Nagano Nostalgia Featured

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  • Saturday, 18 February 2023 02:13
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Nagano Nostalgia

By Peter Grilli

One of the first Japanese novels I read in my youthful forays into modern Japanese literature was Hakai, written in 1905 by Shimazaki Tōson and later published in English as The Broken Commandment. It must have been around 1961 or 1962 when I read this masterful novel at the age of 19 or 20. As I struggled to read the Japanese prose, dictionary in hand, I remember feeling swept away by the power and drama of the plot and the beauty of Tōson’s descriptions of the deep valleys and rocky plateaus of the Kiso Mountains of southern Nagano Prefecture. I’d gone several times to Karuizawa in Nagano, but Kiso was unfamiliar to me. Tōson, who was born in the town of Magome on the Nakasendo Road, wrote compelling, intimate, and magnetic descriptions of Kiso’s scenery.

The clouds scuttling over the deep, shady valleys and high mountain pastures reflect the inner turbulence of Tōson’s tormented young hero, Segawa Ushimatsu. Born into a low-caste family of horse breeders, Ushimatsu had sworn to his father never to reveal his pari- ah origins. He struggles throughout the book to conceal this secret from his friends and the woman he loves. Living a lie but yearning for the freedom of truth, Ushimatsu wanders through a landscape that dramatically echoes his inner suffering.

To learn more about the Kiso landscape, I turned to Tōson’s col- lection of short nature pieces, Chikuma River Sketches, and found writing of astonishing beauty. Tōson is renowned as Japan’s finest naturalist writer, and he excels in the collection at descriptions of the landscape he had grown up in. His phrases and sentences capture the distinctive qualities of light and shadow on snowy mountain ridges, sunlight sparkling on fast-rushing streams, and fresh breezes singing through dense forests.



The complete article can be found in Issue #281 of the Tokyo Journal.

Written By:

Peter Grilli

Peter Grilli is Senior Advisor and former President of the Japan Society of Boston and a well-known specialist on Japanese history and culture. Raised in Japan for most of his childhood,he earned B. and  M. degrees in East Asian Studies from Harvard University, and also studied at Waseda University and University of Tokyo in Japan. He was director of film, education, and performing arts at the Japan Society of New York in the 1970s and 1980s, and later headed the Japan Project for PBS. From 1996 to 2000, he was director of the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University. He has written extensively on Japan, and as a documentary filmmaker he wrote or co-produced several films.


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