My Internship in Japan: Minamata

banner minamataWell hello there, it’s been a while! Time to bring Nippaku back to life and disclose what I have been up to during these blog-less months. On September 14th, I started my internship journey in Minamata 水俣市, Kumamoto prefecture in central Kyushu (in the South of Japan). As a Japanologist doing an advanced Master’s program in Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies, it was only natural that I chose Japan as my destination for a two-month internship with a local organization. Since one of my other interests is sustainability, I sank my teeth into the sustainable development of rural Japanese areas. I started looking for possible topics, et voilà, I came across jimotogaku 地元学, or ‘local learning’ in translation. I promise to tell you all about jimotogaku once my research is more or less wrapped up (aka when I have finished my thesis), but for now I will provide some pictures and explanation about Minamata. 


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Susubaru view

I arrived on September 15th in Fukuoka, from where I took the shinkansen to Minamata and was picked up by my host and his granddaughter. The host family I stayed with is located in Susubaru 薄原, a small village in the mountains of Minamata with a decreasing population of around 100 inhabitants at the moment. Farmland in Japan is located on hills and mountains while urban areas are developed on plains. This is the complete opposite in Belgium: farmland, literally “flat land” (platteland in Dutch) encloses densely populated cities. It became a running joke when I told them that the highest Belgian mountain, Signal de Botrange, barely reaches 700 metres – a height they would not even consider worthy of the term “mountain”.

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Takeyama 竹山, “bamboo mountain”, property of my host family. I regularly helped out by cutting and chopping trees, burning wood and repairing the fence.

In Susubaru, we were surrounded by a mixed forest of cypress and chestnut trees amidst sky-scraping bamboo, and everything was still lush green at that time. Due to heavy rainfall and the subtropical climate, nature is difficult to keep under control, and locals could spend a great deal of their time trimming weeds, chopping wood or clearing the roads. The forests and fields are regularly trampled by wild boar, who come down from higher up in the mountains every night and snack on fallen fruit such as persimmons and chestnuts. Farmers protect their fields with electrified fences. Apparently, these animals also hate the color pink, so occasionally I could spot flashy pink wires. Besides wild boar, there are also deer (I could hear their cry from time to time) and raccoon dogs, and the air is always  buzzing with insect sounds. Luckily, I brought my ear plugs to guarantee a quiet night of  sleep.

The city of Minamata itself has a troubled history, which was partly the reason why I went there. Starting out as a fairly insignificant coastal but mountainous village, the city’s population boomed with the arrival of Chisso, a chemical company, in 1908. At the time it all went wrong, Chisso employed or indirectly affected the livelihoods of 25% of Minamata’s inhabitants: the exponential population growth (twice the size of today’s population) paralleled Chisso’s increasing output. This was one of the reasons authorities were reluctant to stop the disaster at once: it was a dilemma of helping a few victims or helping all people in the city to make a decent living.

So what happened? Between 1932 and 1968, Chisso – consciously – dumped toxic waste water containing mercury in the Minamata bay and the inland Shiranui sea. Bacteria in the water transformed it into methylmercury when they came into contact with the toxic substance. Once consumed in large doses, directly or by eating the fish that had ingested the methylmercury, the substance causes neurological damage, going from muscle weakness to paralysis and death. The disease is also congenital, which means that unborn children can be exposed to methylmercury poisoning in the womb. Until this day, there is no cure, only drug therapy to reduce symptoms and the pain. For more in-depth information, watch this movie by SciHow [English] and original footage here [Japanese].

