Revised November, 1999
1996 marked the 100th anniversary year of the birth of Kenji Miyazawa... poet, novelist, and amateur astronomer who lived in Japan in the early 20th century. While Miyazawa died at the untimely age of 37, his work had a significant impact on Japanese literature. The January 1996 issue of Tenmon Guide (Astronomy Guide) highlighted the life of this writer whose works are still affectionately read in modern Japan.
Having such a strong interest in astronomy, Miyazawa often sought to weave astronomical phenomena into his stories. One of his most famous works is titled "The Night of the Milky Way Train" (a translation published by Stone Bridge Press is available from WeatherHill). Written not too long after the late 19th century Meiji restoration, this work represents what we often see as the paradox of Japanese culture and virtue played against a Westernized backdrop. The story remains, for many young Japanese, their first association with the wonder of the "starry sky". Here is a brief synopsis of the story...
Miyazawa's mix of East and West begins with the names of the two young characters of the story: Jovanni (Giovanni) and Kanpanera (Campanella). The story takes place during the imaginary "Centaurus" Festival, a time when lanterns are lit to show deceased ancestors the way home. This imaginary festival occurs in August, and in the story, Miyazawa images children running and scampering, yelling that Centaurus is "dropping dew" [no doubt, a somewhat misplaced reference to the Perseids].
On the night of the festival, Jovanni is sent to the store to get some milk. On the way, he stops on a hill to lay and gaze at the stars. He hears a voice that sounds like a train conductor saying "Milky Way Station!" and suddenly finds himself with a seat on "The Milky Way Train". Across from him sits his friend, Kanpanera. Thus, a journey starts for the boys on a trip around the Milky Way.
Miyazawa highlights many experiences for Jovanni and Kanpanera, carefully weaving phenomena with fantasy. One of the first stops for the youths is at "Hakuchou Station" (Swan... Cygnus) where the boys see an image of a cross made by "the frozen north cloud". Here they also see a "beach" over 500 million years old where a paleontologist is digging the fossil of the ancient ancestor of a cow [note Miyazawa's poetic use of stellar distance and time and the ever present "milk" related images]. Some experiences involve phenomena not readily seen with the naked eye. For example, our travelers pass the observatory at Albireo, where the blue and gold markers measure the flow of the Milky Way river. One "stop" references the galactic center; just south of Washi Station (Eagle... Aquila) the river divides, and on the "sand bar", a signalman is lighting lanterns [referring to the bright region of Sagittarius] as a warning that swans, eagles, peacocks, and crows may be crossing.
The story continues with a number of experiences and brilliant images as the journey traverses the Summer Milky Way. One especially poignant "stop" on the route seems to relate to traditional Japanese values stemming from the still ever present Edo era. At Scorpio, the bright light from Sagittarius makes trees cast shadows, and there is something that shines clear and red like a ruby [Antares]. Miyazawa relates Jovanni's sense of this, and it becomes even more significant at the end of the story. For Jovanni, this star symbolizes the responsibility one has to others and the sacrifice that one is willing to make in order to help ones friends, even to the point of dying (shedding blood). He also notices the "accompanying" stars [probably Nu and Omega Sco] and is reminded of a very ancient Japanese association with these stars... the importance and closeness of friendship.
At journey's end, the train makes its final stop at the Southern Cross. Jovanni looks around and notices that Kanpanera has disappeared. He suddenly awakes and finds himself on the hill near his home. As he continues into town on his errand, he sadly learns that his friend Kanpanera has actually drowned earlier in the evening while trying to save friends swimming in a nearby river.
There were several editions of Miyazawa's story. In the first, the journey continued around the whole galaxy. The final edition (above) obviously concentrates on the Summer Milky Way. My synopsis does not do justice to the subtlety and beauty of Miyazawa's poetic style. Still, I hope list members find it interesting. This story, loved and admired throughout Japan, is both charming and innocent. At the same time, its bittersweet end (especially for children) may seem strange to Western ears. Yet, it is just this highlighted virtue of self-sacrifice that defines so much of the traditional Japanese view of responsibility to others and forms the basis for what some might mistakenly interpret as a fatalistic spirit. Sadly, Miyazawa's own younger sister died two years before he began writing this story, and many believe that this formed the basis not only for the ending, but also the emphasis on "relationship".
Many amateur and professional astronomers in Japan were inspired as youths by this story, and it seems to have become a permanent part of modern Japanese Starlore. "The Night of the Milky Way Train" continues to inspire children and adults to gaze in wonder at the heavens; many may be the astronomers and comet hunters of the future. Miyazawa loved the starry sky and spent many nights drinking in its wonder and many days studying its design. More than a hundred years after his birth, the legacy of this amateur astronomer continues to live.
Steven L. Renshaw
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