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Japan and Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature and the Arts by Prof. Shirane (Columbia University)

Japan and Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature and the Arts by Professor Shirane

On July 25, 2019, Columbia University Professor Haruo Shirane gave the 26th Annual Yamagata Bantō Prize address on Japan and Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature and the Arts. Professor Shirane was given this prize, which is sponsored by Ōsaka Prefecture and is also known as the Ōsaka International Culture Prize, for his highly regarded work introducing Japanese culture overseas and his contributions to the deepening of international cultural understanding. Professor Shirane’s address focused on two chapters from the book for which he received the award, Japan and Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature and the Arts—the Introduction, “Secondary Nature, Climate, and Landscape” and Chapter Four, “Rural Landscape, Social Difference, and Conflict”—while also touching on elements from the book as a whole. The audience was comprised of sixty people from both Japan and overseas who viewed the slides projected by Professor Shirane as they listened to his talk.

Nature and the four seasons have had an extensive presence within Japanese literature. For example, many characters in The Tale of Genji are named for plants that have specific meanings linking them to the seasons, and in The Tale of Genji Picture Scrolls, nature appears via representations of gardens and furnishings. Professor Shirane calls the references to nature included in artwork and literature as displays of refinement and elegance “secondary nature,” pointing out that this practice has continued through the centuries and has been identified most closely with the urban-centered culture of elites. He also pointed out that the commonly held belief that “Japanese people have always aimed to be in harmony with nature” is a myth, clarifying that the aim was directed at being in harmony with “secondary nature,” and made clear the considerable gap between this “secondary nature” and actual nature.

Considering being in harmony with nature as an ideal state starts to appear in the Heian Period. For example, works like the Ōgishō by Fujiwara no Kiyosuke or the Maigetsushō by Fujiwara no Teika reflect the idea that nature should appear in waka poetry as something to be expressed in as elegant and refined a form as possible. The tradition by which nature is thought of as something intimate and balanced, as something that provides a means by which to view the world, was created within the waka poetry and diaries written by urban-centered elites. Comparing the seasons as they actually exist to how they appear in the Kokinshū waka anthology makes obvious the idealization of nature present within this culture. For example, spring and autumn in Japan are actually fairly short in length, but poems about spring and autumn make up a disproportionate amount of the poems included in the anthology, clearly indicating the great cultural importance of those seasons. Another important characteristic highlighted by Professor Shirane of the “secondary nature” developed by urban elites was its “talismanic” function. Talismanic functions include protection from natural threats or disasters like fire and the renewal and production of new life, and can be seen in imperial ceremonies imported from China like the Gosekku (Five Annual Observances) and the attribution of meanings to specific plants and animals, such as the all-season garden covering all four directions and sea breams symbolizing long life.

Next, Professor Shirane introduced another type of “secondary nature”: the satoyama, which developed at the margins of farm villages starting in the middle to late Heian Period. The relationship to nature undergoes a historic shift at this point—in the early Heian Period, the approach when developing fields for harvest was to “respect the unruly kami (gods)” by offering prayers to them, but starting in the mid-Heian Period, the focus shifts from kami conceptualized as “wild” or “unruly” to kami conceptualized as “harvest gods” (protective local deities). Following from this, shrines offering prayers to kami began to be constructed within the shōen (estates) rather than outside the villages, as they had been previously. According to Professor Shirane’s analysis, the background for this shift to a more cooperative, interdependent relationship with nature was the greater technological control that could be exerted over nature during agriculture—such as the development of flood control and irrigation—that started in the late Heian Period and continued into the medieval period. This was the beginning of what we now call satoyama, an ecological system that continued through the 20th century. Further, cultural materials like medieval setsuwa (folk literature) and noh plays articulate a fundamental tension between the need to control nature and a simultaneous expression of awe and reverence toward nature, a tension further complicated by the introduction of the Buddhist prohibition on taking life. Many genres of literature in the Muromachi Period increasingly featured tales of inter-species marriage, a trend that perhaps found its roots in contemporary beliefs in the existence of gods and spirits in the natural world, the spread of the belief that “all things possess Buddha nature” (that is, that even things like grass and trees that seem to lack a heart or mind can still attain Buddhahood), as well as the destruction of nature that could be seen in phenomena like “bald” (that is, deforested) mountains and the like. Professor Shirane also pointed out the genre of setsuwa that told tales of large trees being cut down, going into some detail in his analysis of jōruri/kabuki play Sanjūsangendō munagi no yurai (Ridge Pole of the Sanjūsangendō Temple), especially the sympathy expressed as a requiem by the commoners for the large tree cut down to make this temple.

Lastly, Professor Shirane spoke about “Disaster and Literature” as a way to close his talk with new related material. He focused primarily on the Kamakura Period work, the H̛ōjōki (An Account of a Ten-Foot-Square Hut), encouraging a reading of it as environmental literature, and pointing to a distinction he sees it making between “uncontrollable time and space” and “controllable time and space (that is, ‘secondary nature’)” and its placement of the human between those categories.

After the address, Professor Yamamoto Satomi (Art History Department, Waseda University) offered her commentary. Professor Yamamoto first pointed out that behind the gentle-sounding title of Professor Shirane’s book lay a sharp and thorough interrogation of the “myth” of the Japanese connection to nature, a “myth” that we are still trapped in today. In this way, the book exemplifies Professor Shirane’s standpoint as a scholar with one foot in Japanese cultural studies conducted in Japanese and one foot outside that world. Japanese cultural studies is not something that should privilege only work conducted in Japanese, as the approaches taken by those working in other languages yield an array of new horizons and a considerable amount of original research, thereby forming a vitally important set of viewpoints. Building on this, Professor Yamamoto exhorted younger scholars to consciously seek out the viewpoints found in both worlds within Japanese cultural studies. Lastly, Professor Yamamoto offered her perspective as a scholar of medieval Buddhist art history on the new material introduced in the closing section of Professor Shirane’s address. She pointed out that an important element of understanding medieval Japanese art and literature is the idea that a person’s death was not considered from the point of view of the individual at that time, but rather was conceptualized within the larger context of the connections between the environment and society.

During the question-and-answer period following this commentary, various topics were discussed, not just about the content of Professor Shirane’s prize-winning book, but also about environmental literature and the problem of genre, etc., as the key concepts in the talk provided a focus for wide-ranging discussion. A lively back-and-forth continued until the end of the allotted time arrived, and the event had to be brought to an end even as discussion was at its peak.

Event Overview

The 26th Annual Yamagata Bantō Prize Address: Japan and Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature and the Arts

Time and Date: July 25, 2019 (Thursday), 3:30pm – 7:30pm
Location: Building 33, Conference Room 1, Toyama Campus, Waseda University

Sponsor: Top Global University Project—Waseda University Global Japanese Studies
Co-sponsor: Ryusaku Tsunoda Center of Japanese Culture (Waseda University Research Institute for Letters, Arts and Sciences)

Speaker: Haruo Shirane (Professor, Columbia University)
Opening Remarks: Jinno Hidenori (Professor, Waseda University)
Closing Remarks: Takamatsu Hisao (Professor, Waseda University)
Chair: Konō Kimiko (Professor, Waseda University)
Commentator: Yamamoto Satomi (Professor, Waseda University)
Organizer: Toeda Hirokazu (Professor, Waseda University)
Shiono Kaori (Associate Professor, Waseda University)
Kim Younglong (Assistant Professor, Waseda Institute for Advanced Study)
Tsuneda Makiko (Guest Assistant Professor, Waseda University)
Satō Mioko (Guest Assistant Professor, Waseda University)

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