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Mother bathing her daughter Tomoko who suffered from Minamata disease, photographed by Eugene Smith – Wikimedia commons

The first signs of mercury poisoning were observed in “dancing” cats and birds who couldn’t fly, and dead fish that washed ashore. In 1956, a girl with strange symptoms was brought to the factory hospital. Many more would follow, with an alarming high mortality rate. It was discovered that the mercury had accumulated in fish and shellfish, the main source of nutrition for  fishing communities in Minamata. The condition was coined “Minamata disease”. Despite the fact that it became pretty clear it was Chisso that had caused so many living beings to suffer at the end of the 1950s, the company did anything it could to not be held responsible – and was helped in doing so by the authorities out of economic interests. They started discharging wastewater directly into the Minamata river instead of the Hyakken harbour, which led to even more pollution, and they did not cooperate with the research. Finally, in 1968, they stopped poisoning and killing people, but not before hiring yakuza to beat up protesting victims. In the end, Chisso paid hundreds of millions of Yen in compensation money. But yes, the factory is still there, renamed as JNC, among the many other branch plants they hold around the country.

Minamata’s dark history is linked with how the jimotogaku movement came into existence, but later more on that. At the time of the pollution scandal, Minamata was in full chaos. Victims’ families were enraged with Chisso, Chisso employees were enraged with patients (this contradiction occurred even within families), city people thought patients were faking it to get compensation, the mountain communities held a grudge because they could not sell their products anymore due to stigma…Today, the stained image of Minamata might still affect how people think about the city. In the aftermath of the pollution scandal, inhabitants of Minamata were strongly discriminated against: somehow, people thought the disease was contagious or that they had brought it upon themselves. They could not sell products, work outside of the city or marry non-Minamata citizens. When the train passed Minamata, travelers closed the windows. The staff at a hotel was ordered to throw away the linen of a group of Minamata school kids on a trip. One man told me that he went with his team to Fukuoka to play a baseball match, and that the arena was empty because not one supporter wanted to be in the vicinity of Minamata residents.

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recycling station in Susubaru

From the 1980s on, tremendous efforts have been made to clean up Minamata’s image, leading to great results. Minamata profiled itself as an environment-friendly city when they adopted the ISO 14001 environmental management standard and became an Ecotown in 2001. Remarkable actions are the establishment of a strict 21-item recycle system, the Meister Program for local producers of healthy, safe and organic products, an eco-shop certification for craftsman and the reduction of waste in general. Knowing that Japanese people love food and deeply value safety, I noticed that people especially appreciate organic products since these are safe and healthy to eat. The Meister Program recognizes 32 “Meisters” of which I had the pleasure to meet and even befriend some.

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Matsumoto Kazuya serving tea in his tea field

The Matsumoto family (桜野園 Sakura noen) and the Amano family (天の製茶園 Amano no seichaen) are two producers of organic tea in Minamata. Both housing three generations in their homes, they produce a rather rare kind of tea, Japanese black tea (和紅茶 wakōcha), among the more generic green and roasted tea. As a matter of fact, Amano Hiroshi and Matsumoto Kazuya are two of the four Japanese black tea “kings” in Japan, and they sell worldwide. I was so lucky to try Matsumoto teas on several occasions and received a guided tour around their tea fields. I was also welcomed for four days at the Amano tea farm in Ishitobi, a hamlet located 600 meters high, where I helped the family out with sorting bancha tea leaves. I learned that the reason for only producing naturally grown tea there is because of the position of the Amano’s farm on top of the mountain. Due to the pollution scandal, awareness had been raised that contaminating something as precious as water is the worst thing you could do to yourself and other people since you are responsible for the source of the irrigation that flows into other people’s wells and fields. It was also very interesting to see how the drink is made from plant till cup. Bringing back home literally tens of tea packages, I must admit I drink more tea than ever (tea related blog posts here and here). Better than too much coffee or soda, right?

Minamata people also eat lots of white small fish from the bay (safe to eat now), mikan-oranges that are grown more upward the hills (organic mikan jam in the picture left below) and local specialities like kuri 栗 (chestnuts), satoimo 里芋 (village potato), akebi  アケビ (chocolate vine, right picture) and take no ko 竹の子 (bamboo shoots). I ate several portions of chestnuts for dessert, they are delicious when boiled till soft and sweetened with sugar and red bean paste. Below in the middle you see a picture of cooked chestnuts, also great as an afternoon snack. Those who are familiar with Japanese culture, know how fascinated/obsessed the Japanese are about food. Hence, the local cuisine was a topic that came up multiple times a day. Locals are really proud of the healthy, traditional meals they serve with home-grown ingredients.

