Fairy Tales by a Nichiren Buddhist
Miyazawa Kenji was a Japanese author of poetry and children’s stories. Born is 1896, he received scant attention during his lifetime, publishing one collection of short fiction, “The Restaurant of Many Orders”, and one collection of poetry, “Spring and Ashura”, before his premature death by pneumonia at the age of 36. He was a devout Buddhist, a trained geologist and a social activist—sensitive and compassionate in his treatment of nature and humans in literature.
Though he remains an obscure figure to Western readers, Kenji is one of Japan’s most widely read, beloved authors. Stories such as “Wildcat and the Acorns” and “Night on the Galactic Railroad” are the cultural equivalents of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”.
Kenji’s fiction is rooted in a world on the verge of modernisation, where wind spirits and talking beach trees meet railroads and industrial cities. In concrete, animate detail, he depicts icy mountain streams, enchanted woodlands and traditional, village festivals. He favours the cosmic, universal quality of nature to the “intervening trivia of daily life”, bestowing his fiction with the timeless charm of fairy tales.
As a Buddhist, Kenji was a vegetarian: a telling fact, given the moral of “The Restaurant of Many Orders”.
In the surreal, comic tale, two young, complacent hunters, dressed like British military men, become lost in a nightmarish forest, after their dogs, “like great white bears”, die of fright. Unconcerned by their hound’s deaths in any regard beyond the coins they spent in buying them, the boys stumble across a “fine brick building” called “Restaurant Wildcat House”. Over the entrance, they read a sign which, rather pushily, invites them in. And so they go, through a labyrinth of respectable corridors, reminded at each intersection that “this is a restaurant of many orders.” Via ever increasing signage, they’re told to abandon their guns, their boots and their tiepins. “They really must be very grand, the people dining there in the back rooms,” remarks one of the young men, reading the instructions as the rules of some unknown etiquette. Down to their underwear, they’re told to spread cream and salt over their bodies. At this point, the hunters are concerned. But it’s too late. A pair of blue eyeballs ogles them through the last keyhole and voices, smarmily, coax them inside. Having realised that they are the meal, the men begin to weep, causing the oversized felines to complain that they’ll “wash off all the cream”. With that, the hunter’s dogs return, bursting through the door and battling with the hungry cats. Then, in a puff of smoke, the house vanishes, leaving the hunters semi-naked in the cold, their clothing hung upon branches. The men return to their capital unscathed, though “their faces…crumpled like wastepaper would never go back to normal again.”
Another writer, such as myself—an animal loving vegan—might have been less forgiving of Kenji’s entitled hunters, insensitive to suffering as they were. Yet in that lies Kenji’s charm and his uniqueness.
As the translator John Bester states in the introduction to “The Tales of Miyazawa Kenji”, “[Kenji’s] view of the world—its cruelty as well as its beauty—is clear-eyed, but he is never grotesque or sadistic in the way of some Western children’s tales.” Like all writers of moral stories, he aspires to teach worldly lessons, but he does do so “without imposing in any way”.
For a selection of Kenji’s fiction that deals with the mysteries of space and time, check out “Night on the Galactic Railroad & Other Stories from Ihatov”. If you’d like to read his poetry, “Strong in the Rain: Selected Poems” is a great starting point.
You can find out more about his life by visiting Kenji-World.net.
* All the images in this article are photographs of illustrations taken from “The Tales of Miyazawa Kenji” (Bilingual Books, 1996).