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!

Easy and Fun Katakana

Learn the second key Japanese syllabary from every angle: reading, writing, and real-world examples.

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

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