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The bears of Nametoko: sessh ō , fate, and the bear as moral exemplar

10.3 History of human-bear interaction in Iwate

10.3.3 The bears of Nametoko: sessh ō , fate, and the bear as moral exemplar

As discussed in Chapter Eight, one of the few major works of Japanese fiction in which the bear is one of the central ‘characters’, is set in Iwate: The Bears of Nametoko, written by Miyazawa Kenji. Its author, a poet and author of children’s literature, was born in Hanamaki, in the Kitakami basin, where he lived most of his short life. He graduated from agricultural college with a degree in agronomy, and became a teacher in this field. He devoted much of his life to assisting poor farmers in Iwate to improve their farming, particularly through better soil management techniques. Miyazawa loved the nature of Iwate, and enjoyed spending time in the mountains and forests around Hanamaki.42 He was strongly influenced by Buddhism, and many of his stories carry underlying ethical and ecological messages which demonstrate his acute interest in the relations of humans, both with each other, and other forms of life. The Bears of Nametoko is the tale of a poor man, named Kojūrō, who supports his family by hunting bears. As the character himself explains, he does this not out of choice, but out of necessity, as he is only able to grow millet on his small and infertile plot of land, insufficient to support himself and his family. He uses the small amount he earns from the sale of bear skins and livers to buy rice and miso from the local village.43

Worth noting is the unusual depth of understanding that Miyazawa demonstrates of the biology and ecology of the bear, of aspects such as its diet and life-cycle, through this story. He does this while at the same time portraying the bears with a great deal of anthropomorphism, without detracting from their realism. For example, they are not only able to speak to each other, but also to Kojūrō, and their gestures and movements are also human-like. In one scene, Kojūrō happens to eavesdrop on the following exchange between a mother and her cub, whom he finds ‘staring intently at the other side of the valley with their paws up to their foreheads, just as a human does when he is looking into the distance’.

…Then the small bear said in a wheedling voice, “I am sure it’s snow, Mother. Only the near

side of the valley is white, isn’t it? Yes, I’m sure it’s snow, Mother!” The mother bear went on staring intently for a while, then said finally, “It’s not snow. It

wouldn’t fall just in one place.”…

…“I know what it is,” said the mother bear. “It’s cherry blossoms.” “Is that all? I know all about that.” “No, you have never seen it.” “But I do know it. I went and brought some home myself the other day.” “No—that wasn’t cherry. It was beech you brought home, I think.” “Really?” the cub said innocently.44

While this might seem like a banal exchange between the bear and her cub, it demonstrates Miyazawa’s understanding of the vital ‘pedagogical’ role the sow plays in the two years before the cub becomes independent. During this period the sow must ‘teach’ the cub how to find food, what it can and can’t eat, and to detect signs of change in the forest environment and to respond accordingly: the ‘conversation’ therefore represents a vital aspect of the sow-cub relationship.

The overriding theme of the tale is one of fate: Kojūrō’s fate is to be, in this life at least, a hunter who is forced by poverty to take the life of other creatures in order to live, while the bears’ fates are to die by his gun when ‘their time comes’. Kojūrō’s awareness, and resignation to, his own fate is demonstrated by the following monologue, directed at the bear he has just shot:

“Don’t think I killed you out of hatred, Bear. I have to make a living, just as you have to be shot. I’d like to do different work, work with no sin attached, but I’ve no fields, and they say my trees belong to the authorities, and when I go into the village nobody will have anything to do with me. I’m a hunter because I can’t help it. It’s fate that made you a bear, and its fate that made me do this work. Make sure you are not reborn as a bear next time!”

A belief in karma or fate is expressed in the following passage:

But in those days there was an order of things—it was laid down that Kojūrō should get the better of the bears, that the shopkeeper should get the better of Kojūrō, and that the

bears…but since the shopkeeper lived in the town, the bears did not get the better of him, for the moment at least.

Through this work, Miyazawa also grapples with the issue of the taking of life, the Buddhist prohibition of which is termed sesshō. This is represented in the ethical dilemma which faces the hunter: how he is able to justify his own existence, which is based on the taking of life, and how he is able to gain the acceptance of the creatures he kills. This is the very issue that matagi were faced with historically, and which resulted in the creation of a philosophical framework according to which they are able to be ‘absolved from the sin of

sesshō’. This was embodied in the ‘foundation book’ of the Yamadachikonpon-maki, discussed in Chapter Eight, which states that the animals matagi hunt are ‘gifted’ by the mountain deity,provided that theyadhere to strict rules and sanctions.

The mountains of Nametoko themselves have also come to embody an ethical message: relating to the treatment of nature by human beings. Figure 34 shows the state of the mountains which were the setting of the story. The beech forest which once covered its slopes has been clear-cut and replaced by plantation coniferous forest. Thus, some conservationists cite ‘Mt Nametoko’ as a poignant symbol of Figure 33: This hand-made sign at the foot of ‘Nametoko Mountain’ would probably appeal to Miyazawa’s sense of whimsical playfulness. It reads: Nametoko Mountain. Come without guns.

the post-war habitat destruction which has depleted the once prolific bears of Iwate, and

indeed, Japan. 45 The next

section will deal with the contemporary status of the bear in Iwate, and the threats to its survival.