By Damian Flanagan
Along the riverbanks of a fairly nondescript town in the far north of Japan a Union Jack flutters eternally. This is not because Rupert Brooke or any other Englishman laid down his life here, but because this stretch of riverbank is famed as "The English Coast," having been named so by the region's most famous literary son, the poet and fairy tale author Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933).
At first sight, there is nothing particularly "English" about it -- in fact nothing to distinguish this bit of river from any other river. But if you delve into the origin of the phrase, it all starts to get rather intriguing.
Back in Kenji's day, before the river was dammed, the river levels periodically rose and fell dramatically and when low, revealed wide stretches of white mudstones, which in the hugely fertile imagination of Kenji Miyazawa became associated with the chalky white cliffs of Dover. Hence he started calling this beloved stretch of riverbank his "English Coast."
As a child, Kenji was an avid amateur geologist and collector of stones -- he was even nicknamed "ishikko," "the stone kid." As an adult and a teacher at a local school, he brought his pupils to his "English Coast" to ferret for unusual stones and fossils.
I must confess that I am not the greatest fan of Kenji's stories. There's an air of child-like whimsy in classic stories like "Night on the Galactic Railroad" with which my hard-boiled self doesn't readily connect. All Kenji's stories are suffused with a passionate desire to transmit his Buddhist beliefs (Kenji was a devotee of Nichiren Buddhism) and many people find his writings profound, expressing compassion to all beings and a sense of transcendent universalism combined with a deep love for his local area.
But for me, the best writers are not those who offer enlightenment, but who have raging arguments going on in their own heads, who keep toppling one set of ideas with their own contradictions, conflicts and counter-arguments. Kenji was more of the let-us-spread-good-works school, which he admirably kept up in his almost saintly life, having no romantic experiences of his own and devoting himself selflessly to the promotion of local agriculture and the relief of poor farmers.
What no one can quibble with, however, is the extraordinary richness of his imagination, which was able to transform the ultra-ordinary world around him into something newly realized and fascinating. As well as an interest in English and German, he had a fascination with Esperanto (that universalizing tendency again) and referred to his native Iwate Prefecture with the Esperanto-inspired term "Iihatobu," transforming the region from a mere province of Japan into a fantasy region of his mind, just as the ordinary-looking river bank he daily walked along became "The English Coast."
But still, are his writings not too much filled with starry eyed wonder, magical animals and leaps of imagination? I became fascinated to discover that some of the fossils that Kenji discovered in the now-sunken mudstones of the "English Coast" were those of elephants. You might tend to think as you go about your daily routine that elephants are as far removed from your life as any animal might be, but once they too walked along the "English Coast" and may even now be buried beneath your feet.
Looked at in that light, Kenji's imagination begins to seem less like "whimsy" and more like excavations into the strangeness of the world around us. The journey from a simple stroll along a Japanese river to an odyssey with elephants along an "English Coast" becomes something like an exploration of our own jumbled, interconnected depth consciousness. In flights of imagination we discover strangely miraculous sunken depths of reality, to which the banal surface appearance of things often offers little clue.
(This is Part 13 of a series)
In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.
Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).