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Archive: Contents of American Haibun & Haiga Volume 1

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Jim Kacian

Fields of Rape

All afternoon it takes to move by train from Akita to Niigata, following the northwest coast of the Sea of Japan. Each of the modest-sized towns in which we stop, drenched in the soporific spring sunlight, drones with its small commerce. We exchange a group of lunching rotarians from Ugo-Honjo for a gathering of farmers' wives going shopping in Sakata, and later collect children making their way from school to their homes in outlying Amarume. All regard us with a pleasant enough curiosity, but none is willing to sit next to us.

We pass by dams and alongside highways, under bridges and over ditches, coming slowly to a first-hand knowledge of the challenges of this terrain, and of the many strategies by which people here have sought control over it. Geography does much to inform character, and character, Thomas Hardy tells us, is fate. The land here is resplendent with personality. Primal force manifests not in abstractions, but pure being: the perfect cone of Fuji, the catarract that is Yonjusanman. One of the earliest creation myths of Japan involves the periodic awakenings of a giant koi whose struggles deep beneath the sea shiver the land into seismic activity. Animism has been the popular religion for a millen-ium and longer, and still figures extensively in the emotive, if not the literal, lives of the inhabitants.

Interestingly, in the years following upon the exploding of the Atomic Bomb, the koi and other creatures buried within racial memory re-emerged but in a significantly different fashion. Godzilla, Mothra and others, whose movements in their earlier guise as dragons once created the lay of this land, now moved directly into the provenance of man, walking his roads, destroying his cities. Completely oblivious to the resistance of man, they are subsumed only through combat with forces of equal magnitude as themselves. And we humans escape destruction only through their purblind indifference to us.

It is understandable that a culture whose environment is so fraught with unpredictable and dire events seeks control as a guiding principal. But there are cracks in such reasonings, just as there are cracks threading he tunnels of the Tokyo subway. Control is an illusion we grant ourselves, and it is relative. Taken as a basis of a cultural Zeitgeist, it subverts the wild and actual world in favor of a manufactured and manageable one. This may be said of all art, all culture, but it must be admitted that bonsai, ikebana, and the related arts do not represent a love of nature as it is (as is popularly believed), but rather as it may be shaped by hand. But while our reason may be fooled, we are not so easily misled at the level of myth. There we hold the apprehension that we are ever powerless before the most potent of nature's forces; that our engineering of the environment is never without incalculable, if not always apparent or imme-diate, expense; and that in the end, we have no other place in which to abide. An esthetic which counsels management of the unmanageable will ultimately fail; it can succeed only as idea, and there must atrophy, devoid of primal force.

The landscape rolls on. The fields are largely empty just now, since only within the month has the cold Siberian wind ceased to blow across the Northern Sea. However, rape is in bloom, and vast fields of it stretch in all directions. I recall Buson (via Blyth):

A field of rape:
The sun in the west,
The moon in the east.

It is the same for us, two hundred fifty years after the poet described it, and it is possible to believe that nothing has changed here in all that time.

This train, passing as it does through city, suburb and field, provides us a glimpse into the back yards and private spaces of peoples' lives. Everywhere we find neatly tended plots, tools ordered on benches, sculpted pines, and only an occasional display of extravagance; here are the revelatory works of spirit, and seem characteristic of these people: apt, artful, sincere. Occasionally there might be found a lawn chair become fixed by the growth of garden about it; or a man's washing hung in the sun. But everywhere tiny revelations of these lives are manifest, some of which seem easy to read, some less so, and all are suggestive of a life beyond interior space, or rather, an interiority mannered and easily translatable to a life spent out of doors, under the sun.

backyard fish pond-
a nibbling koi
shatters the moon

 


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