Another (organic) asset for Minamata is rice. Being the staple food of Japan, it is unthinkable that the mountains of Minamata would lack the numerous rice fields and terraces a rural area is characterized by. Traditionally, every household has their own rice paddy, which produces enough rice to provide for the whole family plus a little extra that can be sold on the local market. Farmers who specialize in rice are rather rare. Nevertheless, familial rice fields are increasingly abandoned due to depopulation, draught of the irrigation system and lack of labor force. When I arrived in Minamata, the rice plants were already bright yellow. Once they turn this shade and drop their “heads”, they are ready for harvest. If necessary, the locals call friends and family to the countryside to help out because sowing and harvesting is some labor-intensive work. They cut the rice stalks with a machine or a sickle, bind them together into sheaves and let them dry in the sun on a wooden construction. After ten days, the stalks are dehulled.   

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Harvested rice stalks

Normally, harvesters use a machine to cut and bind most of the rice stalks, but I got acquainted with someone who not only grew his rice without fertilizers but also cut all stalks manually. The work is notorious for causing severe back ache. One of the reasons elder Japanese ladies shuffle around with an extremely bent back is said to be because of cutting and binding rice stalks. 20170926_173820Toiling in the heat sure is exhausting, and I talk from experience since I helped out with the harvest on the collectively owned rice paddy of Minamaru Kitchen, a community restaurant that only uses local and seasonal ingredients. After dehulling, the produced rice – between 60 and 90 kilos –  was bagged and taken to the kitchen. Speaking of Minamaru Kitchen,  I really liked the idea of its collective ownership, the many activities that were held there and the entrepreneurial spirit of the co-owners. The main forces behind the Kitchen are pastry chef Sasehara, optician Kawata and Mrs. Matsumoto, the wife of the tea farmer I wrote about earlier. The Kitchen tiess together a network of people with a shared interest in the sustainable development of the community and its small economy. I also attended a couple of lectures there and found myself inspired by new ideas and examples.

The picture in the middle shows a bottle of cider (which is a non-alcoholic sparkling lemonade drink in Japan), produced with natural spring water from Kagumeishi hamlet. On one of my last days I went along to tap some fresh water from the source. It is free from any charge and extremely clean, since the water is filtered through untouched mountain land. It is said that the people residing around the source live a long and healthy life – the current inhabitants were centenarians. I met some locals and visitors who came to fill their bottles regularly at such spots because of the taste, high quality and spiritual meaning of the water. In fact, you can often find a place of veneration close to the water source, like a small shrine from stone with gifts in it, to honor the water spirits. Bigger shrines can similarly feature a stream with spring water. I was told there are seven natural water sources in Minamata alone. Besides, there is a residential area called Yu no tsuru 湯の鶴 “crane from hot water” in Minamata with onsen 温泉, or hot springs.

Water is so important it dictates the rules of agricultural life. Irrigation is essential to a succesful rice harvest: that is why all paddies are located next to a river while at the same time water flows from the mountains in the direction of this river, creating an abundant supply of liquid for the rice plants. Behind the paddies are vegetable fields that need less water and then there are the houses, closer to the hills for wood logging and fruit picking. Concerning the climate, Minamata’s is kind of wet. Farmers do not work outside on rainy days, so they plan from day-to-day, disregarding fixed schedules for days off like weekends. On rainy days, relatives are visited and work inside the house is done. Locals also like to catch fish or play in the river in their free time. Due to its history of pollution, water is even more valued as an asset in Minamata. I was surprised by how clean water bodies are over there, certainly compared to the rivers in my home country (you can regularly spot rusty bikes and garbage floating on the surface)…

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Mountains, rivers, forests, villages… Minamata has it all.

