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The Nighthawk Star--Let's Bring Back Reading Education

I imagine that just hearing the title, The Nighthawk Star, will immediately remind many CRN website visitors of the children's tale by Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933). I read it in the 1930s, at the suggestion of my parents. I lived in Tokyo at the time and had just entered junior high school. We had the Complete Works of Kenji Miyazawa at home, and I also read some of his other children's stories including Matasaburo of the Wind, Gorsch the Cellist, The Restaurant of Many Orders, Night on the Milky Way Train, etc. I remember the basic plot of all the stories, but unfortunately they don't seem to have left me with a particularly strong impression. I wasn't mature enough to appreciate Miyazawa Kenji's identification with nature, his fantastic imagination and sensitive language.

I didn't understand why my parents recommended it. Although Kenji had died five years before, I don't think it was just because of the heightened appreciation for his work. My parents firmly believed that reading was necessary for the formation of character. They took a strict stand against reading Shonen Club, a magazine for boys, or comic books, fearing that they would only disrupt attention and interfere with the ability to focus deeply on something. Instead, we had a library of books as cultural capital: complete collections of Japanese literature and world literature, the nine Chinese classics encyclopedias, books of Eastern and Western art--including the complete works of Kenji Miyazawa.

Nevertheless, I must confess that I did borrow the manga from my friends and read them secretly: Norakuro, Dan-kichi, An Adventurous Boy and Shonen Club's The Fiend with Twenty Faces. Bringing up children and the education that takes place at home is certainly not easy. But, what seems important to me is that parents and children talk to one another about the books they read. Unfortunately, I don't have any memories of that.

Both of my parents were painters of nihonga or Japanese-style painting. After marrying my father, my mother stopped painting and devoted herself to assisting my father. About the time I was reading Kenji's children's stories, my father had withdrawn from the official art academy, where he had been a major figure, and had established a new organization called the New Art Exhibition Association (currently known as Shinkoten). As a Japanese-style painter who opposed the mainstream school, life was difficult for him both before and after the war. He died thirty years ago at the age of 81. He is, however, well known and respected in his birthplace of Ibaraki prefecture, where he exhibited often, and several of his works are in the collections of prefectural museums. I am glad to say that my younger brother followed my father's footsteps and is now active as a painter of Japanese-style painting in the foothills of Tsukuba Mountain.

Reflecting on it now, my parents seem to have had a significant reason for urging me to read Miyazawa Kenji's works when I was entering puberty. Having read his children's stories themselves, they thought highly of the profound spirituality and richness of his literature. My father used to say that Kenji's writing made him feel things in a new way and sense beautiful colors, and he made two works based on his stories.

The first work, which he made in the prewar days, was a narrative picture scroll based on the story The Wild Pear that begins with a conversation between two crabs. Even now, the poetic scenes of nature are very clear in my mind's eye: the pear falling with a plop through the surface of the river, shimmering shadows on the river bottom created by the moonlight, fish swimming and crabs walking in the limpid stream. While I was reading this story without really grasping its profundity, my father was painting these images nearby, and this must have made a strong impression on me. Unfortunately, this scroll was destroyed in wartime firebombing.

The second work dates from the postwar period. At the time, my father was painting and farming in a village on the coast of Kasumigaura. When art movements resumed activity in 1951, he exhibited with the revived New Art Exhibition Association. This work was a folding screen entitled The Nighthawk Star. The ugly nighthawk is scorned and bullied by the other birds, and he feels his life empty and meaningless because it depends on sacrificing living beings for food. Wishing to become a star in the sky, he flies up and pleads to join the other stars, but meets with rejection everywhere. Finally, aiming for the heavens, he flies as high as he can, and finds that he has become a star glowing next to Cassiopeia.

Luckily, this work, The Nighthawk Star, is today in the collection of a museum in Ibaraki Prefecture, and was shown with four other works by my father in the exhibition, Pastoral Symphonic Poetry in the Art of Usen and Sokyojin and their Circle at the Tenshin Memorial Museum of Art on the Izura coast of Kita-Ibaraki, Ibaraki Prefecture, which was held for nearly 40 days from the end of May to mid-July. Given that Ogawa Usen was my father's first teacher, he would probably have found it embarrassing to have their works hanging side by side. It had been a long time since I had last seen my father's artwork when I visited the exhibition on a weekend in June.

A blackish-brown nocturnal summer bird, the nighthawk flies at a low altitude over low-lying mountains all over Japan and preys on insects with its large beak. And then it migrates south in winter. I looked at the clouds glistening in the evening sun that my father had painted with his warm observant eye. Then I looked at the mountains that gradually grew darker, the large setting sun, the other birds who also live in the forest, the stars shining in the night sky, the nighthawk flying low and circling, and rising high into the sky, and then becoming a star. For the first time, I was moved by the story and images and my heart was too full for words.

When my father painted this work, I had just become a medical student. The peace and affluence of the postwar reconstruction was becoming more marked, and I was troubled by questions of how to live my life in the future. No doubt, my father also thought a lot about art in this new era of peace that he had never experienced before. Art movements always take an anti-establishment stand and always seek the new. So, my father must have been trying to show something new at the revived exhibition. At the time, my father also decided to resign from his post as a professor at a private art university and focus on making artwork with a powerful spiritual message. As his theme, he first chose The Nighthawk Star, a story by Kenji Miyazawa that he had read and studied before the war.

At this age, I finally understand why my parents wanted me to read the children's stories of Kenji Miyazawa. My father, in particular, had been touched by his work and wanted me to feel the same spirituality and learn from it. And, it only makes sense that parents should recommend books to their children as part of their reading education, in particular, education in the home.

They say that Japanese culture is supported by books. Bookstores are ubiquitous, not only in cities, but also in small towns and villages throughout the countryside. Millions of books are published every day. With the spread of information technology in our society, adults and children no longer read books though. Books aren't selling and publishing companies are going bankrupt.

Reading enriches the inner life of children and trains them to think logically. Today when children have almost stopped reading books for enrichment, isn't it time to restore reading education to a place both within the home and school education?

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