SBP Blog

On Kenji Miyazawa’s 'Milky Way Railroad': A Fantasia of Self-Realization

Thomas Joel - Friday, March 16, 2018

Milky Way Railroad (Ginga Tetsudo no Yoru) is generally considered by critics and readers alike to be Kenji Miyazawa’s masterpiece of children’s literature. Nevertheless, despite its general popularity, numerous printings, and seemingly accessible view of the afterlife, it remains one of Miyazawa’s most difficult works to understand.

Written over a ten-year period from the early 1920s until the author’s premature death in the early ‘30s, Milky Way Railroad’s posthumous publication underwent enormous editorial revision that resulted in at least three other versions, with its “final form” hitting bookstores over forty years later in the mid-1970s.
Different generations of Japanese have thus read different renditions of the story over the last 80+ years. Similarly, English-language readers have been exposed to different versions of the story as well as different translations, including our edition of Joseph Sigrist and D.M. Stroud's widely acclaimed translation.
Some might describe Milky Way Railroad as Japan's answer to A Wrinkle in Time or The Little Prince. And while these parallels may be reductive, Miyazawa’s story is the product of the same kind of imagination: an attempt to turn transcendent struggles into a story that either a child of six or an adult of sixty can relate to.
The best way to talk about Milky Way Railroad might not be through analogies to Western works, but by way of its creator. A Renaissance man primarily remembered as a masterful poet and author of children's tales, Miyazawa was rescued from obscurity and rewarded not just with accolades but cultural ubiquity.
The abstract details and philosophical themes of Milky Way Railroad stem most strongly, it seems, from Miyazawa's devotion to the science of astronomy and the spirituality of Buddhism. From the layman's outside perspective, the two disciplines have no apparent overlap, but a closer look reveals that they have a great deal in common. The former looks outwards, the latter inwards, but in both we confront the infinite vastness of the universe and the ultimate insignificance of human existences. Astronomy teaches us how to understand and systematically map our physical place in the cosmos. Buddhism teaches us how to spiritually and psychologically cope with these daunting realities.

Milky Way Railroad Milky Way Railroad opens on the first of those two notes, as our young protagonist Giovanni and his friend Campanella sit in class listening to their teacher’s lecture on the composition of the Milky Way. The idea that the glowing river of light they witness in the night sky is made of stars is haunting to Giovanni, but the reality of his surroundings demands far more of his attention. His mother is ill. He must work after school at the printing company in town, for what amounts to pocket change, while enduring the not-very-concealed sneers of his older coworkers. His classmates tease him about his father, a fisherman who's been arrested for poaching seals. The festival being held that evening in town holds little appeal for him no thanks to his duties. Even errands as simple as running out for milk are fraught with an uneasy gloom.

Sprawled out on his back in the grass outside of town, Giovanni's stargazing is interrupted by the arrival of a phantasmal train from the stars. Upon boarding it, Giovanni finds a familiar fellow passenger: Campanella. Together, they ride the train through a slew of constellations, with colorful figures to be found at each stop: an old man who captures birds and turns them into flattened confections; an archaeologist digging out a massive skeleton made of crystal; and a slew of children seeking refuge after their “ship hit an iceberg and sank” (the Titanic!). It’s around this point in the story that the whole meaning of the cosmic trek becomes clear: This is the railroad to the afterlife.
To avoid giving away any major spoilers, I’ll stop right there.
Creative works like Milky Way Railroad tend to produce one of two reactions in people. One is bemusement, where people are willing to admit there's something to all this, but are hard-pressed to put it into words and eventually fall back into the dismal "I didn't get it" camp to describe their reaction. The other type of reaction is one of empathy, where the viewer may not "get" it, but also knows on a gut level that they don't necessarily have to "get" anything.
The first is intellectual, the second emotional; and I think those who evince the second attitude will glean much more from Miyazawa’s prose. Sometimes the best way to get something to stick with an audience, young or old, is to bypass their thoughts and go straight for emotions they didn't know they could feel.


Don’t forget to subscribe to the Stone Bridge Press mailing list to receive bi-weekly newsletters detailing our latest upcoming books, special deals, promotions, book giveaways, excerpts from our newer titles, and other SBP related news.
Subscribe to our mailing list to be automatically entered to win a copy of Japaneseness: A Guide to Values and Virtues, a little book that offers readers a provocative tour through seventy-six core life concepts that are at the foundation of Japanese behavior, belief, and beauty. Throughout the book, author Yoji Yamakuse raises an intriguing question: Can traditional Japanese values—like loyalty, meticulousness, sensitivity, reverence, hierarchy, trust, and harmony—make sense in modern Western societies? Definitely worth a read—good luck!
For daily content and news on East Asian culture as well as info on our latest titles, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.
Written by Nikolas Bunton

Like our blog? Please share it!


Subscribe to the SBP Mailing List

New Releases

Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan

Going to Japan? This unfussy modern guide guarantees you keep it polite and get it right!

China Smart

Essential essays on all things Chinese that inform and entertain travelers, students, and anyone working or living in China

Oh, Tama!

A deeply eccentric novel about lives and connections—and a cat of course—in 1980s Tokyo: witty, offbeat, and strangely profound.