In short, nature in Minamata is impressive, a view that locals might be used to, but spectacular for Belgian eyes. Life on the countryside is also very distinct from city life, and interesting to dive into. I must admit that this time I experienced quite a culture shock, something that was not the case when I studied in Kobe for a year!


I hope this post informed you a little bit about the city of Minamata and life in rural Japan. In the next part, I will describe the things I did and learned during my trips around Kyushu. Till next time!

[all pictures are mine, unless stated otherwise] 

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UNESCO World Heritage in Japan

unesco_blue_logoAfter a few research-based posts, I felt like presenting a more visual topic this time. And what better eye candy is there besides some of Japan’s most beautiful and culturally inspired places? Hence my topic: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage. In this post, I will show you which places in Japan have been granted a world heritage status since the Japanese acceptance of the convention in 1992. Because I visited some of these places myself, I hope to share a few of my own pictures here as well (all pictures are mine, unless mentioned otherwise). Currently, the list includes 16 cultural and 4 natural sites in Japan.

To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria. – site UNESCO

Such criteria include, for example, being a representation of human creativity, an interchange of human values, a cultural tradition or a development in design, art or technology. Or, the site in question must be an outstanding example of technology, landscape or architecture that plays a significant role in human history and culture. Natural world heritage, on the other hand, should represent outstanding natural phenomena, significant biological and geological processes or the major stages in the history of our earth.

CULTURAL WORLD HERITAGE IN JAPAN

Buddhist Monuments in the Horyū-ji Area (1993)

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Wikimedia Commons

I can’t believe I couldn’t find a decent picture of the Horyū-ji temple 法隆寺 from when I visited Nara. The main hall, entrance gate and pagoda date back to the early seventh century and are among the world’s oldest wooden buildings.

Himeji-jō (1993)

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Himeji-jō 姫路城 is an excellent example of early Japanese castle architecture. It looks very sophisticated with its white walls and elegant rooftops. This fourteenth-century castle was remodeled and expanded in 1581 by the famous “unifier” Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Ōtsu Cities) (1994)

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The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (kinkaku-ji 金閣寺) is one of the most popular attraction in Kyoto. This gaudy piece of architecture was originally the villa of a rich statesman but was purchased by shogun Yoshimitsu and converted into a Zen Buddhist temple. In a novel of the same name by Mishima Yukio, an acolyte burns down the temple. This story was based on true events.

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Other famous historic monuments in Kyoto include the Kiyomizu-dera “clear water” temple 清水寺 founded in 778. You cannot see it on the picture above, but the temple is located on a hill and therefore supported by tall pillars on one side. Not a single nail was used in the construction of the temple.

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This famous stone garden is part of the Zen Buddhist Ryōan-ji temple (“Temple of the Dragon at Peace” 龍安寺). The placement of the stones is intended so that one is unable to see everything from one place.

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I thought Byōdō-in 平等院 in Uji was truly a magical place. Again, this building was originally a villa and later transformed into a Buddhist temple. The central Phoenix Hall is surrounded by a pond and appears to be floating due to its reflection in the water. This hall and the phoenix statue on top of it are depicted on the 10 yen coin and the 10,000 yen bill.

Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (1995)

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I have never been to Toyama or Gifu but I would love to visit these traditional villages. Characteristic are the big houses with slanted roofs, an architectural style known as “prayer-hands construction” (gasshō-zukuri 合掌造り).

Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (1996)

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Itsukushima 厳島, often called Miyajima (“shrine island” 宮島), is located not far away from the bay of Hiroshima. The key shrine on the island, Itsukushima Shrine, is particularly famous because its gate and main building are built in the sea. Looking at the picture above, you can see how far the water reaches at high tide, which gives the illusion of a floating gate.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) (1996)

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Also in Hiroshima you can find the Atomic Bomb Dome (genbaku dōmu 原爆ドーム) as part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. This ruin was originally the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall and is the only building near the hypocenter that survived the atomic bombing  of August 6, 1945.

Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara (1998) 

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Oh deer, we’re in Nara! This cutie was so kind to pose for us in front of the Tōdai-ji’s ( “Great Eastern Temple” 東大寺) Great Southern Gate (Nandaimon 南大門), reconstructed at the end of the 12th century since the original structure from the 8th century had been destroyed by a typhoon. On the gate is written “Daikegonji”  (大華厳寺), an alternative name for the Tōdai-ji temple.

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The main “Big Buddha” hall (Daibutsuden 大仏殿) of the Tōdai-ji is an impressive construction of wood and houses an enormous bronze statue of a sitting Buddha (picture below). The 16 m high statue was completed in 751 and literally contained almost all of the bronze available in Japan at that time.

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Shrines and Temples of Nikkō (1999)

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Another destination on my Japan bucket list is Nikkō (日光) in Tochigi prefecture. Futarasan-jinja 二荒山神社, Rinnō-ji 輪王寺 and Nikkō Tōshō-gū 日光東照宮 were designated as UNESCO world heritage at the end of last century. On the picture you see the main hall of Nikkō Tōshō-gū, a Shintō shrine dedicated to Japan’s first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryūkyū (2000)

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Wikimedia Commons

The Ryūkyū kingdom (15th – 19h century) ruled over the islands south of the main island of Japan. The remains of many gusuku (“castle” in Ryukyuan) on Okinawa such as Shuri castle 首里城 in the picture above have been listed as world heritage. Fun fact: the gate of this castle is depicted on 2,000 yen bills. Read more about its history in my blog post Money Matters.

Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (2004)

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I photographed this belfry on mount Kōya ( Kōyasan 高野山), the center of Shingon Buddhism. It belongs to the Garan (“temple” 伽藍), the main temple complex founded by Kūkai. Other sacred sites and pilgrimages include places in Yoshino, Omine and Kumano.

Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape (2007)

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Since I did not know about this place, I was curious about the story behind this silver mine in Ōda: apparently, during the 17th century, its output accounted for one-third of all the silver in the world! The mine was active for almost four centuries until its closure in 1923. The heritage site also includes three castles that protected the mine, ports for export, transportation routes and various other sites that bear an important connection to its history.

Hiraizumi – Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land (2011)

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Wikimedia Commons

The city of Hiraizumi 平泉 plays an important role in Japanese history as the home of the ruling Fujiwara clan during the Heian period. It developed quickly into a city of sophistication and splendor for 100 years, rivaling Kyoto as the place to be. As soon as the Fujiwara were overthrown, Hiraizumi became forgotten, but many buildings remain well-preserved even today. It is said that Hakusan Shrine 白山神社 (picture) was the structure first built in Hiraizumi in 717.

Fujisan, sacred place and source of artistic inspiration (2013)

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Wikimedia Commons

This iconic view is so well-known that I should not need to expand further. Sakura, Fuji-san 富士山and shinkansen: Japanese scenery in a nutshell. I am, however, very much surprised that it took so long before Fuji Mountain was recognized as world heritage.

Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites (2014)

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Wikimedia Commons

This mill in Gunma prefecture is Japan’s oldest modern silk factory and still in its original state today. The government established the mill in 1872 as a model factory to industrialize modern machine silk reeling imported from France.

Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining (2015)

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A collection of more than 20 sites illustrate Japan’s rapid development as a modern and industrialized country in the Meiji period. An example is Thomas Glover’s house on a hill in Nagasaki, looking out over the city. Thomas Glover, a Scottish merchant, played a crucial role in the modernization of Japan by introducing Western technology.

The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement (2016)

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Besides many buildings in other places of the world, Le Corbusier designed the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo. This museum is the only work of Le Corbusier situated in the Far East.

NATURAL WORLD HERITAGE IN JAPAN 

Shirakami-Sanchi (1993)

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Wikimedia Commons

The Shirakami mountains (Shirakami sanchi 白神山地) is an immense unspoilt forest situated in Akita and Aomori prefectures. The forest is highly protected and visitors without permission cannot enter the heritage site.

