crosses, and, what is even more important, in the people from the sunken ship. The story about their deaths was presented to the reader not as a controversial element of the novel, but as an existential way of searching for pure happiness. Passengers of the train calmly react to the story, even though it describes horrible events.

The same thing will happen at the end of the book. Campanella’s father is calm and even cold while announcing his son is dead. The boy among the people from the ship was surprised at the idea of getting off the train. The train symbolizes life’s frontier in the novel. The boy is a person from the West, just as the crying Giovanni is at the end. However, Giovanni’s outlook changes at the very final moments of this masterpiece.

Passengers stepped off the train. And now they are on their way to the Southern Cross.

Giovanni believes Campanella is not dead. We can think that this is some Eastern idea of reincarnation or another life, but from his words we can also conclude that he supposes Campanella is alive because of his sacrifice, just like the Scorpion in the parable. This complex and nuanced view of death and sacrifice was the impossible feat that Miyazawa managed in his novel.

Sacrifice assumes loss. It assumes that death happens, with all the sorrow it brings Westerners. However, eternal life and possible reincarnation comes from good deeds, the positive outcomes of your sacrifice. Just as the Scorpion that remained in the sky, Campanella walks out there somehow. He earned it with the disinterestedly performed act of sacrifice for Giovanni’s bully.

Miyazawa does not picture death as something romantic. Campanella’s notions about his mother are grim and tragic, but these negative elements do not overlap with the positive outcomes of sacrifice. They are a good addition to them, as the idea of death becomes something more than a simplified discussion about “what is on the other side”. There may be no other side, or there may be something else. The fact is, death is still an event observable and perceived in our world, on our side.

‘I’m not scared of all that dark,’ he said. ‘I’m going to get to the bottom of everything and find out what will make people happy. We’ll go together, Campanella, as far as we can go.’

We may never know the true intentions behind Miyazawa’s symbolism, but I suppose that it might be too easy to say that Night on the Galactic Railroad is a story about calm acceptance or deep sorrow. It is about both, and at the same time, about neither.

Each person I know finds something peculiar in the symbolic language of Kenji Miyazawa. The author that always tried to find his own path had gifted us with a novel (and not just one) that finds its own way into each mind. Probably the best thing to do after reading this article is to dig deeper into the “Night on the Galactic Railroad” and Miyazawa’s art on your own. I am sure that it will take you on a very unique and personal journey, as it has many, many others.

One last thing before your journey has started…

If you like this article, click the 👏 below so other people can read and enjoy Miyazawa’s story on Medium. You can also follow my project on Facebook. It was inspired by “Night on the Galactic Railroad”:

Game studies researcher | Comparative Social Research MA | Political Science BA | Narrative Designer | Literature is my passion.