The Fourth String

Two women. Two cultures. One music.

Tag Cloud

stone bridge press travel Japan literary review leonard koren 1960's Japan japanese customs japanese people yukio mishima Korea film literary prize traditional japanese instrument wife travel etiquette shaimsen eastern and western philosophy publicity kris kosaka Culture the buddhist swastika four immigrants new release japanese books travel manners announcement amy chavez purification china history visitor china travel janet pocorbba 2020 Olympics foreword indies award japanese bath book review astrology suicide japan custom understandind china through comics reviews brad hawley behavior Spirituality shamisen sensei and me UCLA Year of the Dog simba diy mfa World War Two a memoir of sensei and me japan trip Spring Festival kimba the white lion summer vacation Japanese literature the asian review of books Christianity japan travel etiquette nazi zen IBPA journal of a zen monk matcha memior performance disney nova scotia jing liu year of zen japan visitor japanese etiquette michael emmerich welton gaddy 47 samurai bookstore buddhist priest writing keanu reeves japanese travel author william f sibley miswest book review my year of dirt and water kansuke naka japan travel guide danica davidson book book signing Chiune Sugihara eating in japan suehiro maruo book tour gaijin pot tomoko aoyama lions roar literature black jack amys guide to best behavior in japan a shameful life forty seven samurai the japan society no longer human pulitzer prize drinking in japan alan moore japanese to english traditional japanese instrumenet Chinese culture monk wife jared cook japanese cutlure new york events haibun travel to japan books Nikolas Bunton Chinese New Year Translation wanderlust AAS zen monk in japan haiku tracy franz jungle emperor japanese instruments lucille cara kinokuniya event japan manners japanese book world literature today china where igo china vacation in the woods of memory nichi bei weekly, naomi hirarahara chinese China why we write podcast buddhism memoir benjamin franklin award center of east asian studies how to travel in japan paul mccarthy budhist swastika how to order in japan Chinese Astrology hitlers cross book talk chapters society ripe mangoes foreigner in japan japan culture learning shamisen the fourth string koto japan today japan memoir chinese comics Art/Design japan restaurant diymfa Travel huffpost diary guide takuma sminkey tea garden forty seven ronin best behavior in japan benjamin franklin awards zazen tricycle magazine amys guide to bes tbehavior in japan Tokyo Olympics gallery awa tokyo japanese instrument fantasy literature university of chicago buddhist swastika Chinese history Japanese art otakuusa author event Language nara sensei illustration evil shamisen performance japanese classic ningen shikkaku hitler symbol tea Ukiyo-e journal japanese translation travel literature new books monks wife washington dc polite kyodo news buddhist musical trip hiroaki sato bowing in japan living in japan journal of a zen monk's wife Children's Books 4k foreword indies memoir writing politics and prose a mejiro novel event japan guide peace dirt and water Olympics 2019 journal of a zen monks wife in japan ibpa publishing university blurb osamu tezuka donald keene frederik schodt hate japanese music green tea tk nakagaki chinese literature anime jun hazuki frank beyer china guide awards graphic novels Interview memoir, tracy franz, zen monk, buddhist japan books lesley university Children's Literature zen monk wife stone bridge cafe china What You Don’t Know, What You Need to Know— A Past & Present Guide to History, Culture, Society, Language catcher in the rye osamau tezuka monk translators walt disney japanese manners china smart dark horse Poetry award internment the fourth string a memoir of sensei and me the lion king 47 ronin hitler Shoah kyoto journal WWII henry kiyama book publicity huffington post hippocampus magazine Second World War Alexandra Johnson book reviews international book award dazai expat zen monk tourist learning in japan doris bargen japanese drunk poet namethetranslator donald richie kyoto foreword reviews japan etiquette buddhist symbols gaijinpot damian flanagan student teacher World War II japan ravel alan brill oh tama the millions interfaith Christianity in Japan the japan times rachel manley eli lieberman comics bushido The Colorado Review etiquette journal' monks wife fred schodt History china book how to pacific rim review of books japan book review osaka author signing traditional japanese music japan behavior ex pat literature manners Asian Studies poetry of consciousness forewrod reviews indies asian review of books comic history classic poetry traditional japanese books in english ritual larry herzberg janet pocrobba publishing state of belief association of jewish libraries american shamisen japan food gratitude in japan verticle ancient symbol classic literature Anime/Manga/Comics podcast criterion japan book min kahng 1960s Korea finalist classic japanese literature will eisner PEN AWARD peace symbol japanese culture a memoir photography mieko kanai zen monks wife' classic forest gander Basho's Narrow Road author talk juddhism Korea photography what do in japan book award Japanese holidays VIZ hooked cross japanese craft luke patitsas mark gibeau janet pocorobba Japanese aesthetics japanese ancient symbols holocaust the silver spoon japan vacation manga shun medoruma manji seppuku new york gaijin book hoarding controversy book blurb Japan the inland sea Coming of Age Day the hidden writer swastika expat in japan pottery death manga biography book reading giajin author tour Basho holden caufield japan travel osamu dazai koun t.k. nakagaki astro boy review non-fiction do it right and be polite rebecca otowa asia religion Okinawan literature