Yakushima (1993)

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Wikimedia Commons

Yakushima 屋久島 is an island located in the south of Kyūshū and is particularly famous for its ancient cedar forest. Some of the trees are more than thousand years old. Because of its subtropical climate and boundless rainfall, Yakushima also has plenty of waterfalls, such as Ōko no Taki you see in the picture above.

 

Shiretoko (2005)

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Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the Northern island of Hokkaidō has some natural heritage material as well. In the Shiretoko National Park (Shiretoko kokuritsu kōen 知床国立公園) you can find wildlife such as bears, foxes and deer. During wintertime, drifting sea ice can be seen from there.

Ogasawara Islands (2011)

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Wikimedia Commons

The last world heritage site on our list is a chain of remote vulcanic islands known as the Ogasawara Islands 小笠原諸島, also called Bonin Islands. People live only on the two main islands, “father island” (Chichijima 父島) and “mother island” (Hahajima 母島). Next to beautiful beaches such as the Kominato beach and Kopepe beach, the Ogasawara Islands offer a warm climate, unexploited forests and a unique vegetation.

Have you visited one of these places? Let me know!

 

Japanese Poetry and Nature

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Sakura-themed coffee I enjoyed earlier this spring in Japan.

Japanese culture is often said to have a special connection with nature. Japanese aesthetics are therefore characterized by this “traditional love of nature”[1]. It is true that Japanese people, young and old, participate in several festivals and annual observances celebrating the beauty of nature, such as viewing cherry blossoms in spring or admiring the bright foliage in fall. Daily life also reflects those seasonal associations: cooking, house decorations, clothing and even greetings are systematically adjusted to weather, fauna and flora.  But do the Japanese really have an inherent affinity with nature, more than other people worldwide? For one of my classes at Kobe University, I read parts of Haruo Shirane’s book titled “Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts” (2012). Shirane provides an interesting theory on how this myth was developed throughout Japanese history. In this post, we will look into the connection between nature and poetry.

shiraneThose who know waka 和歌, Japanese poetry, will certainly agree that nature plays a central role in many poems. Haiku 俳句, for example, a still popular poetry genre of poetry nowadays, requires a seasonal word. The connection between nature and poetry is very clear from the fact that “the imagery of Japanese poetry for more than a thousand years was drawn almost exclusively from the natural phenomena of the four seasons[2]”. Hence, nature became a literary device through which human emotions were expressed. To illustrate this, I have tried to closely translate (with the same syllable structure) a tanka 短歌, or short poem, from the Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves (Man’yōshū万葉集), the oldest Japanese poetry anthology. This poem is actually part of a long poem (chōka 長歌) praising Yoshino in spring, a place close to Asuka, the capital at that time.

三吉野乃                            み吉野の                  In fair Yoshino,
象山際乃                            象山の際の              between the Kisa-mountains,
木末尓波                            木末には                  where in the tree tops
幾許毛散和口                    ここだも騒く              you can hear their loud noises,
鳥之聲可聞                        鳥の声かも               the voices of singing birds.
(no. 924 by Yamabe Akihito)

A more poetic translation by Earl Roy Miner[3]:

From among the branches
of the trees upon Mount Kisa’s slopes,
the flocks of birds
fill the lovely vale of Yoshino
with their free and joyous songs.

And a translation by Haruo Shirane[4]:

In beautiful Yoshino’s
Kisa Mountains,
in the tops of the trees
how many, how noisy,
the voices of birds.

Shirane explains that Yoshino symbolized the current political order, but that later on, it would gain fame for its beautiful cherry blossoms and snow scenery. Thus, Yoshino became a place with a poetic essence (utamakura歌枕): only the name of “Yoshino” sufficed to evoke a seasonal association, i.e. spring.

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One side of “Folding Screen Depicting Yoshino and Tatsuta”. Although only blossoms and a river are painted on this screen, the scenery can immediately be associated with the poetic place of Yoshino. – 17th century, Museum of Hakone

New for me was Shirane’s argument that the nature embedded in Japanese visual and material culture was not taken directly from primary nature, but was in fact a reference to poetry[5]. In that sense, seasonal associations were originally developed by Japanese poetry and were only then passed onto other genres. As a result, classical paintings with a seasonal theme were not a direct reflection of nature, but rather inspired by the waka tradition that flourished among the urban nobility. Proof is the frequent combination of textual and visual elements, in which an image representing elements from nature or seasonal topics was further embellished by the well-chosen characters from a famous waka poem. From the few characters, a technique called scattered writing (chirashigaki 散書), one could guess what poem was depicted. Examples are clothing designs, paintings and screens, like the one below.

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Painted screen depicting flowers and birds of the four seasons, with scattered writing of waka by Shōkadō Shōjō. – 17th century, http://bunka.nii.ac.jp/

During the Heian period (794-1185), poetry was limited to the nobility, and it is therefore somewhat ironic that the people who barely set foot out of their palaces, wrote thousands of poems about the nature they had isolated themselves from. Moreover, inside they were surrounded by seasonal elements and references to nature’s beauty.

Since Heian aristocratic women rarely went out, screen and partition paintings, decorated with small sheets of waka, became, along with the garden, a surrogate for nature. The women often composed poems not on the actual small cuckoo that they heard in the garden, but on the hototogisu painted on a screen painting or partition. – Shirane (2012), 64.

Shirane calls this “secondary nature” (nijiteki shizen 二次的自然), a culturally constructed nature that resembles in no way the real, raw nature. Hence, it should not come as a surprise that classical poetic motifs were strictly codified. A canon of nature images came into existence: all seasonal elements with their own established associations, set combinations and temporal and physical location. For example, April was represented by the lesser cuckoo (hototogisu ホトトギス) and Deutzia flower (unohana卯の花) in the canonized Poems on Flowers and Birds of the Twelve Months (1214) by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241). Plants, flowers and animals that did not make the waka shortlist were left unsung for centuries. For example, the only four-legged animal was the deer, associated with loneliness, since birds and insects were more fancied among high-class society.

鹿

“Fragment of Rough Sketch of Deer and a Poem” by  Hon’ami Kouetsu – 17th century, Gotoh Museum

Another example is the fact that the most popular seasons to write about were spring and autumn, while in reality summer and winter are the dominant and lengthy seasons. This is perhaps linked to the idea that the Japanese finds identification with nature based on the transience that applies to both man and nature[6]. In that sense, cherry blossoms and bright foliage are representative elements of “fleeting nature” in a “fleeting world”. When poetry diffused to the lower classes during the Edo period, the genre of haikai 俳諧, humorous poetry, gained popularity. Other, even vulgar topics such as cat love (neko-koi 猫恋), were introduced, along with a different perception of the seasons. As a result, new seasonal words were created, greatly varying from the traditional waka-based canon. The focus on nature, however, remained strong, and is still visible in the Japanese culture of today.

In case you would like to know more, I highly recommend the work of Dr. Shirane. Also interesting are two of his presentations on YouTube:


References

[1] Saito, Yuriko. “The Japanese Appreciation of Nature” in The British Journal of Aesthetics 25, no. 3 (1985): 239–51, p. 239.
[2] Asquith, Pamela J., Arne Kalland, Japan Anthropology Workshop, and Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, eds. Japanese Images of Nature: Cultural Perspectives [Seventh Meeting of the Japan Anthropology Workshop Held in April 1993 in Banff, Alberta]. Repr. Man and Nature in Asia 1. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2004, p. 23.
[3] Miner, Earl Roy. An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry. 1. publ. 1968. Stanford, Calif: Stanford Univ. Press, 1975, p. 68.
[4] Shirane, Haruo, ed. Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600. Translations from the Asian Classics. New York ;Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2008, p. 92-93.
[5] Shirane, Haruo (2012). Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 57.
[6] Saito, The Japanese Appreciation of Nature, p. 248.